Anger that sparked 16km Parliament march
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Dougie Oakes, Senior Writer
ON WEDNESDAY, March 30, 1960, Ignatius Terblanche, the commanding officer at the Caledon Square police station in central Cape Town, fell down on his knees and began to pray…
He had just heard that 30 000 protesters from the townships of Langa and Nyanga were marching to the Houses of Parliament – to protest against the pass laws.
Terblanche had been involved in police action against anti-apartheid protesters often enough to fear the worst. Moreover, the massacre at Sharpeville on the Rand, where 69 anti-pass law protesters had died in police fire freshest in his mind. But if he did not appear to have the stomach for more bloodshed, other members of the NP government’s security arms certainly did not have such qualms.
They made sure that Saracen armoured cars and troops surrounded all the approaches to Parliament. And to make doubly sure that security was water-tight, they also gave instructions for an Air Force helicopter to circle overhead.
And so, as the 16km became 15… 14… 13 and then 12, Cape Town waited with bated breath as the marchers, headed by a charismatic 23-year-old Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) organiser named Philip Kgosana, drew ever closer…
Kgosana had spent the last few weeks preparing residents of the townships for a series of protests against the hated “dompas” system.
Travelling between Langa and Nyanga, Kgosana, addressing thousands at a time, drove home one central message: heed the call by the PAC president, Robert Sobukwe, for a nationwide protest against the pass laws.
On March 20, the day before the Sharpeville shootings, in a stirring address to a crowd of 5 000, Kgosana asked: “How long shall we starve amidst plenty in our fatherland? How long shall we be a rightless, voteless and voiceless majority in our fatherland? This is the choice before us: we are either slaves or free men.”
The enthusiastic response of the crowd was a clear indication of the mood in the townships. Matters escalated from there.
On March 21, the day of the massacre in which 69 people had died, 6 000 residents met outside the “bachelor” quarters in Langa, in preparation for a march to the Langa police station. But, warned that such a march would be viewed as an attack on the station, marchers were persuaded to return home. In Nyanga, a smaller group, attempting to march to the Philippi police station, were arrested.
Then, when news of the Sharpeville shootings reached the townships, protesters again attempted to march to the Langa police station.
This time they were confronted by Saracen armoured vehicles and police reinforcements armed with machine guns.
In the stand-off that followed, police fired tear gas at the protesters, who in turn hurled rocks at them. At this point, police started shooting, killing two protesters and forcing the rest to flee.
As darkness fell, protesters struck, attacking the homes of black police, burning down the municipal offices, cutting down telephone lines and blocking roads.
The next morning, police raided many of the hostels in Langa, beating up many of the occupants.
In Cape Town, and in towns and cities in the Transvaal, members of white communities began to panic. Gun shops made a roaring trade, selling out stock within days.
Many also began mentally packing for Perth and Vancouver, with diplomatic representatives at the Australian and Canadian embassies reporting a flood of enquiries about emigration.
Protests against South Africa’s apartheid policies began pouring in from all corners of the globe.
Even the normally conservative US State Department was moved to release a statement criticising the South African government over the Sharpeville shootings. It ended the statement by expressing the hope that Africans would in future “be able to obtain redress for legitimate grievances by peaceful means”.
The United Nations Security Council commented on the South African situation for the first time. A resolution was passed (9-0, with the UK and France abstaining) blaming the South African government for the Sharpeville shootings.
To many whites, it looked as though South Africa had reached a point where change might be unavoidable.
In Cape Town, a stay-at-home called by the PAC on March 21 was overwhelmingly supported, bringing the docks and other industries to a virtual standstill.
On March 25, a PAC regional organiser, Wilson Manetsi, took 100 volunteers with him to Caledon Square police station, where they offered themselves up for arrest. The police duly obliged.
The next day, a far bigger group – of between 2 000 and 5 000 – demanded to be arrested. But this time, the head of police at Caledon Square, Terblanche, refused to comply, telling the protesters that for the next month “no one would be arrested for not carrying a pass in Cape Town”.
On Monday, March 28, the day designated by the PAC for the funerals of the Langa riot dead, a crowd estimated at 50 000 (a figure nearly equal to the entire African population of Cape Town) jammed the township and heard PAC funeral orators call for the strike to go until their demands – the abolition of passes, a £35-a-month minimum wage and no victimisation of strikers – were met.
On Wednesday, March 30, the NP government declared a state of emergency, giving itself broad powers to act against what it called “all forms of subversion”, including the power to arrest and detain indefinitely any person suspected of “anti-government activity”.
At the same time the announcement was made, police began a series of nationwide swoops to arrest leaders and prominent supporters of the anti-pass laws campaign.
In Cape Town, as police began beating up striking workers in Langa and Nyanga, and rounding up PAC leaders, people in the townships began to congregate.
Their intention was to march the 16km to Parliament. By mid-morning a broad column of residents from the townships began their long trek.
Terblanche, to his credit perhaps, persuaded Kgosana to change direction – to lead the marchers to Caledon Square instead of Parliament.
“If you surrender I give you my word as a white man that the minister will hear you out and you will not be harmed,” he allegedly said.
Kgosana took him at his word and called on the crowd to disperse. But the promise of a meeting with the minister did not materialise. He was arrested soon afterwards, but fled South Africa while on bail and remained in exile for 36 years.
A few weeks ago, Kgosana and Terblanche’s 73-year-old son, also Ignatius Terblanche, met, embraced and wept in each other’s arms as they recalled the march.
“My father paid heavily,” Ignatius Terblanche jr said. “It cost him dearly. He was never promoted. He truly believed the minister would talk to Kgosana.”