One of the most respected and feared of the African nationalists, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was born in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape on 5 December 1924. He came from humble origins, the son of a farm worker and housewife mother, but he won a scholarship to the Methodist college in Healdtown and, like so many of his political compatriots, later attended Fort Hare University, at that stage one of very few sources of further education for black Africans in the country.
He went on, initially, to become a teacher, then in 1954, took a position as lecturer of African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg – a job which earned him his nickname ‘the Professor’ or ‘Prof’. From 1957 onwards, he became editor of The Africanist paper.
Sobukwe joined the ANC Youth League while a student in 1948 and became a leading player, with Nelson Mandela, in their 1952 Defiance Campaign but gradually his views parted company with those of the ANC leadership.
He believed strongly in that the future of Africa should rest solely in the hands of black Africans, denying the role of multi-racial groups in favour of government for the individual. In 1959, he formed a new party, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and became its first President.
An eloquent speaker, his message of black empowerment was instrumental in creating the 1960s Black Consciousness Movement that questioned the very white stance taken by the teachings of church, state and school and led eventually to the Soweto Uprisings of 1976.
On 21 March 1960, Robert Sobukwe was at the head a nationwide protest against the Pass Laws, which required all black South Africans to carry a pass book showing which areas of the country they were allowed to visit. As he led a march to the police station in Orlando, Soweto, police opened up on other marchers in Sharpeville, creating the nightmare that became the infamous Sharpeville Massacre, with 69 protestors dead. Sobukwe and many of his fellow marchers were arrested and Sobukwe was sentenced to three years on Robben Island. During his time in jail, a new law, the General Law Amendment Act, was enacted allowing the Minister of Justice to renew his imprisonment each year at his discretion. The ‘Sobukwe Clause’ was used for a further six years. It was never used on anyone else.
Sobukwe’s powers of persuasion and political leanings so terrorized the authorities that he was kept in solitary confinement throughout his time on Robben Island. He was given some privileges, such as civilian clothes and books, but was not permitted to speak to anyone and could only communicate with other prisoners through secret hand signals while on exercise. He spent his time studying, gaining an Economics Degree from the University of London.
Eventually released in 1969, he was immediately put under house arrest with his family in Kimberley, in the Northern Cape. He finished a law degree and opened a law practice in 1975. Shortly afterwards, however, he became ill and died of lung cancer in Kimberley on 27 February 1978.
Neil Aggett was born in Kenya in 1954, the first-born child of Aubrey and Joy Aggett. He started school in Kenya, and when his parents moved to South Africa in the 1960s he attended Kingswood College in Grahamstown from1964 to1970.In 1976 he completed a medical degree at the University of Cape Town.
As a doctor, Aggett was exposed to the hardships and poverty-related diseases of workers. He worked mainly in overcrowded Black hospitals in Umtata and Tembisa. While working at Baragwanath hospital in Soweto, Aggett won the trust and respect of both staff and patients alike by his enthusiasm towards his job. In an attempt to understand his patients and make communication easier between him and those he treated, he learned Zulu.
It was at Baragwanath that Neil Aggett became involved in trade union matters. He championed worker rights through his involvement with the Transvaal Food and Canning Workers’ Union, gaining unionist trust, and was appointed organizer. Despite political differences, he kept good relations with his White neighbours in Doornfontein and Kensington. Neil would at times use his own money to help the workers’ cause, such as transport union officials to factories where they organised. Aggett was instrumental in organizing the successful Fatti’s and Moni’s strike in Islando, which spread to other areas such as Tembisa. Aggett became a target of harassment by the security branch of the South African Police for his participation in the strikes and the state labeled him a communist. In 1981 he was entrusted with organising a mass action campaign for workers in Langa, Cape Town. His aim was to see trade unions united in a mass democratic movement mobilizing for the health and prosperity of workers.
In late 1981 Neil Aggett was detained for his role in labour organisation. He was taken to Pretoria Central Prison and later transferred to John Vorster Square in Johannesburg. He died in detention on 5 February 1982, allegedly by hanging himself by with a scarf, although the 29 June inquest revealed his death was as a result of police torture.
Neil was survived by both parents and a sister. He became the 51st person to die in detention and the first White person to die under those circumstances since 1963. His funeral was filmed and it was estimated that 15 000 people attended. His labour organisation issued a call that on 11 February 1982, the day of his burial, all workers stay away from work. About 7 000 FOSATU workers at the Uitenhage branch of Volkswagen responded. The presence of police did not stop mourners from reaffirming their struggle for which Aggett died, by singing revolutionary songs.
Lilian Masediba Ngoyi was born in Pretoria in 1911 to a family of six children, and obtained her primary schooling in Kilnerton. She later enrolled for a nurses’ training course, but she eventually took up work as a machinist in a clothing factory where she worked from 1945 to 1956.
She joined the Garment Workers Union (GWU) under Solly Sachs, and soon became one of its leading figures. Impressed by the spirit of African National Congress (ANC) volunteers, she joined the ANC during the 1950 Defiance Campaign and was arrested for using facilities in a post office that were reserved for white people.
Her energy and her gift as a public speaker won her rapid recognition, and within a year of joining the ANC she was elected as president of the ANC Women’s League. When the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) was formed in 1954, she became one of its national vice-presidents, and in 1956 she was elected president.
In 1955, she travelled to Europe as a delegate to a conference called by the Women’s International Democratic Federation, and was invited by socialist delegates to tour Russia, China and other eastern bloc countries. She became a member of the Transvaal ANC executive from 1955, and in December 1956 she became the first woman ever elected to the ANC national executive committee.
On the 9th of August 1956, she led the women’s anti-pass march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, one of the largest demonstrations staged in South African history. Holding thousands of petitions in one hand, Ngoyi was the one who knocked on Prime Minister Strijdom’s door to hand over the petitions.
In December 1956, Ngoyi was arrested for high treason along with 156 other leading figures, and stood trial until 1961 as one of the accused in the four–year-long Treason Trial. While the trial was still on and the accused out on bail, Ngoyi was imprisoned for five months under the 1960 state of emergency. She spent much of this time in solitary confinement.
She was first issued her banning orders in October 1962, which confined her to Orlando Township in Johannesburg and she was forbidden to attend any gatherings.
In the mid-1960s, she was jailed under the 90-day detention act and spent 71 days in solitary confinement.
Her banning orders lapsed in 1972, but were renewed for a new five-year period in 1975. During the time of her banning, Ngoyi’s great energies were totally suppressed and she struggled to earn a decent living.
Affectionately known as ‘Ma Ngoyi’, she suffered heart trouble and died on the 13th of March 1980 at the age of 69.
Journalist, academic and political activist, Ruth Heloise First was born on 4 May 1925. She was the daughter of Jewish immigrants Julius and Matilda First. They were founder members of the Communist Party of South Africa 1921. Ruth and her brother Ronald grew up in a household, in which intense political debate between people of all races and classes often took place.
After matriculating from Jeppe High School for Girls, First studied at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, from 1942 to 1946. She helped found the Federation of Progressive Students and served as secretary to the Young Communist League, and was active in the Progressive Youth Council and, for a short while, the Johannesburg branch of the CPSA.
Having grown up in a politically conscious home, First’s political involvement was extensive. She did support work for the 1946 mineworkers’ strike, the Indian Passive Resistance campaign and protests surrounding the outlawing of communism in 1950.
In 1949, First married Joe Slovo, a lawyer and labour organiser and, like her, a communist. In 1953, First helped found the South African Congress of Democrats (COD), the White wing of the Congress Alliance, and she took over as editor of Fighting Talk, a journal supporting the alliance. She was on the drafting committee of the Freedom Charter, but was unable to attend the Congress of the People at Kliptown in 1955 because of her banning order. In 1956, both First and Slovo were arrested and charged in the Treason Trial. The trial lasted four years, after which, all 156 accused were acquitted on 29 March 1961.
On 9 August 1963, First was detained at the Wits University library. This took place following the arrests of members of the underground ANC, the SACP and Umkhonto we Sizwe in Rivonia on 11 July. In the trial which followed, political leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki were sentenced to life imprisonment. However, First was not among the accused. She was kept in solitary confinement under the notorious 90-day clause. After 90 days First was released but immediately re-arrested on the pavement outside the police station. She was held for a further 27 days, during which she attempted suicide
In 1977, First was appointed professor and research director of the Centre for African Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique. She began work on the lives of migrant labourers, particularly those who worked on the South African gold mines. The results of this study were published as Black Gold: the Mozambican Miner (1983).
Following a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) conference at the centre on 17 August 1982, First was killed by a letter bomb, widely believed to have been the work of security agencies within South Africa. Until her death, she remained a ‘listed’ communist and could not be quoted in South Africa.