Uitenhage Massacre set tone for people’s revolution

Joyce Didiza Batyi deputy chair of the Langa Massacre foundation (left) and Mzukisi Pinini whose dad was a victim of the massacre speaks about their concerns before the start of the Langa massacre press briefing which took place at the Uitenhage Town Hall.
Joyce Didiza Batyi deputy chair of the Langa Massacre foundation (left) and Mzukisi Pinini whose dad was a victim of the massacre speaks about their concerns before the start of the Langa massacre press briefing which took place at the Uitenhage Town Hall.
Image: Werner Hills

“It is better to die in for an idea that will live forever than to live for an idea that will soon die,” Steve Biko famously said and today we remember defining events which led to the Uitenhage Massacre of 1985.

The formation of the Youth Congresses and United Democratic Front was a key milestone in SA’s revolution during the 1980s. 

It ushered an era of unprecedented youth mobilisation in the battle against apartheid injustice in all its forms.

The Eastern Cape,  Uitenhage in particular, became the focal point of mass mobilisation and popular struggles that led to the collapse of illegitimate municipal structure and  subsequent panic of the Nationalist Party government.

The UN declared 1985 as the International Year of the Youth and this declaration seemed to have encouraged the youth of SA to deepen their resolve to liberate their country in their lifetime.

The ANC’s then president, OR Tambo, made the call during the same year that “we must make the country ungovernable and apartheid unworkable”. 

There was no other noble call to follow and respect like that one.

Youth and workers were highly mobilised and sacrificed their prime age and education in confronting an enemy with strong state machinery.

Needless to say, during this time   there were many casualties and the state began to unleash its might.

According to the Kannemeyer Commission report, “in March 1985, tensions in Uitenhage townships reached a boiling point. The minister of law and order visited Uitenhage and had been told that soft weaponry was no longer effective for riot control purposes, and they decided to take stronger action to regain control”.

This was the beginning of the events that would lead to the Langa Massacre.

In that period, the police used ammunition and murdered six unarmed protesters.

Four of those were to be buried on Sunday March 17, and a stay away was called for on Monday March 18 — Black Weekend — to protest against the killings.

The funeral was banned and the stayaway was declared illegal.

Activists were harassed and detained, and one activist, Norman Kona, was arrested and tortured.

In response to the banning, the funeral was moved to the March 21 (Sharpeville Day), and a further stayaway was called on the day.

The funeral was to be held in KwaNobuhle and everybody engaged in the struggle locally wanted to be there.

On the morning of March 21, people from Langa resolved to march to the funeral in KwaNobuhle, but as they came down Maduna Road, they were met by heavy guards of police in Caspers armed with heavy live ammunition.

These unarmed mourners had resolved to go and bury their comrades who were murdered by the same police.

The police informed the marchers that the funeral has been banned and so their gathering was illegal.

Leaders could not even address the marchers before the police opened fire and murdered 21 innocent people.

According to the Kannemeyer Commission and eye witnesses, most of those murdered were shot in the back, meaning they were running for cover.

Among them was a 14-year-old boy.

That carnage drew international and local attention, and further calls for the isolation of SA.

The people’s demands were clear and simple:

  • Release Nelson Mandela and all other political prisoners;
  • Unban the ANC and all people’s organisations;
  • Create a conducive political environment for all to talk about the future of the country;
  • Confine the army to military barracks; and
  • Allow for  exiles to return home safely.

The people’s struggles continued throughout the Eastern Cape and countrywide.

A week after the victims of Langa were buried, they were at the Dan Qeqe Stadium to bury eight victims killed as the masses were protesting against the Langa Massacre.

The apartheid regime was resolute to silence any form of dissent.

  • During May 1985, Qaqawuli Godolozi and his Pebco comrades disappeared at the Port Elizabeth airport;
  • Three months later, in June 1985, Matthew Goniwe and three other UDF leaders from Cradock were murdered by police in Port Elizabeth;
  • On August 11 1985, 23 unarmed protesters in Duncan Village were murdered by the regime. This clearly demonstrated that the apartheid government was out to crush any form of challenge.

For the first time since the Sharpeville Massacre a state of emergency was declared and thousands of activists throughout SA were detained.

The Uitenhage Massacre and the mass struggles of 1985 set the tone for the people’s revolution.

Post-liberation, the scars of the Uitenhage Massacre are still visible to this day.

Many of the survivors, their parents and relatives will never recover.

The country is free and there is a black government, but the fundamental economic and social contradictions have not been fully resolved:

  • The economy is still controlled by the white minority and resources of our land are not yet equitably shared;
  • There is still a national discourse about the ownership and control of land;
  • Our education system is still not relevant to the challenges of society;
  • Youth and women are still unemployed even though some have post-matric qualifications; and 
  • Women and children are still targets of abuse and victimisation.

As we remember the Sharpeville and Langa Massacres, let us resolve to double our efforts to achieve what these heroes and heroines laid down their lives for.

Anything less would be a betrayal of that noble sacrifice.

In conclusion, it was encouraging to read this week that the Premier has moved to try to resolve the old grievance of the victims and relatives of the Langa Massacre.

  • Mike Kwenaite is an ANC activist from Uitenhage
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