The Sekhukhuneland Revolt

On 16 May 1958 violence broke out in Sekhukhuneland. Within a few days, nine people had been killed, many more had been wounded and numerous buildings and vehicles had been torched. A police column was despatched to the area, which set about trying to restore order with a heavy hand and limited results. Journalists scrambled to describe and account for this turn of events. The area had been the heartland of the Pedi kingdom in the 19th century but by the 1950s it was a remote reserve area far removed from the usual haunts and interests of the press. Any white people who wanted to travel there had to request special permission to do so. Few applied and even fewer were granted permits. Once violence erupted the area was completely sealed off and the African National Congress was banned.

Newspapers made some attempt to cover the story but without access and contacts, they served up poor fare. Journalists reached for the tried and tested tropes of primordial tribal violence and an atavistic desire to return to a lost past to explain these far-off events. The Rand Daily Mail, which at least gave the story space, nonetheless provided a pastiche of colonial assumptions by way of analysis:

The Bapedi, tribesmen who were once all powerful rulers of Sekukuniland took up arms again last week for the first time in sixty years. They have reverted to guerrilla-like tactics in an attempt to regain their lost power and past glory … Now behind the brown clouds of dust in caves the dreaded ‘babolai’ (killers) wait.

This rendition evoked images of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya from 1952. It had sent shudders of fear through settler worlds and inspired the circulation of lurid and blood-soaked tales of barbarous Africans within colonial societyin Africa and beyond. It has, however, since been revealed that the British treated the Kikiyu with considerably more systematic violence and cruelty than Mau Mau rebels inflicted on their enemies.

The Sekhukhuneland Revolt was a profoundly significant episode in 20th-century South African history. The eventual defeat of the rebels was a turning point in the imposition of apartheid’s rural designs. But the linkages that formed between the Communist Party, the ANC and the rebels in the course of the resistance left a vital legacy for later struggles. The willingness of the rebels to take up arms in defence of their freedom also gave pause for thought for some leaders of the ANC and the Communist Party and contributed to the decision to launch the armed struggle a few years later. In addition, the networks generated in the revolt provided some of the first recruits for the ANC’s military win, Umkhonto weSizwe. But at the time, these events were met by the mainstream media with a combination of incomprehension and racist fantasy.

In stark contrast to this trickle of tendentious reporting, a little known, independent, left-wing journal, Africa South, published an account of the rising penned by James Fairbairn which provided profound insights into what was taking place. He located the revolt in the context of the apartheid state’s attempts to corral black farming and to co-opt chiefs through the introduction of the Bantu authorities system. He also highlighted the role of migrant workers in organising the resistance and he provided a reasonably full narrative of key events. His article has been amplified and modified by more recent research but its main points have not been overturned. It remains a valuable historical source.

I first encountered Fairbairn’s article in the 1970s when I started research on Pedi history for my PhD. Both the author and the journal, Africa South, were previously unknown to me. (For the history of Africa South, see page 86.) I assumed that the author was writing under a pseudonym. But it took an embarrassing amount of time before it dawned on me that the name harked back to John Fairbairn, one of the editors of South African Commercial Advertiser in the 1820s. It was South Africa’s first independent newspaper and its resonance with realities of the 1950s was underscored by its repeated banning by the governor.

James Fairbairn was the nom de plume of Jack Halpern. Born in 1927 in Berlin, his parents fled Nazi Germany and settled in Johannesburg. He became a journalist and correspondent for the left-leaning Reynolds News and the New Statesman. He also edited the publications of the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR). His archived papers suggest that he had a wide range

Race Relations (IRR). His archived papers suggest that he had a wide range of contacts in liberal left circles. But this mainly white network would have had limited information on events in Sekhukhuneland. Members of both the ANC and the Communist Party played a part in organising the resistance but my research suggests at that time that white communists and the higher echelons of the ANC had a very limited understanding of their members’ activities in the reserves.

So how did Halpern get his information? One part of the answer is that his position at IRR allowed him access to its developed network of contacts that penetrated far deeper into rural areas than most. Elements of his report echo material that the Institute gathered at the time, but did not publish. A key source for his report, as well as for the IRR information, is likely to have been members of the Anglican Church. An Anglican secondary school in the area had recently been closed as a result of Bantu Education but Jane Furse Hospital remained open. One of the leaders of the resistance, Godfrey Mogaramedi Sekhukhune, was a male nurse at the hospital and probably a key informant for Halpern and others.

In 1960 Halpern moved to Southern Rhodesia and worked there as a journalist until he was expelled in 1963. After arriving in Britain, Halpern served as Secretary-General of Amnesty International from 1964–5. He also published South Africa’s Hostages: Basutoland, Bechuanaland & Swaziland in 1965. He died on 11 May 1973. In his later years when he looked back over a long and distinguished career he probably would not have guessed that his pioneering account of the Sekhukhuneland Revolt would have such lasting significance.

References Delius, Peter. 1996 A Lion Amongst the Cattle. Johannesburg: Heinemann and Ravan Press. Halpern, Jack. 1965. South Africa’s Hostages: Basutoland, Bechuanaland & Swaziland. London: Penguin Books. Material on Halpern is located in the Institute of Race Relations Collection held in the Wits Library; Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library, London University; Jack Halpern Papers were donated to the Institute of Race Relations by Jack .

The Sekhukhuneland Terror

James Fairbairn (Jack Halpern), Africa South, October 1958, South Africa Behind the mass murder trial of Bapedi tribesmen from the ‘sealed off’ Reserve of Sekhukhuneland, lies the story of their people’s resistance to the Nationalist Government’s Bantu Authorities – and of the intrigue, intimidation and armed force which the Native Affairs Department (NAD) has employed to make them accept this final tightening of the screws of White control over African tribal life.

The Bantu Authorities Act, which was passed in 1951 without any consultation with the African people, changed the traditional forms of African tribal and rural local government without providing for any form of African political expression … To understand recent events in this loosely defined area, which lies in the Lulu Mountains of the Eastern Transvaal, one must remember that its native Bapedi ‘group’ were amongst the very last of the Bantu tribes to be conquered by the White man in South Africa … Disputes about the succession of Sekhukhune I, who was finally defeated and deposed by the British, were settled in 1883; the Bapedi were disarmed; and for the past 70 years the inter-linked Bapedi, Bakoni and Batau peoples have lived in as much peace as the impact of successive White laws, taxes and agricultural betterment schemes permitted them …

No sooner had the Bantu Education Act been passed in 1954, however, than the NAD took over the Jane Furse Mission school run by ‘Father Huddleston’s friends’, and abolished its three high school classes. The principal, a Pedi, resigned in protest against the Act, and considerable resentment was aroused, fanned by the dictatorial manner in which the local NAD agricultural officer is said to have imposed stock restrictions, new local taxes and even residential bars to the Bapedi’s traditional polygamy. When, therefore, Dr Verwoerd himself held an indaba a few months later with Eastern Transvaal chiefs and counsellors to explain the blessings of his Bantu Authorities and Bantu Education Acts, the Bapedi representatives were unimpressed.

No sooner had the Bantu Education Act been passed in 1954, however, than the NAD took over the Jane Furse Mission school run by ‘Father Huddleston’s friends’, and abolished its three high school classes. The principal, a Pedi, resigned in protest against the Act, and considerable resentment was aroused, fanned by the dictatorial manner in which the local NAD agricultural officer is said to have imposed stock restrictions, new local taxes and even residential bars to the Bapedi’s traditional polygamy. When, therefore, Dr Verwoerd himself held an indaba a few months later with Eastern Transvaal chiefs and counsellors to explain the blessings of his Bantu Authorities and Bantu Education Acts, the Bapedi representatives were unimpressed.

Mr Prinsloo’s repeated unofficial offers, in the pseudo-Bantu idiom beloved by his chief Verwoerd, to bring the two deportees ‘out of his stomach’ if the tribe accepted Bantu Authorities, were rejected; but by July 5 of last year, he had apparently bullied Moroamoche into submission. The setting up of a Bapedi Bantu Authority was gazetted. Some 8,000 members of the tribe then donned ceremonial dress and gathered from as far as 20 miles away, at Mohaletse, where they presented a petition bearing 30,000 signatures to NAD officials, demanding the return of their exiled ‘sons’.

Their petition was completely ignored and, although two new secondary schools were set up, matters came to a head at the end of last November. On the 29th, the Bapedi Authority was disestablished ‘for lack of support’, and on the 30th the regionalChief Native Commissioner, backed by an armed police convoy, informed Moroamoche at Mohaletse that he was suspended as Regent for a month. Simultaneously, seven men were arrested, and two of them, including the new tribal secretary, immediately deported. The five others were gaoled on charges of obstructing the authorities. It is perhaps significant that one of these five subsequently made application to the Supreme Court, on December 4, when his counsel alleged that the police at Schoonoord, the Sekhukhuneland administrative centre, had refused him access to his client. The matter was settled out of Court after ready access to the accused was promised, and the State agreed to bear the costs of the application. In February of this year, three of the five men were acquitted and minor fines imposed on the other two.

Before this, however, the Government decided to reverse the history of over a century, and to facilitate the setting up of Bantu Authorities by separating the ‘Bapedi’ from the ‘Bakoni’. The removal of the latter to the Nebo part of Sekhukhuneland under their ‘own’ Native Commissioner was begun, but they have reportedly been trickling back to their old homes recently. At the end of last year Moroamoche’s suspension was extended for another three months, and after this the Government, which was simultaneously encountering stiff resistance from the Bafurutse around Zeerust, quickened the pace of its persuasion.

Acting under a law of 1927, Dr Verwoerd took powers on February 28 of this year to ‘seal off’ any Native area at will … On March 7 this proclamation was applied to the Bapedi part of Sekhukhuneland (as well as to Zeerust and a third Reserve), and since then, reliable first-hand reports have been understandably hard to come by. However, the Government’s publicly taken measures speak for themselves.

On March 11 Moroamoche won a Supreme Court appeal against his continued suspension, on the grounds that the Government had not given him the chance to defend himself, demanded by the law it had invoked. With impressive promptness, the Government re-suspended him on the very next day – this time under a different law which contained no such ‘democratic’ safeguards.

Five days later the African National Congress was declared an illegal organisation in Sekhukhuneland – once more through a mere proclamation in a Government Gazette – and anyone even giving its ‘thumbs up’ sign or ‘Afrika!’ greeting became liable to a fine of £300 and three years’ imprisonment. On March 21 Moroamoche was deported, without any warning, to Cala in the Transkei, together with his wife and one child; and shortly afterwards, on April I, the Bantu Trust, which is in effect the NAD, took over all functions of the disestablished Bapedi Authority. One would think that there was nothing except remaining alive which the Bapedi could now do, but apparently they were not yet crushed. At Easter the primary school at Mohaletse was permanently closed down as a result of a boycott, and its 300 children reportedly barred from all other schools.

Heavy police reinforcements were brought into the area and, after several ‘nominees’ had refused the position, an attempt was made to set up a retired Pedi police sergeant as acting Regent of the tribe, which promptly rejected him. As the boycott of schools became general, heavy police reinforcements took over the Reserve, headed by a special mobile column under Detective Sergeant Jan Hendrick van Rooyen, already notorious for his unbridled terrorism whilst commanding a similar force in Zeerust.

Tension rose as police raids increased, and the by-now inevitable flow of blood began on May 16. An armed police detachment arrested Phasoane Nkadimeng, a minor chief who had been threatened with deposition because of his opposition to Bantu Authorities, as well as his brother and a senior counsellor. Phasoane’s villagers apparently rushed up, surrounded the police van into which their chief had been thrust, and held it to prevent his being driven off. What followed is a sadly familiar story. The police claim that stones began to fly, and that they were reluctantly forced to open fire in self-defence. Four men were shot dead, and six men and a woman wounded. The police van roared off, and the enraged crowd took its revenge on the nearest Government ‘collaborationists’. The wave of retributory violence spread, and for several days assaults and arson swept .

Convoys of fresh police reinforcements were rushed to Sekhukhuneland under the personal command of top brass, including Col C. de Wet van Wyk, Deputy Commissioner of the South African Police, and the arrests of the tribesmen now facing murder charges began – many of them reportedly ‘smelt out’ by ‘loyal’ headmen. On May 26 yet another Government Gazette proclamation made the carrying of ‘dangerous weapons’, which include the heavy ‘kierrie’ sticks and indispensable knives habitually carried by tribesmen, punishable by a year’s imprisonment and/or a £100 fine or whipping.

I will not attempt to recount the many harsh sentences which have been imposed by local courts there under the various and incredibly restrictive decrees now in force. In some cases, the timely intervention of White lawyers has led to the noting of appeals, but the authorities alone know how many other convictions there have been. Meetings of more than ten Africans have, of course, been banned together with all other possibilities of even verbal protest, and those reporters who have been allowed into the area entered it under the strictest official supervision. Their ‘sight-seeing tour’, though otherwise barren, did provide one final touch to fill in the public’s picture of enlightened White guardianship.

Standing in front of a smoking, sealed-off Reserve occupied by sten-gun carrying police, Mr C.W. Prinsloo and his fellow Native Affairs Department ‘information’ officers explained what the ‘real’ cause of the trouble in Sekhukhuneland was. The 20,000 strong Bapedi, said Mr Prinsloo, were (after 75 disarmed years of White rule) trying to maintain an ‘assegai empire’ over their 280,000-strong Bakoni neighbours, and were therefore against the ‘progress’ brought about by new chiefs appointed by the Government. But the terrorised Bakoni need not worry, Mr Prinsloo assured the world, for the Government would protect them and deliver them from oppression. I know of at least one Bakoni headman who will be glad of Mr Prinsloo’s assurances – one Frank Maserumule, who, afterbeing rewarded for his espousal of Bantu Authorities by being made chief of a brand new village which the NAD had set up at Nebo for the Bakoni it had forced to move from northern Sekhukhuneland, was forced to flee for his life from the wrath of his enforced subjects.