A triumphant Philip Kgosana being raised shoulder-high by anti-pass protesters on 30 March 1960. (Photo: Wikipedia)
On 30 March 1960 a 23-year-old black man became instantly famous for courageously leading a non-violent protest march of about 30 000 people in Cape Town against the infamous pass laws. His name was Philip Kgosana. Who was Kgosana, and how did it happen that he ended up leading a massive march and bluntly confronted the apartheid state and its repressive laws? Philip Ata Kgosana was born in Makapanstad in the former Transvaal (now Limpopo Province) in 1936. He graduated from Lady Selborne High School in Pretoria in 1958. Intellectually gifted, Kgosana was awarded a bursary to study at the then predominantly white University of Cape Town (UCT).
The much-publicised march that Kgosana courageously lead took place in the immediate aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960. On that fateful day police opened fire on a crowd of anti-pass law protesters at the Sharpeville police station near Vereeniging, killing 69 and wounding 186. On the same day police also shot at anti-pass demonstrators in the township of Langa near Cape Town. The Langa shootings left two dead and 29 injured. At the time of these atrocities Kgosana was an economics student at UCT and also the newly-appointed secretary of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) for the western Cape region. Needless to say, Kgosana enthusiastically supported the PAC’s nationwide anti-pass campaign. The hated ‘passes’ or ‘passbooks’ were used by apartheid bureaucrats to regulate the movement of black South Africans.
In the early hours of 30 March 1960 police started to violently harass residents of Langa, targeting migrant workers, among others. Enraged by the police brutality, the township’s inhabitants spontaneously decided to march to Parliament to voice their grievances. Kgosana, who rushed to the scene wearing a pair of distinctive blue shorts, sensed that his opportunity to defiantly take a stand had come. Unexpectedly, he boldly stepped forward to lead the demonstrators along Cape Town’s De Waal Drive to town. Thousands of people – mostly men – from Langa and Nyanga joined the march and followed a young man’s lead to protest against injustice, police brutality, and the compulsory carrying of passbooks. An estimated 30 000 people joined the march.
Instead of heading to Parliament, Kgosana led some marchers to the Caledon Square police headquarters while others went to the nearby Roeland Street fire station. The protesters were mostly peaceful, orderly, and silent. Inspired by the example set by PAC leader Robert Sobukwe, Kgosana believed in non-violent protest. At Caledon Square Kgosana and his followers were met by a group of nervous policemen who were, needless to say, hopelessly outnumbered. To diffuse the situation two pragmatic high-ranking police officers promised Kgosana that he would be granted his request to see the Minister of Justice, FC Erasmus, if he ordered the crowd to disperse. Kgosana agreed and he used a police megaphone to tell the protesters to dissolve peacefully. Alas, the authorities did not keep their promise: when Kgosana and four other PAC leaders went to Caledon Square that afternoon to meet with Erasmus they were arrested and detained. Kgosana was charged with ‘incitement’ for planning and leading the protest march. He and others were put on trial but succeeded in obtaining bail.
In January 1961 Kgosana reportedly fled to Swaziland (now Eswatini) while he was still out on bail. He later travelled to Ethiopia, where he lived in exile for almost a decade. During his time there he continued to work as a political activist but not as a PAC member because he was expelled from the organisation in 1962 for disregarding official orders. During this time he successfully completed an economics degree at the University of Addis Ababa. During the 1970s Kgosana became involved with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Uganda. Noteworthy is his dedicated work among Kampala’s orphaned children, which earned him international recognition. He also worked for UNICEF in Sri Lanka and Botswana. In 1988 Kgosana’s autobiography, Lest we forget: an autobiography (Skotaville Publishers), was published. After returning to South Africa during the early 1990s, he became involved in community work among Tshwane’s less advantaged.
To commemorate the march of 30 March 1960, the 79-year old Kgosana and a small procession walked the same 12 km route from Langa to Cape Town on 30 March 2016. Kgosana died in Pretoria (Tshwane) on 19 April the following year. To honour his courage and lifelong contribution to the liberation struggle, De Waal Drive was renamed Philip Kgosana Drive. Today Philip Kgosana is not only remembered for his remarkable bravery but, according to former Cape Times editor, Tony Heard, also as a person who symbolises a ‘pivotal moment’ in South Africa’s history. This ‘pivotal moment’ came when an ordinary man in blue shorts defiantly stood up against the power and might of the apartheid state.
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