It is only natural that a biography of a leader like Onkgopotse Abram Tiro would obviously turn into the history of the Black Consciousness Movement and student activism as led by the South African Students Organisation.
Also, you could not doubt its legitimacy and depth being written by a family member – a nephew of the subject himself. I always enjoyed Gao’s articles as we worked alongside each other as journalists in Johannesburg.
He is a skilled word-crafter and full of ideas that are traceable in his writings. After I published my own book, he told me about his plan to pen his uncle’s biography and wanted to know more about my publishers. I remember saying it is long overdue and he just must do it.
In this book, Gao married his own family knowledge of Tiro with information he gleaned from interviews with many former Black Consciousness members and Tiro’s former fellow students at the University of the North (Turfloop). As an activist, Tiro managed to mix church with politics and served both with equal vigour.
Gao highlights the mismatch of Seventh Day Adventist Church professed and what it practised. However, you could not separate him from the church despite it supporting the system.
He was not the Bible-thumping type that stood at street corners preaching, but he took a keen interest in church politics. But the church led the way when in its conference in 1985 it denounced the system and deplored all forms of racism.
The statement was to be followed, just over 10 years later by its confessional statement submitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about its earlier role in backing apartheid.
Tiro was the then Students’ Representative Council president at Turfloop University with Leon Wessels, who was an SRC president and leader of the Studentebond at Potchefstroom University.
During their student discussions as SRCs, Tiro left a distinct impression on Wessels although their ideologies were poles apart. Somehow, as they frequently met, Louw came to like Black Consciousness, as it was not such a bad idea although him and Tiro disagreed markedly on various issues.
Wessels was to become a Cabinet minister in the NP government and was part of the white government team at the pre-1994 multiparty constitutional negotiations.Tiro opposed Bantu education and used every platform he got to voice his disapproval of the system.
His famous supposedly “vote of thanks” speech he delivered at the Turfloop graduation ceremony on 29 April 1972 was the turning point of his student leadership. There he highlighted the discrimination against black staff and students and for jobs that were given to whites.
His speech, dubbed “Turfloop Testimony” angered the university management, who felt embarrassed in the presence of invited guests.
“Tiro broached one uncomfortable subject after another. The students celebrated his courage, greeting virtually every point he made with a round of applause,” wrote Gao.
He called people to the trenches even telling management that freedom was coming and that “no man, no matter how many tanks he has, will reverse the course of events”. Later Tiro was summarily expelled on 1 May 1972 because his speech was unpalatable to the university authorities.
Rector and vice chancellor Professor Boshoff described Tiro’s speech as “disgraceful”, “irresponsible” and “controversial”.
Hudson Ntsanwisi, then leader of the Gazankulu homeland and university advisory council said to journalists later: “The speech was in “bad taste.”
The expulsion sparked class boycott Turfloop students who demanded Tiro’s reinstatement. They were all expelled and university closed All the black students were expelled for participating in the strike. Solidarity strikes by other universities followed. He played an influential role in 1976 Soweto uprisings and was friend of its leader, Tsietsi Mashinini.
Tiro fled into exile but was killed by a parcel bomb in Botswana sent by apartheid security forces. There is more to read in the ups and downs of the hero and the cat-and-mouse game the BC leaders played with apartheid authorities.
This is a gripping story that tells unknown facts about the life of Tiro. Gaongalelwe did a great job to bring it to the fore.