Once again the media is alive on the anniversary of Solomon Mahlangu’s hanging, no mention of course as to why he was hanged, other than the ‘Apartheid Regime’ did it and he’s a struggle hero, and so much attention is given his hanging anniversary that it is attended by the Vice President with a message to remind every-one again as to the brutality of Apartheid and white oppression.
So what sets him apart from other ‘struggle heroes’ that his day is specifically remembered with such hype? What else other than a quotable quote which has some good political mileage and makes for great media?
He said; “My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight”. Powerful stuff as quotes go, great propaganda value.
Forget what he in fact did, forget the reason behind his hanging, forget even the tenets of law, the man’s a ‘hero’ to his ‘people’. But let’s take a step back and examine what he did, why he was executed instead of getting a life sentence as was the case with many ‘political’ MK cadres also charged with terrorism. Also, let’s question if he in fact should be the ‘prima’ anti-apartheid activist to be recognised because he was hanged, and finally let’s ask if we are in fact recognising the right role models.
In 1976 Mahlangu joined an African National Congress (ANC) MK military training camp called “Engineering” in Angola – one of the thousands of disenchanted youth from the Soweto uprising known in MK as the 76’s which fundamentally swelled MK numbers (up to then MK was a very small group).
Solomon Mahlangu, George ‘Lucky’ Mahlangu and Mondy Motloung were then taken to Swaziland, where they were given large suitcases filled with pamphlets, rifles and hand grenades. On 11 June 1977 they crossed the border into South Africa and started making their way to Johannesburg.
The three, each carrying a large suitcase, were climbing into a taxi in Diagonal Street in the centre of Johannesburg. An ordinary policeman became suspicious and grabbed one of the suitcases. An AK-47 assault rifle and a hand grenade fell out. All three of them fled, Lucky Mahlangu in one direction and the other two in the direction of Fordsburg. There, in Goch Street, the two sought refuge in the storage facilities of the retailer John Orr’s. One of them opened fire on the employees of the company (essentially targeting and shooting innocent civilians in a retail store), killing two and wounding another two of them. Mahlangu and Motaung were eventually arrested.
Mahlangu’s trial started in the Supreme Court on 7 November 1977. The three faced two counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder and various counts under the Terrorism Act. In its judgment the court found that Mahlangu and Motaung had acted with a common purpose and that it consequently did not matter which of the two did the shooting and killing. Mahlangu had attested that he had not physically pulled the trigger himself but Motaung had. However to understand ‘common purpose’ in a military context – if you have a machine gun team of a gunner and ammunition feeder and spotter, it matters not who actually pulls the tigger – they as a team are acting in common purpose.
Mahlangu was convicted on all counts. In terms of the South African law at the time, the court was obliged to sentence any accused to death for murder, unless the accused proved mitigating circumstances. The court found that Mahlangu had failed to prove a mitigating circumstance and consequently handed down the death sentence.
In South African law at the time murder was murder and the standard sentence was death, politics did not really enter into it if the case proved murder and the state hung loads of people for murder, not just resistance movement cadres.
To test whether Solomon Mahlangu’s court case and sentence by the Apartheid Regime was in any way politically driven his case was re-opened by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after 1994. Their findings are not what most people would expect. The commission examined the cases of Solomon Mahlangu and Monty Motaung and found that both of them were responsible for the deaths of Mr Rupert Kessner and Mr Kenneth Wolfendale (the John Orr employees). It also found both Mahlangu and Motaung guilty of gross human rights violations. Lastly it found both the African National Congress and the commanding officer of Umkhonto we Sizwe guilty of gross human rights violations.
So, there’s the reason the media hype and news don’t want to really get into the facts and would rather generate propaganda spin, a very unsuccessful MK insurgency gone very wrong (nothing noble in the action), and one that really is a case of terrorism and murder, the shooting of innocent store employees – a very ‘tainted’ “hero” by any stretch of reason. But why the focus on Solomon Mahlangu other than his quote?
Consider this, usually trailblazers are honoured with martyrdom, but there is a very inconvenient problem here. One of the first South African’s hanged for killing civilians in an anti-apartheid armed insurgency was not Black, nope – he was White. He also was not a member of the ANC, he had his own anti-apartheid political movement. His name was Frederick John Harris.
That should surprise many, a White man (not a Black man) was one of the prima anti-apartheid campaigners sent to the gallows, let that sink in for a second. It reveals another inconvenient truth, that the first mass anti-apartheid protestors – like the ‘Torch Commando’ and the ‘Black Sash’ were made up of White people in the majority. It was also no different in the case of John Harris’ own movement, the ‘African Resistance Movement’ (ARM).
So let’s examine John Harris and why he went to the gallows and not into political confinement.
Frederick John Harris (known as John Harris) was born in 1937. He was a teacher, a member of the executive committee of the Liberal Party in the Transvaal, as well as a Chairman of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee. He was also one of the members of the nearly all-white African Resistance Movement (ARM) and the first and only white man to be hanged for a politically inspired offence in the years after the 1960 Sharpeville emergency.
The African Resistance Movement (ARM) is not known to many in South Africa, in fact it started in parallel to the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and it declared an armed struggle against Apartheid in 1961, and here’s the problem to current political narrative in South Africa – it was made up of white people primarily, some with experience from World War 2.
ARM was founded by members of South Africa’s Liberal Party. The Liberal Party was a mainly white party founded on 9 May 1953 out of a belief that Jan Smuts’ United Party was unable to achieve any real liberal progress in South Africa, they initially called for a franchise based vote for Black South Africans and later this evolved to a call for ‘one man one vote’. The Liberal Party was established during the coloured vote constitutional crisis of the 1950s, and they drew membership from the Torch Commando, run by Sailor Malan.
One of the defining moments in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa was the Sharpeville Massacre and its aftermath. The heavy-handed response of the state saw thousands of activists detained and imprisoned soon after the massacre of protesters on 21 March 1960. Political movements such as the ANC and PAC were banned and forced underground, and although the Liberal Party was not banned by the government, its members were not spared the wrath of the state. The crackdown forced the ANC and PAC to re-evaluate their approach to the liberation struggle and consider whether to abandon the principle of non-violence in favour of a campaign of sabotage. The Liberal Party of South Africa was in the same boat, and they too re-evaluated thier approach to the ‘struggle’ and embarked on armed resistance.
Despite the Liberal Party’s initial non-violent stance, the party was not spared the suppression of political activity after the declaration of the state of emergency in March 1960. The government launched a vicious attack on the Liberal Party, arresting 35 of its leading members and detaining them at the Fort in Johannesburg. Furthermore, the government issued banning orders under the Suppression of Communism Act, severely restricting the political activities of 41 leading members of the party between March 1961 and April 1966.
The detention and banning of leading Liberal Party members forced them to form their own resistance movement and cells, out of this came The National Committee of Liberation (NCL) and a declaration for armed resistance, the NCL changed its name later to African Resistance Movement (ARM).
ARM launched its first operation in September 1963. From then, until July 1964, the NLC/ARM bombed power lines, railroad tracks and rolling stock, roads, bridges and other vulnerable infrastructure, without any civilian casualties. It aimed to turn the white population against the government by creating a situation that would result in capital flight and collapse of confidence in the country and its economy. It launched four attacks in 1961, three in 1962, eight in 1963, and ten in 1964.
So, here we have a mainly ‘white’ militant ‘terrorist’ group operating in the 1960’s blowing stuff up in resistance to Apartheid South Africa – now how many South Africans today know about that little inconvenient truth.
John Harris was banned in February 1964, a few months before police moved to smash the underground ARM. While maintaining his Liberal Party connection, he had joined ARM, but he was not arrested in the police swoops.
On July 24, 1964, John Harris walked into the whites-only section of Johannesburg railway station and left a suitcase there that contained a bomb. It exploded just 13 minutes later, injuring several people seriously, in particular Glynnis Burleigh, 12, and her grandmother, Ethel Rhys, 77. Mrs Rhys died three weeks later from her injuries. Glynnis, who had 70% and third degree burns, was left with life-changing injuries.
A telephone warning had been planned so the station could be evacuated of civilians, but the warning was too late to prevent the explosion, and the result off this ARM action produced a horrified reaction amongst the white population – ARM had finally killed an innocent civilian.
The state crushed the ARM and the Liberal Party, eradicating it from history. Harris was caught, tried for murder of a civilian (see the trend) and by the tenets of South African law for murder received an automatic death sentence. On April 1, 1965 went to the gallows, reportedly singing.
An inconvenient truth
So, there you have the reason why we don’t recognise this anti-apartheid campaigner sent to the gallows, he wasn’t part of the ANC and he’s the wrong colour. It would just throw out the entire whites vs. blacks political baloney banded about with such regularity, especially when the ANC, the government and the national media settle down to praise Solomon Mahlangu as the ‘Black’ South African hanged in resistance by the nasty ‘White’ South Africans.
The inconvenient truth in all of this is that Apartheid did not just divide black and white, it divided EVERYONE, including whites. In fact the white community was split right down the middle. Try and explain this ‘truth’ to the average South African today, the first mass action movement and protests against Apartheid were a ‘white’ affair (200,000 Torch Commando members), an anti-apartheid ‘white’ martyr was also hanged and the ‘white’ Liberal Party had its very own ‘MK’ anti-apartheid armed resistance movement.
Wow, that’ll blow their minds, it just does not FIT into the current narrative, skin-colour didn’t matter to the Apartheid State when it came to executing anti-apartheid insurgents and crushing pro-democracy movements – it literally throws out the window the whole rhetoric and twaddle banded about the EFF and ANC as to ‘white privilege’ gained from Apartheid.
However, Black and White issues aside, as it really is distressing that South Africans are always ‘forced’ to think in racial silos whenever this political expedient baloney gets banded about by the ANC and EFF, so here’s the question – should we really be enshrining people like Solomon Mahlangu – and even John Harris as ‘heroes’?
The answer is no we should not, these ‘heroes’ are very tainted, not by the act of rising against injustice and racial oppression, there is honour in that – but because they both killed innocent civilians and in both cases they were found wanting. That makes them terrorists by the purest definition of the term.
The worshiping of tainted heroes is also a divisive issue, it simply does not bring people together, they murdered people and this is simply never to going to sit well with the community and families affected by them. These tainted ‘heroes’ are trouble, they deepen the issue of race divide and resentment, they do not lend themselves to community healing and nation building.
Now, why South Africans would choose theses ‘tainted’ heroes, when the country has a very long list of heroes who fought just causes, have broad appeal and can easily be adopted by nearly every community in South Africa is just beyond belief.
Nearly all of South Africa’s surviving World War 2 veterans fall into this category (Black and White). Aside from this, most World War 2 veterans took part in the Torch Commando’s anti-apartheid protests in their tens of thousands. These were men of conviction, men who fought the oppression of racist ideologies and fought it properly – real heroes.
It’s really difficult to fault these ‘real’ military heroes, here we choose just two, one Black and one White South African – read a little on them and keep in mind the two ‘tainted heroes’ (Solomon Mahlangu and John Harris) when comparing them. So here we have two ‘real heroes’ in a raft of many – Sailor Malan and Lucas Majozi.
Much has been written on Sailor Malan as a Fighter Ace, his rules for combat and his command of 74 Squadron during the Battle of Britain which played such a pivot role in winning the Battle. His combat record, promotions and decorations alone are simply astonishing.
He first took part in evacuation of Dunkirk. During this battle he first exhibited his fearless and implacable fighting spirit. When the Battle of Britain begun, 74 Squadron (known as ‘The Tigers’) was to take the full heat of the battle in what was known as ‘hell’s corner’ over Kent, the squadron was eventually based at the now famous ‘Biggin Hill’ aerodrome in the thick of the battle. Sailor Malan was given command of 74 Squadron at the height of the Battle of Britain and on the 11th August 1940 the scored so many kills that they day became for ever known as “Sailor’s August the Eleventh” in Battle of Britain folklore.
By D Day (i.e. Operation Overlord, the liberation of France and subsequently Western Europe), Sailor Malan was in command of 145 (Free French) Fighter Wing and was himself leading a section of the wing over the beaches during the landings in Normandy.
In all Sailor Malan scored 27 enemy aircraft kills, seven shared destroyed, three probably destroyed and 16 damaged. He was to receive the Distinguished Service Order decoration – not once, but twice and well as the Distinguished Flying Cross decoration, again not once – but twice.
When Sailor Malan returned to South Africa after the war, he could not believe a the Nazi sympathising National Party had been brought to power in 1948, implementing the very ideology that took him to war in the first place. In the 1950’s he formed a mass protest group of ex-servicemen called the ” Torch Commando” to fight the National Party’s plans to implement Apartheid and call for an early election to remove what they regarded as ‘fascist’ government from power.
In Sailor Malan’s own words, The Torch Commando was: “established to oppose the police state, abuse of state power, censorship, racism, the removal of the coloured vote and other oppressive manifestations of the creeping fascism of the National Party regime”.
The Torch Commando fought the anti-apartheid legislation battle for more than five years. At its height the commando had 250,000 members, making it one of the largest protest movements ever seen in South Africa’s history. The movement, mainly ‘white’ in its demographic can also count itself as the first mass anti-apartheid protest movement with protest rallies reaching up to 75,000 people. This mass ‘pro-democracy and anti-apartheid’ protest movement occurred before the ANC’s first mass protests against Apartheid, which manifested themselves in the form of the defiance campaign.
DF Malan’s nationalist government was so alarmed by the movement that it acted its usual way – ‘decisively’ – and crushed the organisation by legislation and painting Sailor Malan as ‘Afrikaner of a different kind’, a traitor to his ‘Volk’.
Despite this, Sailor continued to fight against the violation of human rights in South Africa with the same passion and moral fibre that allowed him to fight so vigorously against fascism and racism during the Battle of Britain. His dream of a better, democratic life for all in South Africa not only urged and carried him forward, but also caused him to be shunned by and isolated from his white National Afrikaner countrymen who were blinded by the short-sighted racial discrimination of their government.
In 1963, Sailor Malan, one of the most famous fighter pilots in the history of World War 2, one of the ‘few’ who Winston Churchill hailed as a saviour of European democracy (Churchill was also Sailor Malan’s son’s Godfather), lost his fight against Parkinson’s Disease and died at the young age of 52.
Now consider this real military hero, Lucas Majozi. Here’s a very notable South African military hero. The highest decoration awarded to a Black South African soldier during the Second World War was the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) and it was awarded to Lucas Majozi.
Lucas Majozi volunteered to fight in the 2nd World War, however as he was a black man, race politics in South Africa dictated that he could only join the Native Military Corps (NMC) in a non-combat role, which meant he and all other South African ‘Bantu’ fighting in World War 2 could not carry a firearm – unlike the Cape Coloured Corps, which could carry firearms and take a combat role. This did not however keep the Native Military Corps away from the perils of fighting and NMC were often placed right in the middle of the fighting. Also, in instances of high peril reason prevailed and there were issued rifles, as many accounts show during the fall of Tobruk.
So how does an unarmed NMC soldier get to win one of the highest accolades for bravery in World War 2?
The answer lies in Lucas Majozi’s personality and character, he was a proper South African warrior and although he would be unarmed he volunteered to become a medic working as a stretcher bearer in the thick of fighting to bring wounded men back from harm to aid stations, an extremely dangerous job. Like another Native Military Corps hero – Job Maseko, Lucas Majozi by his actions was also to become one of South Africa’s fighting legends.
So let’s have a look at Lucas Majozi, his account is a truly inspirational one, a very remarkable act of bravery and courage.
During the Battle of El Alamein the South African 1st and 2nd Field Force Brigades (FFB), as soon after the battle began, became pinned down in the German Axis forces minefield by intense German machine gun and artillery fire. The South African infantrymen suffered very severe casualties.
Throughout the night of 23 October, the stretcher-bearers worked under heavy enemy fire, tending to the wounded and evacuating them from the battlefield. Amongst these Black NMC non-combatant medics rescuing their White combatant counterparts was Lucas Majozi.
As the action wore on, Lucas Majozi was within 100 meters of the enemy under heavy machine gun fire. Thinking nothing of his personal safety he continued to evacuate the wounded, returning time and again in the ‘veritable hell’ of the machine gun fire to rescue more of his wounded colleagues.
In the process he was himself wounded by fire, but continued to evacuate other wounded, when told to get to an aid station for his wounds, he refused going back into the hail of machine gun fire to rescue more wounded instead.
After his co-stretcher bearer also became a casualty himself, Lucas Majozi went on alone, again going back into the hell fire and carrying out the wounded on his back, never wavering.
He continued to rescue men under continuous fire all night and by the next morning he had lost so much blood from his own wounds he collapsed from both sheer exhaustion and blood loss.
Lucas survived the war and returned to South Africa to work as Policeman, He died in 1961.
A similar story was captured in a recent Hollywood Blockbuster called ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ involving an ‘unarmed’ American medic whose actions were not dissimilar to Lucas Majozi’s, but do you think South Africans have remembered our own hero and idolised him – no, most South Africans don’t even know who Lucas Majozi is.
Victims of Apartheid
Now, these men are ‘real military heroes’ by any definition of the term. In many other countries the men and women who fought in World War 2 against the Nazi and Fascism scourge are hailed as the nation’s heroes – from Russia to America to France to the UK to Canada and to Australia – world over. The living ones fawned over and idolised by just about everyone, including their respective Presidents and Prime Ministers.
But not in South Africa … why?
Simply put these Word War 2 heroes are also ‘victims of Apartheid’, their legacy devastated by the National Party whose narrow politics isolated them as ‘traitors’ for what they saw as a British cause (and not a world-wide war against Nazism and Fascism – in fact they had supported the Nazi cause prior to and during the war).
As ‘victims of Apartheid’ in an odd sense they are in the same boat as Solomon Mahlangu and John Harris. The difference is that in addressing who in this big pool of Apartheid’s ‘victims’ we choose to hail as National Heroes, the current government has chosen the most tainted and divisive ‘heroes’ they can muster and simply ignored anything that does not suit the ANC’s own history and their own political narrative.
It’s a disgrace that the governing party still allows this ‘Apartheid’ legacy to continue to keep these ‘real military’ national heroes from the country for political expediency. One thing is for sure, the likes of Sailor Malan and Lucas Majozi are far better ‘heroes’ and role models and miles ahead of the likes of Solomon Mahlangu and even an obscure person like John Harris, who should rightly take the mantle as one of the prima anti-apartheid ‘heroes’ executed by the state, but is ignored because of the thing he was hanged for in the first place – Apartheid, only this time in reverse – his fault, he was not black and not a member of the ANC, his story simply just doesn’t fit the narrative.
It really is time we start to seriously address our values and priorities and start considering and highlighting the deeds of our real heroes, people whose deeds and stories build on reconciliation and don’t deepen the race divides in South Africa.
Related Observation Post links:
Sailor Malan: Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!
Sailor Malan: ‘Ten of my rules for air fighting’ – Sailor Malan
Native Military Corps: The South African ‘Native Military Corps’; Sacrifice which screams out for recognition!
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. Reference and extracts from Wikipedia, South African History On-Line SAHO, the Guardian (International edition)