The Freedom struggle in Rustenburg

Resistance to apartheid

Conditions in Rustenburg point to deprivation throughout the segregation and apartheid period. In 1952 Drum magazine's Henry Nxumalo had heard rumours that some farmers in Rustenburg were making their workers work under extremely brutal conditions. He pretended to be a labourer and investigated the conditions of farm workers in Bethal. He wrote the story 'Bethal Today' and Drum published it. In 1954, the farmer Snyman, on whose farm he had worked, was found guilty of killing a farm worker.

Conditions in the area didn't improve, and Nelson Mandela, speaking at the Conference of the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa in Addis Ababa in January 1962, referred to unrest in the region: "In 1957 there was considerable mass unrest and disturbances in the country districts of Zeerust, Sekhukhuniland, and Rustenburg. In all these areas there was widespread dissatisfaction with government policy and there were revolts against the pass laws, the poll tax, and government-inspired tribal authorities. Instead of meeting the legitimate political demands of the masses of the people and redressing their grievances, the government reacted by banning the ANC in all these districts."

A year later, when White residents of Rustenburg became aware of what apartheid authorities referred to as the "PAC-Poqo menace", they panicked. The police and army were mobilised from 17 March 1963 to 15 April 1963, and the government rushed legislation through Parliament to keep the PAC's Robert Sobukwe in detention indefinitely.

Two years later, on 23 January 1965, Bram Fischer went into hiding, and lived on a farm in Rustenburg. The "Red Pimpernel", as he was referred to by newspapers, had decided not to attend the trial of SACP members after testimony from a former comrade turned state witness and a spy who had infiltrated the organisation. When the court convened on 25 January, a letter from Fischer was read in which he declared that he would not stand trial and would instead go underground. He remained in hiding, and later moved to Johannesburg, but was arrested in November, and convicted by May, after which he was jailed for life.

Women from Leherutshe, under the leadership of Gertrude Mpheka, protested against the Pass Laws. Schools closed and striking teachers and sympathetic teachers were posted to schools far away, while the women were taken to Zeerust and jailed. Kgosi Moiloa was exiled to Botswana.

In 1975, a new party was formed to contest elections in Bophuthatswana. The Seoposengwe Party was meant to operate within the Bantustan system, but it was informed by a desire for a united South Africa. Later the party formed a youth wing, the Seoposengwe Youth Association (Soya).

When the Soweto Uprising took place in 1976, a wave of student protests swept through the country, and Rustenburg was not untouched by the rebellion. Many schools saw lessons disrupted as protests against apartheid were staged at schools throughout the country. Maggie Bopalamo, then a teacher at Tshukudu Secondary School in Rustenburg, reports that many parents from Soweto had their children enrolled at her school, a well-run and unusually efficient institution, because schooling had become impossible in the turbulent metropolitan township.

On 8 August 1976, students in Mmabatho burned down the legislative assembly, and boycotted classes. Some schools were also burned to the ground, and students protested at schools throughout Bophuthatswana and Rustenburg, as well as throughout the country.

The ongoing resistance after the Soweto Uprising eventually saw the emergence of trade unions like the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the union federation Cosatu, the Black Consciousness grouping AZAPO, the United Democratic Front (UDF), and COSAS, among others.

NUM in particular began to mobilise workers in the fast-growing mining industry in Rustenburg. By the early 1980s, NUM established branches in the town and in the region. Other unions that had a strong presence in Rustenburg were the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), the South African Chemical and Workers Union (SACCAWU) and CAWU.

Mine workers resisted their working conditions at every opportunity, and frequently went on strike. Selected days of political significance became dates on which strikes would be mounted every year, especially Sharpeville Day (21 March), 16 June, and May Day.

In 1986, Soya began organising clean-up campaigns, closing down shebeens and taking up social issues. Although it functioned as a sort of social workers' body, it was secretly involved in more clandestine political activities. The Bophuthatswana police eventually clamped down on the organisation, and many activists were arrested, and some went into exile. Soya did not survive the crackdown, and internal squabbles ensured that it was permanently dissolved. Those arrested were represented by the struggle lawyer, Priscilla Jana, who managed to secure their release.

A Cosatu campaign to reform labour legislation also resulted in a two-day stayaway.

Youth organisation COSAS was particularly active in the area, and resorted to more radical action, petrol-bombing the houses of Bophuthatswana ministers and officials of the Bophuthatswana government.

The 1986 country-wide State of Emergency, meant to quell unrest, lead to increases resistance instead. Union strikes increased, especially by NUM and FAWU, whose members at Rainbow Chickens were particularly active.

Despite the beginnings of the negotiations process in the later 1980s, and the unbanning of the struggle organisations in Bophuthatswana, Mangope continued to wage war on activists and ordinary people deemed a threat to the Bophuthatswana Government.

The St Joseph's mission, situated just outside Phokeng, falling in South African territory, became a focal point of struggle activity (see The TRC: The Testimony of Bishop Kevin Dowling). Activists from various trade unions, political parties and civil society would congregate at the centre, hold meetings and strategise. Bishop Kevin Dowling was a particularly important figure on the political scene, giving sanctuary to those who needed it.

Congress-aligned activists would also meet in the house of activist Joe Letsie in Moraka Street, Tlhabane. Later, after the ANC acquired Shell House in Johannesburg as its headquarters, Letsie's house was referred to as Shell House.

When Nelson Mandela came to Rustenburg after his release, Cosatu and NUM organised marches in Bophuthatswana.

Post-apartheid Rustenburg


Popo Molefe was appointed the first premier of Northwest Province in 1994. © infrasors.co.za.

After the ANC won the first democratic election in 1994, Popo Molefe was appointed the premier of the newly formed Northwest Province. In October 1997, then President Nelson Mandela delivered a speech at the Bleskop Stadium in Rustenburg. He had been to the city two weeks before, and had expressed joy at being in the fastest growing city in the country. But he said he had mixed feelings, because although much had been achieved, much still needed to be done. He commended the struggles waged by mineworkers, and credited them for the emergence of progressive labour legislation and laws such as the Mine Health and Safety Act.

But Mandela said he was dismayed at continuing violence between mineworkers, the causes of which "remain elusive". Referring to clashes between Sotho and Xhosa factions in Freedom Park, he continued:

"It is our duty, wherever we are, to support those who suffered with us under apartheid; and those who today contribute to the building of a better life. It is our task to ensure that they are not targeted for destabilisation by sinister elements. The brutal assassinations of union members are to be condemned in the strongest terms. The government will not tolerate the building of any organisation on the corpses of mineworkers."

Despite the gains of democracy and a people's government, delivery of services has been slow and intermittent. In an address to the Central Committee of Num on 18 March 1999, just a few weeks before the second democratic election, Num president James Motlatsi summed up the situation thus:

"The mood of the people is somber. They are not bristling with excitement even though for us blacks it is only the second time in our lives that we will have voted. Indeed, a critical problem facing us is apathy. People may not bother to vote. Why? Because they believe that their votes in 1994 have made no perceptible differences in their lives. If democracy is real it has to have a social and economic dimensions. People have to know that when they elect a government it will work for them otherwise, what is the point?"

An analysis by the Spatial Development Framework in 2004 reported that the Rustenburg Municipal Area houses a population of about 400 000 people, of which 240 000 live in settlements located in non-tribal land. About 100 000 people live on BaFokeng tribal land, 20 000 in mining hostels and 40 000 on farms.

The survey painted a picture of the regional economy:

"Rustenburg's economy is small, with a 4.9% contribution to the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A 2% economic growth rate was reported for the Province for the year 2000. The area is characterised by high levels of poverty and high unemployment levels as well as low literacy levels. The region's economy is derived from a variety of sectors, of which mining and agriculture are the main contributors. Other important sectors include construction, trade and transport. The mining activities contribute a whopping 77% of the total GGP in the Rustenburg Local Municipal Area. The area is considered as one of the fastest growing urban areas in South Africa due to the economic impact of the world's three largest platinum mines, which are located in and around the Rustenburg area."

Post-apartheid informal settlements

The persistence of inequality and poverty is perhaps most obvious when one confronts the presence of informal settlements. In Rustenburg, there are at least three such areas: Boitekong, Freedom Park, and Nkaneng.

The first squatters moved to Boitekong in 1992, after they were removed from farms in 1988 and were accommodated near the St Joseph's Mission. Five years after the people settled there, the government set up a clinic.

Freedom Park was established in 1986 after women set up shacks to sell liquor to mineworkers. Their shacks were often dismantled in police raids, but the women rebuilt them. After 1994, police stopped the raids, and the area was given its name. The population has since grown to the current figure of about 20 000. Many of those living in the settlement are relatives of miners from Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland and the Eastern Cape. The settlement became a site at which mineworkers could enjoy a family life, as an alternative to hostel life.

The settlement has been beset by problems. In 1996, clashes occurred between Sotho and Xhosa factions, and 36 people were killed. The camp also has an extremely high rate of HIV infection. More than 40% of women tested were HIV-positive. In December 2004, the Diocese of Rustenburg opened a hospice for the dying, as well as eight centres for the distribution of anti-retrovirals. In 2008 the mines built two schools for the community.

Nkaneng, situated 40km from Phokeng next to an Amplats mine, began when people settled there in 1997. Between 15- 20 000 people currently live in the settlement, most of them from the Eastern Cape. The settlement has no infrastructure, and the municipality delivers water in tanks twice a week. The land is owned by the Royal BaFokeng Nation.

At all these informal settlements, the Tsholofelo Community, a body created by St Joseph's Mission, has been trying to make up for the lack of services, organising crèches, schools, adult education, clinics and treatment for HIV.

TRC: testimony of Bishop Kevin Dowling

Transcription of the TRC testimony of Bishop Kevin Dowling

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, organisations opposed to apartheid mushroomed in the area, especially civic and church bodies and trade unions. By 1991, after the unbanning of the ANC, PAC, SACP and Black Consciousness organisations in 1990, the ANC had set up a branch in Phokeng. But despite the beginnings of the negotiation process, the Bophuthatswana homeland and South African security police were still harassing people opposed to apartheid.

Bishop Kevin Dowling of the Catholic Church found himself in the position of helping these groups to hold meetings and resist apartheid designs, especially as these groups were not allowed to meet in Bophuthatswana. Bishop Dowling was based at the St Joseph Catholic Mission on the outskirts of Phokeng. While the mission fell into South African territory, Phokeng had been incorporated into the homeland, and resistance activity came under heavy police scrutiny, and meetings were not allowed to take place.

Testifying at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997, Dowling said that he came into conflict with President Lucas Mangope, the Bophuthatswana government, certain people in the mining industry and rightwing farmers because he facilitated these meetings. He recounted a few incidents that reveal the nature of the period.

Dowling was summoned to appear before Mangope and his cabinet and security force personnel on 12 February 1991, to explain why he allowed his church to be used for anti-apartheid meetings. Explaining that he upheld the right of all people to human rights such as freedom of speech and association, he was accused of acting to destabilise the Bophuthatswana government.

On 15 March, all the members of the Phokeng ANC executive were arrested, including a member of the church, Maggie Bopalamo, who was arrested while in her night clothes. Dowling went to the headquarters of the security police and said he believed they were holding Bopalamo, and said he had brought food and clothes for her. They refused to accept the food but took the clothes after admitting that she was on the premises. That night the detainees were released.

When Rocky Malebane-Metsing, who had mounted a coup and overthrown Mangope before the coup was crushed by the South African army, returned from exile in 1991, he was due to address a welcoming rally which would also focus on political detainees in Bophuthatswana. The meeting was to be held on 23 November 1991, but on the day before the meeting, a Friday, there was a massive explosion at the St Joseph's mission at 2am. Dowling and members of the mission found that the church, which had previously been firebombed, had once again been bombed. A minibus loaded with White mineworkers arrived at the mission because they said they wanted to inspect the damage, but they were turned away by ANC marshals. The meeting on Saturday went ahead.

Dowling was summoned by Mangope again in April 1992, and was accused of fomenting trouble, "because there was trouble on the mines at that time, a lot of injuries and killings had gone on at the mines and I was being accused of contributing to this by allowing the National Union of Mine Workers to hold meetings on St Joseph's Mission, because all other South African Unions were in fact banned in Bophuthatswana".

Dowling was asked to mention one instance of a human rights violation. He proceeded to tell the story of Maggie Bopalamo, who had been detained for two weeks at the time of the attempted coup. Her husband was jailed for five years. A few weeks later she was again detained, without trial, this time for 10 months. When she was diagnosed with cancer she spent three months in hospital, and after returning home was banned and put under house arrest, having to report to the police twice every day. The next year she appeared in court, accused of sedition, but the case was thrown out due to a lack of evidence.

A Head of Department at Tlhabane College of Education, Bopalamo was then banned from teaching. When she got a job running a tuck shop at Mankwe College, security police arrived on campus and instructed the rector to send her off the premises. Later, she was asked to act as a spy for the security police, to inform on the ANC. Dowling arranged to equip Bopalamo with a hidden tape recorder and her meeting with the security policeman was recorded. This recording was used to expose the incident in a court action against Mangope and his ministers and security police.

Last updated : 16-Nov-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 29-Mar-2011