Poqo in the Western Cape and Transkei in the early 1960s

The formation of the Pan Africanist Congress’ (PAC) Africanist Task Force (ATF) preceded the formation of party’s military wing Poqo in February 1960. After its formation in 1959, the PAC embarked on an anti pass campaign through peaceful protest. In preparation for the campaign an AFT was formed as a para-military structure of the PAC. This was a contingency structure designed to take over the running of the party’s affairs should the leadership of the PAC be arrested and imprisoned. In addition the AFT functioned as a security structure that provided protection for its leadership. After the antipass campaign which culminated in the Sharpeville and Langa shootings in March 1960, it became evident that the state was intolerant towards political dissent. On 7 April 1960 the government banned the PAC and other political organisations. In response, the task force took on military outlook after a National Working Committee of the PAC issued a directive to John Nyathi Pokela to revive the task force. The ATF evolved to become Poqo, the PAC’s armed wing. Through Poqo, the PAC adopted violence as a legitimate means of achieving its objective of overthrowing the government. This was before the formation African National Congress (ANC)’s armed wing uMkhonto weSizwe (MK).

 The ban on the PAC came within a year of the party’s existence. Thus, the party at this point lacked the organizational experience the ANC developed over nearly 50 years to deal with the heavy handed nature of the crackdown meted by the state on its political activists. Secondly, “the slogan of ‘No bail, no defence, no fine!’ adopted by the PAC during the March 1960 anti-pass (or, as the PAC called it, Positive Action) campaign resulted in many of its leaders being served with relatively long prison sentences”. The PAC’s founding President Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was sentenced to three years imprisonment on a charge of incitement, General Secretary Potlako Kitchener Leballo received a two year sentence as did most of the national executive committee members, as well as a large number of national, provincial and regional organizers.

The rise of Poqo in the Western Cape

While the Poqo remained inactive for most of 1960 and part of 1961, it was revived in 1961 with the formation of underground cells particularly in the Western Cape. The township of Mbekweni in Paarl and Langa in Cape Town became prominent Poqo areas of operation. In December 1961 the PAC began its campaign of mobilising support to violently overthrow the state by distributing pamphlets in Cape Town threatening violence against whites. More significantly though, Poqo unlike MK and the African Resistance Movement (ARM) directed its activities at the white population in general. In addition to attacking whites, it was Poqo’s avowed policy to attack and kill Black people who were some way or another linked to the state. For instance, known or suspected police informers, policemen and chiefs in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape known to be instruments of the Apartheid government became primary targets.

A lorry carrying Chief Kaizer Matanzima followers after searching for Poqo activists with the assistance of the police, February 1963. Photographer: Drum Photographer, Baileys African History Archive (BAHA), Permission: Africa Media Online.

The government’s vigorous enforcement of influx control which was a source of irritation among the people gave Poqo an entry point. The organisation offered to assist members and prospective members. New arrivals needing permits were helped on condition they enlisted. In Paarl it was Poqo’s challenge to the excesses of the Director of the Department of Bantu Administration (DBA) J. H. le Roux and the senior clerk, Ngcukana that earned it support. Le Roux and Ngcukana were known to manipulate the influx control system to enrich themselves. They enforced substantial fines for the violation of pass laws and in some cases used pass law offenders as cheap labour on le Roux’s farm. Le Roux was charged with corruption but was acquitted as witnesseses were intimidated. These among other issues enabled Poqo ingratiate itself among black people in Mbekweni township of Paarl and other townships around Cape Town.

Towards the end of 1962 Poqo became active particularly in the Transkei and Western Cape. Between 1962 and 1963 Poqo activists carried out attacks against both black and white targets in what they believed were preparations for a general countrywide uprising scheduled for April 1963. Individuals associated with the apartheid state both black and white in Langa and Paarl were attacked. A number of murders committed in and around Paarl in 1962 were attributed to Poqo. On 27 January 1962 Klaas Hoza, a cleaner and clerk at the municipal office’s DBA was hacked to death with axes and sharp instruments on the farm Rust-en-werk after he was accused of spying on Poqo. Several men linked to Poqo in Paarl were charged with the murder. One of the accused, 48-year old Johannes Notyawe, a Poqo General Force member surrendered himself to the police and confessed to Hoza’s murder.

On 16 March 1962 Poqo convened a meeting where a decision to attack policemen was taken. Later that evening at about 10pm, a group of about 50 alleged members of Poqo set out to ambush police patrols. Two police vans were attacked with stones and petrol bombs. In the ensuing confrontation a policeman named Moyi was removed from one of the vans and killed.

On 14 April 1962 police received information about an impending Poqo attack on municipal staff in Mbekweni Location. A police patrol was immediately dispatched to prevent the attack and protect the staff. They were met by a group of about 120 men believed to Poqo members. In the clashes that followed, three policemen including the commanding officer were wounded. Police responded by raiding the hostel at Mbekweni hoping to determine the identities of those behind the attack. But no one at the hostel was prepared to point out those responsible, showing the fear that Poqo had instilled in inmates and township residents.

George Tshisa, suspected of informing on Poqo activists to Ngcukana, was attacked and murdered on 29 April 1962. Notyawe, implicated in Hoza killing, along with Vanele Matikinca were accused for Tshisa’s murder. In their testimony they described how Tshisa was hacked, doused with an inflammable substance and set alight. They were both convicted and sentenced to death.

Some of Poqo’s attacks were clearly intended to intimidate people in the areas where they were present. In one such attack on 16 June 1962 three women, Magriet (17), Sarah Kamos (21) and Susie Noriet were killed for attending a party at a men’s hostel. Poqo members had warned hosts that the party should be off limits to women. The bodies of the three women were found hacked and with stab wounds. Magriet sustained 13 wounds inflicted with assegais, daggers and axes. Kamos had 12 wounds and her head was split with an axe and her fingers chopped off. Noriet had 13 stab wounds. Three men confirmed as Poqo members were charged with the murders. One was acquitted while the other two, Joseph Mqitsane and Aaron Njokwane were convicted and sentenced to death. In court all three denied involvement in the murders and claimed they had never heard of Poqo.

These murders could easily be considered acts of wanton criminality and Poqo was alive to that damaging possibility. To drive the message home that the murders were politically motivated, Poqo put up a poster at the hostel warning inmates that in future not only women attending these parties will be attacked but the hosts as well.

Hitherto, all those attacked and murdered by Poqo were Africans believed to either have defied the organisation’s ruling, such as women attending a party at the men’s hostel or those informing on its activities. But its intention of attacking whites had not been shelved. On 22 September 1962, after prayer rituals and taking medicine in the form of white powder for protection, Poqo members set out to attack Maurice Berger, a shop owner in Paarl. Wearing balaclavas to cover their faces, the men entered the shop just before closing time, attacked Berger with axes killing him and injuring his coloured shop assistant.

On 26 September 1962 a policeman, Mthobeli Nathaniel Magwaca was murdered in what was clearly a politically motivated killing that was becoming a pattern. Poqo members Golifile Tile, Gladstone Nqulwana and two others were charged and convicted of the murder. Of the four, only Nqulwana was sentenced to death for his role in the case. 

Milton Chumani Matshiki was decapitated on 28 October 1962. Matshiki was accused of having helped police identify and apprehend many of the Poqo operatives held for the numerous attacks during 1962. His headless body was floating in a river. From the testimony of Matshiki’s wife, it is evident that Poqo had succeeded in terrifying township and hostel residents into silence as they almost always carried out their threats of reprisals against those collaborating with the authorities.

Poqo in the Transkei

The Eastern Cape was already considered one of the bastions of country’s rural resistance to apartheid measures in the countryside. The creation of Bantu Authorities structures and the accompanying measures on land allocation and distribution inspired resentment from affected communities. As early as 1960 there were indications that communities in Transkei were likely to rise up against measures passed under the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 and later amendments. Fearing that chiefs and headmen would be targeted, officials suggested that they be armed.

In Transkei Poqo undertook a concerted recruitment campaign using a number of methods. One involved a man from Cape Town who lured prospective members with promises of selling them grain once they paid some form of subscription. On doing so the members were notified that they had in fact signed up for Poqo. Other methods included organizing social functions and recruiting in and during church services. Friendships also helped to grow Poqo’s membership. Some joined because their friends were members of Poqo and either lived in the same hostel or were roommates. Bogus funerals allowed scores of men to meet in gravesides to identify potential victims and plan attacks.

In April 1962 Kaizer Matanzima applied for the position of Transkei’s Paramount Chief. This immediately made him a target of Poqo members in Transkei, who decided that Matanzima had to be killed. Several attempts on his life and those of headmen known to be his ardent supporters were carried out. Planned in Cape Town, many of these attacks were daring and some planned carefully. Even though they failed, collectively the attempts made a significant impact. Poqo was particularly active in the period October to December, 1962. Matanzima’s advisor was murdered on 14 October 1962. This was followed with a failed attempt at the life of a chief in Cofimvaba. Again in October 4 men left Cape Town for Transkei on a mission to kill Matanzima. They were intercepted by police in Queenstown and arrested for being in possession of dangerous weapons. At interrogation they confessed and revealed the identities of the rest group in Cape Town leading to more arrests. Again on October 29 Tembu Chief, Gwebindala Mabuza was killed. Six Poqo members were sentenced to death and hanged on 9 May 1963. And on 9 December Chief Mageza Dalasile was murdered in Encgobo.

Matanzima was targeted because he proved to be one of the government’s most loyal of chiefs. Reports that when men returned to Transkei for yearend vacations, Matanzima summoned them to his Great Place, as his residence came to known, where they would be questioned and assaulted, were circulated. Three Poqo groups left at different times headed to the Transkei on a mission to kill Matanzima. Although all of these missions were thwarted by the police and in some cases by Matanzima’s guards, they forced the authorities to take notice of Poqo. In fact, the Ntlonze incident, marked by skirmishes between police and Poqo members, was the highlight of the organization’s campaign in Transkei.

On 7 December 1962 Albert Tshweni, a Poqo leader, hosted a meeting in his house in which a decision was taken to kill Matanzima and all other chiefs with the exception of Sabata Dalindyebo. Dalindyebo was known to be opposed to the apartheid government and was an ANC sympathizer. The three groups left on 9,11 and 13 December. The first group, led by Tshweni, headed for Matanzima’s hometown and hid in the forest in Ntlonze. Numbering about thirty, they called for reinforcements from Qamata, who arrived on 11 December. The attack was planned for 13 December.

The group had been spotted by locals and chief, Rwayibana Mnyamana was alerted. This led to a hunt for Tshweni’s men. And at midday on 12 December a skirmish broke out between the two groups. The men of Ntlonze took to the hills when Tshweni’s men advanced menacingly. Police were called and there was an exchange of gun fire. Believing that their “protective medicine” would be effective, Tshweni’s men charged and were shot at. The others took cover and attacked police, who turned and retreated. In the end 7 Poqo men were killed and three policemen were injured, one seriously. This became known as the Ntlonze Hill shooting.

The Ntlonze Hill shooting had significant impact on Poqo. One member was arrested and his confession led to the arrest of the second and third groups leaving Cape Town and headed for Transkei on 13 December 1962. The train was met by police at Queenstown station and yet another skirmish followed in which 7 Poqo members and a Sergeant Maritz was killed. The last group was intercepted in Beaufort West and another skirmish followed between police and Poqo.
These setbacks notwithstanding, Poqo continued to be a threat to Matanzima. Early in 1963 several other attacks attributed to Poqo happened in Transkei. Matanzima continued to live in fear of further Poqo attacks. Other chiefs in the area were also terrified of possible attacks. One chief is known to have switched allegiance and joined Poqo. Faced with the increasing threat of Poqo the state responded.

The state’s response to Poqo’s campaign of terror

The government responded by arresting suspected members of Poqo in large numbers thus striking a blow to the PAC as this became the second wave mass arrests. Trials involving Poqo and PAC members failed to attract local and international media attention to the same extent as did the Rivonia Trial. Yet, a number of trials in the Eastern and Western Cape were held in which Poqo operatives faced charges ranging from sabotage and terrorism to murder. These trials followed a reign of terror carried by Poqo operatives in these two regions.

Authorities adopted extreme measures to deal with Poqo. First Ngcukana and a few municipal policemen took Poqo members to a farm where they were sjambokked. After this, Poqo members at Mbekweni hostel were separated from the rest of the inmates and subjected to continued harassment by municipal police and non members. In one incident Poqo members were locked out of the hostel for the whole night. But it was the arrest of three members of Poqo in relation to attacks during 1962 that brought matters to a head. 

The most recognizable attack launched by Poqo happened in Paarl in 22 November 1962 where white people were attacked indiscriminately. After attacking a local police station, burning houses and businesses, a group of about 200 to 250 Poqo members marched to the Paarl with the aim of attacking the police station and freeing their comrades. They had persuaded those in Langa to attack the local police station simultaneously. During the attack, two white people were killed. Rencia Vermeulen (17) and Frans Richards were beaten and hacked to death and others were injured during the attack. Five Poqo members were killed and several were injured. 

Police reaction was swift and brutal. Scores of Poqo operatives apprehended and charged with various crimes including murder and sabotage. The first of these involved 21members charged with sabotage. Five of the accused were acquitted, while thirteen were jailed for terms ranging from 12 to 18 years. Three, Lennox Madikane, Fezile Jaxa and Mxolisi Damane were sentenced to death and executed on 1 November 1963.  Several other trials followed in which Poqo members were given long sentences ranging from 8 to 18 years while one was said to have suffered brain damage following the night of the attack.
On 11 December 1963 Joseph Mqitasane and Aaron Njokwana, convicted of the murder of the three women referred to above were executed. It is clear that ‘imprisonment and, above all, the execution of a whole layer of cadres, left the organisation rudderless. There was a spate of arrests from 1963 through to 1969. The impact of Poqo acts on the organization and its mother body the PAC became apparent when, “by June 1963 a total of 3 246 PAC members had been arrested nationally and 124 had been found guilty of murder”.

In April 1966, thirty Poqo members held in the Gamkaspoort prison were accused of sabotage and conspiracy to murder warders. On 28 June 1966, seven Poqo men were sentenced in the Port Elizabeth court for conspiring to blow up municipal buildings and railway bridges. Another group of four men were sentenced to five years for receiving military training in Lesotho and for leaving the country unlawfully.

And on 31 October 1967 four men, Nontasi Tshweni, Zibongile Serious Dodo, Donker Ntsabo and Jim Ngatweni were executed for Moyi’s killing. Two others appearing with them were acquitted. But a third man implicated in Moyi’s killing appeared in court a few months after the main trial. Veyusile Sharps Qoba was convicted for his part in Moyi’s murder and sentenced to death. He was executed on 7 March 1968.

In 1968 twelve members of Poqo were put on trial for planning to attack the police station, a power station and a post office in Victoria West. In 1969 Poqo activists operating in Graaff-Reinet in the western part of the Cape Province and the Mount Coke areas in the eastern part were sentenced for coordinating Poqo activities under the guise of a religious organisation. More disastrously, about 42 Poqo members were executed at Pretoria Central Prison between 1963 and 1968. According to some estimates, 61 of the 101 people executed for political crimes in the 1960s were affiliated to the PAC.

Reaction of the PAC to Poqo Activities

Poqo’s campaign in Cape Town and Transkei was received with mixed reactions from inside the PAC and from outside. While others saw these attacks on individuals and structures linked to the state as pioneering acts armed resistance to the government, some differed. Much of the PAC’s condemnation came from its members. For instance Lejake described PAC and its armed wing as “a loose uncoordinated organisation that seemed to be moving forward purely on the impetus of emotions, enthusiasm and largely confusion ...There was no carefully planned out programme and everyone seemed to have engaged in rash action, if such actions would crown the participants as brave, staunch and daring members in the eyes of the Party”. Another concluded that the ‘recklessness of the leadership and its lack of understanding of the nature of the South African state meant that it would take years before the PAC could regroup and become a force that the apartheid regime had to reckon with. The party’s problems were compounded when it fell under the leadership of Potlako Leballo.

The intense crackdown of the apartheid government on Poqo left its members unable to create underground networks that could continue to operate inside South Africa. Several of its members were serving lengthy prison sentences while others were executed. Potlako Leballo’s over enthusiasm is suspected to have led to a mass arrest of PAC members and some who were working clandestinely. By 1963 Poqo had been severely crippled by the government and the military structure for the PAC remained dormant until its revival as the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) 1968. Despite the reorganisation of the PAC’s military machinery, the party was faced internal strife in exile which crippled its ability to laucng effective armed resistance against apartheid. This changed in the second half of the 1970s following the Soweto uprising and the early 1980s.