Political activist, teacher, member of the South African Students Organisation and Black Consciousness Movement, SASO’s Permanent Organiser, Honorary President of the Southern African Students’ Movement, exiled person, killed by a parcel bomb.
Abram Onkgopotse Ramothibi Tiro was born on 9 November 1947 in Dinokana, a small village near Zeerust North West Province, South Africa. His parents, now late, were Nkokwe Peter and Moleseng Anna Tiro.
Tiro had two brothers and one sister. His mother was a domestic worker at Emmarentia in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng). Little is known about his father. His uncle (Ned Onkgopotse Tiro, who he was named after) and Bafedile Masoba (his aunt) had a deep influence on his upbringing and sharpened his leadership skills. Tiro spent time with his uncle where he assisted him with the running of the bakery business.
He started his schooling in 1951 at the Ikalafeng Primary School. The school was closed down as a result of strikes against passes for women. This disrupted his studies. During the 5 months of disruption, he worked on a manganese mine for 75 cents per week as a dishwasher and general hand to raise funds to further his studies. He attended Naledi High School in Soweto, Johannesburg for two months but was arrested for a pass offence. He then went to Barolong High School in Mafikeng, North West Province, where he matriculated.
After completing Standard 10 (now grade 12), he enrolled at Turfloop (now University of the North) for a degree in Humanities. Here he was elected president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) in his final year. At the university’s graduation ceremony in 1972, Tiro delivered a speech that sharply criticised the Bantu Education Act of 1953. This later became known as the “Turfloop Testimony”. Authorities at the university were angered by Tiro”²s outspokenness and following the speech Tiro was expelled from the University. Despite demonstrations by students under the new SRC, Tiro was not readmitted.One of his earlier encounters with the administration as SRC President was when they wanted expunged from the student diary two articles that they regarded as "objectionable”: the South African Students Organisation (SASO) Policy Manifesto and the Declaration of Students’ Rights. The administration confiscated the diaries and removed the items. On returning these to the student body, the students made a bonfire of them.
Tiro’s expulsion from Turfloop had far-reaching consequences that the university’s management could not have anticipated. In May 1972 there were a number of strikes on black campuses across the country in support of Tiro. By the beginning of June all major black campuses endorsed a solidarity strike in his support. On 2 June 1972 students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) demonstrated in support of Tiro.
In 1973, Tiro became involved in the activities of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). However, it is at Turfloop that the first major outbreak of dissent occurred in 1972. Tiro not only precipitated this outbreak but was also at the centre of it. In 1973 he took over as SASO’s Permanent Organiser after the banning of the SASO/Black Peoples Convention (BPC) leaders in 1973. In that same year, he was elected the President of the Southern African Students’ Movement (SASM), an affiliate of the All-Africa Students’ Union (AASU).
Following his expulsion from Turfloop, Tiro was offered a post as a history teacher by Lekgau Mathabathe, the Headmaster at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto. It is here that he introduced his pupils to the BCM’s philosophy and started a campaign to encourage students to question the validity and content of the history books prescribed by the Department of Bantu Education.
There is no doubting the link between Tiro’s expulsion and the emergence of the South African Students Movement (SASM) in April 1972. As Tiro’s presence at Morris Isaacson became apparent, the authorities were alarmed.
Morris Isaacson High School became known as the “cradle of resistance” and produced the likes of Tsietsi Mashinini, one of the student leaders who spearheaded the 1976 Soweto uprisings. Tiro was instrumental in establishing SASM. SASM and SASO were affiliates of the BCM and their aim was to influence the direction of Southern African student politics. In 1972 he was elected the Honorary President of the movement at a congress in Lesotho. However, it was not long before the government started putting pressure on school principals to dismiss those students they had offered employment to after they were expelled from universities. After six months at Morris Isaacson, the Principal of was put under pressure by the Apartheid government to fire him.
Travelling to all parts of Southern Africa, including Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana, Tiro won more support for the Black Consciousness (BC) philosophy. However, towards the end of 1973 he found out that the police were planning to arrest him and he fled to Botswana, where he played a leading role in the activities of SASM, SASO and the BPC. While living a simple life at the Roman Catholic Mission at Khale, a village about 20km from Gaberone, he was instrumental in forging links with militant revolutionary groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1973.
Throughout his life he showed a commitment to working for the well-being of the underprivileged. He believed that “the primary source of income for Blacks is land, and that land had to be restored to the dispossessed”.
On 1 February 1974, while still in Botswana, Tiro was completing an application form to continue his studies through Unisa when a student known only as Lawrence handed him a parcel supposedly forwarded by the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF). As he opened it, a parcel bomb exploded, killing him instantly.
Tiro was buried in Botswana because the then Apartheid regime would not allow his body to be buried at his home in Dinokana Village. The Tiro Family with the support of the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) requested the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to assist them in bringing his remains back into the country for re-burial. On the 20 March 1998, the President of Azapo, Mosibudi Mangena, Tiro’s mother, Mrs Moleseng Tiro and family members received the remains of Tiro at the border post between South Africa and Botswana.
Abram Onkgopotse Ramothibi Tiro was finally laid to rest at Dinokana Village on 22 March 1998.
Gordon Winter, a spy for the Apartheid Government, revealed in his book, Inside Boss, that Tiro was killed by the Z-Squad, a Bureau of State Security (BOSS) covert unit. The TRC failed to investigate Tiro’s death.
• Ditshego, S., (2012), The 40th Anniversary of the assassination of Onkgopotse Abram Ramothibi Tiro", From Mayihlome, [online], Available at www.mayihlome.wordpress.com, [Accessed: 31 January 2014]
• University of Limpopo, (2012), Tribute to Onkgopotse Tiro - Special Edition, From The Dawn, [online], Available at www.ul.ac.za [Accessed: 31 January 2014].
Graduation Speech by Onkgopotse Tiro at the University of the North , 29 April 1972
Onkgopotse Tiro Inaugural Lecture Speech, 2012 - By Dr Reuel J Khoza
Who killed Onkgopotse Tiro??? – Reflections on the 38th anniversary of his assassination - Sam Ditshego
The 40th Anniversary of the assassination of Onkgopotse Abram Ramothibi Tiro - Sam Ditshego
Onkgopotse Ramothibi Tiro - A Brief biographical outline: 1945 – 1974 – AZAPO