Document 68 - Ben Turok, The Pondo Revolt [c. 1960]

From: South Africa's Radical Tradition, a documentary history, Volume Two 1943 - 1964, by Allison Drew

Document 68 - Ben Turok, The Pondo Revolt [c. 1960]

AFTER many months of pretence that nothing untoward was happening in Pondoland, the Government has now admitted that 4 769 people have been arrested during the present Emergency.

Reports filtering through the official ban on news indicate that a minor war is in progress in East Pondoland and that hundreds of homes have been razed to the ground, thousands of families broken up and made homeless, and that famine threatens the whole area.

Furthermore, the troubles are no longer confined to East Pondoland but have spread throughout the whole Transkei. The Pondo resistance has inspired the whole of the Xhosa people and the struggle against Bantu Authorities has been mounted throughout the area. There is now every reason to believe that the situation will continue to deteriorate and is likely to spread to all the reserves of the Union.

Because of the unique character of the struggle in East Pondoland and the example set to the other rural peoples, the Pondo Revolt merits special study.


THE Pondo people form part of the Xhosa national group. They are renown for their strong tribal ties and the firm unity that has deep roots in their past.

Unlike most of the other African peoples of South Africa, the Pondos were not involved in the numerous wars between white and black - they were never defeated in battle. Pondoland was annexed by the Cape Colony in 1894 but has always been an African territory with European influence limited to a few thousand missionaries, traders and civil servants.

The pride of the Pondo people in their customs and traditions is legend.

East Pondoland, the centre of the present Pondo revolt, consists of the districts of Bizana, Flagstaff, Lusikisiki, Tabankulu and Mt. Ayliff with a population of over 250 000 people. It was intended by the Government to be one of the nine Regional Authorities for the Transkei. But little progress had been made in this respect.

In travelling through Pondoland one is struck by the startling difference between East Pondoland and West Pondoland, where Bantu Authorities have been in force for some time. Here large tracts of land have been fenced off, huts are clustered together in controlled villages, few cattle are to be seen and very little land is now under plough. By contrast East Pondoland presents a picture of vast stretches of lush vegetation where the cattle are fat and much land is under cultivation. There is a general air of greater activity and prosperity.

It was the Government's efforts to enforce its Great Design, in this East Pondoland area of peace and tranquility, that led to the most violent and determined resistance it has yet encountered in the Reserves of South Africa.

BANTUSTAN - POLICY OF DESPERATION THE Government's attempts to interfere with the traditional tribal institutions in Pondoland was no chance event, it was the result of a conscious effort on their part to find a new policy for the people of South Africa.

This arose directly from the need of the governing Nationalist Party for some political solution to the critical problems facing them. With events elsewhere in Africa highlighting the rapid awakening of the African giant, and with the increasing political consciousness of the Non-Whites in South Africa, the situation seemed desperate.

In this climate of alarm and uncertainty the evil genius of Afrikaner Nationalism, Dr. Verwoerd, pulled the theory of Bantustans out of the hat to save his party from political bankruptcy. Having taken the plunge with the new policy, the Nationalists were forced, when challenged by opposition forces, into making reckless statements that they knew to be sheer bluff.

"The Nationalist Party is prepared to divide South Africa," said Mr. J. J. Fouche, Minister of Defence.

"If they want it (independence) they will be free to have it," Mr. De Wet Nel said in Parliament.

Nationalists who had been reared on the old fashioned 'baasskap' of Mr. Strydom must have been startled by the finality of Mr. Louw's statement at the United Nations to the effect that the Government believed in "separate Bantu communities which can eventually attain full self-government." And their confusion was even more con­founded when this statement received the blessing of Dr. Verwoerd at a public meeting.

The breathtaking boldness of the Nationalist leaders misled many whites. Here was the straw they could grasp in the hope that European privilege and domination could be maintained in the developed areas of the Union at the cost of ceding the poverty stricken reserves, which were valueless to them in any case.

Some even accepted Nationalist arguments that this policy fully justified the Gov­ernment's attitude of no concessions to the strident demands for political rights by the urban Africans. The poverty-stricken 'reserves were to be their homelands and they would be expected to find their political emancipation in these overcrowded backwaters of civilization.

However, while the Government was putting up a pretence of preparing the reserves for autonomy, it had to ensure that real power would remain in the hands of its officials. The technique employed was that of seizing hold of the tribal machinery and subverting it within. Bantu authorities came to mean the conversion of the tribal system which had been evolved by the African people over the centuries and which was basically democratic, into a Government-run institution. The chiefs who were previously the respected spokesmen of the people were turned into puppets of officialdom. Many chiefs showed reluctance to accept the new set-up, but these were either coaxed with promises of greater authority or intimidated into conformity with threats of deposition n banishment.


THE Government saw many other advantages to be gained from their scheme. The Bantu Self-Government Act provides for the stratification of African society into a complex system of tribal, regional and territorial authorities. With this machinery the Government hoped to so enmesh the Africans in the various levels of "authorities" that they would lose their perspectives. By giving these councils very limited local powers hoped that they would concentrate all their attention on tribal matters and turn away from larger political issues.

Mr. Govan Mbeki maintains that in this the Government was following the traditional policy of the Native Affairs Department. "They had hoped that the Africans would be so absorbed in the discussion of petty matters of local and tribal interest (in Bunga) that they would cease to aspire to have a place in the political sun."

The Government expected to have more success in this regard with Bantu Authorities se democratic elections had been done away with and they now had almost complete control of the new councils.


REALISING its failure to win supporters amongst the African people in the towns, the Government is making concerted efforts not to suffer the same handicap in the reserves.

Their first step to gain supporters was the winning over of the chiefs and their installation as puppets within the Bantu Authorities hierarchy. The second step was to the foster the growth of a middle-class consisting of professional men and traders. The third was to encourage the emergence of a new class of comparatively well-to-do peasants, farming on large pieces of land. These three categories were to be privileged, but dependent on Government favour. They were to perform a dual function, - to act as the authority over the mass of the Africans, and serve as a constant reminder that collaboration with the Government pays off. In addition the Nationalists would use this upper crust to disarm their critics. Here, in the Bantu "homelands", they could say, "the Bantu can develop to the highest levels."


DRASTIC interference with the traditional system of land allocation is involved in the creation of a class of better-off peasant. Land in the reserves was previously controlled communally and farmed in strips allocated to individual peasants by the chief. It is of s true that these strips were too small to enable families to make a living off them and the acute shortage of land left many peasants without strips, forcing them to rely solely on their cattle grazed on the commonage. Government policy now is to "remove from the land all those who have no arable allotments and place them in special settlements consisting of the landless and the dispossessed." The intention is to drive "the landless sections of the community to be rehoused in rural villages." Of all the drastic and foolish steps that the Nationalist Government has taken in the pursuance of its ideology, this is the most explosive.

This threat of dispossession of their land the African people regard as the removal of their last shred of security. In spite of all their limitations, the reserves have nevertheless been a hedge against the perils of unemployment and the constant hazards of influx control.

What is more, it seems highly likely that the removal of these people from the land is connected with the establishment of the "border industries" to which the Government is constantly referring. Thus, in addition to supplying the present industrial areas and farms with labour, the reserves are to be still further denuded of their manpower in order to staff the White-owned factories to be established on their boundaries.

THE IMPOSITION OF BANTU AUTHORITIES MANY of the above facets of Government policy remained hidden for a long time. The chiefs in some areas did not recognise the trap that lay beneath the sugary promises of the Department of Bantu "Development," accepting Bantu Authorities at their face value as a genuine step towards autonomy.

But the Verwoerd tactics never deceived the vast majority of ordinary people - the very people without whom its achievement was impossible. From the start, popular African leaders stated categorically that they had no confidence in the new "Bantu Authorities," and that their aspirations could never be realised within the narrow confines of the reserves. South Africa must be regarded as a single whole, they stressed, and demanded representation in the central authority. Parliament.

African representatives in Parliament launched a determined attack on-the Bantu Self-Government Bill. They objected to the political division of South Africa and to the exclusion of any representatives of the African people from the legislative body, which made the laws governing them.

More important still, the new policy was rejected by the people in the areas in which it was being applied. While the Bantustan Debate was raging in the political arena, the African people in the reserves were fighting a bitter battle against the imposition of this system.

In some areas the people would have nothing to do with the Government sponsored "celebrations" inaugurating the new Authorities.

"At the first official ceremony to mark the establishment of a Regional Authority in the Transvaal on the 7th August, 1959, near Zeerust, about 250 people attended of the 28 000 people covered by the Authority," states the 1958/9 Race Relations Survey.

During 1958 large sections of the Ba Pedi tribe of Sekhukhuniland had resisted the Bantu Authorities system. The acting chief Moroamoche and leading Councillors were banished, 338 Africans arrested, and the area was patrolled by police for the whole of 1959. The whole country was shocked when many tribesmen received life sentences in the drawn out proceedings that followed the disturbances.

Opposition to the "betterment-schemes" which are closely linked with Bantu Authorities was a contributory cause of the widespread demonstrations in Natal in August 1959.

In the Transkei and Ciskei opposition to Bantu Authorities was shown in sudden eruptions of violence in many areas.


THE revolt in East Pondoland was destined to be even more widespread than elsewhere. From the start, the Government made the serious error of choosing as their arch-champion of Bantu Authorities, Chief Botha Sigcau, a man already discredited in the eyes of his people. As far back as 1939, when the choice had to be made of a successor to amount Chieftainship of East Pondoland, the Government of the day choose Botha in preference to his half brother. Nelson who was the rightful heir. The Pondo's did not accept this appointment, and resented Chief Botha for having taken Thus, when the Nationalists used Chief Botha to introduce Bantu Authorities into area in 1957 they had lost before they started.

Many efforts were made by the authorities to persuade the Pondos to accept the system voluntarily, but they met with little success. In 1958, all the Pondoland districts were invited to send representatives to a large gathering called by the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development, Mr. De Wet Nel, and Botha Sigcau. The people were led believe that the gathering was some sort of celebration, but found on arrival that it was an attempt to get Bantu Authorities under way. "Chief Botha announced that he had been promoted to take over the chair of the Chief Magistrate of Umtata, and that some of the Chiefs would be promoted in the various districts. The Pondo court be enhanced in status, and great changes would be brought about - in short, the people were told that they were getting self-Government."

In practice, however, it worked out that Chief Botha alone made promotions, and it was he who selected councillors for the courts from his own supporters. The people steadily lost confidence in the courts and corruption set in among the councillors who knew that their position depended not on the goodwill of the people, but only on their maintaining their friendship with Chief Botha. It was this cancer in the heart of tribal justice that was one of the main reasons for the breakdown of the tribal structure, and for the subsequent development of a new system during the Pondo revolt.

The rot ate ever deeper into the once healthy organism of tribal life. The people increasingly spurned government appointees to positions of authority, and they had to rely on the might of the law and the strong arm of the magistrates to impose their authority. Many chiefs and headmen found that once they had committed themselves to supporting Bantu Authorities, an immense chasm developed between them and the people. Gone was the old give-and-take of tribal discussion and consultation. In its there was now the autocratic power bestowed on the more ambitious chiefs who became arrogant in the knowledge that the Government's might was behind them. On occasion, the Chief Magistrate of the Transkei said, "Don't forget you are the authority and power, and whosoever is against authority and power is against you””be your own police in your own interests””use moderate violence just like a good policeman."

By flattery, coercion, and blatant incitement the Government drove the chiefs into conflict with their people.


THE Pondo people are more amenable to rule by hereditary chiefs than other less ed tribes, and less likely therefore to refuse to accept their dictates without good reason, provided - and here lies the crux of the matter - such chiefs or leaders are genuinely

representative of the people-it is to be regretted that the Government has continued to insist on upholding the appointment of chiefs and headmen arbitrarily chosen by themselves rather than elected by the people concerned in a democratic fashion." In this outspoken manner the Institute of Race Relations put its finger neatly on the mainspring of the tremendous revolt against tradition and authority in East Pondoland.

The Government was well aware that the people of East Pondoland were opposed to Bantu Authorities from the very first. In 1957, the people voiced their objections at meetings which were held with their chiefs. But the chiefs refused to take up their peoples' grievances with the magistrates, either because they realised that the Govern­ment was determined to carry its policy through and would not tolerate opposition, or because they were Chief Botha's men.

Dissatisfied with their chiefs' attitude the people sent deputations to the magistrates directly. In 1957, in the district of Bizana for example, a deputation was informed that their grievances would be referred to Pretoria. Nothing was heard for some time, and a year later, another deputation interviewed the new magistrate at Bizana who told them that he had no record of their earlier representations. The complaints were repeated but once again no reply was received from official quarters.

Frustration and dissatisfaction were building up, until matters boiled over in an outburst of anger at a meeting in the Isikelo location in East Pondoland. Two of the chiefs councillors were asked to explain at an Inkundla what benefits the people would get from Bantu Authorities which they had been trying to popularise. When they failed to do so, the meeting decided that they should receive corporal punishment.

Dissatisfied with their own tribal leaders and with the local magistrate, the people sent word to the Chief magistrate of the Transkei asking him to come to the area. Instead of his visiting the troubled area, a detachment of police was sent in to arrest the leading spokesmen at the meeting.

Pondos in the Bizana district were incensed at the arrests and tension mounted. Hut burnings and demonstrations against chiefs, headmen and police interference took place in a growing number of locations during 1959. What was once a closely-knit tribe were becoming a seething, intriguing, unhappy people. Both the Pondos and the Government put tremendous pressure on tribal leaders and they had to make their choice. Many of them chose to ignore the people's wishes and uphold those of the Government thus alienating themselves from their people completely.

A popular movement arose amongst the people in March 1960, and the Hill Committee, composed of commoners, was established. It was this committee which rallied the majority of the tribesmen in the Bizana district into open struggle against the authorities and their henchmen. The committee summoned a series of huge meetings, attended by thousands of Pondos, to discuss their plight and make plans to carry on the struggle. Inspired by these meetings neighbouring tribesmen from other districts in East Pondoland carried back the news to their areas.

Repeated requests by the Hill Committee for the magistrate to come and hear the people's grievances were ignored, and instead they were informed that the meetings were illegal and should cease forthwith. At this stage the Government officials made it clear that they would have no dealings with the leaders of the popular movement and would continue to carry out Government policies through the channel of Bantu Authorities.

The Pondos then found that news of their meetings was reaching the magistrate's ears and that their new-found unity was being undermined from within by Government agents. Drastic action was taken against these informers; huts were burnt down, and many of them were forced to flee from the area.

In retaliation, heavily armed police attacked a meeting of thousands of Pondos at Ngquza Hill. Eleven Pondos were shot dead and 15 seriously wounded (Some reports put the number at 30 dead and 60 seriously wounded). The meeting had been summoned for mid-day but while the people were still gathering, helicopters followed by spotter-planes appeared over the hill, flying very low. A white flag was raised by one of the leaders as a sign that a peaceful meeting was being held, but soon afterwards vans of armed police arrived.

Tear-gas bombs were dropped, starting a veld fire, and as the gathering scattered in confusion the police opened fire with the same callous abandon as had been witnessed at Sharpeville and Langa.

Twenty-three Pondos were arrested after the meeting on a charge of "fighting". Nineteen were convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from 18 months and 6 strokes, months to 21 months.

Subsequently, at an inquest on the shootings, the magistrate found that the firing of Sten gun bullets was "unjustified and excessive, even reckless."

Policing of the area increased after this incident. Saracens and radio cars were brought in. The breakdown between the authorities and the Pondos was complete.


RECOGNISING that police massacres could not break the people's resistance, the Government announced that a Commission of Inquiry, composed of Bantu Administration officials, would be appointed to hear their grievances. Grievances there were many the main one being that the people, only by some chiefs, had never accepted Bantu Authorities, and that the system must be abandoned. The complaint was made that interferior education was being given to the children under Bantu Education and that the people had lost control of the schools.

Increased taxation was a serious source of dissatisfaction. Livestock tax had increased from 6d. per head per annum in 1944 to l/9d. Poll tax had increased by 15/- to £2.5.0 a year, and the original health levy of I/- a year had become a 10/- general levy.

Other complaints related to the graft in the courts, and the general corruption that had set in among councillors and chiefs. The findings of the Commission were announced at a public meeting near Bizana on October 11th. It is significant that on this occasion the Government was forced to bypass their much-vaunted Bantu Authorities machinery in order to convey their findings to the people, and negotiate with the Hill committee which had become the generally accepted tribal representative.

Report contained a number of admissions of errors made in the creation of Bantu authorities but few concessions on other important complaints. The Commissioners were admitted that when Bantu Authorities were formed, the old customs of the tribes around were not observed... "and the people of Bizana had every right to complain.... The laws and customs of the tribes should have been observed and they should have been given an opportunity to say who they wanted (in the nomination of tribal authorities)."

The Commission also found that £20 000 damages had been caused in the hut burnings.

The Pondos were far from satisfied with the Commissions findings. At a meeting on the 25th October, they finally announced their rejection of the Report, and expressed their determination to continue the struggle against Bantu Authorities.

They decided to stop paying taxes.

This momentous decision taken by thousands of Pondos, many of them delegates from distant locations, was a sharp reminder that the Pondos were in a desperate frame of mind. At the same time, five top leaders of the Pondoland National Committee surrendered themselves to the police as they had lost their appeal to the Supreme Court and had been refused bail. They had been sentenced to over a year for attending an illegal meeting!

Furthermore, as a mark of their anger at the jailing of their leaders, and in protest at the attitude adopted by most of the White people in Bizana, the people decided to boycott this town. The Pondos felt that the traders in Bizana had shown partiality towards the Government, instead of sympathising with the people from whom they made a living. One Pondo put it this way, "We boycott the traders because they helped the Government in trying to break us. When we boycott them we are boycotting the Government."

The Pondos also protested at the banning from Pondoland of Mr. R. Arenstein, their attorney, who had fought a valiant battle in the Bizana court for the Pondos. As a result the ban was partially lifted, allowing Mr. Arenstein to complete the defence of the cases then pending.


IT is useful to interrupt the story of the Revolt, at this stage, to take a look at the small islands of Whites in the heart of this African reserve. Recent events have caught the White traders and professional men in Pondoland completely unawares. While some of them did anticipate that the Government's interference with the tribal set up would bring trouble, they, who pride themselves on "knowing the Native," did not anticipate that the Pondo Revolt could take on its present dimensions. Even now, when they have themselves seen the resistance movement unfolding before their very eyes, they are still unable to credit the Pondos they "have grown up with," with the ability to organise so effectively.

And so they spread the story (in whispers), "The Communists are behind it." Or. even more bizarre, in the words of a senior magistrate of Umtata, "Chief Luthuli is organising it all from just over the river in Harding." (One would expect an official of the BAD to know that Chief Luthuli has been either in gaol or in confinement in Groutville, in Northern Natal, during the past year.)

The traders are in an invidious position. On the one hand the Government resents the existence of these pockets of predominantly English speaking people and can withdraw their trading licences at any time, while, on the other hand, the traders are aware that their connivance in the policing of Pondoland could bring even greater Pondo wrath upon them. The fact remains that the military forces of occupation in Pondoland are using these white settlements as bases, and therefore, in the eyes of the Pondos these people are regarded as collaborators of the Government.

How much different is the position of the majority of white South Africans from that of the white traders in Pondoland?


THE first signal that the Government had decided to suppress the popular Pondo movement and was going onto the offensive came with the arrest and banishment of on Ganyile, a Pondo leader 5. The movement of troops towards Pondoland followed, as if war had been declared. The Government even went as far as taking the ridiculous precaution of putting the navy on to guarding he coast of Pondoland against in submarines!"

A state of Emergency was declared, and the previous curtain of silence that had been drawn around Pondoland was drawn still tighter. Recent reports filtering through to the press indicate that hundreds of Pondos have been arrested, screened and treated with extreme brutality.

A New Age eye-witness writes, "A large contingent of armed police and soldiers seal off an area, usually soon after midnight. Two armed men who take away everything that remotely resembles a weapon raid each hut. In some areas, even hoes are confiscated. More recent reports indicate that the declaration of the State of Emergency has added the long smouldering fires of revolt in Pondoland and the Transkei as a whole.

Violence and hut burnings are taking place over the whole area.

Above all, the declaration of the Emergency constitutes an outright admission of to suppress the resistance of the people, and the Government has yet to explain was necessary to introduce the army to stop the work of "outside agitators." It would be more correct to say that the Nationalist army of occupation is now trying to achieve what their forefathers could not manage - the complete subjugation of the people.

The story of Pondoland is a repetition of those of Zeerust, Sekhukhuniland and Zululand. In each of these areas, widespread disturbances took place because of the imposition of Bantu Authorities. In each area the pattern of events leading up to the disturbances was similar. Only, in Pondoland, where the tribe was more unified than in other areas, the resistance has been more determined and more sustained.


EVERY struggle develops a momentum of its own; and as the struggle progresses new concepts arise, new demands are made, and the participants are locked in battle on a level. The Pondo Revolt is no exception, as can be seen from the changes that have taken place in the demands and approach of the Pondos during the course of the struggle.

The first protests against Government dictatorship, the Pondos limited their demands to the issues that were of immediate concern. Even though the Government likes to pretend that “outside agitators stirred up the Pondos" the truth is that the Government pressed the people so hard that they had to fight back. Furthermore, initially, their methods of struggle were the traditional ones - the holding of meetings, deputations to the magistrate, and, as the crisis deepened, the burning of huts and expulsion of undesirables from their midst.

But their experience of the Government taught the people that these methods did not suffice. Aircraft broke up peaceful meetings, armed police arrested spokesmen at deputations, and representations about simple things like dipping were written down to "Communist agitation." The people realised that a Government which based its policies on pure force, and completely ignored peaceful representations, had to be opposed, and that the fraudulent Bantu Authorities had to be rejected in toto.

Thus the Pondos turned their attention to the bigger political issues responsible for their plight, and declared the demand for direct representation in Parliament. "Pondo-land will be satisfied with nothing short of sending representatives to Parliament."

The tactics of the Pondos also underwent a change. The boycott of the traders - a new weapon in the reserves - was completely effective. It highlighted the unity of the people, and gained much publicity for their struggle. More drastic still was the decision not to pay taxes, and the adoption of the slogan "no co-operation with the authorities." This step was supported by the decision to call for a withdrawal of labour from the mines and sugar estates, which would thus force their employers to intervene.

These methods adopted by the Pondos show a maturity that is extraordinary for a people who were not particularly active in political movements in the past. It shows that the Africans in the reserves are perfectly capable of using their initiative in forging new weapons of struggle when the issues are sharp enough.

New conditions have also created new forms of organisation. The recent develop­ments have brought great changes in the tribal structure. The system of chieftainship is gone, probably never to return in the old form. The people of East Pondoland have elected the Hill Committee democratically, and it would seem likely that this system will remain whatever the outcome of the present struggle may be. One thing is certain, indirect rule through Chiefs accepted by the people, will never work again. The Government will either have to recognise the newly constituted authority of the Pondos - the Hill Committee - or it will have to rule by outright force alone.


THE revolt against authority and tradition in East Pondoland has great significance for South Africa. National issues, which were still subject to debate and dispute before these events, have now been tested in practice, and shown to be completely unworkable.

Whereas it was previously the opposition parties and organisations which criticised and condemned the theory of Bantustans, it has now been rent asunder by the Africans themselves. "Autonomy," "Self-Government" and "Develop on your own lines" - all the deception of a politically bankrupt Government stand exposed as a hollow fraud, by the heroic resistance of the Pondo people.

Dr. Verwoerd's wondrous vision, elaborated at great length in Parliament, of a dynamic new policy that would solve the critical problems of South Africa, is a vision no more. Instead, there stands the stark reality of the South African police state - shed of all pretence of ruling by consent - ruling by force alone.

This is all the Nationalists have left to offer South Africa. As long as they remain in office there will be more and more Pondolands, with ever increasing strife, bloodshed and misery. This appalling prospect represents a challenge to us all.

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