Mass mobilization of the 1950s culminated in the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960. Soon thereafter the apartheid government banned the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), forcing them to establish underground structures and networks. In response, the apartheid government adopted extremely repressive legislation, creating a legal framework to deal effectively with any acts of opposition to the state. It is a combination of these factors that created what was perceived as a prolonged period of political quiescence in the history of the struggle against apartheid until the outbreak of the Soweto Revolt in 1976. And while this repressive environment succeeded in neutralising any serious threat to the government, it only helped to strengthen underground structures and networks of the ANC and the PAC.  

The 1960s were characterized by a shift in the terrain of struggle. Liberation movements were forced to abandon mass based popular uprisings to operating in small numbers attacking key state installations and persons considered to be either agents of the state or actively involved in the apartheid’s security agencies. Key installations such as electricity sub stations and railway lines marked many of the operations of the ANC’s military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK).  The PAC’s Poqo on the other hand did not hesitate to attack, often brutally, persons considered to be agents of the apartheid state. In the townships these were policemen and local government officials seen to be rigorously implementing the increasingly repressive pass laws and the plethora of influx control regulations. In the rural areas, with particular reference to Transkei, numerous Poqo underground networks targeted chiefs found to be implementing apartheid government’s land measures.

And in dealing with the proliferation of underground networks in the first half of the 1960s the apartheid state passed a range of security laws used to detain, charge and imprison hundreds and probably thousands of ANC, MK, PAC and Poqo operatives. The laws, applied in a range of court cases in which operatives were charged effectively contained activities of national and regional leadership of underground networks.  The first piece of legislation passed to counter any dissent and opposition to apartheid in the 1960s was the General Laws Amendment Act No 76 of 1962. Known as the Sabotage Act it created the offense of sabotage by equating it to treason and imposing a maximum penalty of death those found guilty.

The most excessive piece of legislation enacted was the Terrorism Act of 1967. It created the new crime of participating in terrorism. This Act, too, covered a wide range of activities that could include acts committed or attempted which would endanger law and order or conspiracy to endanger law and order.  For these acts to be effectively used in the courts the apartheid state had restructure the courts and undermine the liberal tradition that characterized for much of the first half of the 20th century. It is in this legal environment that political trials of the 1960s were conducted. This feature identifies instances where Poqo operatives were charged and convicted for crimes against the state. Some of the earliest trials in the 1960s involved Poqo activists.

The PAC, like the ANC, had support in black communities across South Africa. But there are areas that, historically, are considered PAC traditional strongholds. In Gauteng Orlando Township, Sharpeville in the Vaal area and Munsieville in Krugersdorp have traditionally been seen as strongly Pan Africanist. These areas were therefore fertile ground for Poqo’s recruitment campaigns. It therefore came as no surprise when a very active Poqo underground cell was established in Munsieville. The cell had several clandestine meetings held in an abandoned cattle kraal outside the township. In evidence led in a court case involving four Poqo operatives in Munsieville, the accused refused to divulge details of the meetings they held and resolutions they adopted.

What is apparent from the trial records though is that members of the cell intended to undertake a number of attacks, targeting persons considered to be working for apartheid security agencies. Immediate targets in this campaign were police constables and local government officials whose duties involved the administration of influx control regulations.  Four Poqo operatives, Richard Motsoagae, Josiah Mocumi, Thomas Molathlegi and Petrus Mtshole were arrested and charged with terrorism for their part in the murder of Munsieville police constable, Johannes Mokoena.    

The four first appeared in the Krugersdorp Magistrate court where they denied that Mokoena’s murder was part of a political conspiracy inspired and sanctioned by the PAC. Accused number 1 Richard Motsoagae was implicated as the one who fired the shots that fatally wounded Mokoena. The state argued that the four were acting as members of a banned political organization and that they intended to spread terror among black policemen. The other three accused, Mocumi, Molatlhegi and Mtshole were deemed to have acted in ‘common purpose’ with Motsoagae.

In a statement Motsoagae admitted to having fired the shots that killed Mokoena but denied that this was a politically motivated act undertaken by Poqo sanctioned by the PAC. He claimed that he shot and killed Mokoena in a rage because the latter was married to a woman he had had an affair with. He was intending to scare Mokoena off so that he could continue his affair with the deceased’s wife. Unfortunately he lost control and fatally wounded the constable. 

The state was determined to prove that the murder of Mokoena was a politically motivated act that fell within the purview of security legislation that had been enacted in 1962 and 1963. The case was referred to the Regional Court to be heard by a judge. It is here that accused no 1, Motsoagae, admitted to have been acting on instructions from men he believed to have been linked to Poqo. According to Motsoagae, the men approached him and his accomplices saying “ons moet die polisieman met die naam Sonnyboy dood maak. Ek se toe ek kan dit nie doen nie. Hulle se toe hulle maak ons dood as ons dit nie doen nie” Translated, this  “we need to kill a policeman known as Sonnyboy. I said that I cannot do it. They said if we do not do it they will kill us.” (Testimony of Motsoagae at Krugersdorp Regional Court, WLD Capital Case, 117/7/22/1340).     

At this stage the state charged all 4 accused with murder and applied the principle of ‘common purpose’. Implicit in the charge was the fact that the accused were members of Poqo who held leadership positions in the Krugersdorp branch of the PAC and in units of its paramilitary wing, therefore they were liable Sonnyboy’s murder by association.

According to evidence led by the state, accused no.2 was chairman of the branch and 3 and 4 were task force leaders of Poqo in Krugersdorp. State witnesses testified in court that “on a signal given by one Leballo, who was in Maseru, Basutoland, and who was acting chairman of the PAC, members would rise and, with all available weapons at their disposal, seek to exterminate all the whites in the republic so that they would get their country back”. (WLD Capital case 17/7/22/1340).

Having established the fact that the accused were furthering the aims of a banned organization, the case proceeded as a political trial. The recently enacted legislation on dealing with political dissent and the punitive measures prescribed became applicable. The accused were deemed to have contravened provisions of the General Law Amendment Act no.76 of 1962. In the event the court found the accused guilty, they could be sentenced to death. Because it was a political act in which the other three were considered to be co-conspirators, they too could be sentenced to death. On 1 October 1963 four members of Poqo – Richard Matsoagae, Josia Mocumi, Thomas Molatlhegi and Petrus Mtshole – were sentenced to death for the murder on 18 March 1963 of a Black Special Branch detective, Johannes Sonnyboy Mokoena.

In the Western Cape Poqo was particularly active. There are a number of incidents that were planned and executed by local Poqo leadership and operatives. Poqo’s activities in the early 1960s  struck fear, particularly in townships, where it adopted aggressive conscription methods. There was no room for dissent, often met with violent intolerance. In one incident three women were hacked to death for having attended a party at the Men’s hostel when they had been advised not to. But there were other more daring, politically motivated attacks on individuals and sections of the security agencies.

On 16 March 1962, Poqo activists attacked and killed Michael Livele Moyi, a policeman in Langa, and injured five others. Jim Mountain Ngantweni and Zibongile Serious Dodo were arrested in connection with Moyi’s death, and further charges were laid against Nontasi Albert Tshweni and Donker Ntsabo, who were already serving sentences for other political offences in the Eastern Cape. All four men were hanged on 31 October 1967.  Veyisile Sharps Qoba was later arrested and sentenced to death, and executed on 7 March 1968.

After the Paarl Rebellion in 1962, 400 people were arrested. Subsequently, six trials involving 75 people took place. Of these, 21 were accused of sabotage and given lengthy sentences. Lennox Madikane, Fezile Feilx Jaxa and Mxolisi Damane were sentenced to death for sabotage and executed on 1 November 1963.

Gladstone Nqulwana, already serving a 15-year sentence for sabotage for Poqo activities in the Eastern Cape, was sentenced to death on 15 June 1967 for his role in the murder of Mthobeli Nathaniel Magwaca, a municipal policeman from Langa, on 26 September 1962. Nqulwana was executed on 23 November 1967.

Poqo activities were not limited to Cape Town and Paarl, they extended to the Transkei, where chiefs who were seen as collaborators with the apartheid government were targeted. Activists relayed messages about operations from Langa in Cape Town to the Transkei. While some were successful in delivering these messages, others were apprehended by the police. On 14 October 1962, Poqo members killed one of Chief Kaizer Matanzima’s advisers, and that same month attempted to assassinate Matanzima. Two weeks later, on 29 October, Poqo activists attacked and killed a Thembu chief, Gwebindlala Gqoboza. Subsequently, six members were apprehended and sentenced to death and hanged on 9 May 1963. James Mtutu Apleni, a Langa-based Poqo member who played a key role in organising attacks against Matanzima in Transkei, was arrested and sentenced to death. He was executed on 8 November 1963.

In February 1963, Poqo activists attacked and killed Norman Grobbler, his wife, two daughters – Edna and Dawn – and Derek Thompson. Following the incident, the police harassed the activists’ family members. Scores of activists were arrested and 23 were sentenced to death – of these, 15 were hanged. By 1963, Forward, a monthly publication, reported on 80 political trials of 1,105 people, 40 of whom were sentenced to death, six to life in prison.

Former Robben Island political prisoners point out that in the early years of imprisonment between 1962 and 1963, the majority of political prisoners on the Island were PAC or Poqo members. While this changed over time, it reflects the state’s concerted effort to crush through its legal system to crush any dissent by Poqo and the PAC. Trials were conducted over a five year period resulting in the conviction of 124 members of who 97 were executed.   


Political trials of the 1960s represented a shift in the form and terrain of struggle as well as a shift in the way the apartheid government dealt with political dissent. After the mass based resistance campaign of the 1950s, beginning with the Defiance Campaign in 1952 and culminating in the Sharpeville massacre, the liberation struggle formations, notably the ANC and the PAC, resorted to armed struggle. This took resistance away from the streets to secluded locations where clandestine meetings were held with a few, trusted individuals. The state responded by enacting numerous laws that strengthened the court’s capacity to contain any acts of political dissent. It is within this context that Poqo political trials were conducted. 

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