The Silverton and Soekmekaar verdict prompted a wave of protests against the death penalty and particularly the death sentences of Johnson Lubisi, Petrus Mashigo, and Naphtali Manana. Angry reactions ensued from a wide range of organisations and prominent personalities both locally and abroad.
The ANC sent an appeal to the United Nations: ‘We call upon the United Nations to impose mandatory sanctions against the South African regime for perpetuation of the policy of Apartheid, which constitutes a crime against humanity.’ In response, the UN Security Council sent an appeal ‘strongly urging’ the SA government to avoid aggravating the situation further and to take into account ‘the concern expressed for the lives of these three young people’.
Nearly two years later, on 2 June 1982, President Marais Viljoen commuted the three men’s death sentences.
ANC’s Reactions to the Siege
The Silverton Siege was one of the most dramatic and violent operations linked to Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) that had ever taken place inside South Africa. This action was an unusual one for MK for two reasons. First, it involved taking civilian hostage, an act akin to terrorism. Second, the incident led to the death of white civilians, in contravention of the ANC's express policy to avoid civilian casualties.
After the siege, there was a marked lack of clarity about the ANC’s official position on the so-called Silverton Siege. It was reported that the Lusaka and Maputo offices of the ANC had claimed responsibility for the operation and had said that ‘in future acts of this nature the guerrillas would match the ruthlessness of the police by killing all the hostages'. However, MK leaders – without any evidence to support the claim – felt that the Silverton Trio had probably been surrounded by police and decided to use the hostages as a form of defence. Some ANC members appeared to have condemned the siege as being at variance with organisational policy. This may have left the MK cadres involved in the siege isolated.
MK cadre Lincoln Ngculu, who was undergoing training in a camp in Angola at the time, recalls:
“We were agitated and excited about this action. However, we were not sure that these were ANC cadres. We followed the radio reports, especially the remarks made by some of the hostages after they were released that the hostage-takers were calm, not hooligans, and clearly not there for personal gain. All they wanted was to be given a route to safety. An ANC representative in Dar es Salaam issued a statement distancing the ANC from the Silverton Three, as they were later called. We were angry and we argued that the media reports indicated that these were our cadres. Eventually it was confirmed that these were ANC members and the ANC president, OR Tambo, issued a statement acknowledging their membership of the organisation and made a tribute to their actions. The Apartheid security forces stormed the bank and our comrades were slaughtered in the process. Nevertheless, even under such conditions the Silverton Three acted with restraint and did not injure any of the civilians in the bank”.
All accounts agree, nevertheless, that the hostage-takers demanded the release of ANC political prisoners. This siege was politically motivated and many activists subsequently viewed the Silverton Trio as heroes of the struggle.
Towards negotiation and reconciliation
By 1990, as resistance mounted, it was becoming clear that the Apartheid regime was on the verge of giving in to popular political demands, as millions of ordinary people in the townships, factories, urban and rural areas waged determined struggles against the system. The insurrections of the 1980s, the Silverton Siege among them, were fundamentally different from the previous struggles against White minority rule, both in their scope and militancy. It is important to note that events like the siege did not take place in a vacuum. The siege led to a trial, a trial that became a platform for resistance. The trial and its verdicts in turn inspired further protests and actions, eventually paving the way to the negotiated settlement in South Africa.
On 29 March 1990, Mohale Pilusa and Thomas Mugadi were released after serving ten years in prison for their part in the Silverton Siege. Their release was not part of the negotiations for the release of political prisoners to make way for the negotiated settlement in South Africa.
The remainder of the accused were among a group of 119 political prisoners to be released as part of President FW de Klerk’s indemnity programme in April 1991.
The Law Today
Between 1990 and 1993 numerous political formations and the government were involved in negotiations. Initial interactions led to the formation of CODESA I and II, culminating in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 and the birth of our new Constitution.
Human Rights and the Bill of Rights, including the right of association, are guaranteed in the Constitution. It is inconceivable that acts of political dissent can be considered ‘common law’ crimes today. The principle of common purpose cannot be applied in a legal system that is informed by the desire to uphold human rights.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
At the TRC, several participants provided testimonies and made submissions related to the Silverton Siege.
Some of the hostages that survived the siege came forward, as did the families of the civilian casualties of the siege.
In August 1996 the ANC made a submission to the TRC explaining the activities of MK and its role in the liberation struggle. In doing so the ANC covered a wide range of MK operations in South Africa. Silverton was one of the high profile cases that the ANC had to explain at the TRC, as the operation resulted in civilian casualties. In the ANC’s words the siege was an example of ‘an operation that was derailed when the cadres unexpectedly found themselves in situations for which there had been no planning whatsoever’.
The TRC has allowed many people tied to the history of the Silverton Siege to take first steps towards reconciliation. But there is still a long way to go.
Combined with the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - charged with exposing the evil deeds that have been committed; investigating the reasons why they happened; and the restoration of the dignity of the victims and the humanity of the perpetrators - all these efforts will afford us the confidence and resolve to say: Never Again!
- African National Congress’ statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, August 1996