The son of a farm worker, Kopi Ben Baartman was born in the Eastern Province (now Eastern Cape) town of Molteno on 1 March 1924. He worked on the mines around Johannesburg, joined the African Mineworkers Union (AMU) and participated in the great 1946 AMU strike. He was fired and headed for Worcester, Western Province (now Western Cape) where there were ‘home boys’ from Molteno.
He became involved in the Vigilant Association and in 1947, he joined the African National Congress (ANC). In 1953, keen to get involved in organizing the textile workers in the large textile industry in Worcester he resigned from his job at the tyre factory, found work at a textile mill where he formally joined the Textile Workers Industrial Union. In 1956, he became actively involved in a strike at the French-owned Hex River Textile Mills, in which the central demand was £1 [R2] a day and various benefits.
In due course, Baartman was ‘elected as regional branch chairman of the ANC’ and also became ‘a committee member of SACTU [South African Congress of Trade Unions].’
Baartman was considered extremely dangerous and the Special Branch [police] in Worcester recommended that he should be banished. On 4 June 1959*, while he was at work, the District Commandant of Worcester and a constable arrived to serve him with an order banishing him to Mngomezulu in the Ingwavuma district of Zululand, [Natal, now KwaZulu-Natal] a place some 1 600 kilometres away.He was thirty-five years of age in 1959 and married with four children (aged between 19 months and 12 years).His partner died while he was in banishment.
Learning that there were good prospects of getting political asylum in Swaziland and that it was a staging post for being transported to uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, camps in Tanzania, Baartman made plans to go into exile. His escape was prompted when he learnt that that his friendliness with the locals had led to an application by the security police and the Bantu Affairs Department (BAD) that he be banished elsewhere.
In late 1961, he fled to Swaziland, to add to the large community of South Africans in political exile. His order was withdrawn on 5 September 1967.
In 1984, after the signing of the Nkomati Accord between South Africa and Mozambique, Baartman was arrested along with other ANC operatives by the Swazi police, held in prison and then a refugee camp, and deported to Zambia.
Baartman died in 2002 at his hometown of Worcester. Baartman’s daughter, Mary Nxumalo says ‘he was lonely in his death’ – a sad ‘repeat of his life in isolation (in banishment), before he went into exile.’
* This same source gives the date of banishment as 7April 1959.
Contribution by Professor S. Badat on Banishment, Rhodes University, 2012. From the book, Forgotten People - Political Banishment under Apartheid by Professor S. Badat