Anti-Apartheid Activist and Teacher Blown Apart by A Parcel Bomb Sent By Apartheid Agents on 1 February 1974
Onkgopotse Tiro is considered to be one of the founding members of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in South Africa. Alongside such names as Steve Biko and Barney Pityana, he was instrumental in forming the BCM.
Tiro was born in Dinokana near Zeerust on 9th November 1947. He started his schooling in 1951 at the Ikalafeng Primary School. The school was closed down for a period of time as a result of strikes. 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 high school, he enrolled at the University of the North (Turfloop) and he became President of the SRC in 1972 where he was to use a graduation ceremony on 29 April of that year to deliver the now famous speech in which he denounced the apartheid system and Bantu education, and laid out the theoretical framework for the BCM. Concluding his speech, Tiro said:
“The day shall come, when all shall be free to breathe the air of freedom which is theirs to breathe and when the day shall have come, no man, no matter how many tanks he has, will reverse the course of events.”
Authorities at the university were angered by Tiro’s outspokenness and following the speech he was expelled from the University. This sparked off a prolonged protest on the campus, influencing a number of students who later became political leaders in the country. 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.
After his expulsion from Turfloop, he was offered a post as a history teacher at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto, but after six months was expelled as education authorities put pressure on school principals to dismiss those who had been expelled from universities.
It was at Morris Isaacson that Tiro introduced his pupils – which included the 1976 student leader Tsietsi Mashinini – to the Black Consciousness philosophy and got them to question the validity of the history books prescribed by Bantu Education. Although his time at Morris Isaacson was short, he had laid the seeds for the 1976 uprising.
Fearing arrest, he fled to Botswana in 1973 and once there, forged links with international movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He continued his underground work for organisations such as the South African Student Movement (SASM), Saso and the Black People’s Convention (BPC).
A year later, he was killed by a parcel bomb. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s amnesty hearings, nobody came forward to claim responsibility for his murder.
He is widely considered as the first cross-border victim of the apartheid security police’s campaign of eliminating state opponents through the use of parcel bombs.
At the time of his death, Tiro was a teacher in Kgale, outside Gaborone. The letter containing explosives, delivered to Tiro by a student only known as Lawrence indicated that it was from the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF). Bureau of State Security (Boss) spy Craig Williamson worked for the IUEF and, according to the book Inside Boss by Gordon Winter, it was the Boss Z-squad that sent a letter that killed Tiro.