By Gladys Qabukile Nzimande-Tsolo
When people speak about the Sharpeville-Langa Massacres that occurred on 21st March 1960, key figures and role players in that historical moment that changed the course of history in Azania get lost.
One such figure is the 20 years old man who led the Positive Action Campaign Against Pass Laws initiated by the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania, Nyakane Tsolo. He remains a leader completely unknown, unacknowledged, uncelebrated in democratic South Africa.
Michael Nyakane Ramabele Tsolo was born on 24th July 1939 in Kroonstad. He grew up there until he was seven years old when he moved to Sharpeville to stay with an uncle. Soon afterwards he joined his parents and six siblings, in two houses, next door to each other. When he was a bit older, he shared the second house with his older brothers, Job and Gideon and Gideon’s young family.
Nyakane Tsolo was the sixth child of Lisebo and Philemon Thokoane Tsolo, a local coal merchant and Basotho Chief. He attended the Sedibe Primary School and went on to secure his Junior Certificate at Legoshang Secondary School in 1958. Unfortunately, due to lack of schools in the vicinity he couldn’t proceed any further with his studies. There were insufficient Senior High School places in for anything to accommodate African Junior Certificate holders, and if he was to proceed to Standard 10 he would have been required to go to boarding school.
His father owned a coal supply business, a shop and a brewery. Nyakane used to share anecdotes about his strict father and how all of his children had to assist him running the businesses. Even his sisters, Julia and Maki, did not escape helping before going to school. He also had a great loving relationship with his mother and would often share many fond memories of her.
The Tsolo household was austere as Philemon Thokoane was a strict disciplinarian and staunch churchgoer. As a Basotho Chief, he practised polygamy and was married to three women: Lisebo his first wife and mother of 10 children, including Nyakane; and two other wives: Maselei and Puleng with whom he had a further 11 children. A total of 21 children altogether; indeed, a huge family by today’s standards.
I came to Johannesburg in 1961, just a year after the Sharpeville-Langa Massacres, with the hope of becoming a nurse, or at least furthering my education. Unfortunately, I, like so many unemployed youth, had to work as a domestic worker and worked for a while at a local butchery in Orlando-East, Soweto.
I left Johannesburg in 1962 at the age of 21 years old, boarded a train to Botswana where I hoped to receive training as a nurse. There I arrived in the small town of Maun in Botswana. However, the promised nursing school turned out to be a missionary station which was run by Catholic nuns from Ireland; there was no nursing training and, again, we were forced to do domestic work.
There I met other young Azanian women and, one of them became my best-friend, Elizabeth Maluleka. Together we left Maun and headed to Francistown and it was there where we met young men who had recently arrived from Azania. We joined them in the recently set up Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) military camp in Francistown called Luthuli Camp. Thereafter, I traveled as an MK combatant throughout Africa, and received further military training in Odesa, Russia.
After a year I returned back to Tanzania and stationed at the MK-camp Khongwa in Dar es Salaam. I finally got my nursing training in 1965 after arriving in East Berlin (East Germany). And it was there at the Lumumba Institute in the city of Leipzig, far away from home, that I met the love of my life, the ever charming Nyakane Tsolo.
The Lumumba Institute was an institution where African students were taught German before they could continue their studies at various German universities. East Germany and Russia at that time had formed solidarity with African countries in their struggles against the colonial onslaught.
During our dating period we spoke often about our respective journeys from Azania into exile, our upbringing in Azania, our coming into political consciousness, as well as our longing for home and the pain of missing family. He became my family and, together, we formed our political radicalism, developed our Pan-Africanist consciousness and steadfast commitment to the liberation struggle.
Nyakane told countless stories about Sharpeville and his role in the 21st march 1960 protest against Pass Laws: how he and his elder brother, Job, had established the PAC Branch in 1959 together with his then girlfriend, Suzan Tshukudu (sister to Adelaide Tambo); and how he, and other members of the PAC Branch in Sharpeville, had mobilized and rallied the masses the in the preceding weeks and days for participation in the protest.
He also shared his horrendous experiences on that dreadful day of the Massacre of our people, his arrest just before the shootings happened, the torture he received at the hands of the racist police, the savage interrogations he underwent, and his year spent in the notorious prisons of racist South Africa.
He was held at Number Four (now Constitutional Hill) – once home to prisoners such as Robert Managaliso Sobukwe and the students of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and Blue-Sky Prison in Boksburg – where some of the PAC leadership were also held. After a year he skipped bail and fled into Lesotho, then proceeded to Egypt where he received his military training as an Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) Commando by the Egyptian Special Forces.
It was during his military training in Egypt that he got the nickname ‘Transistor Man’ due to his size. He was a tinny young man and during the military drill he couldn’t keep up, as the armor was too heavy and large. Nonetheless, he would boast about the military training he underwent. Indeed, his passion for military science was evident throughout his life.
He left Egypt by ship from Alexandria to the city of Rostock in East Germany and arrived at the Lumumba Institute. That’s where we met. In Germany I got training to become a midwife and he studied physics and chemistry. We got married and got our first child, a girl which he named after his oldest sister, Julia Teboho.
In 1973 we left East Germany in secret to the Netherlands, and received assistance from two Dutch left-leaning students when we arrived as refugees at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol with no passports, just our suitcases. We spent weeks in a police holding cell with our daughter, a painful and stressful and traumatic experience for any parent.
Eventually we were transferred to a refugee shelter in the second largest city in the Netherlands, Rotterdam, which became our home for the next 20 years. Whilst in the refugee shelter we had our second child, a boy, Zakhele Liholo. In addressing some of the frequent outbursts of Afrophobia rampant in our society, it is quite important for ‘South Africans’ to understand that we too were once considered ‘foreigners’, ‘homeless’, ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’ in various countries around the world.
It was a stressful time because we no longer had protection from any political organization. We both had to work multiple jobs in order to take care of our young family, learn a new language, he excelled a bit better than myself in Dutch. But it was hard; we were poor and missed our home – Azania – immensely.
We had to start a family in a new and strange country, but we persevered and pulled through. During those years, we kept in touch with other exiles, some in the Netherlands, but more were in the United Kingdom. However, being members of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania – which I joined after I met him in exile – meant that we had to survive without any financial support or organisation with means.
We were lucky to receive support from various Dutch anti-apartheid organizations such as the Azania Committee, and, when Nyakane met David Sibeko, then PAC’s Permanent Observer at the United Nations, in the Netherlands, he became the PAC representative for Benelux, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg.
We returned to Azania in 1992 at the height of the CODESA negotiations. Although he was critical of the negotiation process his name appeared on the PAC list of Member of Parliament during the first democratic elections. However, it was not to be. What hurt Nyakane most was to be forgotten and to see how many like him, who served, suffered and sacrificed so much for this nation, were forgotten and cast into the dustbins of history. He died in November 2002.
In 2018 I established the Nyakane Tsolo Foundation together with my daughter, Julia, to memorialize and educate the public about his legacy and contributions to the Azanian liberation struggle. Through the Foundation we will ensure that he and other forgotten ordinary people have their place carved out in the national consciousness and collective memory of this country; history must remember them.
As 2020 marks the 60th anniversary of the Sharpeville-Langa Massacres, we should go beyond cosmetic and romantic engagements about the past; we must seriously interrogate what we can do today to bring justice to legacies and memory of those that paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom and nourished this soil with their blood.
Nyakane used to read me Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, and I will always remember his favorites last lines of the poem: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee to never forget”.
The young generation must be taught about all our national heroes and heroines.
Gladys Qabukile Nzimande-Tsolo is the widow of Nyakane Tsolo, the 20 years old PAC leader who led the protest march in Sharpeville on 21st march 1960. She was a combatant of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) trained in Tanzania, Russia and East Germany from 1961 to early 1970’s, and later joined the ranks of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army. She is a Founder & Trustee of the Nyakane Tsolo Foundation.