Campaigning to save the lives of the Sharpeville Six

In the stories I have recounted on this blog I have often emphasized how the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s campaigning was street-based, confrontational and direct action focused.  While this is true, the group was not averse to utilising the campaigning techniques of a more conventional pressure group when appropriate.  One campaign that the group ran, over a number of years, was in defence of the ‘Sharpeville Six’ who faced the death penalty in South Africa.  As the date of their threatened execution drew near in January 1988, City Group appealed to MPs and other dignitaries to take action to save their lives.

The Sharpeville Six were Mojafela Reginald Sefatsa, Reid Mokoena, Oupa Moses Diniso, Theresa Ramashamola, Duma Khumalo and Francis Mokhesi. Their case related to an event that occurred during the township uprisings of September 1984. During a rent strike protest against apartheid and the corruption of local councillors (who were understood by many as collaborators with the apartheid regime), the deputy major of Sharpeville, Kuzwayo Jacob Dlamini, was killed.  The state could not prove that any of the six were directly implicated in the killing of Dlamini, but used the ‘Common Purpose’ laws to convict them for being present at the scene at the time of the killing. At the end of a two-month trial in 1985, the six were sentenced to death. Two other defendants received custodial sentences.  The six spent four years on death row in Pretoria Maximum Prison.  Their case received widespread attention in South Africa and internationally, in large part due to the efforts of Francis Mokhesi’s sister Joyce.  In the years following their conviction, Joyce Mokhesi addressed the World Council of Churches and the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid about their case.  In early 1986, City Group contacted Joyce Mokhesi offering their support and inviting her to speak at a rally for the Sharpeville Six that they were organising.  This international campaign eventually had an effect and, on 11 July 1988, just hours before their scheduled execution, the Six were offered an indefinite stay of execution. They were released, in pairs, in 1991 and 1992, during the dismantling of apartheid, and were offered amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission some years later.

Amongst the archival material we have been analysing, we have found copies of several letters from MPs who responded to City Group’s call to action.  These included Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party leader at the time, who wrote to the United Nations’ Secretary General asking him to intervene on behalf of the Sharpeville Six.  Some MPs, including David Steel (the then leader of the Liberal Party) and Labour’s Clare Short wrote to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher calling for her to intervene. Still others, including Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein appealed directly to President Botha of South Africa.

MPs accompany City Group activists to Downing Street for the Sharpeville Six (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

MPs accompany City Group activists to Downing Street for the Sharpeville Six (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

With this cross-party support from MPs, on 28 January 1988 City Group led a delegation that processed the short distance from the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square,  down Whitehall, to Downing Street to deliver the letter signed by the MPs. Their joint letter called on the British government to appeal to PW Botha for clemency for the Sharpeville Six.  That such a wide range of mainstream parliamentarians supported City Group’s initiative is interesting.  The Anti-Apartheid Movement and their sister organisation SATIS (South Africa – the Imprisoned Society) were at the time running a “Stop Apartheid Executions” campaign with the case of the Sharpeville Six as its key focus. While Clare Short and Keith Vaz were sponsors of the Non-Stop Picket and sympathetic to City Group’s approach to solidarity work, this was not necessarily true of all the signatories to the Sharpeville Six letter.  David Steel was a former President of the AAM and would have been well aware of the controversy surrounding City Group within the national movement (by 1988, City Group had been expelled from the AAM for nearly four years).

There are two simple (but important) conclusions to draw from these events.  First, that despite favouring street-based campaigning and direct action, City Group was adept at engaging with formal political structures and processes when they might aid a campaign. Second, despite City Group’s tense relationship with the AAM, politicians close to the AAM leadership were prepared to support campaigns run by City Group when the urgency and significance of the case required it.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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4 Responses to Campaigning to save the lives of the Sharpeville Six

  1. Pingback: Lessons of the anti-apartheid sports boycott for Palestinian solidarity | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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  3. Nicho Ntema says:

    I’d like to express my gratitude for such efforts that mostly were unknown to many South Africans and even the Sharpeville Six themselves, as being on death throw shut any sense happening outside one’s cell. Today marks the 29th Anniversary of the event that led to the Sharpeville Six and nothing is happening. No commemoration is planned and the day is just a normal as yesterday in South Africa and Sharpeville in particular. The three of the Sharpeville Six have since died and two of the remaining three often fall into depressive moods and one chose never to talk about the ordeal and went back to be the street vendor he was 29 years ago, with a broken marriage and a broken soul. I just wish what you did could now happen at home in just remembering these trying times.

  4. Pingback: Nelson Mandela: The Centenary Exhibition (impact and refections) | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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