This essay discusses my experiences and recollections of the 1957 bus boycott in Alexandra, the township in which I grew up. Unusually, it was a freehold area in which Africans could own land, and my parents owned two properties there.

As an active participant in the 1957 bus boycott I relied entirely on my memory when I started writing this account. But eager to find corroboration of my recollections of the boycott and its key leaders and turning points, I went to the Johannesburg Central Library to look at newspaper accounts of the boycott and came across the references that I mention here.

From 1953-1954 I studied for my matric at Bantu High School (also popularly known as Madibane High after its principal), located in Western Native Township, next to Sophiatown. Initially I travelled daily by bus between my home in Alexandra and Madibane High. Then I found accommodation in a small hostel at Christ the King, an Anglican church in Sophiatown. The accommodation was arranged for me by Father Trevor Huddleston, who years later became the President of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain. His monastic order, the Community of the Resurrection, ran the church and owned the hostel, and he headed the order in South Africa.

These were the years when the Nationalist Party government was preparing to implement the Group Areas Act by forcibly moving people out of Sophiatown which it had declared a “black spot” because it was located in the midst of whites-only residential areas to its south, east and north. In the grand scheme of apartheid, black people were to be denied ownership of land outside what were to become the Bantustans.

In opposition to the impending forced removals, the African National Congress (ANC) mounted a campaign which entailed a public meeting every Sunday at what became known as Freedom Square in Sophiatown. Living in Sophiatown, I and some of my classmates at Madibane High joined the ANC Youth League and were tasked to organise for these meetings. We spent our evenings distributing leaflets and soliciting donations from local shopkeepers in Sophiatown – in those days predominantly Indian or Chinese. Robert Resha led the ANC in the area, and ANC luminaries addressing the meetings included J. B. Marks and David Bopape, both of whom were later banned and prevented from attending future meetings.

In mid-1953 I left the ANC Youth League and joined the Society of Young Africa (SOYA), a youth organisation affiliated to the All-African Convention and the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM).  I was attracted to the NEUM because, unlike the ANC, it had developed its own political literature in the writings of Isaac B. Tabata, Benny Kies, Hosea Jaffe, Dora Taylor (alias Nosipho Majeke) and others. The organisation also had a programme of democratic demands – the Freedom Charter was yet to come.

About this time Father Sidebotham, the head of the Community of the Resurrection in Sophiatown, asked me to leave the hostel because I was not a churchgoer. So I returned to Alexandra. Seeking SOYA members there, I discovered that all but one had dissociated themselves from SOYA and had joined an organisation called the Movement for a Democracy of Content (MDC). The one Alexandra resident who remained in SOYA was Andrew Lukele, who subsequently qualified as an attorney and under whom, in the early 1960s, I served articles of clerkship. [1]

The Alexandra SOYANS who joined the MDC included Dan Mokonyane and Ethane Mayisela. They were in contact with Vincent Swart and his wife Lillian Swart, former Trotskyists and NEUM members, who lived outside the black township of Alexandra because of apartheid but spent every day in political agitation in Alexandra. After a sojourn in Britain and the United States they returned to South Africa with the MDC’s ideas and recruited Mokonyane and others.

Members of both factions, namely Lukele, on the one side, and Mokonyane and Ethane Mayisela, on the other, were initially brought into politics and mentored by Dan Koza. [2] Coincidentally, Dan Koza and Shadrack Matthews, a leader of the notorious Msomi gang, were married to sisters (and I was courting their niece-in-law, Mvulane Dlamini).  Before his gangsterism, Matthews had been a member of the local ANC, and in 1956 he lent his car, decked in ANC colours, to ferry members from Alexandra to the Congress of the People in Kliptown for the launching of the Freedom Charter.

Dan Mokonyane

Born and raised in Pietersburg (now Polokwane), Mokonyane moved to Alexandra in his early twenties, initially to attend the University of the Witwatersrand. But he dropped out after a few months and chose not to be employed, seeing himself as a professional revolutionary whose life was solely devoted to realising freedom. Before the bus boycott he spent his days studying Marxism from the primary texts of its founders and most important predecessors, especially Hegel.

Arriving from a rural background he lacked the sleekness of the youths born and bred in Johannesburg townships – he lacked township street credibility. He was what township dwellers called a moegoe – “a derogatory term for one who is not streetwise” as defined by Louis Molamu. [3]

Mokonyane did not speak tsotsi taal, the lingua of the township smart alecks. He conversed mainly in English with many asides in SePedi. Molamu describes a tsotsi as “a violent, usually young criminal who usually lives by his wits.” Not everyone who spoke tsotsi taal was a criminal or violent or lived by their wits, but to get your way with the tsotsis you had to speak to them in their language and, if you couldn’t, you were looked upon as a moegoe. To be heard by them speaking English marked you as someone socially apart, and they named you a situation.

In those days, whatever our political persuasions, whenever we ran into each other, we engaged in intense political discussions and arguments about how to advance the liberation struggle. Of the MDC members, Mokonyane was renowned for silencing by force of argument any opponent. There was just one person who was said to have silenced him. It was Mendi Msimang, at the time a clerk for Attorneys Mandela & Tambo and a future ANC treasurer-general. Mokonyane’s teeth were brown in colour – not that that this ever bothered him – said to have been affected by the drinking water in the rural area where he grew up. When his supporters cheered him on to demolish Msimang in argument, Msimang turned to him and said “Shut up you, brown teeth”. And so he shut up! The story was often told by those who made jokes at his expense.

Mokonyane spoke a perfect SePedi, which, when he addressed public meetings, endeared him to the audience – city-dwellers, no matter their home language, are enthralled by speakers who express themselves well and entertainingly in a vernacular language they know deeply. At a public meeting a few weeks into the 1957 Alexandra bus boycott, Mokonyane got onto the platform and started addressing the meeting in English – the first time he was addressing the meeting in English. There was a huge outcry from the people imploring him to stick to SePedi. But in his stubbornness he stuck to English and people then realised that he was just as good an orator in English as in SePedi, and henceforth they enjoyed it when he interchanged the two languages to address the public meetings. People came to meetings expecting to be entertained by his public speaking, which he embellished with much humour and with hard-hitting polemics. As a result of the popularity he earned during the boycott, he came to be known by everyone in Alexandra as “Mokgomana”, a SePedi term of endearment and camaraderie.

Vincent and Lillian Swart

An Afrikaner, Vincent Swart was a former English lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, an authority on [4] He came from a staunch National Party family. He was a first cousin of well-known fascist sympathizer and National Party politician C. R. Swart, who would serve as the Union of South Africa’s last Governor-General and the Republic of South Africa’s first State President, once the country left the British Commonwealth in March 1961. Another relative, Colonel Att Spengler, was head of the Special (Security) Police in Johannesburg.

Despite his extreme right-wing family background, Swart devoted his life to political agitation for a left-wing cause and practically lived by day in Alexandra. He and his wife Lillian entered the township every day, organising and recruiting for the MDC.

I must confess that I never understood the MDC’s political philosophy – this despite having often listened to the Swarts, Mokanyane and others talk politics. Their MDC language was obscure, like a code known only to themselves. They regarded an article by Ernst Zander (alias of Josef Weber) published in Contemporary Issues as crucial to their theory. They were not against Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, whom they venerated as their forbears. Yet without being anti-Marx, they moved away from the basic Marxist tenets, believing that they were advancing Marxism to meet the mid-twentieth century’s challenges. In place of the primacy of the working class, they postulated people and nationalism (hence their adoption of the PAC’s nationalist slogan, “Africa for the Africans”). In place of a Leninist party, they postulated no organisation whatsoever (hence they were characterised as anarchists). In place of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, they postulated an “outbreak of simultaneous nationalisms”. Their struggle aimed at democracy, but not merely formal democracy, nor socialism.

They frequently mentioned sixteenth-century François Rabelais, especially his book, The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and eighteenth-century Denis Diderot. They used the concept of the polis, an ancient Greek democracy based on the participation of all adult male citizens, but they interpreted this to include all adult citizens regardless of gender in a democracy from below. They put this democracy from below into practice during the bus boycott by ensuring that public meetings were held four times a week and that the committee’s actions were subject to mandates derived from the public meetings.

Swart’s wife Lillian came from a very wealthy Jewish family and had inherited money on her father’s death. But when they went abroad they squandered this by financing Contemporary Issues, the MDC’s organ. [5] For marrying a non-Jew, Lillian’s wealthy widowed mother withheld financial support from her until quite late in her life when she broke from Swart to marry a Jewish man with whom she had had a relationship in her youth and of whom her mother approved.

On returning to South Africa so broke that they couldn’t pay rent, they lived by pawning some of their possessions. It was not unusual while visiting them for an art dealer to knock at the door to inspect some art and offer to purchase it. And so they lived by selling off works of art or rare books that they had collected when they were in the money. At this time they lived in a rented flat in Observatory, where – much to the annoyance of the neighbours and the landlord – they frequently entertained their black friends from Alexandra. They were always in arrears with their rent because of their poverty, and to appease the neighbours, the landlord asked them to vacate the flat without notice and to forget the rent arrears. So they learnt how to live without paying rent in a white racist world: find another flat, annoy the neighbours by partying with their black friends, and the landlord would be so quick to evict them that the rent owing would be overlooked! At this time, they were too poor to live otherwise.

Trying to earn money Swart wrote a radio play which he submitted to the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). When called for an interview, he was so sure that the SABC had accepted his script that instead of using public transport – of which there was ample for whites in those days – to go to the interview, poor as he was, he went in style by taxi. But SABC never took his play, and he got no money for it!

Now and again, Swart’s extended family would organise a get-together in the countryside or plattelands – what we might now describe as a family imbizo or bosberaad – to which Swart would be invited. Jokingly, although appearing serious, he speculated that the gathering was for the reading of a wealthy relative’s last will and testament and that he might be a beneficiary. He never had such luck!

Swart could be deliberately obnoxious and facetious. He and his wife recounted that when they were courting Lillian asked her parents why they opposed her marrying Swart. Her parents replied that when he was cross he would call her a “bloody Jew”. She told this to Swart and thereafter invited him to dinner with her parents. At the table he asked Lillian to pass him the salt. When Lillian asked, “I beg your pardon, what is it you want?”, he replied, “can you pass me the salt, you bloody Jew”. That was vintage Swart! Leveson says of him that he had “an exciting provocative manner of speaking”. But as Peter Horn correctly avers, he was “a man completely free of racial prejudices” which he mocked relentlessly throughout his life. [6]

During one state of emergency Swart was picked up and detained without trial. The white detainees were held at Pretoria Central Prison. Aside from Swart, all were members of the all-white ANC-aligned Congress of Democrats (COD), an organisation that included Communists and Liberal Party members. When the COD members went on a hunger strike Swart did not join them. He maintained such distance from persons he regarded as diehard Stalinists that he would not make common cause with them. Rather than cook for the one detainee not on hunger strike, the Afrikaner prison warders, with whom Swart would banter in Afrikaans and who to some extent saw him as one of their own, would procure a meal of his choice from a restaurant or hotel. On his release from detention, Swart would with a great deal of relish tell us how well he ate in prison while his compatriots were on a hunger strike. In order to annoy them in his usual provocative manner, he probably licked his fingers and smirked his lips in enjoyment as they watched him eating.

Historians such as Baruch Hirson and Francis Nenik have written about Swart’s and his followers’ propensity for alcohol. [7] They revelled in their drinking, claiming that Karl Marx used to pub crawl from Soho in Central London to Hampstead Heath. If Marx could do so, why not them? “Show me”, Swart would ask, “any man greater than Marx?” So it was that on the days he spent politicking in Alexandra he would frequent a shebeen and when he had no money to pay for his drink he would be given a drink on credit, as used to be possible in shebeens. But once, when he owed a large sum, the shebeen “queen” (as they were known in those days) refused to extend his credit. “So you don’t trust a white man?” Swart asked her, here too making a bawdy mockery of racism.

Mokonyane and Swart were to play a crucially determining role in the 1957 Alexandra bus boycott.

How the bus boycott began

Alexandra had a history of bus boycotts, invariably instigated by a penny fare rise. One important boycott that began in November 1944 lasted six weeks. Until then, a myriad of small bus operators provided transport between the township and Johannesburg city centre. One of these operators was Richard Baloyi, a former ANC treasurer-general who lived in Second Avenue, Alexandra until his death in 1962. The 1944 boycott terminated when the Public Utility Transport Company (PUTCO) was given a licence to replace all the small operators; as a virtual monopoly it was able to retain the old fare of four pence – albeit with a government subsidy.

The government refused to increase its subsidy in 1956. Come 1957, pressured by its shareholders, PUTCO was compelled to raise the fare. It proposed a one penny increase in the fare, which due to the subsidy had remained at four pence since 1944. The increase was to be implemented on Monday 7 January 1957. The day before, the Alexandra Standholders Association had convened a meeting of all township organisations that was held at King’s Cinema, at the corner of Second Avenue and Jan Hofmeyr Street. Among the organisations were the ANC and two ANC factions, the National Minded Block and Africanists (precursors of the Pan Africanist Congress or PAC), the MDC and the Alexandra Vigilance Association.

Although there were calls for a bus boycott, the meeting decided to apply to the Supreme Court for an interdict of PUTCO’s fare increase. There was no decision to boycott the buses.

Although not apparent to many of us at the time, there was a good reason why the meeting was steered away from deciding on a bus boycott. During 1956 PUTCO had tried to raise the fares but succeeded only in raising weekend fares. When it announced that weekday fares would rise from 7 January 1957, township organisations started meeting to express concern over the increase. On 2 January the Standholders Association convened a meeting of some of these organisations and formed the Alexandra People’s Transport Action Committee (APTAC). On 5 January, the Standholders Association applied to the Supreme Court for an urgent interdict against PUTCO’s fare increase. The hearing was postponed to 7 January. So the decision of the 6 January public meeting was in line with a process that had already been put in motion.

The interdict application was withdrawn that same Monday when the court declined to grant the order on the grounds the Standholders Association had no locus standi in law to bring the application. Following this ruling, a decision was made – presumably on legal advice to comply with the locus standi requirement – that “three transport users in Alexandra Township were now to petition the court to have the fare increase stayed.” However, even this application was abandoned in order to support an appeal against the increase to be heard by the Rand Transportation Board (Rand Daily Mail, 14 January 1957). Every effort was thus attempted to resort to legal means to prevent the fare increase.

But on the Monday that fares were to rise, people spontaneously decided to refrain from riding the buses and instead began a bus boycott that was to last three months. They acted on their own initiative, with no direction from the previous day’s meeting, and we marvelled at their spontaneity. The MDC was always saying that when “the shoe pinches the masses will act”, and so it was that they simply could not afford to pay a penny more on the bus fares and needed no prompting to boycott the buses.  Most of us believed that the experience of the 1944 bus boycott led people to act instinctively against fare increases. Many of the Alexandra residents who had participated in it were still living there and brought their experience to resist the 1957 fare increase. Significantly, two of the people who emerged as leaders of the 1957 boycott had been leaders of the 1944 boycott: Josias Madzunya and Vincent Swart. Moreover, since 1944, bus boycotts had been mounted in various parts of the country. So boycotts were an automatic and instantaneous mode of protest whenever there was a grievance against a bus company. An article by the communist journalist Ruth First provides an analysis of the compelling socio-economic conditions that gave rise to boycotts. [8]

Yet Phil Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien suggest that the boycott decision was ANC-organised and thus not spontaneous. Relying on a Rand Daily Mail (RDM) report (7 January 1957), they assert that a public meeting of 2000 Alexandra residents on 6 January and chaired by the ANC’s Thomas Nkobi decided to boycott the buses. [9] The writers allude to “the long-standing Alexandra tradition of political pluralism and diversity”. Indeed, in terms of that tradition there was just one meeting on 6 January, the one held at King’s Cinema at 2nd Avenue opposite Number 1 square, at which all interested organisations in Alexandra, including the ANC, were represented. Their reliance on the RDM report brings into question not only Mokonyane’s and my assertion that the bus boycott was a spontaneous act on the part of the people but also – as I will show below – Chief Albert Luthuli’s.

However, according to Mokonyane there were “several meetings held by township organisations on Sunday 6th January, 1957. The one dealing directly with the impending fare rise was held by the Standholders Association in the King’s Cinema near Number One Square” – the one I have mentioned above. At this meeting, he states that “though a number of speakers called for the boycott of buses, the majority of the standholders were more interested in taking the company to court. The Standholders spent time collecting money in order to issue an interdict restraining Putco from raising the fares” – an action they had already started. The meeting, he writes, included “a number of . . . . . left wing politicians”. The left-wing politicians Mokonyane mentions were presumably members of the MDC, ANC and the Africanists. The other organisations’ meetings that Sunday “referred to the rise in bus fares, but were mainly involved in prosecuting their own programmes”. [10]

The ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli stresses the spontaneity of the boycott decision: “Whatever explanations the white press may have chosen to give to its readers, the Rand and Pretoria bus boycott was a spontaneous movement of the people.” In his autobiography Let My People Go originally published in 1962, Luthuli refers both to the Rand boycott, including Alexandra’s, and the Pretoria boycott ongoing at the same time.

“The boycott was essentially a movement of the common people”, Luthuli underlines. “The African National Congress had no part in organising it.” And finally, he states: “A significant fact of the bus boycott itself was that here was a demonstration for which there had been no prior planning. Moreover, it was conceived and executed on the spot. This may not seem particularly significant, but it was. For too long the tendency, inherited from calmer days, was to ‘ask the leaders’ if anything was contemplated.” [11] When the boycott erupted, Luthuli was among the ANC leaders who were facing a charge of treason; their trial took place at the Johannesburg Drill Hall, a mere hundred metres away from the Alexandra bus rank in Noord Street. Being in Johannesburg rather than in Natal allowed him to follow the course of the bus boycott at close range.

Not only was Luthuli in a vantage position to observe the boycott, but he and the other treason trialists must have discussed the boycott and received regular reports from Alexandra. Six of the treason trialists I knew lived in Alexandra: Moses Kotane, John Nkadimeng, Tennyson Makiwane, Joe Molefi, Sam Masemola and Joe Modise. After all, the boycott was making daily headlines and was said to be the talking point of everyone across South Africa – it was undoubtedly discussed by the treason trialists with much input from amongst those of them who lived in Alexandra.

The views expressed above are supported by Elinor Sisulu in her biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu. The biography was published while Sisulu was alive and is thus likely based to some extent on interviews with him. She writes: “Among those who came to the Drill Hall looking for advice and assistance were ANC people involved in the Alexandra bus boycott. This had begun in January 1957 in protest against a one-penny increase in the bus fare to the Johannesburg city centre. It was a spontaneous mass-based movement, in which over 50 000 commuters decided they would rather walk 20 miles a day than accept yet another demand on their already meagre incomes.” [12]

Luthuli’s views of the boycott, particularly its spontaneity, were most likely not his views alone. Significant also is that Luthuli wrote his autobiography within five years of the end of the bus boycott when memory of what actually took place had most likely not faded.

Although the RDM of 7 January claimed that the ANC had called the boycott, it contradicted this on two subsequent occasions. On 27 February, it stated the ANC “played little or no part in calling the boycott originally”. Then, on 1 March it reported that “(T)he boycott was initiated ... by a body called the Alexandra Standholders and Vigilance Association Committee.”

In response to the spontaneous boycott, the organisations that met on 6 January came together on the Monday to transform into a broader committee that would represent all interests in Alexandra to give leadership to the boycott. Faced with the reality of a people’s initiated bus boycott and the court’s refusal to grant an interdict against PUTCO, the decision to fight the fare increase by legal means was abandoned – much to the pleasure of Mokonyane and the MDC who revelled in mass militancy as a means to achieve national liberation. It was agreed that each organisation in Alexandra could be represented on the committee by up to three members. Thus was formed the All Alexandra Bus Boycott Committee, also known as the Alexandra People’s Transport Action Committee (APTAC), with an open invitation to all township organisations to join.

The bus boycott committee

The boycott committee included the ANC’s Alfred Nzo, Thomas Nkobi and Keable Pelo, who was aged about twenty. Although child-like in stature, Pelo was a powerful public speaker and, of these three, the one who most frequently addressed the boycott’s public meetings at No 3 Square. Florence Mphosho, Muriel Sodina and Virgina Mngoma represented the ANC Women’s League.

Josias Madzunya, a leading figure in the Alexandra ANC’s Africanist faction was also a member. Madzunya’s charisma was enhanced by his striking appearance: dark ebony in complexion, big bearded and always dressed in a heavy black coat no matter what weather. He was wont to address public meetings not in his first language but in an amusing broken English, his favourite phrase being “one step forward, two steps backwards”, no doubt picked up when he attended Communist Party education classes in the early 1940s. Yet his message was always very clear. He earned his living by collecting cardboard for recycling, and people jokingly said that he had his office on a pavement at the corner of Mooi & Pritchard Streets, Johannesburg, with the nearby public telephone booth as his “office” phone!

The ANC National Minded Bloc was represented by Dan Gumede and M Motsele (but said in some accounts to have been in Madzunya’s Africanist faction). Some of the representatives of the other organisations were ordinary ANC members so that, in this sense, the ANC constituted a majority on the committee. J. S. Mathebula, representing the Vigilance Association, was then or subsequently became a Liberal Party member.

Dan Mokonyane together with Vincent Swart, Arthur Magerman and Simon Noge – any two of them to make up three MDC representatives – were a minority on the committee. But, it turned out, they were the boycott’s effective leaders, even though the MDC was not even known by the general public of Alexandra. At the time Magerman was one of the first black cohorts employed by the South African Railways as barrier attendants on station platforms. At the height of the boycott he took leave from work and went to Durban for the duration of his leave and so missed some of the action. The Swarts had by this time moved to a rural plot well on the way to Vereeniging and far from Alexandra. Thus Vincent Swart could not attend all the committee’s evening meetings. But he made sure not to miss any of the public meetings at Number 3 Square.

That no single organisation dominated Alexandra’s politics is shown by the fact that in addition to the mainstream ANC the committee had two ANC factions – the Africanists and the National Minded Bloc, which counted amongst its members previously mentioned Richard Baloyi and its leaders R. V. Selope-Thema (died 1955), an ANC founding member and former Bantu World editor. The boycott committee was chaired by S. Mahlangu a member of the Standholders Association that had convened that first meeting at the King’s Cinema. Nzo was made secretary, and Mokonyane, publicity secretary, later replacing Nzo as secretary.

NEUM’s refusal to join the boycott committee

The Johannesburg SOYA/NEUM met regularly on Saturday afternoons as a discussion and study group called the Progressive Forum. Seven of us (Isaiah Lepolesa, Peter Matlhare, Derrick de Jager, Mthutzeli Mpehle, Ishmael Mahomed, Claude Noble and myself) had grown disillusioned with the NEUM because it suppressed talk of socialism. We issued a statement arguing that Tabata’s The Awakening of a People began by noting that South Africa’s problem was both political and social, but that it failed to analyse the social question. Tabata was seen as a leading NEUM theoretician, and his faction treated the book as a bible. As a result, the social question was never discussed at Progressive Forum meetings. When we asked to study beyond Tabata’s book we were referred to Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism or advised to go back again and again to Tabata’s book.

Matters came to a head when the Progressive Forum refused an invitation for the Alexandra SOYA/NEUM members to join the boycott committee. At this stage the Alexandra members were Lukele, Matlhare and myself. The Progressive Forum’s dominant faction was composed of Lukele, Victor Sondlo, Jennifer Davis (nee Heymann), Mike Davis, Dolly Hassim, Mputhulo (known by his surname only), Norman Traub, Abdulhay Salojee and Bernard Berman – all of them at the time unquestioningly loyal to Tabata. They emphatically argued against joining the boycott committee. They argued that the NEUM was a federal structure of affiliated organisations adhering to the Ten Point Programme and committed to the principle of non-collaboration with the oppressive regime and to a boycott of the oppressor’s “dummy institutions” – for example, the Advisory Boards, the Transkei Bunga, the Native Representative Council and the elections of three whites to represent blacks in parliament. What is more, they argued – in contempt of the struggle against a penny bus fare increase – that the national liberation struggle is not for a penny but for a realisation of a full and unqualified franchise as enshrined in the first point of the Ten Point Programme. Thus, they said, it was up to the boycott committee to join the NEUM: namely, to adopt the NEUM’s principles and the Ten Point Programme and on that basis seek affiliation to the NEUM. And so it was that except for issuing a leaflet – preaching, without soiling their hands, from an ivory tower to people on the ground actively engaged in a boycott – the NEUM played no part in the boycott.

Ironically, the attitude of the apartheid government was the exact opposite of NEUM’s: Minister of Transport B.J. Schoeman, claimed that the boycott was not about the penny fare increase but rather a campaign to overthrow the state! The NEUM, having built its reputation as an unflinching proponent of Tabata’s pamphlet, Boycott as a Weapon of Struggle, brought much ridicule to itself by refusing to join the boycott committee. It was said that the NEUM was “boycotting the boycott”.

The seven of us who issued the statement critical of Tabata’s Awakening left SOYA/NEUM/Progressive Forum as a result. We continued meeting regularly as a group – some amongst us were teachers active in the formation of the Transvaal Indian & Coloured Teachers Association, others like Lepolesa joined the ANC Youth League and some of us, myself included, made contact with former members of the Cape Town Forum Club like Kenny Jordaan and Enver Marney. Many years later Mohamed and Mphehle joined the ANC and became ANC members of parliament after 1994. As an Alexandra resident not belonging to any organisation, I joined in the daily mobilisation to sustain the boycott. That meant, together with Mokonyane, the Swarts and other MDC members, going from street to street talking to people about the boycott, reporting on the committee meetings and warning against a sell-out.

Dan Mokonyane warns against the press

Vincent Swart, as noted above, had been a leading participant in Alexandra’s 1944 bus boycott. With this experience, and reflecting the MDC’s belief in democracy from below, he and Mokonyane prevailed on the committee to hold public meetings on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when people had returned from work, in addition to a Sunday public meeting when more people could attend. The meetings were held at No 3 Square, half way along the mile long length of Alexandra. Mokonyane argued for frequent public meetings so that the committee could report on its deliberations and receive mandates for its decisions and actions. Without regular public meetings, he pointed out, people would rely on the press for reports, but the press was biased and distorted. Thus it was that every time Mokonyane mounted the podium to address the public meetings, he would remind people that those meetings were the only official news source about the boycott, that the committee acted on a mandate given at the public meetings and that the people must hold the committee accountable. Mokonyane was guarding both against private deals made behind the people’s back and the media’s efforts to influence the boycott.

By the time of the 1957 boycott, the Swarts had moved to a farm in Jackson’s Drift, a rural area in the southernmost part of Johannesburg, near Vereeniging – a long way away from Alexandra. Since their car was always breaking down, Vincent Swart hitchhiked to Alexandra to attend some of the public meetings; this usually entailed several lifts.

Die Vaderland (18th February 1957), a daily mouthpiece for the government’s apartheid policies, published a photo of Vincent and Lillian Swart, sitting in the midst of boycotters at a public meeting. The photograph was captioned, ‘a white, Vincent Swart, who farms in the vicinity of Jacksondrift [sic], also addressed the natives.” Use of the detested N-word by whites and the white press to refer to black people was common at the time. [13]

The Swarts were not farming – the newspaper was incorrect. More importantly, the Swarts felt that by publishing the photo and publicizing where they lived, Die Vaderland was inviting the government’s “brown shirts” supporters to attack them. As a result, they lived in fear.

With the boycott making daily headlines and the government proclaiming that it was a political attempt to overthrow the state, Swart’s involvement in the boycott had become well known. Notwithstanding Die Vaderland’s (7 March 1957) provocative headlines – BUS BOYCOT DRIVEN BY INTIMIDATION [14] – when Swart received a lift to Alexandra – invariably from white motorists – he would candidly introduce himself as the “one who appeared in Die Vaderland” and announce that he was on his way to a boycott meeting. On quite a few occasions the motorists would go out of their way and take Swart all the way to Wynberg, just outside Alexandra – the nearest to Alexandra that whites would go. Swart could be so charming that he even persuaded a printing company to produce boycott leaflets written by himself and Mokonyane at the behest of the committee – at no cost to APTAC, which had no funds.

In fact, many whites, especially those from the Liberal Party and the COD, offered lifts to the boycotters as they walked the ten miles along Louis Botha Avenue, the main thoroughfare from Alexandra into Johannesburg.

Caucus meetings

Having left SOYA/NEUM for the reasons mentioned above, especially their refusal to be part of the boycott committee, I was privileged to be invited to both the MDC’s caucus meetings, which were held immediately after each public meeting, and private meetings held at Monty Berman’s home attended by Baruch Hirson and David Soggot, amongst others, in order to regularly appraise the course of the boycott.

A communist and ardent bus boycott supporter, Berman ran a dry-cleaning business in Wynberg, just a street away from Alexandra, on whose premises some of the boycott committee’s meetings were held.  Because of his business’ location, Berman had close ties with Alexandra, especially some of its ANC members. He was thus kept well informed about the boycott.

A constant refrain, particularly at meetings held at Berman’s home, was that unless the boycott was resolved soon, it would fizzle out and leave people demoralised and reluctant to engage in future struggles. What would this imply for future struggles? People were walking ten miles or more to work, the same distance back to the township, then on to the public meetings at No 3 Square. For how long could people sustain this exhausting trek? Was a compromise possible? The questions were debated at every meeting.

On the contrary, no such fears were ever expressed at the MDC caucus meetings.  Every time Mokonyane addressed the public meetings at No 3 Square he would exhort the people to “save food for a rainy day” when he believed that the boycott could evolve into a stayaway from work. In this way, he was nudging the boycott towards a general strike. The RDM (7 March 1957) reported him saying: “When we are tired we will stay at home and wait for commerce and industry to come and fetch us for work”. [15] The idea of a general stayaway was not unrealistic given that sympathy bus boycotts were being staged in several areas outside Alexandra, some as far away as Port Elizabeth, which were not affected by a fare increase. Some of these sympathy boycotts were organised by local ANC members.

Attempts to break the boycott

From the last week of February a concerted effort to break the boycott was mounted. This involved the cooperation of certain boycott and advisory board leaders, the Johannesburg City Council, the employers, the government, the Liberal Party and the press – as well as behind-the-scene consultations by some of these bodies with ANC leaders. In an unprecedented move the RDM (23 February 1957) proclaimed in very bold and unusually large font across the top of the front page:

A Rand Daily Mail Statement of Policy with a Message to Employers to Warn Their Workers against THE FOUR MEN OF ALEXANDRA. In spite of them buses will be READY AND WAITING TO GO on MONDAY.

The RDM did not name the four men. But as the next section details, they were Mokonyane, Magerman (or Swart), Madzunya and Motsele. “These four men”, said the newspaper, “in the face of an offer to solve the problem, told the ‘Rand Daily Mail’: ‘The boycott goes on’. By so doing they branded themselves as unworthy leaders of their people.”

Without any regard to the need to place the offer before the people at their public meeting so people could themselves decide whether to accept or reject the offer, the majority on the boycott committee had accepted the offer. The RDM in its statement saw nothing wrong in that.

What was the offer? According to the RDM:

The Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce met and urged in a subsequent statement that as from Monday all employers should make a transport allowance of a shilling a week to all their Natives affected by the fare increase. They urged as further an additional shilling allowance for those Natives whose wives and children used the buses.

Their Natives! As if it would be correct to say, for example, “their Italians”.

In response to the “Bob-A-Week” offer the RDM (25 February) reported that “the Coordinating Council which claims to represent all the various committees concerned in the boycott in the Johannesburg and Pretoria areas” would bring the boycott to an “end immediately” if a “workable method of administration of the shilling-a-week proposal could be found.”

Indeed, the Coordinating Council claimed to be and was seen by PUTCO, the Johannesburg City Council and the employers as representing the various regional boycott committees. But the Council had been created by the ANC with no mandate whatsoever from the Alexandra committee to represent it. It was understandable that such a structure was created to coordinate the sympathy boycotts organised by ANC members in their various areas. Nzo was the Council’s secretary, but when he started making press statements purporting to represent all the committees, the Alexandra committee removed him as its secretary and replaced him with Mokonyane.

Contrary to Mokonyane’s politics, the bodies negotiating with the Coordinating Council believed that any agreement reached amongst themselves to end the boycott would be sufficient to end the Alexandra boycott. The Coordinating Council itself did not think any differently: it saw itself as making decisions on behalf of the people. As a result, even before the deal was put before the people, the newspapers declared that the boycott was over. But not according to Mokonyane, who insisted that no deal would be struck behind the people’s back. Any deal would have to be put before the people at the public meetings at Number Three Square.

In expectation of the boycott’s end, on 25 February PUTCO put back 27 “big” buses on the road in Alexandra, the RDM reported. But two days later on 27 February, with PUTCO threatening to withdraw its services on 1 March should the boycott continue, the RDM  reported that “(T)here have been signs this week of a split between the boycott leaders. The African National Congress … is testing its strength against the non-member boycott leaders.” The ANC was said to test its strength against non-ANC members because it had apparently accepted the “shilling-a-week” proposal. However, at the public meeting held the evening of the same day, that is on 27 February, people decided to continue the boycott in defiance of a Minister of Transport ultimatum that “no alternative service will be permitted.”  Despite the fact that people had made this decision, on the following day, the RDM (28 February) proclaimed: “Today is the day for final decision. Tomorrow the Public Utility Transport Corporation, who operate the service, will withdraw the service if the boycott is not ended.”

Efforts to find a compromise solution did not end with the rejection of the “shilling-a-week” recommendation by the City Council to commerce and industry. In any event, business did not buy into this scheme. It had its own.

Business offers £25,000 to end the boycott

So tiring was the walking that it turned into an unintended and uncalled for go-slow at work. The Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce (JCC), recognising the effect on productivity, weighed in with its own scheme by offering PUTCO £25,000 on condition the fares were retained at four pence. This was no solution to the problem, PUTCO argued. What would happen when the £25,000 was exhausted? The one pence fare rise was a long term solution to meet the demands of PUTCO’s shareholders, whereas the JCC offer was not. PUTCO insisted on people paying 5p for which it would issue a ticket with 5p written on it. PUTCO rejected the offer, which was withdrawn.

But, like our small group that met at Berman’s home, the committee’s majority was so worried about prolonging the boycott – some arguing that it risked ending in total failure – that Berman was asked, I presume by the ANC, to seek intervention by the Bishop of Johannesburg, Ambrose Reeves. Berman duly asked the Bishop to approach the JCC to renew their offer. As a result, the JCC and PUTCO agreed that people would pay the 5p fare on boarding the bus and that when they alighted they would go to a kiosk to reclaim a one pence refund out of the JCC’s £25,000. In that way, the fare would effectively remain unincreased – for a while. By this time the boycott was two months old.

On 28 February 1957 the day after people had rejected the “shilling-a-week” proposal, when Berman and the Bishop presented the agreement between the JCC and PUTCO to the committee, Mokonyane sarcastically kept addressing Berman as His Grace and the Bishop as Comrade Ambrose. So opposed was he to the compromise agreement that he saw the communists and the church as having swapped roles!

The committee majority accepted this one pence refund arrangement and put this in writing. Just two dissenting voices voted against the decision: Mokonyane and Magerman, the only two MDC members present. Other accounts, including Mokonyane’s, have it that Madzunya and Motsele also voted against the proposal. That is not my recollection, judging by Madzunya’s behaviour at the public meeting the next day when the proposal was put to the people and also by what Mokonyane himself writes in a seemingly self-contradictory way in his book – I substantiate this below.

The next morning, on 1 March, the media proclaimed the bus boycott to be finally over. Proclaiming “DRAMATIC TURN IN BOYCOTT”, Die Vaderland, reported:

After negotiations of the Johannesburg bus boycott, the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and PUTCO this morning took a dramatic turn, it is now an accomplished fact that the boycott will cease. Leaders of the boycott have already reached an agreement with PUTCO, according to a spokesperson of the company who spoke to Die Vaderland.

Details of the agreement will be put before the boycotters by their leaders this afternoon. There is no doubt that it will be accepted.

One of the native leaders, Madzunya, said at the meeting however ‘I as a native can’t trust them. You can give us no guarantee that we will get that penny. What will happen after the three months?’

Other native leaders pleaded that the offer should be accepted without reservation. [16]

Having suffered defeat in the committee, Mokonyane demanded that both the majority view and minority view must be presented at the next day’s public meeting when the compromise deal was to be announced and the boycott’s end proclaimed. The majority refused, arguing that the committee’s majority decision must prevail – that that is the way of democracy – and would be the only decision put before the public meeting. Mokonyane was not to be allowed an opportunity to express the minority view. He argued to the contrary that democracy requires both majority and minority views to be put to the people – a kind of referendum on the issue.

At the public meeting – the evening of the same day that Die Vaderland  prematurely reported the boycott’s end to be an “an accomplished fact” – Mr S. Mahlangu, the committee chairperson, read out the compromise agreement and the decision of the majority of the committee to accept it and end the boycott. When he finished, he and other committee members tried to jostle Mokonyane off the podium. But Mokonyane grabbed the microphone and the paper on which the resolution and agreement were written out of his hand. Mokonyane was asserting what he had all along argued – that it is the people who must hear both views and have the final say. By this time, Mokonyane’s oratory in both English and SePedi was so much enjoyed and anticipated by the people that they shouted at the chairman to allow Mokonyane to speak. Not only did he speak and put forward his minority view – what will happen when the JCC’s £25,000 is exhausted? – to wide acclaim by the people. He also lit a match and set fire to the paper on which the majority decision and compromise agreement were written. The rest of the committee, including Nzo, Nkobi and Pelo, left the stage or where they had been standing near the stage and disappeared into the crowd.

Tom Lodge claims that Motsele set the agreement alight. [17] Mokonyane himself asserts: “I jumped on to the platform – took what Mahlangu had been reading – the offer – and burnt it”. [18] The day after the mass rejection of the compromise deal, the RDM (2 March) reported: “Mr Mocsele (sic) …. jumped on the platform and helped to burn a copy of the proposals”. And on 4 March it stated that: “Two” of those who rejected the offer “were Mr Dan Mokonyane, who set the proposals on fire … and Mr Motsele, who waved the burning paper at the crowd.” Clearly, it was Mokonyane, not Motsele, who torched the proposals.

Although sceptical of the deal, Madzunya and Motsele had nevertheless voted with the majority to support it. But at the public meeting, they were the only ones who changed their minds. Madzunya came to the podium and expressed his respect for and acceptance of the people’s will to reject the proposed scheme. He reiterated the remark quoted in Die Vaderland: “What will happen after the three months?” when the money offered by the JCC would be exhausted.

Mokonyane states that Madzunya, Motsele and Magerman supported him in the committee meeting when the compromise deal was supported by the majority. [19] But he is wrong with regard to the first two. Madzunya and Motsele did not support him during the committee meeting. They came out in support of him at the next day’s public meeting when he set light to the proposal and realised how the people felt about the deal. Firstly, Madzunya was clearly recanting when he stood on the platform – that is the impression he gave. He apologised for supporting the decision on the deal and said he now accepted the will of the people. Secondly, Mokonyane seemingly contradicting himself says that “to his lasting credit Madzunya agreed publicly that he had been wrong”. [20] Wrong about what if he hadn’t voted to accept the compromise deal at the committee meeting on 28 February? Agreed publicly that he was wrong? Yes, that was when he mounted the platform at the 1 March public meeting to recant and say he accepted the people’s decision and so “to his lasting credit”!

This public meeting at No 3 Square, at which the people rejected the compromise deal, was the boycott’s climax. It was on that high plateau that the boycott continued to the end. Die Vaderland (2 March 1957), the day after the deal’s rejection, had this report:

S. Mahlangu, chairman of the ‘Alexandra Peoples’ Transport & Action Committee’, made an attempt to read the offer of the Chamber of Commerce with a loudspeaker and was shouted down before he could read two sentences.

The leaders were labelled as betrayers and were threatened with death. Some of the leaders fled from the meeting.

In the midst of the disorder, one of the leaders got on to the stage and set the paper on which the offer of the Chamber of Commerce was recorded alight. He was lifted shoulder high and carried from the stage while the natives sang their anthem ‘nkosi sikelele Afrika’.

While the offer was burnt to ashes, the natives shouted in one voice: ‘We don’t want PUTCO here. They must voetsek out of Alexandra. We will walk on foot till we die. [21]

It was not without good reason that when Mokonyane addressed the public meetings, he would caution people not to rely on newspaper reports of the boycott. In those days the press was not on the side of our struggle. But because they covered national and international news, we learnt to read them, as we used to say amongst ourselves, for “what’s between the lines”.

Die Vaderland, like all the “white” newspapers, carried a false narrative that the boycott was characterised by violence, intimidation and death threats. This was not true. Nor was it true that Mahlangu was prevented from reading the committee’s majority decision. Mahlangu read out the full agreement with PUTCO and the JCC. After all, Mokonyane had insisted that both the majority and minority views must be reported at the public meeting, so Mahlangu could not have been stopped from reading and reporting on the majority view. Die Vaderland does not mention his name but, to repeat, it was Mokonyane who, after Mahlangu spoke, grabbed the loudspeaker and the agreement and set it alight. And it was Mokonyane who was carried shoulder high when the people sang the anthem.

Similarly, Die Vaderland’s misreported Madzunya as stating: “I as a native (naturel)”. Madzunya, an ultra-black nationalist, would never use the N-word to describe himself.

And so the bus boycott was not at an end. Despite the fallout over the compromise deal and its utter rejection by popular acclaim, the committee nevertheless stayed in place to continue leading the boycott.

Despite this very critical and dramatic moment in the life of the boycott, no account of the committee’s internal arguments over whether to allow both majority and minority views to be put before the masses – arguments that actually led to the public meeting’s outcome – has been given in the historical narratives that I have read.

It is in the way demonstrated in this account that Mokonyane, though in the minority, was the dominant and effective leader of the 1957 bus boycott. So powerful had he become that the Special Branch believed the MDC to be a mass movement in Alexandra. At one of Swart’s extended family bosberaads held during the bus boycott, his relative Colonel Spengler, fishing for information, remarked that the MDC must be a mass organisation to wield such influence over the boycott. Swart, with his usual candidness, quipped that “there’s not more than six of us!” Actually, there were eight Alexandra members, but only four – Mokonyane, Noge and Magerman (when not working late) and himself – were actively engaged in the boycott.

The boycott continued for another month resulting in a complete victory for the people with the fares remaining at 4p and without the terms proposed by the Johannesburg City Council or the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce. In the end, it is the government that capitulated, paid the subsidy to PUTCO. The people of Alexandra had won on terms set by themselves!

The 1957 Alexandra bus boycott stands out, in my view, as the only struggle, politicised by government and so turning against government, to achieve its demand before the advent of black consciousness. The other periodic boycotts were against the bus operators and did not involve a challenge to government. Indeed, there were many heroic struggles and campaigns in that entire period, many organised by the ANC, but none ended in victory to the people or in the realisation of their objectives. These ranged from the early deputations and petitions against the 1913 Land Act to the numerous stay-at-homes organised by the ANC and the South African Congress of Trade Unions.

The NEUM labelled these ANC-led campaigns as “stunts”, a view shared by the MDC. Nonetheless, despite failing to achieve their goals, they constitute an iconography of struggles which the ANC deploys – sometimes conflating state and party – to demonstrate its struggle credentials and continuing relevance, with celebrations on their landmark dates. Those without a history of mass activism in the national liberation struggle have absolutely no legacy to celebrate!

The boycott’s aftermath

Following the bus boycott’s success, Mokonyane and the Swarts went to Sophiatown and spent their days trying to use their bus boycott experience to organise against the forced removals – just as we in the ANC Youth League had done in 1953. The ANC rightly called for them to be opposed, and the opposition was encapsulated in the hit song of the time “Ons dak nie, ons pola hier” [We are not moving, we remain here] that remains popular to this day. But despite the ANC’s valiant campaign, they failed to arouse mass resistance. The removals had been ongoing since 1955 and were carried out under heavy police presence. So for the MDC to struggle against them at this stage was a lost cause. Sophiatown’s living conditions were appalling: one family – often more than one – lived in a small rented room, shared one or two outside toilets and a single water tap with a number of other families, each also renting a room on the same stand. What none of us understood at the time is that mass resistance could not be generated because people were being offered infinitely better housing in the euphemistically named Meadowlands to which they were being relocated.

A few years later, that was Alexandra’s fate, as well. Although the people of Alexandra were not entirely removed, property owners were dispossessed of their freehold property titles and their tenants removed to Diepkloof in Soweto. As a consequence, they lost the rental income out of which they paid their mortgages. In this way, my parents lost titles to two properties in Alexandra. On the property where my parents had built a house in 1948 and where we lived, they were reduced from owners to rent-paying tenants of the “Resettlement” Board. In Diepkloof, as in Meadowlands, each family was offered a three- or four-roomed house on its own stand and with its own toilet and water tap. Just as mass resistance to the Sophiatown removals had been doomed, so, too, was that in Alexandra.

To be certain, there was political agitation against the removals. But it did not translate into mass resistance to the removals. My assertion is supported by Sam Shakong, a resident of Alexandra at the time and whose family was moved to Diepkloof:

As the trucks were being loaded, loud mixed voices peppered the morning air. There were those that seemed excited to be moving out of the slum and looking forward to the promised land where they would live in the splendour of four roomed houses which consisted of two bedrooms, a dining room and a kitchen. The cherry on top was a water borne toilet. In the house! There were also those who didn’t want to move. The first group were the land lords for obvious reasons. Others loathed the imminent breaking of friendships and the disruption of life as they knew it. Being forced to move to a new place without any consultation was really unacceptable but we were helpless. [22]

Even the “Save Alexandra” campaign launched by well-intentioned Rev Sam Buti years after the removals were underway did not restore the freehold land titles. It was a campaign not of mass resistance but rather of accommodation with the government by exploiting what was reputed to be his friendship with the Minister of Co-operation and Development, Piet Koornhof. The youths who were engaged in struggles to render the country ungovernable perceived him as a collaborator with the government. “He had been elected mayor of Alex in the mid-1980s but this move was interpreted by Alexandrans as siding with the apartheid government and betraying their interests. In 1985 his house was bombed and razed to the ground. His family came under enormous pressure, and begged him to give up his mayorship, hence the threats”. [23]  As his right hand person, he was joined by bus boycott leader Arthur Magerman – the MDC now defunct – who was designated Alexandra’s “Town Clerk”. [24] In any event, the government’s aim was never a total removal of the people of Alexandra because of the labour needs of the growth of industries in the areas immediately surrounding Alexandra. That is why by the late 1970s when Buti started his campaign there were still people who had not been removed from Alexandra.

Mokonyane and Vincent Swart were both subjected to detention without trial each time the regime locked up the liberation movement leaders, usually during the states of emergency.

Swart was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act and confined to his home, at this time on a Linbro Park smallholding, just outside Alexandra. When he fell chronically ill he wrote to Minister of Justice Balthazar Johannes Vorster to relax his banning order so that he could receive treatment in Hillbrow, there being no medical facilities in Linbro Park. Not getting a reply, he again wrote to the Minister, declaring that he was defying the banning order by moving to Hillbrow to be within reach of medical treatment. Although now divorced, Lillian graciously paid for his medical expenses and his relocation to Hillbrow. Vincent gave the Minister his new address in a spirit of “come and arrest me if you want”. The Sunday Express (18 March 1962) carried a report of his open defiance to Vorster, the architect of detention-without-trial laws, as follows:

Sir, I wish to inform you that I have broken my ban. On Saturday 13th January I was rushed to the nearest nursing home ….  critically ill with double pneumonia.

He died on 15 December 1962, his dying wish that his ashes be scattered over Alexandra.

Twenty-seven-year-old Mokonyane became a hero in the eyes of Alexandra’s residents as a result of his role in the bus boycott. The tsotsis would say that he was the only person they would tolerate speaking English to them. He had become so popular that at every turn he made in Alexandra there would be people offering him a drink, so much that like Swart in no time he became an imbiber of note to be reckoned with.

But the detentions compelled him to go into exile. When the time came to flee, he was not a moegoe after all. In those days the mines recruited much labour from as far afield as Tanganyika, as Tanzania was then known. The mines’ recruiting agency, the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WENELA) flew the recruits, all migrant labourers, from central Africa to Francistown in Bechuanaland, now Botswana. From Francistown they were brought to Johannesburg by train. The same route was retraced at the end of their contracts. Typical of the mines’ attitude to cheap black labour, they were not treated as individuals, each with a travel ticket. They were simply seen as a group, packed like sardines in both plane and train –a common sight on their arrival or departure at Johannesburg’s Park Station. Mokonyane dressed himself like these migrant labourers and joined them at Park Station, posing as one of them, boarding the train to Francistown and from there taking the flight to Dar es Salaam – all chartered travel at no cost to himself. No one else’s route into exile, skipping the country illegally, was as easy and smart as his – the moegoe had the last laugh!

Mokonyane completed a law degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. In 1979 he published Lessons of Azikwelwa [they are not to be ridden] on the Alexandra bus boycott. Written in a highly polemical style, Azikwelwa discusses the MDC’s politics in hodgepodge fashion and is remarkable for how, twenty-two years after the boycott, Mokonyane could recall dates and names of people who were not on the committee, but who interacted with it, representing various interests opposed to the boycott. In 1994 he published The Big Sell Out, an ultra-leftist critique of the democratic transition that he broadly shared with the organisations that shunned CODESA and play no significant role in post-apartheid South Africa. [25]

His brilliant mind and great oratorical skills went to waste, in my view, because of his drinking. After the glory of the bus boycott in which he basked till the end of his life, he played no further role in the political struggle. He died in London on his eightieth birthday, 16 October 2010.


This then gives an account of the 1957 Alexandra bus boycott and of two of its dominant personalities based on my experiences as a participant in that struggle. As mentioned above, I initially wrote this memoir entirely from memory but later backed it up with whatever corroborative evidence I could lay my hands on. I felt a compulsion to write it because significant features of the boycott have been overlooked or distorted in the historical narratives, in particular the vesting of decision-making in the people through the public meetings held at Number 3 Square and the peak of the boycott when Mokonyane, opposing the compromise agreement and insisting that both majority and minority views be put to the people, stood on the podium at the public meeting, burned the agreement and won the people’s support.

And so, after three months, the boycott ended. Not on the terms of the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce nor the Johannesburg City Council nor the Liberal Party. The boycott ended when people could ride the buses by paying the old fare of four pence. At that level the fares thereafter remained for many years.


Thanks to Basil Manning for help with Die Vaderland translations and to Allison Drew for help with editing.

End notes

[1] Lukele subsequently went into exile and completed a PhD in the United States, where he died in 2008. I wrote his obituary, published in City Press (10 February 2008) and at H-Net Discussion Networks – OBITUARY: Andrew Lukele (1939-2008).

[2] Baruch Hirson devotes a chapter to Koza in A History of the Left In South Africa, I.B. Tauris, 2005, pp 180-206.

[3] Louis Molamu: Tsotsi Taal – a Dictionary of the Language of Sophiatown, University of South Africa, 2002. Thanks to Molamu who met Mokonyane in London and informed me of the  more apt term “ruralitarian” coined by Eusebia McKaiser on Radio 702.

[4] Vincent Swart, Collected Poems, edited by Marcia Leveson, Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1981.

[5] According to Baruch Hirson, Revolutions in My Life, Witwatersrand University Press, 1955, p. 169, the Swarts financially supported Trotskyist organisations during the early 1940s, but by the 1950s were no longer Trotskyists.

[6] Swart, Collected Poems; Peter Horn, ‘Vincent Swart or the malaise of South African poetry’, Freitag, January 2019.

[7] Baruch Hirson, Revolutions, p. 258; Francis Nenik, ‘Burning Bright, Burning Out – the story of poet and anti-apartheid activist Edward Vincent Swart’, Transition, 119, 2016, pp. 155-67.

[8] Ruth First, ‘The Bus Boycott’,

[9] Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien: Alexandra – A History, Wits University Press, 2008, pp. 143-48.

[10] Dan Mokonyane: Lessons of Azikwelwa, Nakong Ya Rena, second edition, 1994, p 34.

[11] Albert Luthuli, Let My People Go, Kwela, 2006, pp. 169, 170-71, 174.

[12] Elinor Sisulu: Walter & Albertina Sisulu – In Our Lifetime, David Philip Publishers, 2002, pp. 130-31.

[13] “’n blank, Vincent Swart, wat in die omgewing van Jacksondrift (sic) boer, het ook die naturelle toegespreek.”


[15] Quoted in IZWI lase TOWNSHIP: Alexandra – events and historical notes <>. This publication was brought out by youth in Alexandra in April 1982 when PUTCO fares were due increase on 26 April. The publication commemorates the 1957 Alexandra bus boycott. What makes it remarkable is that some of its information sources could only have been given orally by Alexandra residents who experienced and participated in the 1957 – and possibly 1944 – bus boycott (s).

[16] DRAMATIESE WENDING IN BOIKOT – Nadat onderhandelings van die Johannesburg busboikot, die Johannesburg  Kamer van Koophandel en PUTCO vanoggend ‘n dramatiese wending geneem het, is dit nou ‘n voldonge feit dat die boikot vanmiddag afgelas sal word. Leiers van die boikot het reeds ‘n ooreenkoms aangegaan met PUTCO, het ‘n woord voerder van die maatskappy vanoggended aan Die Vaderland gese’. Besonderhede van die ooreenkoms sal vanmiddag aan boikotters voorgele word deur hul leiers. Daar bestaan omtrent geen twyfel dat dit aanvaar sal word nie. Een van die naturelle leiers Madzunya, het op die vergardering gese’, dat die aanbod na ‘n baie mooi gebaar van die Kamer klink, maar ‘ek as ‘n naturel vertrou julle nie. Julle kan ons geen waarborg gee da tons daardie pennie gaan kry nie. Wat gaan na die drie maande gebeur?’ Ander naturelleleiers het gepleit dat die aanbod sonder versuim aanvaar moes word.

[17] Tom Lodge: Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945, Ravan Press, 1990, p. 163.

[18] Mokonyane, Lessons, p. 47.

[19] Mokonyane, Lessons, p. 49.

[20] Mokonyane, Lessons, p. 56.

[21] S. Mahlangu, voorsitter van die ‘Alexandra Peoples’ Transport & Action Committee’, wat ‘n poging aangewend het om die aanbod van die Kamer van Koophandel voor te lees mee luidspreker en al dood geskree voordat hy twee sinne kon lees. Die leiers is deur die oproerige naturelle uitgekryt vir verraaiers en het hulle selfs met die dood gedreig. Sommige van die leiers het die vergardering gevlug. Te midde van hierdie wanorde het een van die leiers op die verhoog geklim en die papier waarop die aanbod van die Kamer van Koophandel uiteengesit is, aan die brand gesteek. Hy is van die verhoog gegryp en skouerhoog weggedra terwyl die naturelle hulle volkslied ‘nkosi sikelele Afrika’ gesing het. Terwyl die aanbod tot as verbrand is, het die naturelle soos uit een mond geskree: ‘ons will PUTCO nie he’ nie. Hulle moet voetsek uit Alexandra. Ons sal met die voet loop tot da tons doodgaan,

[22] Sam Shakong: I Want to See the Sun Rise – a South African story of exile and fatherhood, Xarra Books, 2019, p29.

[23] Rev Sam Buti, Alex’s saviour,,-Alex's-saviour.aspx

[24] Magerman died in January 2017. A Sunday Times obituary (29 January 2017) claimed that he “carried a top-secret mission on the instructions of Nelson Mandela”, issued from Pollsmoor Prison, “to ensure that the hugely popular cleric and community leader the Rev Sam Buti never got too close to the apartheid government”. Whatever credence, if any, this claim carries, it does implicitly acknowledge that Buti’s Save Alexandra Campaign was not opposed by the apartheid government.

[25] Lessons of Azikwelwa was so seriously in need of editing that a second, corrected edition was published in 1994. Dan Mokonyane, The Big Sell Out, London, Nakong Ya Rona, 1994.