Book Review | Parcel of Death 

By giving us a glimpse into the remarkable life of anti-apartheid activist Onkgopotse Abram Tiro, journalist and Tiro’s nephew Gaongalelwe Tiro memorialises the young firebrand’s life.

The saying “blood is thicker than water” shouldn’t have been true in the case of Onkgopotse Abram Tiro. The slain anti-apartheid activist was more than the property of his family. Tiro was more than the son of his mother, Moleseng “MmaAbram” Tiro, more than just a descendant of the Bahurutshe, a rebel clan among the Batswana, more than a native of Dinokana, Setswana for “place of rivulets”, an area in Zeerust. Tiro was the first South African freedom fighter the apartheid regime pursued into Botswana, where he was assassinated with a parcel bomb. So, in many ways, Tiro is the primal victim, a symbol of the horrors of apartheid.

Yet we have had to wait 43 years since his death for his biography, which his nephew, Pretoria-based journalist Gaongalelwe Tiro, has just published. This is rather strange, for Tiro’s comrades were in their twenties and thirties when he was killed. Some of them are even writers and poets, but no one seems to have made the effort of writing down his life until Tiro’s own kin thought of setting down the record.  The cliché is true: there are instances when blood is indeed thicker than water. 

Gaongalelwe’s account begins, dramatically, on the fateful Friday afternoon of 1 February 1974 when Tiro was murdered. The Kgale neighbourhood of Gaborone, where Tiro was killed, is near a granite quarry “so loud bangs were not an altogether rare occurrence” there. Yet, on that day, the loud explosion that rang out had sinister overtones: it was the blast of death. The martyr, Tiro, was only 28. The detonation was so powerful it blew an iron Welcome Dover stove to the other end of the room, disemboweling Tiro and disfiguring his face. Tiro’s hands were never found. As a cousin of the slain freedom fighter later remarked, “If an iron stove is in smithereens like this, what happened to the body?”

Young people today might not understand the sheer joy older people felt when the postman rang to announce a letter or parcel. For Tiro, fleeing apartheid authorities and recently exiled to Gaborone, letters were a way of keeping in touch with family, friends and comrades. Lawrence Mphafe, a student at St Joseph’s College, knocked on Tiro’s door holding a parcel supposedly from the International University Exchange Fund, a Swiss-based activist group. When Kgomotso Mogapi, Tiro’s old friend and his host in Botswana, handed the innocent-looking package in brown paper and tied with strings to Mphafe, he said: “You know where my house is, right?” When the student confirmed, Mogapi said, “Give this to the man you find there.”  

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On his way back from delivering the “parcel of death” (the phrase is writer and scholar Njabulo Ndebele’s coinage), he bumped into his headmaster, Father John Corrigan. Immediately after their encounter, there was a loud blast and Father Corrigan turned to ask Mphafe about the sound. “I replied to Father Corrigan that it could be dynamite going off at the nearby quarry, but I had an eerie feeling that the sound was coming from Mr Mogapi’s house.” 

When Tiro’s mother, Mma Abram (literally mother of Abram; Africans have the habit of calling mothers and fathers by the name of their eldest or last-born child), heard the news, she was inconsolable with grief. She had spoken to her first-born child, leitibolo, on the phone for two hours on the very day he was killed. He had called his mother to inform her that he had sent some money for his siblings’ school fees. He had also said, ominously, in the words of Gaongalelwe, that “whatever happened, his siblings – two brothers and two sisters – had to remain in school”. In a magazine interview from 2002, Mma Abram said Tiro’s last words to her had been: “Take care! Things will be fine. I am gone.” And a few hours later, he was indeed gone, forever. 

A ridiculous proposal

Unlike the proverbial figure of the witch who kills your mother and offers to help with funeral arrangements, the apartheid establishment showed its callous heart almost immediately. The family was told he could be buried in his homeland only if two conditions were fulfilled: he would have to be in a steel coffin (which a stranger offered) and if only family were present at his funeral. 

It was a ridiculous proposal, for by then Tiro belonged to more than his mother, even though she was named for him, and his family. In the words of the American poet Walt Whitman, Tiro contained multitudes: in his short life, he had been a history teacher at Morris Isaacson school in Soweto, Student Representative Council (SRC) president at the University of the North (Turfloop), organiser in the student movement South African Students Organisation (Saso), mentor to many and theoretician in the black consciousness movement. This might be the secret meaning of a dream Tiro’s father dreamt that his wife would have a baby boy who would be named Ramerafe, Setswana for “father of many nations”.

Early on, while still in primary school, Tiro was already showing himself to be the person of principle he would become later on. Even though he liked meat, he decided to become a vegetarian, a lifestyle choice encouraged among the Seventh Day Adventists, of which he was a member. Between 1957 and 1960, while in his mid teens, because of lack of funds, Tiro worked full time at a manganese mine. As a consequence, the academically gifted Tiro’s elementary schooling was interrupted. A year before his exposure to the brutality of paid work in South Africa, Tiro had seen the anti-pass law resistance led by Kgosi Ramotshere. “Who the hell is Verwoerd?” the kgosi asked rhetorically of a key apartheid architect, then minister of native affairs. “He is just a minister and there will be other ministers after him and Dinokana will stand forever.” For his resistance, Kgosi Ramotshere was later exiled to Botswana. 

If Tiro hadn’t received a scholarship from the Oppenheimers to study at Turfloop, he would probably have studied theology at Bethel College, Butterworth, and become a pastor. Gaongaelelwe writes that fate intervened, and Tiro became a student leader instead of a minister of religion. I doubt Reverend Tiro would have been much different from Cde Tiro, the student leader and organiser. For, in many ways, Tiro was what we could call a secular seminarian: he didn’t drink; he didn’t eat meat (long before it was fashionable); he didn’t smoke; he wasn’t a philanderer; he always carried around his bible; and his approach to activism drew a lot from liberation theology.

 A mature politics 

It was at Turfloop where Tiro’s politics matured, where he became acquainted with the writings of Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kenneth Kaunda and James H Cone, and where he was exposed to other black people – Indians, people designated as coloured by apartheid, Xhosas, Zulus and other ethnicities – other than those that he grew up around back in Zeerust. When Saso was launched at Turfloop, in 1969, Tiro was in the hall and witnessed the election of Steve Biko as the body’s president and Barney Pityana as its secretary. 

Tiro would have wondered (indeed, his valedictory speech that resulted in the so-called “Tiro affair” touched on this) why Turfloop, a supposedly black institution, was full of white administrators and lecturers. The chancellor was white, as was the university council, the institution’s registrar and the academic staff wasn’t much different. 

When, in 1970, he had been elected the SRC president, he tried to change the institution. “You have come to Turfloop to acquire knowledge. Never go back as empty [or even emptier] as you come,” he told the second-year students of 1971. “You should work with us to make Turfloop a university in the true, ordinary sense of the word. Turfloop should … be the type of university that we want; we should make Turfloop and Turfloop should not make us.”   

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On their graduation, the class of 1972 asked Tiro to give a speech on their behalf. By then, Tiro’s militancy wasn’t a secret anymore, yet his fellow graduates wouldn’t have guessed his speech’s fire and brimstone cadences. Attacking a central idea of apartheid ideology, Tiro remarked, “In America, there is nothing like negro education, Red Indian education and white American education. They have American education common to all. But in South Africa, we have bantu education, Indian education, coloured education and European education. We do not have a system of education common to all South Africans. What is there in European education which is not good for the African? We want a system of education which is common to all South Africans.” Cue the applause from the blacks in the audience and the red, averted faces of the white university staff. 

Tiro went on and on, before asking, “My dear people, shall we ever get a fair deal in this land? The land of our fathers.” Two days after the incendiary speech, the institution’s disciplinary committee sat, and Tiro was expelled. Turfloop students wouldn’t hear of it and went on strike until Tiro was readmitted, but the university authorities wouldn’t budge. 

He managed to get a position at Morris Isaacson, teaching history and what an influence he was for the students there in the short time he was at the school. “He taught history with a political slant,” one student remembered. It seems Tiro would sometimes buy, from his own earnings, uniforms for pupils from struggling families. Tsietsi Mashinini, a key leader of the 1976 Soweto student uprising and a Morris Isaacson alumnus, was inspired by Tiro. The older man shared his literature with the young student. The ANC, naturally, has co-opted 1976 as its own work, and the work of people like Tiro is largely forgotten.

An idea that lives

One illuminating anecdote in Parcel of Death of Tiro’s charisma and the influence he radiated involves Patric Mtshaulana, now an advocate. In 1973, Mtshaulana had moved from the Mount Frere area of the Eastern Cape to enroll at Fort Hare. He had come from a school with no library, had no set ideas of his own – in other words he was a political neophyte. Then one day, Tiro came to give an address at the university where he said the now eternal line: “It is better to die for an idea than to live for an idea that will die.” Mtshaulana’s life was never the same. “It went into my marrow. I felt pain everywhere. All the rebellion I had came to the fore.” When Tiro was killed, it was a significant moment for Mtshaulana, who soon went into exile to join the struggle. 

As you read the book, you wonder, why was Tiro killed? It can’t just be because he opposed apartheid. Many others inside South Africa were actively against the system. Yet it is because the apartheid establishment found him a formidable foe, much more than most, one who couldn’t be allowed to live and therefore one who would boast the unfortunate fate of being the first person to be killed in the brutal way he was. 

In Parcel of Death, Gaongalelwe Tiro’s rigorous work of scholarship and writing, the author has done his uncle – and us – the biggest favour and tribute, and we are indebted to him. A committed and short life like Tiro’s deserved to memorialised in words and though it’s sad that it had to be done by his own blood, at least we have a peek into the remarkable man.

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