Parcel of Death recounts the little-told life story of Onkgopotse Abram Tiro, the first South African freedom fighter the apartheid regime pursued beyond the country’s borders to assassinate with a parcel bomb, in 1974. He is also hailed by many as the ‘godfather’ of the June 1976 uprisings. Tiro’s anti-apartheid speech in 1972 saw him and many of his fellow student activists expelled, igniting a series of strikes in tertiary institutions across the country. Parcel of Death is a compelling portrait of Tiro’s story and its lasting significance in South Africa’s history. This is a book extract.
Conspiracy to kill
One name persistently linked to the assassination of Black Consciousness activist Onkgopotse Abram Tiro is that of Craig Williamson, the apartheid superspy and assassin. ‘To us your murder was never a mystery. Craig Williamson and his fellow merchants of death and sin eliminated you,’ then Azapo president Mosibudi Mangena said on 22 March 1998. He was delivering a eulogy at Tiro’s reburial in Dinokana after his remains were exhumed from Gaborone where he was initially buried.
‘All we want is to hear them confess. We want to hear their voices confirm what we have known all along. They should give us details of their dastardly deed. They must give us the names of all their evil conspirators and their tasks in your murder.’
Williamson immediately refuted the allegation. Through his lawyers, he told SABC TV News on the day of Tiro’s reburial that Mangena was wrong. But it is not too difficult to see why he would be the natural suspect. He has an impressive kill count for the apartheid government and, by his own admission, was involved in the parcel-bomb assassination of left-wing academic and SACP leader Ruth First, as well as that of ANC activist Jeanette Schoon and her daughter Katryn.
The Williamson connection stems from the fact that he infiltrated the IUEF, which supported SASO and regularly corresponded with Tiro. But he only joined the organisation in 1975 – a year after the assassination. The parcel bomb that killed Tiro bore Swiss stamps and had a sender’s address: that of Lars-Gunnar Eriksson at the IUEF in Geneva.
It was reported that the parcel was initially mistakenly delivered to one GJ Erickson, a contractor of the Agency for International Development in Botswana. Declassified US diplomatic cables outline the route the parcel is believed to have taken before it reached Tiro.
‘[GJ] Erickson received package because although it was addressed to Tiro, the PO Box was written in longhand and appeared to be a one followed by the letter Z, which could also pass for the number three,’ the US Botswana mission wrote in a memo to the State Department.
‘The PO Box for St Joseph’s College is 13, but someone crossed out the PO Box and wrote Private Bag 13 – the address for Erickson’s income tax department.
‘The parcel was brought to Erickson’s office on 30 January  because the name of the sender appeared to be “Eriksson”. He does not remember the return address. Erickson sent the parcel back, but the administrative officer in the income tax [department] returned with it later on the 30th. Erickson examined the parcel with the admin office and they decided not to open it. Erickson believes that the parcel was returned to the central post office on Thursday, 31 January.’
Harry Nengwekhulu, who was in exile in Botswana with Tiro, argues that while it may well be the case that Williamson joined the IUEF only in 1975, it is still difficult to rule out his involvement. He was already a trusted security police operative at the time and it is not clear when he started carrying out operations in Botswana.
Testifying before the TRC in 1996, Tiro’s mother, Moleseng “MmaAbram” indicated that she believed that Mogapi, her son’s host at St Joseph’s, knew more than he was letting on. It could not be established if the commission set up to investigate apartheid-era atrocities even tried to interview Mogapi to get his side of the story. He died a naturalised Botswana citizen in 2007, having made a name for himself as an author of Setswana literature.
Lawrence Mphafe, the student who hand-delivered the package that killed Tiro, insists that he had no idea that it contained an explosive device. Mogapi tied himself in knots trying to explain what happened. In an interview, days after the assassination, he told Rand Daily Mail that he had found the parcel on the table of the college’s secretary after a messenger who collected it from the post office placed it there. He then took it and gave it to Mphafe to deliver to the house he shared with Tiro, but only after shaking it. ‘It rattled,’ he claimed.
‘I thought of taking it myself because I was curious to know what the [IUEF] in Geneva had sent him. But I was in a hurry to make the border post before it closed.’
MmaAbram clearly found Mogapi’s story incredulous – as did the Botswana police because they detained him over a weekend before releasing him without charging him. ‘It was about 3pm and the border gates close at about 8.30 pm,’ she told cleric and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu and his TRC team.
The Botswana authorities have to date not cooperated with any attempts to establish the details their investigation unveiled. At the time of the incident, the country assigned expatriate sleuth Kevin Cullinan to investigate the case. The Dublin-born Irishman arrived to work in Botswana in 1973 after a stint as director of studies at the Scottish Police College. By all accounts, he did a thorough job.
Phalang Tlhagwane, as a family representative, worked with Cullinan on the case. ‘He reconstructed the bomb and estimated that it was the size of two PM10 batteries,’ he says. ‘He concluded that the bomb couldn’t have gone through the postal service at all. He believed the stamps were lifted from the wrapping of an old parcel [Tiro] had received as he realised that they [had] been affixed with glue when analysing the fragments of the package.’
Nengwekhulu believes it is likely that Botswana nationals and the security establishment were involved in the assassination plot. ‘The parcel could never have gone to Mr [GJ] Erickson if it was never at the post office,’ he says. ‘I think it could even have been Craig Williamson who brought it there and was working with a person in the post office.
‘The parcel was so big it could not get into a post box, it’s not possible. For me, some of the police in Botswana too were involved. These countries in southern Africa were also very bad. You see, they are not innocent – particularly Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland.’
The TRC could not reach a ‘conclusive finding’ but indicated that the Z-Squad of the Bureau of State Security (BSS) was probably conspiracy to kill responsible for Tiro’s assassination. ‘The commission finds that, in all probability, Tiro’s death was the result of the work of Mr Dries Verwey and Mr Mike Kuhn, members of the “Z-Squad”, the operational arm of BOSS, the intelligence-gathering agency of the government at the time,’ it wrote in its final report.
Verwey died back in 1980. Kuhn joined BSS (variously known as BOSS) – later named the National Intelligence Service [NIS], then the South African Secret Service in 1995 – in June 1972 and remained in service until 1996. He strenuously protests his innocence. ‘I did not know [Tiro], never met him and categorically deny that I was involved in his killing – directly or indirectly,’ he says. ‘I do not know who was responsible for the killing of the deceased or what the motive of the killing was.’
Inspiring young minds
Onkgopotse Abram Tiro started teaching at Morris Isaacson High School in Central Western Jabavu, Soweto, shortly after he was expelled from Turfloop, in July 1972. He came with a sizeable reputation as an activist, which created an aura around him, especially for the impressionable young students, many of whom were increasingly aware of the political situation in South Africa. Black Consciousness had permeated the fabric of society.
‘Tiro was by then one of the better-known leaders of the Black Consciousness movement,’ says Mzwandile Gumbi, a student in the only class that Tiro taught at Morris Isaacson in 1972, the one Form IV History class. ‘His expulsion received widespread coverage by the media, such that even those people who were ignorant of the movement became aware of its existence.’
Another Morris Isaacson student, Lucky Moeketsi, adds that they had high expectations of their new teacher. ‘We knew he was a dynamite because he had been expelled from Turfloop for confronting the powers there,’ she says. He was a welcome addition to the strong, knowledgeable team principal Lekgau Mathabathe had put together at Morris Isaacson, which had a reputation of excellence.
But Tiro was a household name. Such was the admiration of the man that when, on Friday, 19 May 1972, he went to Sekano Ntoane High School in Senaoane, Soweto, for a meeting, the students mobbed him. ‘We want the speech,’ they shouted.
Playwright and filmmaker Duma ka Ndlovu was a student at Sekano Ntoane at the time and recalls the excitement that gripped them on the day. ‘We used to have one of the best choirs, and one day we were rehearsing in the hall [when one of our teachers] Tom Manthata walked in … and stopped us and said: “Boys and girls, you gonna have to stop because Onkgopotse Abram Tiro is outside,”’ says Ka Ndlovu. ‘Immediately there was pandemonium inside that hall. Every student ran out.’
Back in the hall, new teacher Edward Kubayi introduced Tiro to the students. They gave him a thunderous ovation. Kubayi had just joined the school that month to teach Geography. He too was a SASO member and was in the Turfloop SRC that had been dissolved when the institution expelled students after the April 1972 graduation ceremony.
When it was time to leave, the students followed Tiro outside and there was a stampede at the school gate, reported the Rand Daily Mail. The incident was captured in the rare but iconic picture of Tiro doing the black power salute of a clenched fist up in the air, surrounded by a group of jubilant students doing the same. He was still in limbo at the time because he had been expelled from the university and had not yet found a job, although he had tons of work. He had for some time been travelling the length and breadth of the country, mostly with SASO’s permanent organiser Harry Nengwekhulu.
The organisation, anticipating the banning of its leaders, had decided that each of them must have a shadow to prepare for the eventuality. Tiro, Ben Langa and Jeff Baqwa were among those to be groomed to assume the reins. Tiro was paired with Nengwekhulu from whom he took over as permanent organiser when he was banned. Langa, killed in 1984 by the ANC which he had joined after a false accusation that he was an apartheid spy, worked with Barney Pityana.
‘Because I had known Tiro from Turfloop, he used to travel with me,’ says Nengwekhulu. ‘Pityana used to work closely with the late Ben Langa because we realised that he had certain skills. Tiro was a very good organiser – he was eloquent. Most of the time he went everywhere with me so that he knew the contacts. That’s why when we were banned in 1973 he could take over my position immediately. Tiro himself didn’t know – he didn’t know why I went everywhere with him.
‘There is no place in South Africa that I don’t know – they would know my name. Sometimes, I would jump in the goods train and sometimes I would be in the second class of the train. When the security guards came and said “ticket” I just continued reading, and they assumed I had a ticket.’
Gumbi explains that many in the black community would have taken it for granted that, after the upheaval that Tiro caused at Turfloop, he was a marked man. ‘The expulsion from Turfloop essentially rendered him a persona non grata in South Africa – in other words, he could not get a job or be admitted to any university in the country.’
However, Mathabathe hired him, with the support of the school board led by Reverend David Nkwe. The principal did not seem in the least worried about the inevitable consequences of the decision.
The apartheid regime was alarmed when it discovered the appointment of Tiro as a History teacher at Morris Isaacson. Secretary of Bantu Education Dr JH van Zyl argued that neither Tiro nor Kubayi were qualified to teach because they held only junior degrees and no teaching qualifications. And besides, said Van Zyl, the school boards would still need approval from the Department of Bantu Education to hire the pair because they had been expelled from an institution it considered its ‘academic partner’. ‘[Tiro] was asked by the university to pass a vote of thanks at a graduation ceremony but he chose to attack the Bantu Education system, thus embarrassing the people who taught in my department,’ he added revealingly.
Historian Steve Lebelo lauds Mathabathe for exploiting a weakness in the apartheid regime’s controls to appoint progressive teachers. The loophole in the system was that it allowed school committee boards to control operations of the institutions. They were the ones who made staff appointments, including the hiring of teachers. This is what resulted in the appointment of ‘undesirables’ such as Tiro.
‘One of the causes of the Soweto revolt [later in 1976] was that there was a certain measure of autonomy that the communities had in the running of the schools,’ argues Lebelo. ‘There were the school boards and the school committees, which were appointed by residents, that in turn appointed school staff. In 1977, the Minister of Bantu Education MC Botha decides that the state takes over the schools and determines who teaches where. If you think about it, that was a reaction to Tiro.’