1983: Simon Thelle Mogoerane, Jerry Mosololi and Marcus Motaung, anti-apartheid soldiers

This date at dawn in 1983, three African National Congress cadres were hanged — together with two unrelated common criminals — for attacks on apartheid-era South African police stations.

“Terrorists” in the eyes of the white government and “freedom fighters” in the eyes of many blacks, the “Moroka Three” — Simon Thelle Mogoerane, Jerry Mosololi and Marcus Motaung — bore arms against as part of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).

Their attacks in 1979 and 1981 had claimed the lives of four (black) policemen.

South African law until 1990 mandated hanging for a murder conviction without any extenuating circumstances — a “fact associated with the crime which serves in the mind of reasonable men to diminish morally, albeit not legally, the degree of the prisoner’s guilt.” The courtroom adjunct to MK’s guerrilla operations was establishing its position that its soldiers were prisoners of war under international law, and that that classification constituted an extenuating circumstance under South African law.

1977 protocols had extended the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of prisoners of war to explicitly cover anti-colonial and anti-racist insurgents. South Africa, unsurprisingly, did not ratify this amendment. The judge dismissed the argument that these protocols had acquired the binding force of customary international law — “we do not need to waste time.”

A decade or so later, in the waning years of apartheid, this sort of argument would find a toehold. But not in a defiantly “anti-terrorist” Pretoria of the early eighties.

The three were hanged in the face of worldwide appeals for clemency — such as this one from U.S. Congressmen and -women, and the pamphlet below by the British Anti-Apartheid Movement:

The entirety of this 24-page pamphlet is available free (at least for the remainder of this month) at the Aluka collection of digital Africa-related documents.

The executions likewise met outcry both domestic (South Africa banned public demonstrations) and international (like this U.N. resolution).