On this date in 1985, poet Benjamin Moloise was hanged in Pretoria for murdering a (black) policeman in apartheid South Africa.
Moloise’s controversial execution occurred in the context of violent resistance to apartheid in South Africa’s black townships and an ultimately fatal crisis for the apartheid state.
The black majority, long treated as second-class citizens by the white powers-that-be, turned to increasingly confrontational tactics aiming to break official power at the township level. Attacks on black officials and police officers who administered state authority at that level were part and parcel.
Moloise was convicted in a plot to kill such an officer in 1983. (The African National Congress claimed responsibility for the killing, and said that Moloise wasn’t involved.)
His hanging approached as the township rising grew into a mass movement that the hardline government of P.W. Botha answered mostly with force* — so, little surprise that Botha spurned both American and Soviet entreaties not to hang Moloise and little surprise that the execution further escalated racial violence.
Furious black protesters rioted in downtown Johannesburg itself, which (like much of white South Africa) had theretofore remained mostly immune to the violence gripping the townships. Here’s a French news report on Moloise’s execution and its aftermath.
All of which dovetailed with a dramatic fall in South Africa’s international position, vividly symbolized by the months-long collapse of the rand — which bled about three-quarters of its value in 1985. International outrage at the blood shed to enforce South Africa’s color line subjected it to a cascade of diplomatic and economic sanctions in the mid-1980s.
Apartheid went out with the Cold War at the end of the decade — vindicating Moloise’s poetic final message, subsequently a staple message at anti-apartheid rallies.
I am proud to be what I am …
The storm of oppression will be followed
By the rain of my blood
I am proud to give my life
My one solitary life.
* It had implemented a state of emergency that very summer. At the same time, Botha pursued tweaks around the edges of apartheid to preserve it: weeding out “petty apartheid” provocations like whites-only/coloreds-only facilities, and implementing a new constitution with a tricameral, race-based parliament.
Part of the Themed Set: Illegitimate Power.