Fighting for dignity and freedom in our lifetime

Tribute to Eric Sphiwe ‘Pilo’ Nkomo, by Lawrence Siphiwe Masuku

To say a baobab has fallen among the “young lions” generation sounds like an understatement when referring to the passing of Comrade Eric Sphiwe “Pilo” Nkomo, fondly known to many as Pilo. Pilo was a former Congress of South African Students (COSAS) activist, founder and first president of the Soweto Students’ Congress (SOSCO), an organiser for the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU), and the first ward councillor of the Freedom Charter (Ward 19) Branch elected in the 1995 first democratic local government elections.

My journey with Pilo began in 1985. The date was Sunday 10 February 1985, the venue was the Jabulani Amphitheatre and the occasion was the UDF celebration of the Nobel Peace Prize for Bishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu. Bishop Tutu had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian government a few months earlier, in October 1984.

At the amphitheatre I was sitting with my younger brother Bongani, and Bongani “Jomo” Xaba and Colleen “Ndosi” Shabalala, my friends. We were all sitting on the left-hand side facing the stage. Pilo and COSAS comrades were in the middle, waiting to lift up Zindzi Mandela and Bishop Tutu and take them to the stage. I don’t remember who went first between Zindzi Mandela and Bishop Tutu – all I remember about the event was the electricity in the air when they entered, a result of pulsating sounds from slogans and chants in unison. Thereafter there were inspirational speeches, and drama by Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa (Woza Albert).

Pilo was the only recognisable face in the crowd I had seen before. However, I had not met him, even though he lived a few streets away from where I grew up in Dlamini, Soweto. Hitherto the rally I neither had seen nor heard so many people in rhyme and rhythm in an outdoor open rally; the experience was out of this world. I never got to see a public outdoor rally thereafter until after 1990, as all were banned.

The year 1985 is a year I will never forget as it was my first year at high school. I started my secondary education at Nghunghunyani Secondary School, and it was the International Youth Year. It is the same year Bishop Tutu tried to host Edward Kennedy at Regina Mundi Church, a visit that did not go ahead after the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) rejected Kennedy’s visit. The country was at a crossroads and the mood was of ungovernability. I knew that year that South Africa was not going to be the same – the people’s quest for freedom could not be stopped, neither by sjamboks, rubber bullets, police dogs nor real live ammunition R1 bullets.

It came as no surprise to me that in the same year, 1985, we went on a class boycott, subsequently a school boycott and ultimately an exams boycott, resulting in us writing our exams in March 1986 after an intervention by the Soweto Parents Crisis Committee (SPCC) led by Vusi Khanyile.

During this time I had already become connected and was an integral part of the student movement with the local activists, and had actively participated in its activities, such as, but not limited to, leaflet distribution; graffiti; postering, mainly about the stayaways; consumer boycotts, bus boycotts and rent boycotts; and solidarity strikes such as the boycott of Clover when the workers were on strike. Over and above this political work we would sell SOSCO badges and SASPU, a progressive newspaper at the time and the only one exposing apartheid atrocities and its naked repression.

The events of 1985 unsurprisingly resulted in the banning of COSAS, which compounded the situation for the regime when the whole country was in turmoil – almost the whole country, with the exception of rural Natal, boycotted exams.

In 1986 I became a delegate who went to the University of the Witwatersrand to launch the Soweto Students’ Congress (SOSCO). On the morning of the launch, a Saturday, we met at Ibhongo High School. I remember finding Bishop Bheki, now deceased – I forget his surname – and later Oupa Tolo. More comrades joined, likeThemba “Bara” Gqibela, Themba “The Line” Tshabala, Dumile “Bar” Cele and Paulos “Casper” Madonsela, now deceased, and we all walked to the Kliptown Station. At Kliptown Station we found comrades from Pimville-Klipspruit already waiting for us, like Maxwell Magegenene, whom I had become familiar with because of his regular visits to SEPHIMA DC. I got a glimpse of the now deceased Oupa Mathews “Smally” Funani for the first time, whom I later met when I went to Musi High School.

Oupa Tolo bought us all train tickets and we all got on the train, alighted at Braamfontein Station and disappeared into a crowd of students attending Saturday classes at Wits. We walked to the Wits East Campus, into the students’ arcade and into the Mandela Room, where we found comrades from across Soweto waiting, all this under a state of emergency.

The first session started with reports from various areas, and I remember my fascination at the way and manner of how Soweto was subdivided, but more importantly, the way and manner that comrades had coined the subdivisions. Senaoane, Phiri, Mapetla, Dlamini, Chiawelo (SEPHIMA DC); Moletsane, Tladi, Naledi (MOTLANA); Zondi, Jabulani, Zola, Emndeni (ZOJAZEM); Moroka, Molapo, Mofolo, Jabavu (MOMOMOJA); and Orlando West, Meadowland, Diepkloof and Orlando East captured all the townships in Soweto, except a new area, Protea, which had just been established at the time.

All the areas reported and the session was presided over by the now also deceased Oupa Mpete. Oupa Mpete had already started teacher education at the Soweto College of Education. The second session was presided over by Khumbulani Magudulela. I was a little familiar with him as he came from SEPHIMA DC. We then broke for commissions and I landed in a commission that was to deal with the issue of vigilantes. The issue we had to grapple with at the time was black-on-black violence, as coined by the system, to conceal apartheid covert operations and to camouflage the real nature, source and origins of the state-orchestrated violence in the townships at the time.

At the time, through SASPU, we had read extensively about the Witdoek vigilante activities in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, and later learned about the vigilante activities in KwaNdebele called Imbokodo. In Soweto it was the Kabasas. Throughout and across the country vigilantes operated in different guises; however they had similar striking similarities:

  • Well-armed
  • Operated with utmost impunity
  • Their targets were activists or progressive structures
  • Some of their operations followed a typical pattern
  • Some of their operations showed a certain level of sophistication as they were executed with military precision, i.e. planning, organisation, funding, execution

As young activists at the time we were able to connect the dots, link what many to this very day battle to comprehend (and who for the longest time argued black-on-black violence), and uncovered a relationship between the state and the vigilantes – a link that was refuted until the TRC came to absolve us. It is critical that the issue of a vigilante is understood by our society in its entirety, as missing a link between the system and the vigilante may result in faulty political understanding and analysis.

The last session was the elections of the SOSCO Central Executive Committee (CEC), and Pilo was elected president on the day. He was the president of SOSCO until he left to work for a COSATU affiliate that was later amalgamated into the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU) in 1987 in line with COSATU’s slogan of “One Union, One Industry” and “One Country, One Federation”.

Even as a FAWU organiser he retained close contacts with the student movement, providing guidance and very valuable insights whenever required. He showed enthusiasm and attended almost all of SOSCO’s councils and congresses whenever invited as a former president, and was also a friend to my late eldest brother, Jabu. We crossed paths several times in the early ANC conferences after the unbanning and other ANC activities.

When I was working for the Department of Public Transport, Roads and Works (DPTRW), we organised an imbizo with him at Tamatievlei. As a ward councillor he worked tirelessly for the community of the Freedom Charter (Ward 19) Branch, with one of his biggest achievements being the complete eradication of the informal settlement at the time known as “Camp” and one of the biggest scrapyards in Soweto. This eradication, in what is today Petrus Molefe Park, and the public open gym reduced crime such as car hijackings and robbery dramatically.

I later had to meet Pilo as a colleague when working for the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure Development (GDID) when MEC Faith Mazibuko assembled her first office after the reconfiguration of the Gauteng provincial departments. The reconfiguration resulted in the separating of the Department of Public Transport and Works (DPTRW) into two departments, namely the Department of Roads and Transport (DRT) and Department of Infrastructure Development (GDID).

In about October 2019 I received a call from Thulani Mbatha, a former colleague at the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure Development (GDID), to inform me that Pilo was not well (I had left the department at the time when he called me). I was with Phumlani Xaba, a former Soweto branch secretary of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) at the time COSAS was banned in 1985, at one of our favourite and regular spots, Elimoh, not far from Pilo’s place. After I informed him about Pilo’s condition, he immediately called Pilo to make the necessary arrangements to go and see him. Pilo indicated to us that he was not in a very good space and condition to see us on the day and asked to see us another time.

A few weeks later I was at the same favourite spot, this time with Alfred “Gaddaffi” Nhlapho, and we decided that we were going to take a walk and see Pilo. We found Pilo’s daughter, who informed us that he was not around and that he had gone out. The fact that he was not home and had gone out gave us hope that he had recovered. We were glad that he was out of danger, and agreed to see him soon.

We were relieved that he was out of hospital and back home, until around December 2019, when I got a call from Tsietsi “Tsi” Tsholo, fondly known to us as Bra Tsi, to inform me that Pilo had gone back to hospital. He further informed me that Pilo was then in a better condition than when he took him to hospital a week earlier. I was shocked, as I had assumed that he was out of hospital and out of danger.

We (myself, Gaddaffi, Sylvester Ledwaba and Siphiwe “Bizo” Thusi) planned a visit to the hospital. However, on the day we kept missing each other until I went to the hospital with Bizo, and I must admit that I was frightened by Pilo’s condition. He was sitting on the bed being his usual self, a very optimistic, jolly, high-spirited and humorous guy. He was one guy who could lighten and brighten a sombre mood with jokes, and he reiterated Bra Tsi’s sentiments to me that he was then much better than when he was admitted to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

Before I could make my second visit to Pilo – I could not go due to a very tight work schedule around December and January – I had to go to Kimberly. I returned from Kimberly on the morning of Sunday 12 January 2020, a day after the rally, with the intention of going to the hospital. On arrival from Kimberly I had three missed calls – from Bizo, Thulani and Sylvester. When I saw these missed calls I was excited, as I thought they had pre-empted my plans, which were to make the necessary arrangements for us to go to hospital.

Sadly and unfortunately this was not the case, as the first person to return his call, Thulani, broke the devastating news. For a while I was paralyzed and dumbfounded, and was in a state of disbelief and shock – regardless of his condition, his passing was the last thing on my mind. Part of the reason I battled with his passing on is that when we discussed with him in his hospital bed whether or not he would be with us for the festive season, he told us that he would not, but in and around 15 January 2020 he would definitely be out of hospital and with us, and that he would have recovered.

He had informed us that the hardest part of the treatment had been done and the real problem had been found by the doctors at the hospital. But he had two challenges, namely the mortality rate in the ward and shabby treatment from the nursing staff – he complained about the treatment from the nurses while singing the praises of the doctors. He seemed very impressed by the doctors’ care and, importantly, their teamwork in the ward; he told us that in a patient more than one opinion is considered and a number of doctors paying attention to a patient was impressive.

Pilo represented a generation of struggle that internalised discipline as a weapon of struggle, and comprehended the consequences of a lack thereof. He epitomised a value system of resilience and endurance, thus becoming an ambassador of our cause of struggle. His immense contribution to our struggle was made at great cost to himself, his livelihood and his well-being, but he continued to serve with a selflessness that precluded deceit.

Pilo worked and lived to express rather than impress; worked, lived and died for a cause rather than applause, without in anyway whatsoever making us feel his presence. Contrary to this, we always noticed his absence, worse that he is now deceased. Pilo was a mirror image of the “young lions” generation, as it was through him that we saw ourselves, as he led from the front as the first to advance and the last to retreat.

Pilo chose conviction over convenience. As a youth he chose a life of struggle over a frivolous lifestyle chosen by most young people at the time, and as an adult he chose a hard and difficult route and never sold his soul to the highest bidder. Pilo’s aspirations for people’s education and for people’s power remains a vision and mission yet to be fulfilled – education for liberation remains a goal and a process rather than an accomplishment.

A “baobab has fallen” remains an understatement, as we battle to come to terms with the loss of this gigantic soul, who remained humble, modest, laid-back and down to mother earth.


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