The man who opened the way

By Janette Bennett

Some of the original members of the group led by Raymond Mhlaba into the "Europeans Only" section of the New Brighton railway station look back in sadness at the days when "blacks were treated like dogs".

Enoch Weni introduces himself as "South African citizen" as he gives you a firm handshake to greet you to his home in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth.

He says it loudly and with a tinge of anger (or is it sadness?) in his voice.

Weni was one of 30 people, led by Raymond Mhlaba in the act that kick-started the nationwide defiance campaign on June 26, 1952. Mhlaba later become the first premier of the post-apartheid Eastern Cape.

The campaign has been described as South Africa's biggest non-violent protest ever. It was the people's immediate response to Parliament's placing of 75 pieces of apartheid legislation on the statute book.

Defiance campaign volunteers aimed to deliberately break the new apartheid laws. They knew they would be arrested.

Mhlaba's group prayed through the night before entering the "Europeans Only" section of the New Brighton railway station.

At 5am, Mhlaba says in his Personal Memoirs: Reminiscing from Rwanda and Uganda (narrated to Thembeka Mufamadi, published by HSRC and Robben Island Museum, 2001), "we found sergeants, not even ordinary policemen, waiting for us".

By 6.30am, "we were already in police vans on our way to jail".

According to Gary Baines in The Shadow of the City: A History of New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, 1903-1953, Mhlaba was sentenced to two months hard labour or a fine of 10 pounds, with half the sentence suspended for six months. Weni and the rest of the group got 30 days or a six-pound fine.

"Fines were not paid and all the volunteers served their jail sentences," Baines writes.

According to Mhlaba, the group found out only later that they were the first to defy race laws and be arrested in the campaign. "Little did we know that we were making history."

Most Port Elizabeth residents "supported the Defiance Campaign with fervour", he wrote. New Brighton residents gave him the name Vulindlela (open the way), "as I opened the way for others to defy an unjust system".
More than 70 per cent of defiance campaign arrests took place in the Eastern Cape, and most of them in Port Elizabeth.

Eventually, more than 70 per cent of defiance campaign arrests took place in the Eastern Cape, and most of them in Port Elizabeth.

"Oom Ray", as Mhlaba was affectionately known, later became one of the Rivonia treason trialists and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served 26 years.

Weni, now 73, recalls the time. "At the station, there were two separate entrances, for whites and for blacks. The bridge that runs over the railway lines was barricaded down the middle to keep the races apart." Rusted remnants of the barricade remain.

"We decided to break the destructive laws of the country... We prayed first. Oom Ray was the leader of our group. Then we entered the white section, where we were not allowed, and sang freedom songs - Mayibuye Afrika - as we crossed the bridge.

"On the other side of the bridge, the police were waiting with trucks. They hit us with short sticks and took us to jail."

New Brighton Defiance Campaigner Moyisile Tyutyu recalls the campaign gained many successes in the township and boosted recruitment for the ANC, but was eventually "neutralised" when the township exploded in anger following the police shooting in October 1952 of a man they alleged had stolen a can of paint.

It transpired that the man did not have a receipt for the paint, and "every Jack and Jill came out to fight... The whole township was on fire."

"The police shot at us and the people fell like birds. The newspapers said 21 people were killed, but we know the number was higher.

"New Brighton had one of the strongest groups of cadres, but it became very difficult to meet as a group after this," says Tyutyu, whospent several years on Robben Island. The government responded to the campaign by imposing harsher measures of oppression.

The men speak with sadness as they recall the years of sadness. "Blacks were treated like dogs," Weni says. "It was lifeless being a black man then; you were in and out of court. They'd lock you up, bang on your door in the middle of the night."

But as he adds: "We fought for liberation from the very start and that's how we got free." Indeed, many agree that Mhlaba and his New Brighton comrades set the tone for the decades of resistance to apartheid that would follow.

And Tyutyu adds: "When you look at the old guys who survived, you see sorrow. Jail and harassment killed us in many ways. But the prize has been freedom."

We fought for liberation from the very start and that's how we got free.

The campaign was taken up throughout South Africa. But the "most dramatic levels of participation" were in the Eastern Cape, Tom Lodge writes in his book, Black Politics in South Africa since 1945.

"A mood of religious fervour infused the resistance, especially in the Eastern Cape," he adds.

Lodge points out that 71.4 per cent of arrests of volunteers - 5 941 of a total of 8 326 - took place in the Eastern Cape. In Port Elizabeth, 2 007 people were arrested; East London, with 1 322 arrests, came a distant second.

He ascribes the participation to various factors, including high levels of urban poverty and oppression and the fact that Eastern Cape political leaders, such as Mhlaba, were workers rather than members of the professional elite or intellectuals.

back to the Raymond Mhlaba memorial page

"I opened the way for others to defy an unjust system."
Raymond Mhlaba
Raymond Mhlaba
Picture: Courtesy of Thembeka Mufamadi


In this lesson plan, learners will have an opportunity to study Raymond Mhlaba's memoirs as he related them to a historian in 2001. They will be able to think about the value of oral history and how it provides new insights into events.

Lesson plan
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Archive and Artwork Photo Gallery
Images from Raymond Mhlaba’s life and of the Heritage Project’s memorial to his role in the 1952 defiance campaign.
Audio about Raymond Mhlaba
Family, friends and colleagues talk about Raymond Mhlaba and why he is regarded as one of the unsung heroes of the Eastern Cape
Raymond Mhlaba speaks about life imprisonment
In June 1964, Raymond Mhlaba and seven other icons of the struggle against apartheid were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. For them the sentence came as a relief — it was much better than the death sentence they were expecting. In this e
Mhlaba and Mandela on the 1952 Defiance Campaign
In 1952, Raymond Mhlaba launched the famous Defiance Campaign by walking into a whites-only area at the New Brighton train station, knowing that he would be arrested. In this video extract from a documentary by Dali Tambo, Mhlaba and Nelson Mandela remi