ON the liberation front, Tsietsi Mashinini can be described as a master architect; a designer of the good of the cause of he believed in and, an executor of its implied outcomes to ultimately see the oppressed people become free.
This description fits a blueprint of a man fuelled by that wish which Nina Simone so soulfully sang about in a song titled: “How I wish I Knew How It would feel to be free”.
Mashinini’s consciousness was born out of the environment that presented his questioning mind with nightmares of the degradation of a people he was fated to fight against. His leadership qualities and spirituality was steeped in the search for a godly existence yearned for by his father, Ramothibi, who was a lay preacher of the Methodist Church. His mother, Nomkhitha, was just as religious.
It is to these parents that Tsietsi was born to on January 27, 1957.
Since Tsietsi’s upbringing was pre-occupied with searching for a godly existence, which saw his parents seek refuge in the church, it was Inevitable that he would land himself in the political movement that had the courage to dare ask the Supreme Being the question:”Senzeni Na?”
Not only did Tsietsi’s spiritual path follow the footsteps of his parents but also became chair of the Methodist Church Youth Guild at the age of 16.
In 1971 he was, in the eyes of his English and History teacher, Onkgopotse Tiro, a student of note at Morris Isaacson High School with a passion for reading.
Tiro was a former student at University of the North, known as Turfloop, now the University of Limpopo. He was expelled for a speech he delivered at the graduation ceremony in which he attacked the system of Bantu Education. In his speech, Tiro fearlessly predicted:
“The day shall come, when all shall be free to breathe the air of freedom which is theirs to breathe and when the day shall have come, no man, no matter how many tanks he has, will reverse the cause of events.”
With Tiro’s expulsion, protests spread throughout South African universities for his reinstatement. He was refused re-admission to continue his education. Tiro’s lifeline came when he was given a teaching post by the principal, Legau Mathabathe, at Morris Isaacson.
This is how mentor and mentee, Tiro and Mashinini, met. In Tiro, Mashinini encountered the fountain source of the Black Consciousness (BC) philosophy and the dream that one day, South Africa would be free to be renamed Azania.
Sent into exile by the South African Student Organisation (SASO) as a permanent organiser Tiro landed in Botswana only to be killed by a parcel bomb addressed to him by the South African security death squads on 1 February 1974.
Mashinini not only lost a teacher of History and English but also a political mentor.
Tiro had a great influence in shaping Mashinini’s political thinking which explains his mentee’s adherence to the philosophy of BC. One never gets mentored by brave giants of Tiro’s standing only to deviate from their teachings once gone by succumbing to strange gods to worship their superiority. Mashinini had learnt to be inferior to no man or woman.
Tragic as Tiro’s death was, and meant to shock, terrorise, and intimidate, it achieved the opposite. Mashinini’s irrepressible leadership prowess came shining through to become chair of the Debating Team at his school. It is important to mention that Mashnini’s bravery was accompanied by brilliant academic performance. Morris Isaacson’s acclaimed science and physics teacher Fanyana Mazibuko saw to Mashinini’s continued mentorship.
While sister of song Letta Mbuli was serenading freedom-loving people with songs like ‘There is music in the air’, anti-colonial winds of change were sweeping through south of the African continent. In these changing times, there also emerged gifted poets such as Ingoapele Madingoane to capture the moments with his epic poem, Africa My beginning, African My Ending.
Frelimo clinched its liberation victory in Mozambique in 1974 to inaugurate Samora Machel as president. Angola followed in 1976 with Agostinho Neto at the helm. SWAPO’s plans for Namibia’s independence were also taking root. South Africa had no reason to idle as though hostage to a devils workshop to wallow in continued oppression.
A generation of change, that Mashinini represented, had emerged to put a stop to those who had made black life a plaything. This is the generation that the erudite Muntu Myeza described as ‘having known too much too soon’. Mashinini was a brave example of that generation. The slogan of the day was ‘forward ever, backward never’. The world stood, listened and had to make a choice whether to standby a dying political system or to join the march to freedom. The days of apartheid were numbered. It was the beginning of the end. Each time Tsietsi spoke, the message was clear: freedom was inevitable.
To show solidarity action with the people of Mozambique the BC movement that Mashinini subscribed to, went into top gear to hail victorious Machel with the 1974 Viva Frelimo rallies. The rallies were held in Curries Fountain in Durban. All this done at a time when black political action was declared illegal. Leaders of that solidarity action were rounded up for massive arrests. All were charged with what came to be known as the SASO/BPC Treason Trial.
At the dock were Saths Cooper, Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, Zithulele Cindi, Mosiuoa Lekota, KK Sedibe, Ranwedzi Nengwekhulu, Muntu Myeza, Nchaupe Mokoape, Nkwenkwe Nkomo and Strini Moodley. It was at this trial that Steve Biko’s awakening intellectual finesse took centre stage to toy with the bankruptcy of the racism order of the day as a defence witness.
The faint-hearted were intimidated to give up. Not Mashinini. He joined the student wing of the BC movement, the South African Students Movement (SASM). He did so at a time when the South African government’ oppressive machinery was at its most atrocious point. Students were arrested from their school premises. The arrest of Enos Ngutshana, at Naledi High on June 8, 1976, is a case in point.
On June 13, 1976 about 500 students met at Orlando Donaldson Community Hall to discuss ways and means of confronting and challenging the hated system dished by the Department of Education. There, a decision was taken to stage a peaceful march on June 16 against the introduction of Afrikaans as a teaching medium. One could feel and touch the totality of the struggle when students sang the song Mabawuyeke umhlaba wethu. The massive of resolve, clarity of purpose and the unpretentious melancholy with which that song was sung, was a mark of a people who had come to settle their second class status, once and for all.
Propelled by this fighting spirit, Mashinini was elected chair of the Action Committee. The Action Committee was later renamed the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) with Mashinini serving as its first President until succeeded by Khotso Seathlolo.
On the morning of June 16, Tsietsi took to the assembly to lead students to meeting points for the commencement of the march. On the day, all schools had a leader to give clear directive on what is to be done. The march drew more than 20 000 uniformed students joining in the mass demonstration. Matters had clearly gone beyond Afrikaans as a medium of teaching. Liberation had become the overall goal. No violence was planned on the day. The march, Mashinini emphasised, was to be peaceful and conducted with all the care to avoid provocation.
In typical brute force, the police responded with live ammunition. The day’s tragedy turned Mashinini into an instant hero of national and international importance. But hero, he was not to the regime. They branded him the enemy of the State.
A R500 reward was placed on his head for anyone who could lead to his arrest. A Colonel Visser of Soweto Criminal Investigation Division made an appeal for Mashinini to hand himself over, warning that he risked being killed by angry hostel residents who were antagonised by the nationwide uprisings.
Visser went further to ask Mashinini’s parents to bring him to the police station stating: “We believe that Mashinini is active and moving about Soweto and other townships, but we have never been able to locate him. If you spot him, or know where he is, you must report him to the nearest police.”
At 19 years of age Mashinini left for exile in August 1976. He was met and received by various heads of States and Parliamentarians. In Nigeria, he stayed at the Presidential Guest House in Lagos as guest of Olusegun Obasanjo.
He finally settled in Liberia when he married a daughter of a parliamentarian Welma Campbell in 1978. They had two daughters, Nomkhitha (named after his mother) and Thembi. Mashinini later moved to the UK and the US where he addressed the United Nations (UN) on the brutalities of the oppressive regime.
He had become the added voice and global ambassador for the liberation of South Africa. Two of the solidarity organisations formed as a result of his UN addresses were the Azania Komittie in Netherlands and the Black Action for the Liberation of South Africa in the UK, to become part of the international anti-apartheid movement.
By many accounts Mashinini did not join any of the established liberation movements choosing instead to call for their unity. He could not find himself to choosing any amongst them. Mashinini found motherly support and an admiring compatriot in Mirriam Makeba who was in Guinea. Mashinini stayed at Makeba’s home in Conakry until his mysterious death on 5 July 1990 aged 33.
On the repatriation of his remains for his burial at Jabulani Amphitheatre, in Soweto, Prof Itumeleng Mosala had this to say about the Class of 1976 that Mashinini led: “The students of 1976 took the struggle from the classroom to the streets; the students of today take the struggle from the streets into the classroom.” The ring of untoward conduct that tends to tarnish the cause of today’s students continues to be a source of endless concern.
The element of difference with the Class of 1976 that Mosala depicted was in the exemplary league of its own. All leaders of June 16, 1976 still speak of Mashinini as having made an indelible mark in shaping the history of the country. The epitaph on his tombstone reads: “At the height of the struggle he gave impetus to the liberation struggle.”
Sadly, his tombstone at Avalon Cemetery, in Soweto, has been twice vandalised. For its part, the democratic State honoured Mashinini’s valiant role posthumously with the Order of Luthuli for his inspirational leadership. In that honour, therein lies the life and times of Mashinini.
To understand the measure of a man and the generation Mashinini led, the words of Algerian revolutionary writer Frantz Fanon are instructive to ponder on: “Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it.”
Mashinini played his part by discovering his mission and acted on it with distinct leadership prowess. He may not have seen the Promised Land but fight for it, he did.
Ngwenya, a former Sowetan journalist and an anti-apartheid activist, delivered this Tsietsi Mashinini lecture at Soweto Theatre this week.