10 Politics of Resistance

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10 Mpumalanga 1948-1990: The Politics of Resistance
Paul Holden and Sello Mathabatha INTRODUCTION
After the National Party won the 1948 election it pressed ahead with its evolving vision of apartheid. The radical restructuring of society that resulted provoked new forms of resistance. From 1976 onwards, mass-based struggles, largely led by the youth and students, emerged; a democratic union movement gathered strength; the United Democratic Front was launched and the armed struggle was revived and expanded. All these forms of resistance eventually made the apartheid system, and its mutant progeny, the homelands, untenable. While it is clear that Mpumalanga was a key site in all these struggles, very little has been written on the subject. There are a few outstanding pieces that give us glimpses of the extent of resistance, but very little material from which to build a comprehensive picture. We have undertaken some additional research, most notably oral interviews, to try to fill some of the gaps. But this chapter does not claim to be a blow-by-blow account of all resistance in these decades. Instead it provides a number of vivid snapshots of some forms of resistance which emerged and uses them to flag deep-seated trajectories of change in the region. Our main aim is to encourage further discussion, debate and research on the recent history of this fascinating province.

Betterment, Bantu authorities and rural resistance The period from 1948 to 1960 witnessed the growth of political resistance on a number of fronts. Much of this resistance centred on betterment schemes, and, from 1951, the implementation of Bantu Authorities. The Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 attempted to create a comprehensive system of indirect rule. Chiefs would be ‘recognised’ by the state and granted executive powers. However, these chiefs would be beholden to the state, held in check by a carrot-and-stick system of salaries, on the one hand, and the threat of non-recognition on the other. Both Bantu Authorities and betterment impacted on chiefly power and became closely interlinked in the minds of Mpumalanga’s rural residents. Resistance to this dual threat bubbled over, especially towards the end of the 1950s. In neighbouring Sekhukhuneland, for example, migrants responded by forming a political organisation, Fetakgomo (also known as Sebatakgomo and Khuduthamaga). Through this organisation they attempted to regain control of Sekhukhuneland politics, wresting it away from the state and ‘sell-out’ chiefs. When this failed, they launched a campaign of armed resistance that lasted for more than a month but was crushed by the apartheid state.1

For a full discussion of betterment see the previous chapter. For further details of the Sekhukhuneland revolt, see P Delius, A Lion Amongst the Cattle (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1996). There is also extensive literature on the root causes of apartheid’s rural policies, as well as their particular manifestations, which shows that rural transformation was as much about rural areas as it was about urban ‘problems’. See, for example, J Yawitch, Betterment: The Myth of Homeland Agriculture (Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1982); W D Hammond-Tooke, Command Or Consensus (Cape Town: David Philip, 1975); M Mamdani, Citizen and Subject (Cape Town: David Philip, 1996); M Chanock, The Making of



Although research on this facet of Mpumalanga history remains relatively thin, a number of cases of resistance can be outlined. In the Eastern Transvaal, as discussed in the previous chapter, a number of chiefs and their subjects attempted to resolve the contradictions at the heart of the Bantu Authorities Act. In a number of cases, such as the examples provided by A Mbuyane and E Nkosi,2 chiefs became the spearhead of resistance against the Bantu Affairs Department’s (BAD) betterment and Bantu Authorities schemes. Some of the most vociferous resistance emerged, however, when chiefs were unwilling to defy the BAD. One example of this is provided by Matsiketsane Mashile, who operated in the region of Bushbuckridge. Born in 1927 on Maripeskop, Mashile was drawn from royal lineage, his grandfather being the son of a previous chief, Maripe. However, he was unable to achieve chiefly status, and remained ‘unrecognised’ for much of his life. Soon after his birth, Mashile’s father, Lekgwadi Mashile , was killed (allegedly by witchcraft during a chiefly succession). His mother, as was the custom, married Lekgwadi’s younger brother, who, according to Matsiketsane, used most of Lekgwadi’s wealth to buy more wives. Matsiketsane and his mother had become destitute and, after completing Standard I, Matsiketsane was forced to move to the Witwatersrand to find employment. After working as a domestic for a number of years, Matsiketsane got a job at Amato Textiles in Benoni, becoming a South African Council of Trade Unions (SACTU) shop steward. Soon after a major strike at Amato in the late 1950s, he lost his job, returning to Mapulaneng in Bushbuckridge two years later. 3 When Matsiketsane returned to his place of birth, he found it considerably changed. The South African Native Trust (given the responsibility of creating Reserve areas in which Bantu Authorities and betterment policies could apply) had bought the major farm in the area, Ludlow. At the same time, tenants living on nearby farms owned by Hall and Sons had been struggling with their landlords. Hall and Sons had consistently attempted to increase tenants’ rentals, monopolised the sale of cattle and insisted on the expropriation of manure to be used on the farms. In addition, indunas in the area, attempting to resist Hall and Sons, were banished in 1957, their homes being destroyed behind their backs during a meeting with the Native Commissioner.4 A political vacuum had developed which needed to be filled. Matsiketsane leaped at the opportunity. He took over the induna’s courts and began rallying resistance against the government, and, more specifically, Hall and Sons. He quickly became affiliated with the ANC. During a trip to Johannesburg, he enlisted the legal help of the ANC, who agreed to help if Matsiketsane’s followers agreed to join the party (which 400 duly did). Using the ANC’s legal services, Matsiketsane took the fight to Hall and Sons, eventually forcing them to relent on the issue of the forced expropriation of kraal manure. Aided by the ANC, Matsiketsane developed a closer relationship with the organisation. He used his court to run ANC meetings, all the time evading the attentions of the police: ‘When the police came we used to put ANC minutes under the table and take out the books of the tribal court.’ Nevertheless, by 1960, his position had become untenable, and like other resistance leaders in the area from 1960 onwards, he was put under increasing pressure from the state. In 1960, after a spy attended one of his ANC meetings, Matsiketsane was arrested and sentenced to two years’ hard labour at Barberton Prison. After his release from Barberton he once again began to organise resistance to Bantu Authorities and official control of land allocations. His rhetoric was surprisingly militant: ‘Blood will flow,’ he maintained, if the situation on the ground was not rectified. It was not long before he again attracted the

South African Legal Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); I Evans, Bureaucracy and Race (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). 2 T Makhura, ‘Colonialism and Anti-Witchcraft Movements in the early 20th century South Africa with special reference to the Eastern Transvaal’ (Doctoral thesis in progress, University of the Witwatersrand). 3 E Ritchken, ‘Leadership and Conflict in Bushbuckridge: Struggles to Define Moral Economies in the Context of Rapidly Transforming Political Economies, 1978 – 1992’ (Doctoral thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 1995), pp 283-285. 4 Ibid, p 288.


attentions of the Native Commissioner, Charles Bouquin, and, in 1962, he and his younger brother, Sekgopela, were banished to the Transkei for 15 years.5

Mpumalanga was also the site of a key struggle that had national ramifications: the exposure of harsh conditions on Bethal potato farms and the resulting national potato boycott. Central to this story was a political organiser whose name still reverberates around the region – Gert Sibande. Sibande was born in 1901 in Swaziland. Soon after his birth, he moved to the Ermelo district in the then Eastern Transvaal, where he lived and worked with his father, a labour tenant. Sibande, although he received no formal schooling, taught himself to be literate, mainly in Zulu. Living and working in Ermelo, he became active in resistance politics from the 1930s onwards, mainly organising among his fellow farm workers. He formed a farm workers association and became a spokesman for the ANC. Sibande’s powerful personality ensured that he gained the respect of most of the people he came in contact with, earning him the nickname, the ‘Lion of the East’.6 Ron Press, a white political activist who worked closely with Sibande in the late 1940s and early 1950s, recalls:
Gert Sibande was great. He had my respect … He was a large well-built man with a history of struggle. He had little or no education but he had a deep understanding of life. He was from African peasant stock; his whole life had been one of discrimination and deprivation. He had by his own efforts risen above the absurdities and barbarism of apartheid South Africa.7

Sibande spent much of his time organising for the ANC in the region, quickly moving up the ranks and becoming a member of the National Executive Committee in 1956. In 1959 he was appointed the last president of the Transvaal ANC shortly before the organisation was banned. In 1953, after being hounded by authorities, he was banished from Bethal, and was one of the accused in the Treason Trial that began in 1957. Acquitted, along with his fellow accused, he was banished once again; forced to move to Komatipoort, where he was placed under house arrest. From there he fled into exile in Swaziland where he died in 1987.8 Sibande’s legacy in region was a powerful one; a factor clearly evident in the Bethal case. In the late 1940s he had helped to expose conditions on Bethal farms, where exceptionally exploitative conditions existed. Dressing up as a labourer, he provided first-hand details of the farm practices to journalist Ruth First, who published the first exposé of the situation in New Age in 1947.9 So it was that Drum magazine picked up the story in 1952. Henry Nxumalo, the famous ‘Mr Drum’, suggested to the then editor, Anthony Sampson that an article be written on Bethal. In support of his case, he provided a dossier of trials, including a number of cases in the late 1940s of beatings and a 1944 case in which one worker had been beaten to death. Investigation revealed that Bethal labourers working for potato farmers worked under contract and that the recruitment processes were suspect. Frequently touts lay in wait at the Johannesburg pass office and if an individual was having trouble with a pass the tout would offer to resolve the problem by providing a job. Illiterate workers were tricked into signing contracts and were unable to understand what they had agreed to. As the horrors of Bethal became widely known, those unfortunate enough to fall into the touts’ nets were told that they were to work in Middelburg. Upon arrival, however, they were carted, against their will, to the hell of Bethal farmland. 10 Rumours about Bethal began to spread.
Ibid, pp 289-290. T Karis and G Gerhard, From Protest to Challenge, Vol 4 (Stanford: Hoover University Press, 1972), p 140 and ‘Obituary: Gert Sibande’, Sechaba, 5 May 1987. 7 Press, R, ‘To Change the World Is Reason Enough!’, http://www.anc.org.za 8 Karis and Gerhard, From Protest to Challenge. 9 ‘Obituary: Gert Sibande’. 10 A Sampson, Drum: The Making of a Magazine (Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball, 2004), p 23.
6 5


Nxumalo was sent to Bethal to investigate the rumours and, when he informed Sampson that there was a story to be written photographer Jürgen Schadeberg was sent to join him. Working as a team, they toured the region, Schadeberg posing as a journalist, and Nxumalo as his ‘boy’. The ruse worked surprisingly well: in one case, a farmer known in the area for his brutal treatment of workers presented Nxumalo, the ‘well-mannered native’, with a bag of potatoes. Returning to Johannesburg, Nxumalo sought to expose the Bethal farms’ recruitment methods. Dressed as a down-and-out Jo’burger, he lingered around the pass office, only to be approached by a tout, and led through the contract-signing process (he refused to sign the contract after witnessing other workers ‘sign’ theirs by touching a pencil held by the tout). Drum published the story as an eightpage feature article in March 1952, using the pictures captured by Schadeberg as a stark visual accompaniment. The response was overwhelming: it was the first issue of Drum to sell out (although, in Bethal, it turned out that this was the case because farmers, upset by the story, had bought the issue by the truckload, using the glossy pages as the tinder for a reactionary bonfire). The government responded by forming an investigative commission which condemned the practices of Bethal farmers. However, H F Verwoerd, then Minister of Native Affairs, answering questions in Parliament, dismissed the report, describing the article as ‘a most unjust attack by unwarranted generalisations … causing unproved deductions to be made’.11 Although the state refused to act, Bethal remained a burning issue for most black South Africans. In August 1959, the ANC approved a plan for a boycott of Bethal farmers, known colloquially as the national potato boycott. Potatoes were now cuisine non grata at the table of every well-meaning resistor, becoming the symbol of the pass laws, forced labour, low wages, Bantu education and all the other apartheid deprivations. As a result, the boycott was surprisingly effective. A report in Contact in 1959 described it vividly:
Over 1,500 tons of potatoes, equal to between 90,000 and 100,000 pockets, are lying piled up in a 750ft by 60ft shed at the Johannesburg produce market and if the half a million Africans in Johannesburg townships continue their boycott, it may well be that most of these potatoes will have to be destroyed as rubbish.12

The potato boycott was eventually called off in late September 1959, by which time it had been broadened into a boycott of a number of other consumer products and, eventually, a wider defiance campaign. But it had a deeper significance – it was one of the most successful campaigns undertaken by the ANC to that date, giving it the confidence to engage in further boycotts. The Drum article was among the first attempts by the media to expose the horrors of apartheid, and can be considered part of the development of an independent and critical national press. The Bethal story also retained a special place in the history and discourse of resistance and, between 1950 and 1990 it became a rallying point against apartheid; both a symbol of the evils of the state and of how these could be resisted if all concerned citizens acted in unison. In the 1980s, for example, the United Democratic Front (UDF) used the potato boycott extensively to illustrate the fruits of resistance. The ‘potato song’, a folk song about the events, was often sung at UDF meetings.

The political crackdown and the politics of the underground 1960 marked the turning point for political activity in Mpumalanga. The state, emboldened after 12 years of NP rule, started to implement apartheid more stringently and brutally. This was most clearly seen in the case of the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960, in which police opened fire on peaceful protestors, resulting in 69 deaths. The event indicated a new resolve on the part of the state. Already the Suppression of Communism Act had been introduced (in 1950) and used to ban
11 12

Ibid, pp 27-35. ‘Potato Boycott Hits Natal Farmers’, Contact 2(18), September 1959.


the South African Communist Party (SACP) now the punitive powers of the police were reinforced through various key pieces of legislation and, after Sharpeville, both the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned. Violence and intimidation were codified in the statute books; almost any means were considered appropriate to quell resistance and hobble black aspirations. What political space had existed in the 1940s and 1950s ceased to exist during the 1960s. 13 In Mpumalanga forced removals were more rigorously implemented and chiefs were forced into compliance, ensuring that traditional channels for resolving social conflicts were almost entirely eradicated. The example of the PAC in the Witbank region, and the political narratives of Daniel Mdluli, Patrick Motau and Pitika Ntuli illustrate the extent of the repression. Witbank had undergone a process of rapid industrialisation after the discovery of extensive coal deposits in the region. Unlike other areas in Mpumalanga, it soon established African townships, and the educational facilities to service them. Schools, staffed by teachers with their own strong political views became key sites of political education. Motau, for example, remembers how his history teacher often interrupted the standard syllabus to give the ‘real’ history of South Africa:
I enrolled for my Form I at Elukhanyizweni Secondary in 1956. We were taught by teachers from all over South Africa but my own teachers mainly came from Pretoria. Eric Nkondo, Walter Sibone and Sehlogo were all from townships near Pretoria. I must say, our teachers were very political, especially those who taught us history. At times they would stop in the middle of the lesson and start talking about the unfairness of the apartheid system in South Africa and anti-colonial struggles in Africa e.g. Kenya and Ghana. We would usually have contentious political debates on such issues.14

The political education that was received in school was often extended upon the completion of schooling when many youths went either to tertiary education facilities or to the urban centres to find work. Patrick Motau and Pitika Ntuli, for example, first moved to Kilnerton, then to Pretoria, where they were given a crash course in PAC politics by members of the Pretoria PAC cell. As a result, they were both sent to Witbank at weekends to organise; largely focusing on the area’s secondary school, Elukhanyizweni. Finally, in 1962, Ntuli and others established a PAC branch in Witbank with the help and guidance of the Mamelodi branch, and this was used to recruit a number of new PAC cadres.15 Members of the PAC branch in Witbank were soon arrested for trying to organise a protest after the Sharpeville massacre. Although they continued to operate until 1963, a police crackdown in that year ended that. Some of them, including Mdluli and Ntuli, left South Africa. Patrick Motau, however, was unable to escape the clutches of the security police. He was sentenced to 15 years on Robben Island. PAC resistance in the area effectively ceased to exist. This is not to suggest that resistance politics in Mpumalanga died out completely – pockets of resistance were forced deep underground. Rex Gololo was an example of this. A politically active cadre, Gololo had worked in Pretoria for the Bantu Affairs Department in the early 1960s. After witnessing the burning of passes, he used his position to supply resistors with new passes. Realising how dangerous his position had become after Sharpeville, Gololo decided to settle in the town of Barberton. Still, he maintained his connection with urban politics and the activities of parties in exile. Often, according to his son Bennet, a number of ‘strangers’ would appear at his house, where lengthy political meetings were conducted. Upon arriving in exile, Bennet realised they were not just strangers: many of the people he had met were now living and working for resistance movements in exile. In this way, Rex Gololo was able to retain a node of resistance,

13 14

P Bonner and L Segal, Soweto: A History (Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 1998), p 72. Mpumalanga Heritage Project, Interview with Patrick Motau by Sello Mathabatha, Witbank-Ogies, 19 October 2005. 15 Mpumalanga Heritage Project, Interview with Zwelonke Daniel Mdluli by Sello Mathabatha, Witbank, 17 October 2005.


giving him the freedom to work as a quiet underground operative for much of the 1960s and 1970s.16 A similar example is that of Robert Makhanya, who, heading a family known in the Barberton region for its political activities, organised politically in the 1960s and 1970s. His son, Comfort, remembers that this soon attracted the attention of the Security Branch. In the early 1970s, Robert emerged from underground, forming the Barberton Residential Improvement Association, a body that mobilised against the Bantu Administration Board and the forced removals of people from ‘black spots’ in the nearby Emjindini area. His activities not only kept the underground going in the region, but also strongly influenced the political philosophies of both his children. It was no surprise, then, when both Comfort and his sister, Nosizwe, fled into exile in the 1980s.17

The removals and social engineering that the apartheid state undertook in the 1960s and 1970s seemed to be successful. However, the depredations of apartheid had unintended and unforeseen consequences. Many of the students who led the school-based resistance from 1976 onwards gained their earliest sense of political consciousness during this period. The story of students and youths who moved into exile in the 1970s and 1980s provides a good sense of this. In almost every case these youths experienced some form of apartheid interference in their lives, generating a sense that something had to be changed. Stan Mathabatha is a good example. The great grandson of a chief, Mathabatha lived in Botshabelo during the early part of his life, attending the local primary school. In 1971, however, his family, along with many others, was forced off the land, and into the township of Motetema. Even at this young age Mathabatha was aware that the removals were coerced, although he was, at the time, unable to understand fully the political reasons behind them. He was only aware that the white government no longer desired his presence on the land on which he had grown up:
I was aware because there was way in which you could not have been aware, because people were resisting in one way or another. And people were being taken to jail, people were beaten up … I remember we had a lot of chickens at home and we had to abandon them in Botshabelo because Motetema is a township … I was definitely aware that there were forced removals but the element I may not have been aware about at the time was the political motive behind the forced removals.18

In some cases, those afflicted by forced removals were able to link their experiences directly to the apartheid state. In the case of Amos Lubisi, his family was forced out of Komatipoort (a key site on the exile route into Mozambique) and into the township of Mangweni in Tonga. Not surprisingly, soon after the removal, he joined the ANC at the instigation of his nephew, Raul:
We left Komatipoort after we were removed by the Boers … It was then that I realized the suffering under the oppression applied to black people by the Boers … [Raul] taught me politics and made me realise how we black people were suffering. And I agreed with him that indeed we were suffering. I then joined the ANC. It was because of the suffering of the black people.19

Forced removals were not the only means by which potential ‘comrades’ were introduced to the apartheid state. Exploitative labour practices, especially in rural areas, often provided the spur. Returning to the case of Amos Lubisi, not only was he forced off the land in Komatipoort, he was

Mpumalanga Heritage Project, Interview with Bennet Gololo by Sello Mathabatha, Barberton Township, 14 September 2005. 17 Mpumalanga Heritage Project, Interview with Comfort Makhanya by Sello Mathabatha, Barberton Township, 14 September 2005. 18 SADET, Interview with Stan Mathabatha by Marepo Lesetja, Polokwane, 2 August 2002. 19 SADET, Interview with Amos Lubisi by Marepo Lesetja, Tonga, 4 October 2002.


also forced, at a young age, into extremely exploitative employment on white farms (and thus denied an education):
When I started growing up I started working on a farm and I was paid ngogo, which is equivalent to 25 cents. I would work the whole month for this ngogo. Then time went on and the white man made you work for three ngogos. That’s where I realised that indeed we were being oppressed. So, then when we learned that the ANC was fighting for our independence … then that’s how I was quickly swept away by politics.20

Schooling, too, provided an introduction to the apartheid system, feeding the youths’ dissatisfaction with the status quo. In some cases, it was the absurdity of the whole Bantu Education system that provided this initial sense. Take the case of Tlokwe Maserumule. The son of a chief, C Shikoane Maserumule grew up in gaRakgwadi, after his family was removed from Jane Furse when he was two years old. After completing his education as far as the schools in his area would allow, he was sent to a ‘chieftainship school’ called Boapara-Nkwe. The school was specifically set up to teach the sons of chiefs how to behave, and how to administer in a way that would support the Bantustan system. Subjects not taught in other government schools, such as Bantu Law and chiefly deportment, constituted the staple educational diet of these young chiefly protégés. Military officers were posted to the school in order to inculcate the values of apartheid more effectively. This, however, was precisely the problem Maserumule had with the school:
What surprised me was that, amongst other questions that I was asking was that these whites were teaching us about chieftainship while they had not chiefs themselves … One day I asked this question: tell me Mr Verkuin (Verkuin was a military captain and I wondered why he was a teacher while he was a soldier ) … when I asked how can you teach my about my chieftainship when you yourself don’t have a chief, I was then expelled from the school.21

It was a short step from recognising the absurdity of the education system to understanding the absurdity of apartheid as a whole. Of course, sometimes it did not take expulsion to point this up. The teachers, themselves, were often conveyors this sense. For example, Sam Mkhabela (who was also later expelled from his school for political activities, soon to join the ANC) was given his first taste of politics by his history teacher, Mr Mababaso, who teased his students, noting that, while history was a good subject, it could ‘cause politics’. Continually questioned as to what he meant, Mababaso explained:
… his own version of history; about how he was arrested. I mean, I remember that he was even quoting that you see the ANC had been in the country and it had been banned. Why had it been banned? Who is supposed to be our … mouthpiece, speaking for us. So those were the people who … inspired me, I mean at that level.22

Those comrades who developed a political consciousness in the 1970s were aided by a further development. From 1970 onwards, resistance literature became more widely available. Radio Freedom, beamed from small studios in exile, reached groups of youths gathered around radios, providing them with a dose of political education and the rhetoric of action. In addition, there was an explosion in the cross-pollination of ideas between universities and schools (the effect of the University of the North’s Turfloop campus in this regard cannot be over-emphasised and will be dealt with below). The influence of this exposure was astonishing. Ngoako Ramatlhodi (who, in a democratic South Africa was to become the Premier of the Northern Province), for instance, found himself drawn into struggle politics through his interest in art and poetry:
20 21

Ibid. SADET, Interview with Tlokwe Maserumule by Marepo Lesetja, Matlatla Village, 11 July 2002. 22 SADET, Interview with Sam Mkhabela by Marepo Lesetja, Bushbuckridge, 5 October 2002.


I beg[a]n to write poetry, drama, to act, and that influenced me to move towards the struggle, politics. We had a group in Tembisa called Marimba artists together with Ntato Motlana and others. We would come together, read poetry to one another for the whole weekend. Critique each other’s poems and things like that … Now, when we were sitting in these sessions talking about poetry … I remember one person reading a poem that was striking such a beacon … it was entitled, ‘Mama, where is my white father?’ He was a coloured man … others were reading about issues that were relevant to them … and we were completely changed.23

Signs of the impending student revolts of the late 1970s began appearing in the early 1970s. This was most clearly seen in the case of Turfloop, the only tertiary institution serving the Mpumalanga region. Heavily influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement, the student body of Turfloop registered their disaffection with contemporary resistance politics by withdrawing from the then white dominated National Union of South African Students (Nusas), and joining a second, more assertive, mouthpiece, the South African Students Organisation (Saso).24 Turfloop’s growing radicalism soon became apparent in 1972. During the 1972 graduation ceremony, the student leader Onkgopotse Tiro launched a scathing attack on the Bantu Education system:
In America there is nothing like Negro education, Indian education or white American education. They have American education common to all. But in South Africa there is Bantu Education, Indian, Coloured and European Education … In theory the Bantu education gives parents a say in the education of their children, but in practice the opposite is true. University Education Diplomas at our university force us to do philosophy of education in Afrikaans. When we question this, we are told the senate has decided so. The advisory Council is said to represent our parents, how can that be, since they were not elected by our parents?25

In response, the university council expelled Tiro and decided that every one of Turfloop’s 1 120 students would have to reapply for admission.26 Eventually, after an extensive student strike, Turfloop reopened its doors to most of its students. Tiro, however, was excluded. Not being able to return to Turfloop, he went to teach at the now-famous Morris Isaacson Secondary School in Soweto. Some students had begun to consider seeking refuge in exile even before the explosions of 1976. One of them was Thabang Makwetla, whose story, fascinatingly, intersects with that of Tiro. One of Makwetla’s earliest political memories was deeply connected to Tiro. Makwetla’s sister, a student at Turfloop, engaged in long and arduous arguments with her and Thabang’s parents after Tiro had been expelled: she felt, like many other students that it would be politically incorrect to return to Turfloop. The interplay between Makwetla’s political growth and Turfloop remained in place, however. During his school years (he attended a boarding school near Turfloop), the political influence of the university reached Makwetla and his friends, ensuring that the fight against apartheid remained central to his growing political awareness. In 1974, Makwetla came across Father Trevor Huddleston’s book, Naught For Your Comfort, which further opened his mind to South Africa’s political realities. Finally, in 1975, Makwetla, labelled an agitator because of his membership of the South African Students Movement (SASM), was expelled from school for a month. Although he was later readmitted because of the good results he had achieved in the previous December’s examinations and, after being warned to stay away from people operating under the ‘wrong influence’, he remained part of an underground SASM cell at his school. Under pressure from his friends, and considering it ethically wrong to develop a professional career while other comrades fought the good fight, Makwetla decided to leave South Africa in 1975. His initial
23 24

SADET, Interview with Ngoako Ramatlhodi, Conducted by Marepo Lesetja, Polokwane, 24 February 2004 S Mathabatha, ‘The 1976 Student Revolts and the Schools in Lebowa’, South African Historical Journal 51, 2004, pp 114 – 115 25 ‘Graduate slams African Education’, The Weekend World, 30 April 1972, p 1. 26 The World, 7 May 1972, p 1.


attempts to flee were foiled by logistical problems and, in the end, he left soon after the June 1976 uprising.27 By the mid-1970s, therefore, Mpumalanga was primed for an explosion of political resistance. Students, conscientised by their experience of apartheid (most notably forced removals and the school system), had begun to develop a sense that the status quo was firmly set against their interests. Something had to change. In 1976, this sentiment was fully expressed. But it was not just students who were involved in resistance. Emboldened by their courage and commitment other sectors of society also began to mobilise.

On 16 June 1976 students throughout Soweto launched a protest against Bantu Education. The harsh response of the police fanned the flames of their grievances and the protest expanded, grew and spread – 16 June was only the beginning. As news of the event spread, schools throughout South Africa began to protest. In Mpumalanga, the news was greeted with varying responses. In some areas, such as Middelburg, the story sparked further, local protests by school children against Bantu Education. In the Lowveld regions, however, the response was more muted, with some schools failing to react at all. Nevertheless, by the early 1980s, virtually the entire Mpumalanga region had begun to experience some level of student and youth-led political organisation. Transformations in youth experience A number of interlinked processes impacted on youth experiences in Mpumalanga from the mid1970s onward. The first was the relative death of previous, more traditional, means of socialisation. This, in turn, was the result of two processes. Firstly, chiefs, the guardians of traditional means of socialisation, were seen to be increasingly illegitimate; their close ties to the apartheid state undercutting any sense of legitimate chiefly power. Secondly, land, and, in turn, cattle, became increasingly scarce, as a result both of official intervention in land allocation and natural population increase. A newer and more urban sensibility and process of socialisation therefore emerged throughout much of Mpumalanga. As Delius points out, in Sekhukhuneland the experience of young boys connecting during their stints as herd-boys was increasingly replaced by youths connecting at school, in the playground, on the soccer field, and outside the local convenience store.28 The second process was, on the one hand, the rapid growth of secondary schooling and, on the other, a dearth of employment opportunities. For many youths and parents, schooling was seen as the primary vehicle for moving up in the world; the prospect of agricultural self-sufficiency was a chimera of the past. As a result, many communities spent substantial sums of money on establishing new primary and secondary schools. In areas such as Sekhukhuneland, there was a boom in the provision of schooling, with nearly 100 schools being built between 1976 and the mid1980s. Unfortunately, the provision of schools was not matched by the provision of quality education: many teachers were untrained and unqualified; some only recently matriculated. Take the example of Fish Mahlalela. In 1982, Fish, who was later to become an important ANC operative in Mpumalanga, was offered a teaching post at a newly established secondary school in Mbuzini. The problem: he had only completed his matric a year before. Moreover, during his own schooling, he was not taught some of the subjects he was now allocated:
SiSwati became my biggest problem because in my high school there was no SiSwati as a subject, instead we were taught Zulu … I only managed to teach it due to my Swazi upbringing, otherwise it was a disaster.29
27 28

Mpumalanga Heritage Project, Interview with Thabang Makwetla by Peter Delius, 22 August 2005. Delius, A Lion Amongst the Cattle, chapters 6 and 7. 29 Mpumalanga Heritage Project, Interview with Fish Mahlalela by Peter Delius, Nelspruit, 28 October 2005.


School leavers were faced with dire economic prospects. The economic slow-down of the late 1970s turned into the full-scale economic recession of 1983. Many school leavers were unable to find any form of employment. Getting exact figures for Mpumalanga is difficult, but figures for the whole of the Transvaal give us some indication of the severity of the economic downswing. Seekings, for example, estimated that two out of three youths lived in rural areas, most of them in the Transvaal. Of this group, it was estimated that unemployment levels for individuals under the age of 25 was as high as 85 per cent for much of the 1980s. It was a combustible situation: youths, their expectations of rewarding employment raised by formal schooling sat at home in mounting frustration and anger.30 This was a fertile environment for a political ideology of change to take root – a process encouraged by the increasing closeness between rural areas and urban centres, which, in turn, was fed by two processes. The first was the influx of urban-based schoolchildren into the rural areas. Many parents who worked as migrants in urban centres were horrified by the 1976 uprising. They saw sustained access to education as the key means by which the youth could climb the apartheid employment ladder. As a result, they decided to send their children, previously enrolled in schools in urban centres, to more sedate rural schools. These children brought with them the language of resistance, urban attitudes, and political know-how. They also brought a certain personal cachet: they were, in the parlance of the time, ‘cool’. As a result, many rural students, previously uninterested in politics, became enamoured with the idea of political resistance and with the social status it brought. This was aided by a media boom which gave students and the youth increasing access to both the national and the underground press. The second process was the shortening of the effective distance between rural and urban areas. The expansion of the taxi industry provided a fast, cheap and, mostly, reliable means of moving between rural and urban areas (the replacement of wire cows with wire taxis as the children’s toy of choice also acted as an interesting visual symbol of the transformations of the time). Urban ideas and the techniques of political organisation perfected in urban areas were thus able to spread throughout the region far more easily, and with far more range, than under previous conditions. The presence of ANC cadres, increasingly re-infiltrated after 1976, also added to this situation. Thus, by the 1980s, Mpumalanga, previously relatively politically remote, was suddenly awash with politically motivated students, youths and cadres. They were sick of the status quo and were more fluent in the ways and means of political organisation and resistance.31 The impact of 1976 In some areas, the protests of 16 June had little impact. In Nelspruit and Barberton, for example, Comfort Makhanya recalled a sense of confusion over the switch to dual-medium education, but no real political reaction on the part of students. For Makhanya, this was the result of the specific ethos of teachers in the region. In contrast to other areas, Nelspruit and Barberton lacked politically motivated teachers willing to give students their first crash-course in political education. A strict code of conduct was followed by teachers in the region: one that precluded close relationships between teachers and students, at both a personal and a political level.32 In other areas, the impact of the Soweto protests was more noticeable. In Middelburg, for example, the close relationship between Turfloop and the existing township schools prior to 1976 provided a political context in which the 1976 protests could be received with increased understanding. As Ben Mokoena, a student at the Sozama High School in Mhluzi recalls:

30 31

Delius, A Lion Amongst the Cattle; J Seekings, Heroes or Villains? (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1993), p 13. Delius, A Lion Amongst the Cattle; S Mathabatha, The Struggle Over Education in the Northern Transvaal: The Case of Catholic Mission Schools, 1948-1994 (Amsterdam: Rozenburg, 2005), p 5. 32 Mpumalanga Heritage Project, Comfort Makhanya. .


At our school by 1976 already some guys who were our seniors left in 1975 for exile. Those were the guys who worked with Mandla Seleoane who was a Turfloop student then. They introduced us to Black Consciousness and student politics through South African Student Movement (SASM) and South African Student Organisation (SASO) and they used to invite us meetings in Hammanskraal and Wilgespruit-Roodepoort in Johannesburg long before the 1976 riots...33

As early as 1975, a Middelburg students’ organisation affiliated to the SASM had been created. The 1976 Soweto protests thus hit an exposed nerve. Soon afterwards, students in Middelburg clashed with the police. During a march on Middelburg, largely organised by a coalition of students, teachers and clerks, the police opened fire, killing a number of protestors. In addition, many ‘agitators’, such as Ben Mokoena, Jabu Sindane and Thuli Khubheka (among others), were arrested. Upon their release in late 1976 they quickly regrouped, organising a ‘Black Christmas’ (a boycott of schools and commerce). Many of the protestors were either arrested or intimidated by the security police. For some, the heat was too intense; they sought refuge in exile.34 In some cases, students without a political background, shocked by the events of 1976, began to organise themselves. One of these was Stan Mathabatha. Already angered by the absurdities of the apartheid schooling system, Mathabatha was horrified and moved by the images of the 1976 protests, most notably the famous photo of Hector Pieterson:
… after we had seen a very big picture of a child … who was carried by another child, you know. A certain lady was also shot there; you know … the … everything … the internal intestines and everything were outside. That article, we really didn’t take it. We didn’t take it lying [down] because we realized it was a Sunday … we could also revenge for these people, our people.’35

Spurred on by the images of 1976, Mathabatha and his friends decided to retaliate by damaging several building including the boarding master’s house, which they broke into, destroying the windows and doors. The result: at 2am the following Sunday morning they were arrested by the Security Branch. But their protests were heard throughout the region, and, in 1977, a number of other students gathered the courage to voice their own displeasure, using Mathabatha’s methods: a number of schools close to Mathabatha’s original alma mater were burnt down. Incorrectly blamed for these arson attacks, Mathabatha had no choice but to move into exile in late 1977.36 The growth of student and youth politics Although the impact of 16 June was uneven, the spread of youth politics was more uniform. Student and youth organisations flourished in the region, one of the more famous and influential being the Steelpoort Youth Congress (SEYCO), which was able to unite successfully with other sectors of the local population (such as labour) to protest apartheid. These new organisations were instilled both with the political language of resistance, and knowledge of key means of mass protest (such as school and consumer boycotts). However, although these organisations spread rapidly throughout Mpumalanga, their impact in the early 1980s should not be overemphasised. For many youths, political activity remained relatively isolated and unstructured. The focus of political activity was mobilisation around key issues, rather than the creation of organised structures. In towns such as Ermelo, Amsterdam, Bethal and Standerton, youths often gathered outside convenience stores to discuss political issues, sometimes launching isolated boycott campaigns. But consistent organisation was not forthcoming. The testimony of two individuals gives us a sense of this. Fish Mahlalela, who operated among lowveld boarding schools, recalls how little political organisation there was at the time.
33 34

SADET, Interview with Ben Mokoena by Sello Mathabatha, Middelburg, 8 July 2002. Ibid. 35 Stan Mathabatha. 36 Ibid.


The dearth of formal political organisations in the region in the early 1980s was responsible for the lack of youth mobilisation. We worked as individuals most of the time. A few of use who had some awareness would bring a few youngsters to discuss simple things like toyi-toyi with no political guidance.37

Similar testimony is provided by Andries Johnson. Johnson, who was expelled from school in 1976, recalls how, during his tenure working part-time at his father’s shop, he began to develop some sense of communal political awareness. He was, however, unable to turn this into full-scale political organisation:
I began helping in the shop and there were always boys around me and some strangers. Some of these boys were school-leavers, the unemployed and local students; others were strangers who just befriended us. The numbers increased as from 1980s with more strange faces appearing everyday…in 1982, and ever since then, we started talking politics and strategising about how to involve some of the boys we normally spend time with at the shop. But I must say, we local boys knew very little about politics then, except hearing from the radio and reading papers about Soweto and other urban places.38

The move into exile For many young people local political activity only led to a dead end and, unable to withstand the pressures of security branch attention many turned to exile as way of furthering their political ends. The flow of young people into the arms of exile organisations was encouraged by the renewed attention paid by organisations such as the ANC to recruitment. One of those who responded was Chris Mdluli. Born in Bushbuckridge, Mdluli was a keen student who developed a deep interest in history, and, particularly, in Jan van Riebeeck. His historical affiliation attracted much attention. Arguing with classmates, he defended the apartheid status quo and it was not long before an ANC recruiter, known as Bob, recognised his talents. ‘Bob’ approached Mdluli and provided him with ANC reading materials and a crash course in ANC history:
He explained to me what the ANC is. And then he asked me, ‘Do you know Nelson Mandela?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t know him.’ And I spoke the truth, I didn’t know Nelson Mandela then … He then said to me, ‘Okay, Nelson Mandela is the leader of the ANC.’ I said, ‘Okay, tell me, what is the leader?’ He told me, ‘Leader is the head. Just like when you herd the cattle in the forest, you are the leader of the cattle. You show the way to those cattle.’ It’s then now, when I started to know about the ANC.39

Soon after this lesson, Mandela replaced Van Riebeeck as Mdluli’s hero and it was not long before Mdluli joined the ANC and went into exile. In some cases the move into exile was made without any prior connection to the ANC, instead it was an ad-hoc response to the political situation in the country. The story of Sam Mkhabela gives us a sense of this. Mkhabela, although politically educated by access to Radio Freedom during his school days, was relatively passive, refusing to engage in local political struggles. His friends, however, were different. Working for the ANC, they used Mkhabela’s residence as a safe house, soon attracting the attention of the local security branch. After his friends fled, Mkhabela warned about the attention his house had been receiving, panicked and fled. The

Fish Mahlalela; Mpumalanga Heritage Project, Interview with Chris Temba by Sello Mathabatha, Barberton, 14 September 2005; Mpumalanga Heritage Project, Interview with Nkosinathi Nkosi by Sello Mathabatha, Barberton, 14 September 2005. 38 Mpumalanga Heritage Project, Interview with Andries Johnson by Simon Zwane, 10 September 2005. 39 Ibid.


security branch, discovering that he had left, approached Mkhabela’s employer, gaining access to his personal details, including his bank account. When Mkhabela, arriving in a town near the Mozambique border, drew cash from his account, the bank alerted the local security branch. What followed was a terrifying chase through the suburbs, which ended with Mkhabela stuck between a crocodile infested river and the Security Branch. He opted to try his chances with the crocodiles, swimming across the river into Mozambique. The crocodiles, at least, wouldn’t ask him for his pass.

The growth of political resistance between 1976 and 1984 laid the foundations for further, more extensive resistance. From 1984 resistance politics in Mpumalanga exploded. Not only did students and the youth movement continue to mobilise within the province, other, previously dormant sectors of society, began to oppose the apartheid state as well. Resistance emerged forcefully and violently in the Bantustans (or homelands). The labour movement became increasingly organised and vocal. The MK, its ranks swelled by young people leaving Mpumalanga and other areas of South Africa, expanded its activities within the region. It must be noted, however, that, in some cases, the fury normally directed at the state was turned inwards. This was most clearly seen in the witchcraft killings in areas such as Sekhukhuneland and Bushbuckridge. Nevertheless, by 1990, Mpumalanga had become, in the parlance of the ANC, ‘ungovernable’. The Bantustans The main Bantustans within the borders of Mpumalanga were KwaNdebele and Kangwane. But fragments of Lebowa and Gazankulu also abutted or intruded on the area. all these places became hotbeds of unrest, and the arenas in which some of the most vociferous fighting against the apartheid state took place. Key to this resistance was the attitude to homelands among the established resistance movements. As early as 1963, Oliver Tambo had told the United Nations that:
Whether it is called ‘homelands’ or Bantustans or countries in terms of partition, it is still racial discrimination and apartheid – it is still white domination … [The homeland system is] so evil and has been condemned so forcibly and so genuinely 40 that the only way to handle it is by destroying it.

In 1982, addressing Frelimo, Tambo invoked the symbolic power of fire (and resistance) as both a destructive and purifying force in relation to the homelands:
Bantustan puppets are working feverishly to keep our country balkanised, our people divided and landless. But today some of them are beginning to burn in the furnace of their treachery … The whole Bantustan program is meeting growing and intense resistance from the people.41

The fact that conditions in the Bantustans were appalling provided the tinder for the firestorm of resistance invoked by Tambo. They were overcrowded; service provision was non-existent; residents were harassed by the police, and, in more severe incidents, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and, above all, except in the case of KaNgwane, the people were effectively disenfranchised and stripped of their South African citizenship.
O Tambo, ‘United Nations Must Take Action Against apartheid’, Oliver Tambo’s Statement at the Meeting of the Special Political Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 29 October 1963 http://www.anc.org.za 41 O Tambo, Speech at Frelimo Mass Rally at Bairro De Liberdade, Maputo, 14 February 1982 http://www.anc.org.za


Lebowa In Lebowa all these factors combined to create a combustible situation by the early 1980s. Initially created in 1950s as the ethnic homeland of the Northern Sotho, Northern Ndebele and Bapedi groups, Lebowa was granted self-governing status (as opposed to full ‘independence’) in 1973. Lebowa housed a population of nearly 1,5 million, and, from 1973 until late in the 1980s, it was run by Dr Cedric Phatudi, an old-style politician who echoed, in many of his actions and statements, the non-violent and largely bourgeois approach of the early ANC. Indeed, during his tenure he vacillated between the two extremes that typified 1980s South Africa: he condemned the Bantustan system and the violence used to overthrow it in equal measure.42 Resistance began to bubble in the early 1980s, as reflected in the confrontation between the Lebowa authorities and the ‘Congress People’. Students at Turfloop also became increasingly vocal, contesting key symbols of the apartheid state (such as the enforced celebration of ‘Republic Day’). Youths and students not involved in tertiary education also began to organise effectively, drawing in other sectors of society; the Steelpoort Youth Congress, for example, was able to join with workers and residents to successfully boycott the local chrome industry. Black Consciousness continued to thrive, as seen in the example of the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo), which, by 1985, had organised so successfully that the Lebowa government enlisted the help of the SANDF to try to quell their activity. Similarly, the UDF, led by Peter Nchabeleng, a local political dynamo with a long history of involvement in the ANC, had marked success in the region. Soon after its formation in 1985, the Northern Transvaal branch of the UDF boasted more than 60 affiliate organisations. This was remarkable considering that, as Seekings has pointed out, the UDF struggled to form any consistent presence in areas outside the main national urban centres of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. 43 It was against this background that the situation flared up in 1984. Once again students were at the forefront, with those on the Turfloop campus agitating against enforced Republic Day celebrations. The message was soon picked up by schoolchildren who, emboldened by their previous successes, were able to enforce a major communal embargo on celebrating Republic Day. The Lebowa police attempted to calm the situation by closing down schools and using intimidation tactics. Nevertheless, the political climate remained stormy, with Lebowa authorities unable to curb the growth of underground political organisations. The storm turned into a hurricane during the first six months of 1986 and the police began to use more direct methods of intimidation. On 8 March, for example, a regional meeting of Azapo was interrupted by police, who fired teargas and unleashed attack dogs, wounding and terrifying the members. Similarly, in early April, police arrested key members of the Azapo executive committee. One of them, Lebowa Times journalist Makompo Lucky Kutumela, was killed only hours after his arrest (resulting in a massive political funeral involving thousands of furious Lebowans, and a widely supported boycott in Potgietersrus).
T Lodge, ‘Revolt in a Homeland: Lebowa’, in T Lodge, All Here and Now (Cape Town: David Philip, 1991), pp 117119; Phatudi continuously rejected ‘independence’ during his tenure, while, at the same time, responding favourably to some of Pretoria’s advances. In 1977 and 1982, for example, he stated that independence was ‘fatal’ for black South Africans, and that no black South African could accept it when the division of land that accompanied it was determined by the 1913 Land Act (Race Relations Survey 1996 (Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1997), p 356 and Race Relations Survey 1982 (Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1983), p 402. Yet, in 1985, he praised P W Botha’s reform initiatives and stated that Botha was the first Afrikaner leader intent on uniting all South Africans: undoubtedly the reason why students protested against a talk he delivered at Turfloop in October 1985, which, after clashes with police, resulted in nine students being injured (Race Relations Survey 1985, (Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1986), p 315. 43 For more details of the conflict between the Lebowa Government and the ‘Congress People’ see M Tsedu, ‘Big Row Over Sold Sheep’, Post, 22 April 1980. Details of resistance on the Turfloop campus can be found in J Mokgolo, ‘Police Set Up Roadblocks’, Rand Daily Mail, 25 May 1980; ‘Turfloop Students Raise ANC Flag’, Cape Times, 3 June 1980 . The activities of AZAPO in the region have been detailed in Race Relations Survey 1986 (Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1987), p 660. Details of the growth of the UDF in the region have been taken from Race Relations Survey 1986, p 660. For further details of the UDF’s national membership and action patterns, see J Seekings, The UDF (Cape Town: David Philip, 2000).


Responses in Lebowa were not always reactive and ad-hoc. The UDF, for example, was able to launch a campaign urging Lebowa’s parliamentarians to resign, as a result of which three did so, while 39 of the 100 members of the legislative assembly voiced their protest by failing to attend. 44 The state responded with a heavy hand in April 1986. The homes of two UDF activists were bombed by Lebowan loyalists. Peter Nchabeleng, who was arrested by the police in April 1986 (after organising a successful consumer boycott in March and April), was found dead 14 hours later. Reports submitted by the state pathologist indicated that he had suffered a fatal beating. Nchabeleng’s death provoked an immediate response. Not only did it gain intense media exposure in the national dailies, a massive political funeral was organised, attracting more than 20 000 mourners. Nchabeleng was buried with the flags of the SACP and the ANC draped over his coffin.45 It would be a distortion to claim that resistance in Lebowa as focused only in urban areas and on urban issues. The burning concerns of rural residents both of the homeland and of Mpumalanga continued to fester throughout the 1970s and the 1980s (with the emphasis on issues such as land usage and the incorporation of chiefs into the state bureaucracy). This created the political space in which rural resistance could re-emerge in the 1980s. Returning to the story of Matsiketsane Mashile gives us a sense of this. After being banished to the Transkei in the early 1960s, Matsiketsane returned to Bushbuckridge in 1978, serving three months of house arrest before being given freedom of movement whereupon he and his younger brother, Sekgopela, immediately set about contesting the status quo. The chiefs, still ruled by the Bantu Authorities, had become enmeshed in the bureaucracy of native administration. Residents, and more specifically, migrants, were distraught at the situation. In addition, many migrants felt that the Pulana, the ethnic group with which they associated, was being discriminated against, being forced off the land by the administrators of Gazankulu and denied positions within the Lebowa government because of their ethnicity.46 The response, similar to that in Sekhukhuneland nearly 20 years before, was to form a migrant organisation, the ‘Leihlo La Naga’ (eye of the Nation), to agitate for Pulana demands. The organisation began to organise in the area and elected a national executive committee to lead the protest. In a startling move, it also cut their ties with existing ‘recognised’ Pulana chiefs, arguing that Matsiketsane was the true, if unrecognised, Pulana paramount. Matsiketsane used this position, as well as his position as a Christian preacher, to build up his claim to chieftainship within the area, setting up an extensive patronage network. The effort soon paid off: in 1982, both Matsiketsane and Sekgopela were elected to the Lebowa Parliament, where they used their position to expose corruption amongst Lebowa government officials and argue for the end of rural apartheid.47 The anger and commitment to change on the part of the majority of Lebowans could not be ignored. As a result, when Phatudi died in 1987, he was replaced by Mogoboya Noko Ramodike who, unlike Phatudi, totally rejected the idea of homeland ‘independence’ and argued strongly for the end of apartheid. Thus, between 1987 and 1990, no serious political violence took place in Lebowa. Instead, the political situation entered into a holding pattern until the homeland was eventually dismantled. KwaNdebele KwaNdebele, one of the last homeland structures created by the South African government, was formed in the mid-1970s, ‘arbitrarily carved out of the central Transvaal’. It was granted ‘selfgoverning’ status in April 1981, allowing for the creation of an executive branch to complement the
T Lodge, ‘Revolt in a Homeland’, pp 120-123 and Race Relations Survey 1986, pp 660-662. S Rogathata, ‘UDF Homes Bombed’, City Press, 11 April 1986; ‘Lebowa: Repression and Anarchy’, The Star, 17 April 1986; ‘Autopsy on Nchabeleng Done “Secretly”’, The Star, 21 April 1986; ‘Police Probe UDF Leader’s Death in Lebowa’, The Citizen, 28 April 1986; ‘How UDF Man Died’, Sowetan, 18 August 1987; J Collinge, ‘Post-Mortem on the Nchabeleng Inquest’, Sunday Star, 5 July 1987; ‘Shock Verdict’, Sowetan, 18 August 1987; ‘9 Riot Men Responsible for UDF Man’s Death’, The Star, 18 August 1987; Race Relations Survey 1986, p 662. 46 Ritchken, ‘Leadership and Conflict’, pp 290-3. 47 Ibid, pp 295-310.
45 44


legislative assembly that had already been created. The idea that KwaNdebele was a true ethnic ‘homeland’, supposedly providing the national self-expression that was alleged to be the true desire of every ethnic group, was illogical: of the population of 465 000 living there by 1986 (on a total area of 300 000 ha – quite unable to sustain the population), 55 per cent were ethnically mixed, fleeing white farms, while 29 per cent came from Bophuthatswana, a supposedly Tswana homeland. Unlike Lebowa, where Phatudi attempted to build some sort of representative leadership, KwaNdebele, at its inception, was run by a coalition of businessman-thugs (including local taxi drivers) trying to extract as much money as possible from trading licences and the limited largesse afforded to Bantustan leaders. The two dominant figures in this coalition were S S Skosana and Piet Ntuli, who played ey roles in government-level KwaNdebele politics. Soon after their installation as leaders in 1981, Skosana and Ntuli signalled their intentions by formed Mbokodo (meaning ‘grinding stone’), which, they claimed, was simply a cultural and political organisation looking to re-establish an ‘original’ Ndebele identity. The reality was very different: Mbokodo was a thinly veiled vigilante group that used violence, torture and intimidation to maintain its position of power. This was reflected in the powers granted to Mbokodo by the KwaNdebele government, which included, among other things, the power to deal with troublemakers and people who called for boycotts. (Skosana, Ntuli and Mbokodo were empowered to ‘fetch such a person from the police and hit him’.) One favourite tactic used in dealing with trouble-makers was to remove offenders to an abandoned building, strip them down and force them to run around in circles on soapy water, and, if they could not remain on their feet, severely beaten.48 Piet Ntuli and S S Skosana encapsulate the horror of the Bantustan system. Skosana, the Chief Minister of KwaNdebele, and the Minister of Interior (and almost certainly the real dynamo behind the homeland’s sham government) led one of the most concerted and brutal campaigns of violence and violation seen in South Africa. Their favourite strategy was mobilising hordes of supporters, arming thugs, and invading areas of resistance, and, for much of the early 1980s, they seemed to have KwaNdebele firmly within their grasp. However, by 1986, Ntuli had been murdered and the issue of ‘independence’ had been sidelined. Even the South African government had realised that KwaNdebele could never be drawn fully into apartheid structures. Concerted resistance and an unwillingness to be cowed defined the struggles of KwaNdebele residents, in their own way pushing the apartheid state to the brink and beyond, ensuring, above all, that KwaNdebele could never be considered part of apartheid’s collaborative network. In addition to intense political intimidation on the part of Mbokodo, KwaNdebele residents had to deal with appalling living conditions. Those who lived their and worked outside the homeland found their travelling times increased hugely by the fact that they were unable, as ‘citizens’ of KwaNdebele, to settle in areas near their work: more than 45 per cent of all commuters had to wake up between 3.30 and 4.30am in order to reach work. Service provision was virtually non-existent; 97 per cent of all housing in KwaNdebele had been built by the residents, while only 0.2 per cent of houses had been electrified by 1986. A total of 2 700 flush toilets serviced the entire homeland. Medical services were horribly inadequate: the homeland had one hospital, with a 650bed capacity, staffed by 8 doctors, 36 nurses and a lone dentist. Employment was virtually nonexistent, as was agriculture activity: in December 1980, for example, it was estimated that more than 200 000 of KwaNdebele’s almost 500 000 people were living below the breadline.49 It was against this backdrop that resistance in KwaNdebele began to surface in late 1985, centring on two key issues. The first was the incorporation of Moutse, originally slated as part of Lebowa, into KwaNdebele. It was hoped that Moutse, housing a population of 120 000 nonNdebele inhabitants, would help to make KwaNdebele economically viable. Moutse, unlike KwaNdebele, contained both fertile agricultural ground and mineral resources (mostly coal). The
‘KwaNdebele: The Struggle Against Independence’, TRAC, p 3; C McCaul, Satellite in Revolt (Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1987), pp 3-14; TRC Final Report: Volume 3, p 273. 49 Forced Removals in South Africa: The Transvaal, Vol. 5 (Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg: Surplus People’s Project, 1983), p 204; McCaul, Satellite, pp 40-54.


inhabitants of Moutse were totally opposed to incorporation, fearing they would lose their land, mineral rights and any political influence. Most galling for many of the parents living in Moutse was the idea that they would be forced to send their children to Ndebele, rather than Pedi, schools. On 18 November 1985 a Lebowa delegation approached Chris Heunis, the Minister for CoOperation and Development, petitioning against incorporation and local residents raised more than R42 000 for legal representation (emboldened, no doubt, by the success of similar methods in KaNgwane). When non-violent methods proved unsuccessful (Heunis announced on 5 December that Moutse would be incorporated by 1 January 1986) violence became the only recourse. After a meeting of more than 1 000 protestors at the kraal of the local Moutse regional authority, Chief Tlokwe G Mathebe, a number of youths went on the rampage, burning the shops of two suspected KwaNdebele supporters. The police eventually quelled the violence by firing teargas into a crowd of youths for over two hours before they dispersed.50 On 31 December 1985 the government passed Proclamation 227, amending the KwaNdebele constitution to include Moutse within its borders. In order to pre-empt any resistance, Skosana and Ntuli mobilised Mbokodo and, in effect, invaded Moutse, launching three separate attacks, two of which saw the removal of 380 resistors from the villages of Moteti and Kgobokoane to abandoned buildings where they were tortured.51 Resistance and violence continued unabated until February 1986. But, by then the violence and repression around the Moutse issue had been drawn into a larger conflict. In February 1986 it was rumoured that KwaNdebele was planning to opt for ‘independence’ (an idea rejected outright by most residents both because it was a sign that KwaNdebele was being fully co-opted into the apartheid state and out of the legitimate fear that they would lose their South African citizenship). Scattered acts of violence emerged, flowing directly from the violence surrounding the Moutse incorporation. Students were, once again, at the forefront of the resistance, although parents, too, were involved. In order to pre-empt any resistance, Mbokodo launched an intimidation campaign, attacking those who were most vocal in their opposition. One of the most fully reported of these incidents was the attack on Jacob Skosana. A father of eight, and a vocal critic of independence, he was abducted from his home by Mbokodo, taken to an Mbokodo camp and beaten mercilessly in a nearby latrine. The beating was so effective that he was unable to speak or move. A little while later, Mbokodo operatives finished the job; he was taken aside and shot and his beaten and violated body dropped on the stoep of his home.52 On 7 May 1986, PW Botha announced that KwaNdebele would be granted independence as of 11 December 1986. The response was immediate and united, undoubtedly aided by the fact that the KwaNdebele royal family, headed by Prince James Mahlangu and King David Mabua Mapoch Mahlangu, were willing to act as a symbolic centre of the protest. Indeed, there quickly formed an ‘unlikely alliance’ opposing independence: the royal family, youths and civil servants (who were also subject to the indiscriminate violence of Mbokodo). Acting together, they organised a number of mass protests against independence, usually at the kraal of the royal family; the transport, unwittingly, provided by government-run bus service Putco (Putco reported that, between April and August 1986, more than 600 buses had been hijacked by politicised youths). The largest of the meetings took place on 12 May, attended by more than 30 000 people. Matters came to a head in July 1986 in the form of a stay away from 15 to18 July. The stay away, much like the resistance movement itself, was widely supported by virtually every KwaNdebele resident: the commissionergeneral reported that the entire labour force of KwaNdebele had refused to come to work. Although the boycott was called off (largely because civil servants were concerned about the failure of pension payouts to elderly residents during the period), organised resistance continued throughout July. 53
50 51

‘Moutse’, TRAC Newsletter, 10, April 1986, p 1; McCaul, Satellite, pp 66-70. Ibid. 52 Ibid, pp 80-82. 53 I Obery, ‘Unusual Alliance Blocks KwaNdebele Independence’, Work in Progress 44, 1986, pp 3-8; Race Relations Survey 1986, p 657; McCaul, Satellite, p 92


Mbokodo, as was to be expected, responded with violence and intimidation, leading to more than 120 deaths. But Mbokodo could not survive without its dynamo, Piet Ntuli and, in late July 1986, Ntuli, leaving the KwaNdebele government complex, was assassinated, a car bomb ripping apart his vehicle. Although one ANC spokesman claimed the ANC was responsible, most residents claimed that it was either members of the KwaNdebele government, or, even more likely, the South African government, who had undertaken the attack. Ntuli’s death was greeted with widespread joy, with villages holding feasts in celebration. Without their spearhead, the independence movement soon lost ground: on 12 August, the Legislative Assembly, acting in the absence of S S Skosana (who was ill at the time), declared that it would never accept independence.54 Although this decision was soon overturned during a Mbokodo-linked counter-coup demanding independence, the message had reached the South African government. Thus, when the new KwaNdebele government approached Chris Heunis and P W Botha with plans for independence, their proposals were effectively rejected. In 1987 Botha stated that independence could only be granted after a referendum was held: an impossibility for pro-independence movements, considering that almost every KwaNdebele resident would have voted against the idea. Finally, in March 1990, Prince James Mahlangu, by far the most popular politician in KwaNdebele, was elected as the new Chief Minister. He decided, with the broad support of the Legislative Assembly, both to support national negotiations and to move to dissolve the homeland as a whole. Only then, it was hoped, could the names Piet Ntuli and S S Skosana be forever erased from the collective memory of KwaNdebele.55 Contralesa KwaNdebele was also the site of a political development that eventually had major national ramifications: the formation of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa). The institution of chieftainship occupied an ambiguous place in resistance ideology. On the one hand, chiefs were often seen to be pariahs, co-opted into the apartheid state through Bantustans and Bantu Authorities. On the other, some chiefs acted as a focal point for resistance, using their position to ward off, as far as they were able, the depredations of the apartheid state. At the same time, many chiefly subjects maintained that chieftainship, as a concept, was still valid and desirable. Many individuals taking the fight to chiefs did not claim that the concept of chieftainship itself was bankrupt but that it had been corrupted. Thus, the ideal solution was not the complete destruction of chieftainship, but, rather, the reestablishment of the right sort of chieftainship (where chiefs would accurately reflect the will of the people). In late 1987, the ANC and the UDF attempted to resolve this contradiction, and to harness the power of chiefs who had signalled their disillusion with apartheid. Peter Mokaba, a key UDF and ANC operative in the Northern Province, approached the ANC and the UDF with a plan. A body consisting of anti-apartheid chiefs would be formed. And so, in late 1987, Contralesa came into being. Its first members were 38 chiefs and sub-chiefs from KwaNdebele and Moutse who had resisted apartheid, and, as a result, come under increasing pressure from the state. Interestingly, Contralesa attempted to rewrite the concept of chieftainship, linking it to the historical legacy of chiefs who had resisted colonial intrusion. As one Contralesa spokesman noted in 1987:
We recall with pride and dignity leaders such as Cetshwayo, Malikwane, Nyabela, Moshoeshoe, Sekhukhune, Ramabulana, Dinizulu, Luthuli and now the most noble son of Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – who is also of royal birth.56

Contralesa soon grew into a mass organisation. During a conference in 1989, the organisation attracted more than 150 sympathetic chiefs. And, once negotiations started in 1990, the organisation
54 55

Ibid Survey of Race Relations 1987, p 919; Survey of Race Relations 1989/1990 (Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1990), p 507. 56 ‘Chiefs Go Back To Their People’, SASPU National, 14 October 1987.


grew exponentially, as chiefs attempted to ensure their place in the new dispensation: by late 1990, more than 1 000 chiefs had thrown in their lot with Contralesa.57 KaNgwane The story of KaNgwane could not have been more different from that of KwaNdebele. While Skosana and Ntuli terrified their subjects, the Chief Minister of KaNgwane, Enos Mabuza saw his role as using the homeland structures to protect those under his control while, at the same, agitating for broader democratic rights and the destruction of the homeland system. His conviction, along with the support granted him by the 100 000 strong Inyandza party that he led, ensured the KaNgwane avoided much of the violence that was endemic to most homelands, at the same time using his position of influence to urge the South African government along the course leading to a unified and democratic South Africa. KaNgwane, the last of the homelands to be granted self-governing status (this happened in 1982), was initially intended as a homeland for Swazis not incorporated into Swaziland. A tiny strip of land sandwiched between South Africa and Swaziland, it originally housed a tiny population of 125 000. From its inception, however, it was clear that the South African government was both unconcerned about the welfare of its population and wary of the political position of Mabuza and his movement. This was made most clear in 1982. Dr Piet Koornhof, the minister responsible for homeland development, addressed the South African Parliament, and announced plans to incorporate both KaNgwane and Ingwavuma (a strip of land bordering Swaziland and KwazuluNatal) into Swaziland. Although it was never stated outright, it was widely believed that the incorporation of land into Swaziland was being used as the bait to tie Swaziland to a security deal in which it would help the SADF track down ANC operatives working in Swaziland (a rumour that was given much concrete support by the signing of a security pact between Swaziland and the South African state, represented by Foreign Minister Roelof ‘Pik’ Botha in 1982). The announcement was met with fury and consternation in both Ingwavuma and KaNgwane. Apart from a few chiefs, neither of the two peoples wanted to be incorporated into Swaziland, fearing that they would lose the limited freedoms they had and outraged at the idea of losing their South African citizenship. 58 Mabuza responded quickly to the suggestion, using the legal resources of KaNgwane and Inyandza to contest the land deal in the Supreme Court, specifically Proclamation R109 that ceded KaNgwane to Swaziland. In November 1982, KaNgwane scored its first victory. After papers were presented to the Supreme Court, the South African government approached KaNgwane and reached an out-of-court settlement, in which Proclamation R109 was rescinded, and the legal costs incurred by KaNgwane were borne by the South African government. The South African government also agreed to the establishment of the Rumpff Commission to assess the possibility of future land transfers. The response was immediate. In January 1983, KaNgwane celebrated its victory. More than 5 000 residents flocked to a stadium in Nelspruit for feasting and dancing. Mabuza addressed the crowd, praising the efforts of local and international resistance parties, and vowed to maintain KaNgwane’s borders. The evidence acquired during the Rumpff Commission cemented the situation. Although the Commission was later dissolved, the evidence collected from various sources (including Punt Janson, the former commissioner-general of KaNgwane) sent the clear message to Pretoria: KaNgwane residents were opposed to any deal incorporating them into Swaziland. And Pretoria seemed to heed the message. In August 1982, KaNgwane was finally granted self-governing status, securing both its legal basis and, importantly, its borders. 59 However, it was another incident that secured KaNgwane, and Mabuza specifically, pride of place within the liberation struggle. On 28 February 1986, Mabuza led a 20-strong Inyandza
P Mokaba, ‘A Life of Courage and Service: The Life of Peter Mokaba in His Own Words’ http://www.anc.org.za/people/mokaba_p.html; I Van Kessel, Beyond Our Wildest Dreams (London, 2000), p 142. 58 Survey of Race Relations 1982, p 375. 59 Ibid, p 377; Survey of Race Relations 1983 (Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1984), p 343; Survey of Race Relations 1984 (Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1985), p 507.


delegation to meet a 21-member ANC delegation (led by Oliver Tambo) in Lusaka. It was a remarkable moment, especially in view of the ANC’s hard line and polemic-filled approached to homeland leaders. But Mabuza had proved that he had a markedly different political agenda from that of other homeland leaders. On a number of occasions he had denounced both apartheid and the Bantustan system. In 1984, for example, he condemned the ‘monstrous tri-cameral parliament’ while promising that KaNgwane residents ‘would seek to promote non-racialism, equality and democracy in KaNgwane, just as we hope in the future to participate in the development and promotion of non-racial democracy in South Africa as a whole.’60 Mabuza also put his money where his mouth was. For example, in contravention of the demands of the South African government, he housed nearly 50 000 soldiers (mostly attached to Frelimo) fleeing the conflict in Mozambique, providing refuge to those in need. The move was appreciated. A representative of the Mozambiquan refugees, addressing an event attended by the British Ambassador in 1988, stressed Mabuza’s inclusiveness: ‘The troubles in Mozambique made our world so unhappy we had to run away from our land. Here we found the police going from door to door looking for us. But Mabuza gave us a home, and we thank him for being so brave. He says we are all Africans.’ Mabuza made his intentions similarly clear in early 1986. At a trial of 26 students arrested for public violence (following a 4 000-strong protest by KaNgwane students against Bantu Education), the South African police opened fire and one student was shot dead. Although the South African police attempted to block the political funeral that followed, Mabuza stated that it had to take place, explaining that freedom of speech was the ‘inviolate’ right of every citizen. On the day of the funeral, the police surrounding the township in which it occurred, intimidating the mourners. During the funeral, attended by 15000 protestors (and addressed by members of the UDF), Mabuza, at the request of the mourners, successfully demanded that the South African police remove themselves from the township, thus enabling the funeral to take place.61 It was against this backdrop that Mabuza and his delegation met the ANC. By all accounts, the meeting was successful, Oliver Tambo noting that it was ‘historic’. The end result was an admittedly dry communiqué that affirmed that the ANC and Inyandza shared the same values:
They agreed that the solution to the problems facing our country lies in the institution of a system of majority rule in a united, democratic and non-racial South Africa. Accordingly, they were united in their opposition to the entire system of ‘separate development’ as represented by such institutions as the tri-cameral parliament, the Bantustans, community councils, the Regional Services Councils, the proposed National Statutory Council and so on … The two delegations further agreed that the obstacle to a negotiated resolution of the South African problem is the Botha regime. They concluded that no negotiations are possible while the leaders of the people are in prison and while the Pretoria regime refused to accept that our country should be governed by all its people, both black and white, as equals, brothers and sisters.62

The story of Kangwane, unlike those of other homelands, ended quietly. After the release of Mandela in February 1990, KaNgwane remained relatively peaceful. Moreover, in a remarkable turn of events, the UDF (and especially Albertina Sisulu) suggested that Inyandza should remain in existence to guide the will of KaNgwane residents during the negotiations process63. Nevertheless, true to his word, in April 1990, Mabuza called for the dissolution of Kangwane (which was enacted soon after), and suggested that Inyandza members be free to join the ANC during the negotiations process.

60 61

Ibid, p 524. Survey of Race Relations 1988/89 (Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1989), p 121; Survey of Race Relations 1986, p 653. 62 ‘Mobilise All Forces for Freedom: Joint Communiqué Between the ANC and the Inyandza National Movement Held In Lusaka’, Mayibuye 3, 1986. 63 Race Relations Survey 1989/90.


Youth politics and civil society As noted in the previous section, youth politics had, by the early 1980s, spread rapidly throughout the region. It was, however, limited in its organisational capacity and regional impact. From 1984 the situation changed: many youth organisations affiliated with the newly emerging UDF, and gained a greater awareness of other organisations’ political goals. Although details on the extent of youth mobilisation in the region are relatively thin, a rough sketch can be drawn. What is clear is that from 1984 virtually every town in Mpumalanga witnessed the growth of youth politics. Part of the reason for this was the increased mobility of youth, both because of the development of the taxi industry and because many had kinship and friendship networks extending across the entire province. This ensured that if a youth in one town attracted the attention of the police, he or she could quickly relocate to a town with a less prominent police presence. These fleeing youths brought with them the experience of previous resistance, often using it to organise further resistance in the new towns in which they settled. In addition, migrant workers (many of them young) operating on the Reef, also brought back with them the discourse and techniques of organisation. Migrant workers and youths often joined together, pooling their resources: migrant workers provided the new language and technique of resistance, while students and youths provided the necessary shock troops.64 The extent of youth resistance in this period is most clearly illustrated in testimonies that point to these trends. As Delius notes, in neighbouring Sekhukhuneland, youths flooded into the region from 1985 onwards. Many of them were from nearby Middelburg, which had become a wellorganised political hotspot. Similarly, Simon Zwane remembers that his town, Ermelo, attracted a number of youths, mostly drawn from areas such as Bethal and Standerton and fleeing the attention of the security police. So extensive was the fomenting of youth resistance throughout Mpumalanga that, in some cases, the security police could not deal with every case of resistance. In one case, the police only arrived at a protest some five hours after it had started because most of them had been mobilised to try to put down the youth resistance that had emerged in another town, Breyten.65 Of course, the movement of youth and students into the realm of politics was not always a linear process. In some cases, they were driven not by well-defined political ideas but by the excitement of protest, the exhilaration of action and the discovery of a new-found power in numbers. The story of Ermelo, and of Simon Zwane, is a good example. Simon Zwane was born in Mambane in July 1969. After completing much of his primary schooling at a farm and mine school, he moved to Ermelo in 1983. With no money to continue his studies, Zwane took a year off school and worked on a nearby dairy farm. With the money he earned, he enrolled himself in Lindile High School in 1984. During his first few years there the school experienced remarkably little political penetration but ultimately pupils who visited Soweto and other more politically combustible townships brought political knowledge and documents back with them. For example, a set of AZASO timetables, including lists of student demands, was considered to be worth its weight in gold:
At some point our teacher got hold of one of those things, those timetables, and she was so furious about them and she didn’t teach that day because of them. So we could see that okay they have an impact. So whoever those of us who had them we hide them away and they became sort of treasures.

Nevertheless, Lindile remained politically dormant. Students even rebuffed the activities of local ‘comtotsis’66. In one case, when non-school-going youths attacked the school, the students chased the perceived tsotsis away, beating them until the police arrived. Indeed, so somnolent was the
64 65

See P. Delius, A Long Amongst the Cattle, Chapter 7, for further details of these two interlinked processes P. Delius, A Lion Amongst the Cattle, Chapter 7 and Mpumalanga Heritage Project, Interview with Simon Zwane by Peter Delius, 7 October 2005 66 Comtsotsi was a popular term used in many townships in the mid-1980s to refer to delinquents and criminals who committed crimes in the name of comrades or activists


school that it was considered a model of political behaviour by the state. In 1986, the State President, P W Botha, awarded Lindile a R10 000 prize, hoping it would act as the sleeping tablet that would ensure the school’s continuing political slumber. It was a horrible mistake. Those students who were politicised saw the award as an affront to their political sensibilities (although others, including Zwane, saw it as affirmation that this was the ‘best school around’). Political action soon followed. In 1986, a hawker who sold pies to students was locked out of the school, while students were forbidden from leaving the school during their breaks to enter the township. The students were infuriated. They attacked the school, throwing stones and breaking windows. Breaking down the gate, they entered the township. Their anger and propensity for violence grew as they moved; students from other schools (such as Msebe at the other edge of the township) and non-school-going youths joining the protest. Beer halls, buses, a local hostel, and an unfortunately placed Simba Chips delivery truck were attacked and burned. The police, putting out another brushfire in the nearby township of Breyten, took five hours to respond, giving the protest time to gather momentum. When they eventually arrived they were faced with angry youths, barricades, and stones. Responding, they used rubber bullets to disperse the massed youth, and arrested female students as a way of gathering information about who had led the protest. But it was too late. The protest was now propelled by its own internal dynamics; gathering pace after one student was shot and killed by a teacher-turned-policeman. It would take more than a week for the police to gain any sort of control over the township. Those students who were evading the attentions of the police lay low. Zwane sought refuge with his family in Donaldson, a town in a nearby homeland. When the students returned, tensions remained. But they were now aware that they had made an impact. For example, one of the students’ central grievances was corporal punishment, which, after the protest, was no longer used at Lindile. Youths, emboldened by their success, started to organise more efficiently and meetings were held in the township to coordinate future activity. During this period many youths gained a greater sense of the broader political world as youths from other townships made their presence felt in Ermelo, and as formal political organisations started to make an impact. The UDF, for example, used well-placed students to distribute pamphlets, badges, and other UDF paraphernalia, turning the UDF into the major political presence in the township. Zwane, himself, joined the UDF, and became a political figure in Ermelo. His position was enhanced by his access to cultural artefacts with significant social cachet. His collection of Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and Miriam Makeba records (then banned) helped to ensure that he was able to maintain both his political and social status. Although the outburst of 1986 was never repeated, low-level protests continued to flare up in Ermelo until the early 1990s.67 But a key question still remains. How did Ermelo, and specifically Lindile High School, transform itself from a model of dormancy into a political hotspot? The standard narrative of students being emboldened by the activities of the MK, broadcasts from Radio Freedom and newspaper reports of protests throughout the country doesn’t apply in the case of Ermelo. Instead, two other reasons seem to be central to the activity there. The first was the mobility of students and youth, some of them using it to bring key information into the township; others to evade the attentions of the police when the heat turned on them became unbearable. But a second factor is perhaps most important. What seemed to propel protest in Ermelo (and, one can assume, in other townships as well) was the emotion and internal dynamics of protest itself. As Zwane points out, soon after students began their protests in Ermelo they developed a sense of power and the potential for change, and were exhilarated by the excitement of the protest itself:
You just feel the power. You were there, it was happening, it was really happening and it was very exciting at the same time that we were there outside doing it … I mean to be there for the first time really seeing it happening and having started


Simon Zwane.


where you were and you’ve seen how it all started, I mean, there was that kind of the elation, I mean, you feel the power it’s happening it’s now.68

Only once students and youths had experienced this power, this exhilaration, and this excitement, did they begin to organise themselves more coherently, hoping to transform these emotionally charged experiences into social change. The Janus face of youth politics: Witchcraft Nevertheless, it is important to remember that while much of the political resistance that took place was conceived of as an attack on the apartheid system, some of it turned inwards. The violence and anger directed towards the apartheid state was sometimes redirected, for various reasons, to those members of local communities who were perceived as unwilling and unable to change the social status quo. Witchcraft killings were the ultimate expression of this.
Our lives are in great danger We are bewitched We are poisoned Abortions are the order of the day Comrades, wake up, remake the world69

Reverberating through the night, piercing the starry stillness of the township, these words signalled the intentions, and programme, of many youths during the mid-1980s when witchcraft became a key local concern for many Mpumalanga citizens. Terrified of the power of witches, and taking it upon themselves to ‘remake the world’, disenfranchised men (mostly young, but some old), took it upon themselves to cleanse their areas of the scourge of witches. This usually involved violent means: the world was to be ‘remade’ and witches removed through the use of force, sjamboks and necklacing, ‘reordering’ the social hierarchy and re-establishing social harmony. Thus, from 1984 onwards, witchcraft killings spread rapidly through sections of Sekhukhuneland and Lebowa (including Bushbuckridge). Between March and May 1987, for example, more than 150 suspected witches were punished in the area of Mapulaneng.70 Much of the reason for the increase in witchcraft killings in the period can be found in the fundamental social restructuring that had occurred in the previous two decades. Above and beyond these regional social transformations, certain local transformations also created the preconditions for witchcraft. The first was that men, both youths and unemployed migrants, found themselves depending on women, usually older, for their economic survival. The inversion of gender roles was considered intolerable. The second was that youths (especially those who had been educated) saw themselves as the vanguard of the social revolution (aided by organisations such as the ANC, who had, for example, declared 1985 the year of the youth). Their literacy and their newly privileged position within the struggle meant that many youths felt that they truly understood the apartheid state, and the way in which society would be organised. They, not their parents, would ‘remake the world’.71 Against this background, youths and unemployed migrants set about re-establishing the right order of the world, while, at the same time, getting rid of those elements of society they believed were hampering the struggle. Witchcraft killings encapsulated this dual program. Witches, thought to be the source of social disorder and undermining the struggle, would be removed, making way for a new social order. And this would be undertaken without the help of discredited chiefs. The new democratic approach (encapsulated by the UDF and youth organisation) would be used to divine witches.
68 69

Ibid. Ritchken, Leadership and Conflict, p 312. 70 Ibid, p 320. 71 Ibid, pp 320-350 and Delius, A Lion Amongst the Cattle, chapters 6 and 7.


This process is most clearly seen in the example of the ‘Big Five’ – a group of five elderly women living in the Mapulaneng and Brooklyn regions who were suspected of being witches – a decision reached not through the chiefly court but by ‘perfectly democratic’ means. The Brooklyn Youth Organisation (BYO) was formed on a soccer field on 21 April 1986. Soon after its formation, it held a large public meeting on the same soccer field where 800 young and old men submitted a list of suspected witches. The ‘Big Five’ were at the top of the list. They were brought before the BYO and interrogated, usually after a beating (during which one member of the ‘Big Five’ died). Deemed witches, they were given appropriate punishments such as bannings and beatings. Soon after, however, mass hysteria took over: many were afraid that, after the ‘witches’ had been released, they would enact their revenge and this had to be stopped. Two days later the remaining members of the ‘Big Five’ were rounded up, beaten, and killed. The violence spread. Seven more women were killed, as was one man, allegedly in possession of herbs. Only the intervention of the SADF halted the witchcraft killings in Brooklyn. The events described above show that while youth organisations were an immensely powerful tool for social transformation, they also had negative effects. Witchcraft was only one of these. Also key to the programme of the youth were attempts to maintain patriarchal control over women; many women being press-ganged into resistance against their will, and, in some cases, being subjected to violent abuse by the comtsotsis.72 Youths had the power to reshape the world. Sometimes the world they wanted was not pretty. Labour, unionisation and the National Union of Mineworkers Mining, under any circumstances, is a tough and dangerous career. In South Africa during apartheid, it was even tougher; the threat of a fatal injury was compounded by a situation in which miners themselves did not have adequate means to protect themselves and, by extension, the livelihoods of their families. Some, especially those who had survived a number of years underground, were able to ‘listen’ to the rocks; using their collected years of experience to develop mechanisms of self-preservation, avoiding rock-falls, and keeping their lives intact. But, in many senses, it did not matter: they had no power, regardless of their experience, to refuse to work, to take control, to protect their lives. By the end of the 1980s, however, concerted resistance on the part of organised labour in Mpumalanga began to change this. The story of labour in the 1980s is the story of how this massive social grouping, previously a sleeping giant, gathered itself together, creating the unions necessary to protect its rights while agitating for broader, democratic rights. As noted above, labour in Mpumalanga had started to stir in the late 1970s, largely because of the radiating impact of the increasingly assertive labour movement on the Reef. In 1980, this stirring turned into more forceful expression. A large part of this was constituted by developments within the apartheid state. After a number of successful strikes in urban centres the apartheid state was forced to rethink its approach to union activity. This took the form of the Wiehahn Commission, and the legislation that followed, which allowed for limited legal labour activity (resulting, finally, in the ability of trade unions to petition employers for official recognition) and provided mechanisms for the resolution of labour disputes. The conditions of workers, too, played a role. The economic downswing of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the recession and inflation that followed this, put the financial squeeze on almost all black workers. At the same time, migrant workers, central to the mining industry (which, in turn, was central to Mpumalanga’s employment demographics), were feeling under threat following the recommendations of the 1981 Riekert Commission, which attempted to ensure that only permanent residents would be allowed into urban and industrial areas. In addition, migrant workers working on the Reef started bringing the lessons they learnt during industrial action back to Mpumalanga. Knowledge about how to engage in industrial action

Ritchken, Leadership and Conflict, pp 366-370.


was freshly introduced into Mpumalanga, while the language and discourse of unionisation became increasingly present throughout the province. Interestingly, this fed a secondary process: migrants with knowledge of urban industrial unrest also started to influence the youth movement (as many of the migrants were, themselves, relatively young), introducing the logic of mass resistance, and the tools and discourse of democratic accountability to a broad cross-section of Mpumalanga society. As Delius notes, in Sekhukhuneland migrants now confronted chiefs not with abstract notions of chiefly accountability, but with demands more closely associated with union membership: chiefs were asked to produce financial statements and records of meetings, and account to their subjects in ways far more reminiscent of a shop steward and his charges.73 It was against this backdrop that the first major case of industrial unrest emerged in Mpumalanga. In April 1981, miners working at the asbestos mine in the small mining town of Penge, apparently without any forewarning, downed tools during their shift, demanding a wage increase. The employers, it seems, were unwilling to accede to their demands. The response of the miners would undoubtedly have tapped into the deep-seated fears of white South Africa: leaving the mining compound, 700 miners marched on the nearby white residential area, and began stoning cars and houses. Although soon dispersed by the police, the miners inflicted serious damage, burning houses, and, in a recurring motif of all mine protests, looting and destroying the mine beer hall. Being disorganised, the strike soon dissipated. But in 1984, in the same town, the power of organisation became abundantly apparent. In early July 1984, 1 770 mineworkers, organised under the Black Allied Mining and Construction Workers Union, downed tools, demanding an increase of R10 per shift. During a marathon two-week negotiation session, the union and employers (the Griqualand Exploration and Finance Company) stood toe to toe. In the second week of July, the company officially fired the workforce. The miners, instructed to remain, refused to vacate the mining compound. Neither side, it seemed, was willing to move. Eventually, the strike was resolved, the workers were reinstated and granted a negotiated increase, and the violence of previous strikes was avoided. Apart from smaller unions operating within mines and on the factory floor, there was a distinct lack of labour organisation in the early 1980s. From the mid-1980s onwards, however, two key unions made their presence felt: the Chemical Workers Industrial Union (CWIU), and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). In 1982/83, the East Rand branch of the CWIU initiated a recruitment drive throughout Mpumalanga, focusing on the Sasol plant in Secunda. The drive was initially successful. However, it was an incident in 1983 that cemented the CWIU’s place in the hearts of Sasol workers. In October 1983, 53 workers were fired, and deported back to their ‘homelands’, after a protest over working conditions. The CWIU stepped in, and engaged in legal action against Sasol, at the same time threatening further industrial action. In 1984, in a great victory for the union, Sasol relented in an out-of-court settlement, agreeing to hire back 36 of the workers originally fired. The power of the union was severely tested again in November 1984 when the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) organised a mass stay away in the Transvaal. Sasol Secunda workers, observing the call, became the victims: 6 000 were fired and bussed back to their ‘homelands.’ It was a devastating blow. Nevertheless, the CWIU, which by now had a membership of over 5 000, once again took the fight to Sasol. In March 1985, the union negotiated an agreement by which 70 per cent of the fired workers were rehired. In addition, Sasol agreed to formally recognise CWIU shop stewards, and granted them the right to organise within Sasol compounds.74


P Bonner and N Nieftagodien, Kathorus: A History (Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 1998), pp 85-86; D O’Meara, Forty Lost Years (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1996), p 273; J Baskin, ‘The 1981 East Rand Strike Wave’, in J Maree (ed), The Independent Trade Unions, p 86; D. Posel, ‘Influx Control and Urban Labour Markets’, in Apartheid’s Genesis (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2001), p 414. 74 ‘Thirty-Six Fired Workers Taken Back in Union’s Sasol Victory’, FOSATU Workers News (FWN), 29 May 1984; ‘Giant Step Forward for CWIU as 4 000 SASOL Workers Join’, FWN 27, Jan/Feb 1984; ‘SASOL Workers Win Changes’, FWN 32, September 1984; ‘CWIU Climbs Back at SASOL’, FWN 40, August 1985.


The lack of labour organisation in the early 1980s was also noticed by the Congress of Unions of South Africa (Cusa), and, in particular, its young and driven politician-cum-organiser, Cyril Ramaphosa. At the Cusa Congress in July 1982 Ramaphosa had been delegated the task of creating a black-consciousness affiliated union. In August 1982, he, along with a small coterie of activists, launched the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which would soon become a major player on the South African scene. From its inception, the NUM had close links with previous resistance movements: the Vice-President of the NUM, Elijah Barayi, a 52-year-old personnel assistant at a mine in Carletonville, had links with the ANC that had started in his youth as a young activist in the Eastern Cape region of Cradock.75 From its inception, the National Union of Mineworkers attempted to expand its support base. However, they were hampered by a lack of funds (which meant that Ramaphosa was the only full-time employee of the union) and unwillingness on the part of mine owners (and the Chamber of Mines) to give the union any meaningful recognition. The NUM also suffered from a lack of technical expertise. This was shown most clearly in the aftermath of the Hlobane Colliery Disaster in Northern Natal, when the NUM was unable to provide a technically proficient consultant to accompany the state’s safety commissioner during his investigation of the disaster.76 In reality, media attention was the NUM’s biggest resource and Ramaphosa became particularly adept at using this tool. However, media attention usually only focused on large disasters and their aftermath. One such disaster struck at the Kinross Gold Mine near Evander on 16 September 1986. On that day Isisi Mbuthuma, the team leader responsible for a working group responsible for maintaining railways and tracks in Kinross Gold Mine, was directed to a broken rail track, situated in ‘cross-cut North’, itself a major arterial in the mine’s No 2 shaft. He and his team were instructed to install a gas welder to weld the track back into shape, and await the white welder who would do the repairs. The white welder duly did his job and all seemed to be going well. The welding complete, the torch was switched off, but the flame from the welding point travelled back along the pipe connecting the nozzle and the canister, causing the canister to explode and ignite. Unable to extinguish the fire, both the white welder and Mbuthuma fled. This might not have been such a major incident if the owners of Kinross had followed international safety standards. The arterial had been insulated with polyurethane foam, which had been banned in both the UK and the US for more than 20 years because of the potentially fatal side effects of using it. The foam quickly caught alight, producing thick black smoke which aided in directing the fire further down the shaft along the areas coated with the foam. The smoke and fire were a lethal combination: not only was the fire scorchingly hot, burning everything in its path, the smoke produced by the foam contained a high concentration of carbon monoxide, which, inhaled for only a few seconds, was fatal. As the smoke made its way down the shaft, 230 black mineworkers, working further down, were effectively trapped. Although some escaped, the majority were unable to outrun the fire and the smoke. After the fire was extinguished and the smoke dissipated, 177 miners were dead, almost all of them extensively disfigured by the heat of the fire. It was one of the worst mining disasters in South African history. 77 The incident attracted huge international and local exposure. In a sensational exposé in the South Africa Sunday Times, the mine was accused of negligence, based mainly on its use of the polyurethane foam, which came packaged with extensive warnings about its potential hazards. International unions offered sympathy and financial backing to the NUM. Foreign Minister ‘Pik’ Botha, on a tour of Germany, was confronted by the German Minister of Labour, who accused

V L Allen, The History of Black Mineworkers in South Africa, Volume 3 (Keighley: Moor Press, 2003), pp 86-100. Ibid, p 126-146. 77 Allen, History of Black Mineworkers, pp. 242 – 247; p. 243 – 244; G. Spiro, ‘Polyurethane Foam Involved in Two Mine Accidents Before Kinross’, Sunday Star, 28 September 1986; ‘177 Dead, 235 Dead in Mine Disaster’, The Star, 17 September 1986; ‘Kinross Dead Now Number 177’, The Star, 18 July 1986; ‘Fatality Free Shifts – 0’, Cape Times, 18 September 1986; ‘177 Dead, 235 Dead in Mine Disaster’, The Star, 17 September 1986; ‘Kinross Dead Now Number 177’, The Star, 18 July 1986; ‘Fatality Free Shifts – 0’, Cape Times, 18 September 1986



apartheid South Africa of having lower safety standards than those accepted throughout the world.78 The accident was condemned by almost every resistance organisation operating in South Africa and in exile, and, importantly, was linked to the system of apartheid. As the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) noted from Lusaka:
This high fatality rate and injury rate… stems from apartheid. It is the racist and exploitative conditions in pursuit of super-profits that makes mining in South Africa one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.79

The response of mineworkers at Kinross, and workers nationwide, was unrestrained anger at both apartheid and the owners of the mine, Gencor. On 20 September, Ramaphosa called for a national day of mourning, in which the Chamber of Mines would close down all mines on 1 October – a call rejected by the Chamber. Workers then downed tools on 23 September in opposition to the reopening of Shaft 2: this, they claimed, went against the promises of Gencor, who had promised to keep the shaft close for a week after the accident. Matters came to a head on 23 September. Gencor decided to hold a memorial service on the grounds of the mine, largely for white guests and media. Black workers were having none of it. A huge group of mineworkers marched to an area behind where the memorial service was taking place, and voiced their displeasure. One leader, using a loud hailer, deafeningly informed the attendees: ‘We have never prayed with whites, and we don’t intend to start today.’ The white guests, threatened by the grouping, beat a hasty retreat after the service completed. The black mineworkers quickly stormed the area, and hungrily demolished the tables of refreshments originally intended for white guests. 80 A turgid memorial service, put together by unrepentant mining company, Gencor, was not enough for the NUM. Instead, they organised their own service at a nearby stadium on 25 September. More than 5 000 angry workers attended, to be addressed by Cyril Ramaphosa and Winnie Mandela. Ramaphosa called for a national day of mourning and a stay away, to take place on 1 October. Combining forces with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the NUM and the labour movement were able to flex their muscles. On1 October, in contravention of directives from the Chamber of Mines, mineworkers throughout South Africa observed the stay away call, making it one of the largest stay aways in South African history: more than 325 000 mineworkers nationwide downed tools, while 275 000 other workers affiliated to Cosatu also observed the stay away, in solidarity with the 177 Kinross dead. 81 The tangible effects of the strike are hard to gauge. One of the most impressive results was that the families of the victims were assured of compensation – Gencor paid out R2,6m to the NUM to distribute amongst the effected families (this was in addition to the compensation already offered by international, and, especially, United States unions).82 At a more abstract level, however, it was fundamental. It became the rallying cry for unions throughout South Africa, and especially the NUM, where it was consistently featured in their monthly journals. At a national level, it illustrated both the power of the labour unions and the moral bankruptcy of the apartheid system. It was another major brushfire the state could not extinguish and contributing to pushing it into negotiations, seeking limited salvation in the arms of the ANC.

G. Van Staden, L. Zeeman, D. Side and G. Thomson, ‘Seven Deadly Blunders’, Sunday Star, 21 September 1986; ‘US Union Offers Aid’, The Star, 24 September 1986; ‘apartheid Blamed for High Fatality Rate’, The Star, 19 September 1986 79 Ibid 80 ‘Ramaphosa Calls for Day of Mourning’, The Citizen, 20 September 1986 and ‘Chamber Rejects Cosatu Request’, Business Day, 23 September 1986; L. Maseko, ‘Kinross Miners Down Tools’, The Sowetan, 23 September 1986; J. Richards, ‘Miners Disrupt Service for Kinross Dead’, The Star, 23 September 1986; Allen, History of Black Mineworkers, p 250. 81 S Hoff, ‘Chanting, Singing as 5000 Attend Service’, The Citizen, 25 September 1986; ‘130 000 in Stayaway To Mourn Kinross Dead’, The Star, 1 October 1986 and ‘Kinross Day’, NUM News, September 1982. 82 ‘NUM Wins R2.6 Million for Victims of the Kinross Disaster’, NUM News, September 1982.



MK: Maintaining the exile machine and armed action As we have seen above, from the mid-1970s onwards a steady flow of individuals from Mpumalanga made the trip into exile, and, in some cases, into the training programmes of MK. From the early 1980s, the end result of these trips became increasingly apparent. Comrades who had received training began to return to South Africa where a small number of them joined the exclusive band of those who had performed a ‘hit’. For most of them, however, returning to South Africa meant becoming involved in maintaining the exile machine by recruiting new comrades, guiding new recruits into exile and maintaining the escape routes. Maintaining the exile machine was a multifaceted task. Firstly, comrades were infiltrated back into Mpumalanga to work as recruiters. One of these was Jerome Maake. Maake was sent back into South Africa soon after he had completed his crash training with MK, in order to recruit new ANC members, and help transport them out of the country. The method of recruiting he adopted was interesting. Once back in South Africa, he made contact with trustworthy friends in areas from which he had come. These contacts would supply him with localised information about who might be willing or able to join the ANC. The result was the establishment of a number of ‘cells’ throughout certain areas, consisting of one or two people, who would reconnoitre and provide him with the details he needed to engage with people politically in different areas. Once he had these details, he would follow up with specific individuals. The process of recruiting would be slow. He would first establish whether or not the individual was potentially amenable to joining the ANC, and, perhaps most importantly, trustworthy enough to be approached. It was then that Maake would begin to open up:
When you discuss with people you start realizing that this one is amenable to my course, this one is not, you know. Then you start discussing things with him bit by bit until such time that you, you open up to him, you see. You see, you see, chief, I am responsible for such and such a thing and I think we can work together to do all these things that we are talking about.83

The slow release of information would then, in suitable cases, lead to elementary training:
‘And I can expose you to one, two, three things. Then from there you give these people elementary training. And that’s how it starts.’84

Of course, recruiting activities carried considerable risk. There was always a chance that the individual approached by the recruiter could be a state spy, or askari. A successful recruiter might also have come under the scrutiny of the security police. As such, Maake ensured that he never worked with more than three people at once. This would mean that, if Maake was working with an individual who himself had a cell reporting to him, Maake would have no idea who was in the cell, and vice versa. This prevented the development of a ‘cluster’ of individuals who could be exposed if one person was arrested. If a fellow comrade was arrested, however, Maake would also be there to clean up the mess:
Once one of their guys were arrested … what do I do? I would go and talk to my contact and say, chief, you see, your guy has been arrested. Where were his DLBs [Dead Letter Boxes]? And then he would tell me. I say, okay that’s fine. Lets go and clear his DLBs … Once one of their people, because they were part of my cells, once on of their people was arrested I would ask them, comrades you got to leave because, if you don’t leave you would expose me, you know. And then if you expose me it means you shall have exposed a lot of … it’s a cluster now … I think

83 84

SADET, Interview with Jerome Maake, Conducted by Marepo Lesetja, date and place unknown. Ibid.


that’s how Operation Vula85 was arrested … because, when the first person was arrested the rest were traced.86

Maake, being the all-purpose ANC internal operative that he was, also moved arms around the country and aided into exile those comrades detected by the security police. Operating in the mid1980s, when the ANC had money for MK operations, Maake was able to put together a sophisticated convoy system for the transport of arms and comrades. Imperial and Avis Rent-A-Car were the unwitting accomplices:
We would rent Avis, Imperial cars and use them for running around … in the past you find that you are forced to use two cars. One car must move with people who are seen to be clean, who do not have anything with them, not even pamphlets. One car, which is stuffed with everything … that person would find a roadblock somewhere. And immediately when he found that roadblock he would devise some means of coming back to come and stop us, to inform us, eish… don’t use this route, try this other route …87

Chris Mdluli was also re-infiltrated into South Africa as a recruiter. His experience, however, was completely different from that of Jerome Maake, and remarkably more frightening. Mdluli was received into the exile machine in Swaziland. He was given a two-month long crash course on the Makarov pistol. Rather unhelpfully, the training focused on the theory, rather than the practical use, of the weapon. He was to be infiltrated into South Africa with a strict mission:
They left me with a Makarov pistol. But I didn’t know how to shoot, I had only the theory of the Makarov … They told me, ‘You know, when you shoot, you must not listen to the sound, listen to what you shoot. But your mission, it’s not your mission to shoot.88

Mdluli came back to South Africa with another comrade, Jukes and the two split up in Nelspruit with Mdluli making his way home to Marite in Bushbuckridge. Because he was not suspected by anybody in the area of being an ANC operative, he had relative licence to operate and it took him considerably less time to recruit an operative than it did Maake. But, then again, he had approached one of his previously close friends:
I recruited someone, his name is Michael Whisky Molapo. He was my friend. He was studying … doing his Form II. I recruited him and I said, ‘Hey Whisky, I want to talk to you. There is another organisation called ANC, do you know it?’ He said, ‘I don’t know the ANC that well.’ So I recruited him, and he agreed … I explained to him everything about the ANC struggle to change people so that we were not separated … He never gave me a tough time.89

Soon after this, Molapo agreed to move into exile. Joining up with Mdluli’s own recruiter (the mysterious Bob from Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, the group crossed the Swaziland border, moving into Mozambique, where they were received and given further training.

Operation Vula was perhaps one of the most successful underground ANC operations. Key comrades were sent to Holland, where they were provided with disguises and alibis and reinfiltrated into South Africa. It was one of the only ANC operations that developed a successful means of communication, a system that enabled Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island, to remain in contact with Oliver Tambo, based in Lusaka. Operation Vula was uncovered as negotiations began in 1990 and became a serious threat to that process. It was ‘cracked’ after the arrest of a single comrade, Siphiwe Nyanda, led to those of many others, including Mac Maharaj. See H Barrell, ‘Conscripts of Their Age’, Doctoral thesis, University of the Witwatersrand; C Braam, Operation Vula (Jacana, 2004); R Kasrils, Armed and Dangerous (Heinemann, 1983) and T Jenkin, ‘Talking to Vula’, Mayibuye, May-October 1995. 86 Jerome Maake. 87 Ibid. 88 Chris Mdluli. 89 Ibid.


The second way in which the exile machine was kept oiled was by maintaining clear border areas. This was achieved largely through reconnaissance, establishing which areas were relatively safe, and keeping a close eye on the movements of apartheid operatives guarding the borders. One such border post was Mbuzini, a key link between the eastern border of Mpumalanga and Mozambique. The maintenance of this post involved working in villages in South Africa and winning over the local population by means of offers of welfare in order to get their support. As Matthews Phosa notes:
We would feed the parents. They would run out of food. We would clothe them. We would give them our own mphando [gifts or old clothes] … We would given them mphando, those parents in the villages, serious, from Maputo. We would carry ANC teen stuffs and give them to villagers inside the country because they were hungry those people. We gave them food. We sent them into villages to go and talk to people there …90

However, as was the case with the ill-fated land-mine campaign,91 the increasing use of Mbuzini as a key exit route caught the attention of the security police:
We were operating from that border [Mbuzini]. There was no electric fence at that time. The electric fence was built under our noses as we were operating. An electric fence was a result of an operational situation and activities, responding to us taking advantage of the border as it was.92

In this case, reconnaissance was not sufficient to maintain the sanctity of the route: a stronger intervention was required, as is illustrated by the killing of Samuel Mpapani in June 1986. Reports to the Mozambique command that Mpapani, who operated in Mbuzini, had been harassing the local community. As a result he was suspected of being an informer. An informer in Mbuzini was a serious threat to the continued operation of the border post, according to one of the comrades involved in killing him (Sibongeso John Nkuna). He could provide details of ANC movements to the special branch, and, more specifically, to the Mbuzini army force operating in the area. The ANC responded by sending a unit of ANC operatives into Mbuzini to ensure that he could no longer threaten the border post. A commander in Mozambique approached a group of MK cadres, and informed them of the situation. They decided to approach Mpapani and deal with him. The four members of the group entered Mbuzini, and located Mpapani outside his house. Two members of the group entered the house, while the other two remained posted outside in case he tried to flee. They were not to know that Mpapani had a revolver in his possession:
When we were approaching his house he got out and as he went towards the middle of us he had in his possession a revolver. He tried to escape then we formed a circle surrounding him … He fired the first shot. I don’t know whether he was shooting at us or he was shooting in the air and the second time around he shot again but then

SADET, Interview with Matthews Phosa, Conducted by Marepo Lesetja, Nelspruit, 30 January 2004. In the early to mid-1980s, the ANC adopted a tactic of placing land-mines on farms bordering Swaziland and Mozambique, in order to strike back at farm owners who, via commandos, had joined up with the security police in tracking ANC members operating in the area. The campaign, however, was a near-total failure. Most of those injured in the blasts were not farm owners, but black farm workers unaware of the ANC campaign. Moreover, the land-mine campaign led to an increased presence of security police in those areas under attack, completely undermining the original idea of creating safer border areas in which to conduct ANC activities and providing the apartheid press with particularly potent propaganda material. See: H Barrell, ‘Conscripts Against Their Age’, Doctoral thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 1995, chapter 9; ‘5 Held for E Tvl Landmine Blasts’, The Citizen, 10 July 1986; ‘Four Die in Landmine Blasts’, The Cape Times, 31 March 1987; ‘Soft Targets Now ANC Policy says Defector’, Daily Dispatch, 24 August 1988; ‘ANC Dalk Agter Myn in O-Tvl’, Die Vaderland, 4 November 1986. 92 Matthews Phosa.



we were running and he continued shooting and we discovered that he had run out of ammunition now and we reached towards him and we held him …93

The group removed him to the nearby sugar cane plantation, secured him against running away, and killed him in the grisly way that came to dominate much of the image of mid-1980s struggle violence:
When we got there Temba started putting tyres around him so that he could not be recognised because of all the tyres, we stacked the tyres one on top of the other in other words and doused him with petrol and I wanted to set him alight but my comrade, the other comrade, did before I could do that and he burnt to ashes, he could not be recognised thereafter …We did not leave immediately but we waited for some time to see the end because the way we had packed the tyres, I think we only had three, first and after he was – during the time when the fire was on and he was in flames we added three more.94

However, not all MK activity in Mpumalanga was about the border. Some comrades were given other missions, and, through them, participated in non-border related armed attacks. Here we turn to the story of Patrick Thibedi. Thibedi had fled into exile in 1980 after being incorrectly detained as the prime suspect in an ANC-organised attack on Sasol 2 in Secunda. In Thibedi was deeply committed to the struggle, and, in a sense, to revenge, and he had a fine and detailed knowledge of how Sasol 2 operated. Soon after arriving in exile he was approached by Communist Party supremo, Joe Slovo, who asked him whether he would be willing to engage in another attack on Sasol 2. Thibedi was happy to be involved:
[Joe Slovo and Rashid]95 asked me if I knew about those reactors, how they were positioned. I said yes I know about them. And then Slovo said what if you find somebody, not myself [Slovo]. What if you find someone who is going to train you, can you go back there and burn that Sasol? I said I would be very glad. I will go there very happily and running, you see. He then said why are you going to run? I told them that these boers have made me angry, you see. These boers have made me angry, look, they had assaulted me and I know nothing … He then said this thing [apartheid] doesn’t absolve anybody; it effects everybody who is a South African.96

A month later Thibedi was flown to Angola, and given a month’s crash course in armed combat, specialising in explosives and shooting. Seeing Slovo after his crash course, he again affirmed that he was interested in attacking Sasol 2. Slovo suggested that Thibedi be accompanied by a number of operatives, an idea he did not like, afraid as he was of informers. This was a mission he wanted to do on his own:
I said, hey, aikona no. I want to go single-handedly. He asked me why I wanted to go alone. I then said no, it is because he were are told that there are mthlembe [infiltrators], people who enter here [exile] to come and infiltrate… what if you send me with somebody who is mthlembe and he sells me out there?97

After convincing Slovo that he himself was not an infiltrator Thibedi was given permission to go alone. He was sent, first, to Mozambique and then to Swaziland. Eventually, seven months after going into exile, he was to be re-infiltrated into South Africa, to attack one of the most vital economic and infrastructural sites in the entire Eastern Transvaal.

Minutes of Hearing of TRC Amnesty Committee in cases of T Mutle, P Mfusa, N F Ranoto, S J Nkuna and S P Blose, 1 December 1999, Jiss Centre, Johannesburg. 94 Ibid. 95 Rashid was the combat code name of Aboobaker Ismail, who, from 1983 was the commander of MK’s Special Operations in Maputo, reporting directly to Joe Slovo. For details see www.anc.org.za/people 96 SADET, Interview with Patrick Thibedi by Marepo Lesetja, Nelspruit, 2002. 97 Ibid.


Thus, in mid-October 1981, Thibedi set off from Mozambique for the Oshoek border post, with a fake passport, travelling in a car whose doors had been packed with five limpet mines. It was a hair-raising ride and Thibedi instinctively realised that it would not be clever to cross the border in a car packed with explosives. Three kilometres from the border, he removed the explosives from his car, and placed them in a bag. Walking to the border, he placed the bag in a bush next to the fence. He then returned to his car, and proceeded to the border post. His instinct had been right. Although his passport looked legitimate, the guards at the gate believed they recognised him as an escaped terrorist. Questioning him at length, they initially refused to let him through. The dog squad was mobilised to examine the car for explosives. Since there was no evidence they let him through. But not before asking him to give a black policeman a lift to Bethal. Trying to avoid suspicion, Thibedi agreed and drove the policeman to his destination, leaving his package of limpet mines further and further behind. After dropping off the policeman, Thibedi realised he was being tailed by an ancient car and had no choice by to outrun it. He drove through to Springs, failing to shake off the following car. Only by stopping off at a taxi rank in Springs was he able to give his tail the slip. Thibedi still had to return to the border post to collect his hidden bag. In Van Dyk’s Drift, he approached an old man known as Ntate Zebra who owned a van and, after receiving R150 for petrol, agreed to take Thibedi back to the border post. Explaining to the old man that he was meeting a woman on the other side of the border, who had his luggage Thibedi climbed out of the car, crossed the border, and retrieved his bag. Returning, he had to explain why he was doing so sans partner:
I told him, hey, man, the person I was looking for – this woman has tricked me. She only left the luggage. They are saying she got a lift to go and look for me that side, maybe we will find her because I told her that no, I will come to Van Dyk’s drift, at her house. A o, ngase sekhathe se sa mathola [we will find her another time].98

The next morning Thibedi made his way to Secunda, the site of Sasol 2. To his consternation and surprise, security had been stepped up in response to the previous attack. The plant was substantially fenced, preventing easy access. Only by pretending to be an employee was Thibedi ever going to be able to gain access to the site. Walking to the nearby Evander provisions store, he bought a set of the overalls worn by Sasol 2 employees. He still needed a security. In Evander he had an identity photograph taken, with the idea of swapping it with that of another worker. Luckily for him, some of the miners were at a local beer hall:
I went to the mine. I met some guys, exchanged some greetings. They were [beer] drinking people, you see. Hey, man, I wanted their entrance cards. If I could get it I was going to take it out and insert mine. At that time, they [the cards] were not similar to the present ones. At the moment you can’t take it out. They are computerised … at that time you were able to remove the photo from its cover. I stayed with them for a while at the beer hall and eventually stole it. It disappeared, his entrance card.99

Armed with his overalls, boots, and entrance card, Thibedi entered the compound on 21 October. All he had to do was to get to the reactors and place the bomb. He gathered up tools for work, making it look like he was about to head underground. What he didn’t count on was being recognised:
Then, I saw one man who could recognise me. Hi Pat, when were you employed really? I said, hi man, they have employed me but they gave me the job of sweeping the belts. Ah, man, it is better; I never thought that they would reemploy you. And, he was a baasboy, the so-called bossboy. Where is the scope of your work? He said he was in charge of the belts underground… he was also responsible for ensuring the

98 99

Ibid. Ibid.


safe exodus of materials of unwanted materials [from underground] and then he would come back …100

If Thibedi didn’t do it now, his cover would be blown. He fled, looking for the main reactors. He cut a hole through the fencing, and approached them. Out of concern for the lives of those around him, he made a fateful decision: he would place two mines, set to go off at different times. The first would explode a water pump, creating a stir but hurting no one. The second would detonate a few minutes later, causing major structural damage to the main reactor’s petrol pump and setting off a chain reaction that would destroy the entire plant, causing massive casualties if the employees were still in the vicinity. From his car he watched as the first bomb went off and the employees scrambled for the exit then, fearing capture, he drove away. The next day, he read in the newspaper that the second bomb had been defused. With two limpet mines left, he decided to engage in another hit. He made his to Witbank, and placed the mines at the transformer at Transalloy. On this occasion, the mines detonated, destroying the transformer. On 26 October, Thibedi, unable to get hold of his South African contact, decided to leave the country but first he drove to Dennilton, hoping to see his children for the first time in over a year. He was, however, driving into a trap. As he reached Dennilton, he saw the biggest roadblock he had ever seen. Panicked, he turned the car around, in full view of the roadblock. Recognising that this was the man they were looking for, snipers opened fire, hitting the tyres of Thibedi’s car and forcing it to roll off the road. In his attempt to escape, Thibedi injured himself and lost his pistol. Any attempt to escape, by now, was futile. The security police mobilised all the resources at their disposal, including dog units and spotter planes. In a last gasp attempt to evade the police, Thibedi entered a mealie field, and tried to crawl away, out of view of the police. The ploy failed. Surrounded, he had no choice but to surrender. He was extensively tortured and beaten and, eventually, sentenced to 24 years on Robben Island. His mission was over. Patrick Thibedi was not the only ANC comrade from Mpumalanga to suffer arrest and torture, almost every comrade who returned to South Africa went through much the same experience. Stan Mathabatha was severely beaten and his feet repeatedly shocked.101 Jerome Maake was forced to stand on a single piece of tile for eight days, his suffering compounded by witnessing police officers raucously celebrating the death of Slovo’s activist wife, Ruth First, in front of him.102 Surveying all this suffering, all this sacrifice, one pertinent question always comes to mind: was it worth it? Did MK actually have any sort of impact in the struggle for liberation? In Mpumalanga, the answer, in the strictest sense, was that MK had virtually no military impact. The full power of the SADF, if mobilised, could squash any MK activity. Arguably, if the full might of the South African state was unleashed against the ANC in exile, it might have disappeared altogether. Two images cement this forcefully: Patrick Thibedi and Sam Mkhabela, both unarmed and alone, fleeing police using dogs squads, sophisticated weaponry and spotter planes. In fact, the real power of MK, and not just in Mpumalanga but throughout the country, was symbolic. It was an immensely powerful thought that, somewhere out there existed an alternative source of power – black men and women training themselves to fight, willing to give up their lives. Just as this thought urged the comrades featured here into exile, so it spurred on resistance at home where it mattered most. Images and imagination mingled; the idea of black people owning and using guns becoming emblematic of a broader sense of possibility. Children wielding wooden guns in townships was not just hubris, it was a projection of hope and power; a reification of what being in MK must have been like. The idea that there existed a group of people, nearly 10 000 strong, willing to give up their lives only reinforced this sense of an alternative life, of commitment, of an all-consuming, self-sacrificing struggle. It pushed forward perhaps the most important aspect of the struggle: those at home, like those in exile, decided that it was better to die than to live under
100 101

Ibid. Stan Mathabatha. 102 Jerome Maake.


apartheid. One comrade’s death was thus both an experience of martyrdom and self-denying inconsequentiality: ‘it does not matter if I die, as long as apartheid dies too’. This was the moment, perhaps above all others, when apartheid really perished.

By 1990 the more coercive aspects of the apartheid system had ceased to operate in Mpumalanga (even though, obviously, key legacies, such as persistent poverty, were to remain in place). Multiple forms of struggle, both armed and unarmed; the effective toll of sanctions and sustained international pressure ensured that the ranks of those who believed that apartheid could survive in any guise dwindled rapidly. Much of the existing material dealing with this period tends to highlight the national factors behind the movement to negotiations, and focuses largely on events in key urban areas and on a highly selective list of rural revolts. But while these struggles were clearly important, they were, and are, by no means the whole story. Instead, it must be recognised that there was pervasive resistance in areas such as Mpumalanga. And these wide-ranging and multifaceted forms of struggle help us to understand just how untenable apartheid had become in South Africa by the end of the 1980s. As noted at the outset, this chapter is based on limited and highly uneven existing research, supplemented by the limited primary research project members were able to undertake during the course of this study. The chapter as a result makes no claim to being complete or even-handed in its treatment. Nonetheless, in our view, the richness of the accounts that emerge is remarkable. It is clear that, with further research, a more complete and nuanced story of Mpumalanga will emerge which should deepen and broaden our understanding of decisive moments in both the regional and national history of our country.


Allen, V L. The History of Black Mineworkers in South Africa Vol 3. Keighley: Moor Press, 2003. Barrell, H. ‘Conscripts Against Their Age’. Doctoral thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 1995. Available as of February 2006 at http://www.sahistory.org Bailey, J (ed). The Beat of Drum: The Story of A Magazine that Documented the Rise of Africa. Braamfontein: Ravan Press, 1984. Bonner, P, P Delius and D Posel (eds). Apartheid’s Genesis, 1935 – 1962. Johannesburg: Ravan & Wits University Press, 1993. Delius, P. A Lion Amongst the Cattle. Randburg: Ravan, 1996. Ellis, S. Comrades Against apartheid: The ANC and the South African Communist Party in Exile. London: James Currey, 1992. Lodge, T. ‘Revolt in a Homeland: Lebowa’, in T Lodge, All Here and Now. Claremont: David Philip, 1991. Lodge, T. Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1983. McCaul, C. Satellite in Revolt. Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1987. Ritchken, E. ‘Leadership and Conflict in Bushbuckridge: Struggles to Define Moral Economies in the Context of Rapidly Transforming Political Economies, 1978 – 1992’. Doctoral thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 1995. Rosenthal, T. Struggle for Workers’ Rights: A History of the Chemical Workers Industrial Union. Durban: Chemical Workers Industrial Union, 1994. Samspon, A. Drum: The Making of a Magazine. Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball, 2004. Seekings, J. The UDF. Cape Town: David Philip, 2000. Seekings, J. Heroes or Villains? Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1993. Shubin, V. ANC: A View from Moscow. Bellville: Mayibuye, 1999, www.anc.org.za/people Yawitch, J. Betterment: The Myth of Homeland Agriculture. Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1982. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report: Volume 3. Cape Town: Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Juta Books, 1998. Also refer to all editions of the Survey of Race Relations (SAIRR: Johannesburg), between 1972 and 1994 for the detailed story of the political development of the homelands and union activity.


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