By Mogomotsi Magome

2009 marks the 30th anniversary of the execution of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) cadre, Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, who was hanged in 1979.

Mahlangu's death sentence sparked an international outcry, but even that was not enough to convince the apartheid government to spare his life.

The UN Security Council, then US president Jimmy Carter, the Organisation for African Unity, European governments and the Anti-Apartheid Movement all tried in vain to save Mahlangu's life.

He was convicted for the death of two civilians during a gun battle with police which erupted as he and two of his comrades, Mondy Motloung and George Mahlangu, were on their way to an MK operation.

So who was Solomon Mahlangu, and why did his trial spark so much international interest and condemnation of South Africa's apartheid policy?

Mahlangu was born in 1956 and raised in Mamelodi by his mother, Martha Mahlangu.

He attended Mamelodi High School until Standard 8 but could not complete his education as the school was closed because of riots.

He joined the ANC in September 1976, soon before he left the country to be trained as an MK soldier with a view to later rejoining the struggle in the country.

He left the country after the Soweto uprising when he was 19 and was later chosen for an elite force to return to South Africa to carry out a mission commemorating the uprising.

During his trial, his counsel stated that he had re-entered South Africa in 1977 as part of a group of 10, bringing in arms, explosives and ANC pamphlets.

After entering the country through Swaziland and meeting his fellow comrades in Duduza, East Rand, they were accosted by the police in Goch Street in Johannesburg.

In the ensuing gun battle two civilians were killed and two were injured, and Mahlangu and Motloung were captured while acting as decoys so that the other comrade could go and report to the MK leadership.

Motloung was brutally assaulted by the police to a point that he suffered brain damage and was unfit to stand trial, resulting in Mahlangu facing trial alone.

He was charged with two counts of murder and several charges under the Terrorism Act, to which he pleaded not guilty.

Though the judge accepted that Motloung was responsible for the killings, common purpose was argued and Mahlangu was found guilty on two counts of murder and other charges under the Terrorism Act.

He was sentenced to death by hanging on March 2, 1978, and was hanged on April 6, 1979, at the Pretoria Central Prison.

General Siphiwe Nyanda, the former Chief of Staff of MK who chose "Solly" for the mission in South Africa, has only praise for Mahlangu's discipline.

He described how Mahlangu demonstrated this before he left Mozambique to come to South Africa. "Mahlangu fervently expressed an unwillingness to be deployed with his two assigned unit members whose discipline he perceived as less than satisfactory for the mission at hand," said Nyanda.

"These were his personal friends with whom he had left the country. In his pleading he also did not condemn them, but pleaded for the success of the mission to be put first.

"Solomon Mahlangu understood the struggle to come first, family and friends next."

On the short journey to his death, Mahlangu's last words are reported to have been: "My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight."

Mahlangu's execution failed to deter young people from being involved in the struggle, as thousands continued to swell the ranks of the liberation movement.

Mahlangu was buried in Atteridgeville as police feared crowd reaction at the funeral, but was reburied in Mamelodi in 1993.

In his honour, the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco) in Mamelodi was named after him, as was an academy in Tanzania used by the ANC to provide its cadres with education.

Somafco principal Nelson Letsiri said they tried to make sure that pupils at the school knew and understood who Mahlangu was.