The events of June 16, 1976, turned Tsietsi Mashinini into an instant hero and an enemy of the state, writes Oupa Ngwenya.
Johannesburg - Tsietsi Mashinini can be described as a master architect; a designer of the cause he believed in and a direct executor of its final outcome, which was ultimately to see the oppressed freed.
This description fits the blueprint of a man inspired by the wish Nina Simone so soulfully sang about in a song titled How I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.
Mashinini’s consciousness was born of an environment that presented his questioning mind with the nightmare of the degradation of a people he was fated to fight against.
His leadership qualities and spirituality were steeped in the search for a godly existence that his father, Ramothibi, a lay preacher of the Methodist Church, yearned for. His mother, Nomkhitha, was just as religious.
Tsietsi was born on January 27, 1957 and he became chair of the Methodist Church Youth Guild at 16.
In 1971 he was, in the eyes of his English and history teacher Mookgophong Tiro, a student of note at Morris Isaacson High School with a passion for reading.
Tiro was a former student of the University of the North, known as Turfloop.
He was expelled for a speech he delivered at a graduation ceremony attacking Bantu Education.
In his speech, Tiro fearlessly predicted: “The day shall come when all shall be free to breathe the air of freedom which is theirs to breathe and when the day shall have come, no man, no matter how many tanks he has, will reverse the course of events.”
Protests spread throughout South African universities demanding his reinstatement. But he was not allowed to continue his education.
Morris Isaacson principal Legau Mathabathe threw Tiro a lifeline when he gave him a teaching post. This is how mentor and mentee - Tiro and Mashinini - met.
In Tiro, Mashinini encountered a fount of knowledge about the Black Consciousness philosophy and the dream that one day South Africa would be free to be renamed Azania.
Tiro was sent into exile by the South African Students’ Organisation (Saso) as a permanent organiser and was killed in Botswana by a parcel bomb addressed to him by the South African security police death squads on February 1, 1971.
Mashinini not only lost a teacher of history and English, but also a political mentor.
Tiro greatly influenced Mashinini’s political thinking which explains the latter’s adherence to the philosophy of Black Consciousness (BC).
One is never mentored by brave giants of Tiro’s standing only to deviate from their teachings once they have gone by succumbing to strange gods to worship their superiority.
Mashinini had learnt to be inferior to no man or woman.
Tragic as Tiro’s death was, and although it was meant to shock, terrorise and intimidate, it achieved the opposite.
Mashinini’s irrepressible leadership prowess came through and he became chairman of the debating team at his school.
His bravery was accompanied by his brilliant academic performance. Morris Isaacson’s acclaimed science and physics teacher, Fanyana Mazibuko, took over as his mentor.
While sister of song Letta Mbulu was serenading freedom-loving people with songs like There Is Music In The Air, the anti-colonial winds of change were sweeping through the south of the African continent.
In those times of change, gifted poets like Ingoapele Madingoane emerged to capture the moment with his epic poem, Africa My Beginning, African My Ending.
Frelimo clinched its liberation victory in Mozambique in 1974 and inaugurated Samora Machel as president.
Angola followed in 1976 with Agostinho Neto at the helm. Swapo’s plans for Namibia’s independence were also taking root.
South Africa had no reason to idle as though hostage to a devil’s workshop in continued oppression.
A decision was taken to stage a peaceful march on June 16 against the introduction of Afrikaans as a teaching medium.
One could feel and touch the totality of the struggle when students sang the song Mabawuyeke Umhlaba Wethu.
The massive resolve, clarity of purpose and unpretentious melancholy with which that song was sung was the mark of a people who had decided to overturn their second-class status once and for all.
Propelled by this fighting spirit, Mashinini was elected chair of the action committee, later renamed the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC).
He was the first president before he was succeeded by Khotso Seathlolo and later Trofomo Sono and Dan Motsisi.
On the morning of June 16, Tsietsi led students to meeting points for the commencement of the march.
On the day, all the schools had a leader to give clear directives on what was to be done.
The march drew more than 20 000 uniformed students.
Its purpose had clearly gone beyond Afrikaans as a medium of teaching and liberation had become the overall goal. No violence was planned.
The march, Mashinini emphasised, was to be peaceful and conducted with all due care to avoid provocation.
But the police responded with live ammunition.
The tragedy that day turned Mashinini into an instant hero of national and international importance and he was branded an enemy of the state.
A reward was offered to anyone who had information that could lead to his arrest.
A Colonel Visser of the Soweto Criminal Investigation Division appealed for Mashinini to hand himself over, warning that he risked being killed by angry hostel residents who were antagonised by the nationwide uprisings.
Visser also asked Mashinini’s parents to bring him to the police station, stating: “We believe that Mashinini is active and moving about Soweto and other townships, but we have never been able to locate him.
“If you spot him, or know where he is, you must report him to the nearest police station.”
In Nigeria, he stayed at the Presidential Guest House in Lagos as host of Olusegun Obasanjo.
He finally settled in Liberia where he married a parliamentarian’s daughter, Welma Campbell, in 1978.
They had two daughters, Nomkhitha (named after his mother) and Thembi.
Mashinini later moved to Britain and the US where he addressed the United Nations on the brutalities of apartheid.
He had become a global ambassador for the liberation of South Africa.
By many accounts, Mashinini did not join any of the established liberation movements, choosing instead to call for their unity.
Mashinini found motherly support and an admiring compatriot in singer Miriam Makeba in Guinea. He stayed in Makeba’s home in Conakry until his mysterious death on July 5, 1990 at 33.
All the leaders of the Soweto Uprising on June 16, 1976, still speak of Mashinini as having made an indelible mark on the history of the country.
The epitaph on his tombstone reads: “At the height of the struggle he gave impetus to the liberation struggle.”
Sadly, his tombstone at Avalon Cemetery, in Soweto has been twice vandalised.
For its part, the democratic state honoured Mashinini’s valiant role posthumously with the Order of Luthuli for his inspirational leadership.
In that honour, therein lies the life and times of Tsietsi Mashinini.
He may not have seen the promised land, but fight for it he did.
* Ngwenya is a former journalist and social commentator
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.