How Tsietsi’s resolve saved us
Spearheaded the student resistance
‘WE CANNOT suppress Tsietsi’s (legacy) for a long time,” says Dee Mashinini, who saw his brother transcend the role of a student leader. He observed his brother become a champion who stood against generational challenges faced by the youth of South Africa.
Tsietsi, along with student leaders from schools around Soweto, were placed at the head of the resistance and vowed not to betray their mission.
He didn’t expect to live a long life. Tsietsi died under mysterious circumstances in exile, weeks before he was due to return to South Africa in 1990.
Dee quotes the #FeesMustFall leader, Busisiwe Seabe, who spoke at the second annual Tsietsi Mashinini Lecture at Morris Isaacson High School last weekend, and questioned whether the baton representing the struggle for free and decolonised education had been passed down from the youth of 1976.
“If you gave us the ball and we dropped it or didn’t take it from you, or you failed to hand us the ball, what happened in-between? #FeesMustFall and June 16… revolutions are informed by issues of the day.
“Nobody thought that Tsietsi would fight against Afrikaans and apartheid. It’s funny that, 41 years later, students from tertiary institutions would be fighting against similar issues that our youth fought against,” Dee says.
While acknowledging that South Africa’s democracy is still relatively young, Dee laments that the key issues that faced the broader society are yet to be addressed.
“The government came up with the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and Codesa (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) and agreements on the constitution, but they forgot the issues of the people in-between and focused on the management of the country.”
He says struggles for key nationbuilding components were neglected when the opportunity to deal with them was presented.
“A struggle of education, of land, of languages and cultures cannot be stopped by burying Tsietsi permanently. The issues that Tsietsi stood up against were more than those of Afrikaans being used as a medium of instruction.
“Because when he was addressing the United Nations, he did not say ‘I am a student leader from Morris Isaacson – he said I am a South African and I am here on behalf of my people, who are carrying pass books and are not allowed into white areas, whose mothers and fathers are gold-diggers. He spoke about all those things and not just against Afrikaans.”
Dee describes his brother as a “normal kid” in Soweto facing the same challenges as other youth of the day. “(Tsietsi was) a normal student, but extraordinarily brilliant in class because he read books that were outside the curriculum,” he says about Tsietsi’s insatiable hunger for knowledge.
“We are a big family. By the late 1990s, 12 of my siblings were still alive. So there was always a sense of responsibility instilled in us – when one group grows older, they take care of the next group, and so forth.”
This is where, according to Dee, Tsietsi was instilled with a sense of responsibility. “His time at Morris Isaacson is defined by a young fellow who was into sport, mainly karate, in which he acquired a black belt.
“At the time, the area around Jabavu was engulfed in gangsterism that constituted muggings and rape, which was meted out to girls and to our parents who were coming back from work.”
According to Dee, Tsietsi mobilised his fellow pupils and “hunted down” criminals who were terrorising the streets of Jabavu.
“It was happening all over Soweto. It was very serious. When Tsietsi led students to clean up the section around Morris Isaacson by hunting down the criminals who terrorised the community – we all knew where they lived – it was sorted out. The students were safe after that.”
Tsietsi was a Black Consciousness enthusiast, subscribing to the ideology throughout his life. Dee recalls the times when Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader, would discreetly visit their home in the middle of the night to speak to Tsietsi. This occurred months before June 16, he says.
“There was a guy who used to come and knock on the window in the middle of the night looking for Tsietsi. When he woke up and left the house, he would be gone for a day or two. Years later, it turned out that the guy who woke him up was Steve Biko,” he adds.
“They were the people working in this liberation field at the time, and they saw a leader with outstanding qualities in Tsietsi.”
He attributes this to Tsietsi’s introduction to the Black Consciousness school of thought.
“That’s how it translated into June 16, because at this point, he (Tsietsi) became very busy… He would be addressing students all over the country.”
Following the events of the uprising, Tsietsi became discreet, surrounding himself with a security network that kept him hidden.
“I don’t know how he managed to evade the police. All I know is that he wanted to come home; this was after June 16 when the schools were closed. Our home was surrounded by police who camped outside our house because they wanted Tsietsi.
“But as time went by, they left and only one police officer camped outside our home and sat across our house. There was some veld there and he would be disguised as an old man.”
Dee recalls how Tsietsi used to find a way of entering the house without being spotted. “In those moments, my father would try to tell him to stop what he was doing because guys like OR Tambo and Nelson Mandela were in prison for the same things, but my brother didn’t care. He was always on the move and always busy.”
His brother made a further mockery of the police when, while addressing students at Morris Isaacson a few months after the uprising, police got word of Tsietsi’s presence at the school.
“One day they found out that Tsietsi was at Morris Isaacson addressing the students. Police surrounded the school, forcing all the students to exit through a single gate. One by one they assessed each student leaving the school, and he managed to walk out, dressed as a schoolgirl.
“June 16 was a product of the students, it galvanised the Struggle against apartheid, while directly feeding liberation movements with thousands of young people. At the time, all the movements had been banned and were lacklustre; their leaders were in prison or had been forced into exile.
“It allowed them to wake up to the Struggle. The youth of 1976 led the last push for the end to apartheid,” he says.
Government forgot about the people and focused on managing the country
HONOURING BROTHER’S MEMORY: Dee Mashinini speaks about his brother Tsietsi and the uprising of June 16, 1976.