Tsietsi: cool and defiant

Tsietsi Mashinini and his wife Welma A Campbell, 01/03/1987 - © Sunday Times
Tsietsi Mashinini and his wife Welma A Campbell, 01/03/1987 - © Sunday Times

EBOHO Tsietsi Mashinini, the leader of the 1976 Soweto student uprising, was a charismatic and theatrical character, whose love of literature prompted a classmate to call him "Shakespeare's friend in Africa".

He was a prefect and head of the debating team at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto. He was also president of the Methodist Youth Guild and a freelance writer for the Rand Daily Mail Extra. Yet he was far from a bookish dullard.

A softball and karate fiend, he was a real 70s stylista, who wore an Afro, bell-bottoms and peace signs. Girls adored him, and later in life he married a former Miss Liberia.

On June 13 1976 at a meeting of hundreds of students at the DOCC, Mashinini suggested they have a mass demonstration to protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools. He came up with a date: June 16, the day students were supposed to write exams.

To rouse the courage of anxious students, Mashinini quoted from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade: "O the wild charge they made!" Mashinini was elected co-chairperson of the Action Committee. For the next two days the committee rallied support.

The final planning meeting was on the afternoon of June 15 where a strategy was worked out for the march: there was a set time for each school to join it before meeting up at Orlando Stadium. Mashinini left the students with a warning: "Stay disciplined, no violence" - then went home to make banners: "Away with Afrikaans", "Away with Bantu Education".

At school the next morning - June 16 - Mashinini whispered to his friend Murphy Morobe: "The main thing is not to provoke the police. We have to keep telling everyone to be disciplined, that we're marching to a particular place and then we'll disperse."

After prayers at the 8am school assembly, students unfurled banners and posters. Mashinini raised the cry, "Amandla!" and led them out of the gates.

The march wound towards Orlando Stadium, stopping to gather up more students - Mashinini rousing support - at schools along the way.

They reached Orlando West Junior Secondary where Mashinini was supposed to make a speech calling for solidarity and asking the government to drop the Afrikaans requirement.

Suddenly about 50 policemen with guns and teargas faced the students. Mashinini and two others tried to approach them, but when one policeman unleashed an Alsatian on the crowd, the students stoned the dog. Then the police fired teargas. The students aimed their stones at the police, and the shooting began.

Mashinini climbed on top of an upturned vehicle and urged the students to go home. By 11am he was back at Morris Isaacson, telling students to stay at home for two days. But the revolt had started and could not be stopped. A series of events had been triggered that changed history.

Mashinini never slept at home again. On August 2 at Morris Isaacson High the hastily formed June 16 action committee became the Soweto Students Representative Council, with Mashinini as its first president. Mashinini spent his days evading the police and travelling through Soweto with Winnie Mandela helping to bury the dead.

Secret meetings were held in Dube at Drake Koka's house, which they called The House of Exile.

A R500 reward was posted for information leading to Mashinini's arrest, but he evaded capture by disguising himself as a stylish woman, a workman and a priest.

His life in danger, Mashinini fled South Africa in September that year.

He went to say goodbye to his family who gathered in a circle while his father said a prayer for his safety.

After that night, his mother saw him only once more - in Botswana. His brother Dee saw him once in Nigeria, where he appeared shrunken, shabby, paranoid and incoherent. Much speculation exists around the cause of his death in Guinea, where he had been staying at the home of Miriam Makeba.

Mashinini arrived back home in a coffin on August 4 1990. - Gillian Anstey