The Enigma behind June 16

First Published in the Sunday Times on April 16, 2006

By Charles Molele

Tsietsi Mashinini may be one of the country's most famous political names, but the plucky student activist remains something of an enigma with his political affiliation hotly debated.

And claims by various political parties that Mashinini "belongs" to them became even more heated as South Africa commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Soweto student uprisings of June 16, 1976. As part of the Sunday Times Heritage Project, acclaimed local artist Johannes Phokela designed an artwork that pays tribute to the young man who led the famous march which changed his life and South Africa for ever.

On that morning after prayers at the 8am assembly at Morris Isaacson High School, students unfurled their banners and posters. To the cry of "Amandla!", Mashinini then led them out the gates. They hadn't gone far when police confronted them with guns and teargas.

An estimated 600 people died and over 2 000 were injured. After that day, Mashinini never slept at home again. The 19-year-old went into hiding, spending his days evading the security police and helping to bury the dead. Two months later he left the country for a life in exile.

On August 4 1990, Mashinini's body returned home and the battle to claim the young hero as their own began as Azapo and the ANC fought to control his funeral. For the organisations it is a battle about who was truly behind the student riots.

To this day, Azapo unequivocally claims that Mashinini was a member of the black consciousness outfit. "We have no qualms in telling the world that he was an ideological family member of this movement," said Dan Habedi, Azapo's secretary general. "Everyone who belonged to SASM, SA Students' Organisation (SASO) or the Black People's Convention (BPC) is our ideological family member of the BC organisations."

The organisation submitted Mashinini's name to the Freedom Park Trust to be included among the fallen heroes honoured in a monument in Pretoria.
He ... became the darling of members of the international anti-apartheid movement such as actress Vanessa Redgrave, African American civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael and Miriam Makeba

According to Lynda Schuster, author of A Burning Hunger: One Family's Struggle Against Apartheid, an authoritative biography of Mashinini and his family published in 2004, the young man was not affiliated to the ANC. "He was implacably opposed to the ANC and became the darling of [members of the international anti-apartheid movement such as actress] Vanessa Redgrave, [African American civil rights activist] Stokely Carmichael and Miriam Makeba," according to Schuster.

His family, however, maintains that he was not affiliated to black consciousness organisations. "He was president of the Student Representative Council and was never a member of the black consciousness," said Tsietsi's younger brother, Dee Mashinini.

Mashinini is still fondly remembered by the Class of '76, many of whom today occupy senior positions in both government and business. The brilliant and articulate student leader is remembered as a style icon. He played football, wore an Afro, bellbottoms and peace signs. He was adored by girls and, while in exile, married Miss Liberia. He even became a master of disguises. In an attempt to evade police capture he dressed up as a stylish woman, a workman and a priest.

Murphy Morobe, Tsietsi's former classmate and head of communications in president Thabo Mbeki's office, said Mashinini represented an important part of South African history. "He was a dear friend of mine and I remember him as a charismatic person," said Morobe. "He exuded an exceptional youthful zest and, coupled with his oratorial skills, he made a mark among students. When time came for leadership he added to those qualities courage that was to place him in front as a leader of the riots against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in Soweto."

Mashinini was born on January 27 1957 in Central Western Jabavu, Soweto. He was the second son of Ramothibi and Nomkitha Mashinini, who had 13 children, who after June 16, found themselves thrust into the fight against apartheid. Today they are considered one of the "first families" of South Africa's political elite.
His time in exile in Botswana and Nigeria was hard, and in 1990 he died while a guest of Miriam Makeba in Guinea

But the sacrifice was great and Mashinini never saw his family more than a handful of times for the rest of his life. His time in exile in Botswana and Nigeria was hard, and in 1990 he died while a guest of Miriam Makeba in Guinea.

Schuster's book says Mashinini died of Aids. She claims it was Bageot Bah, singer Makeba's ex-husband, who told the family Mashinini had died of Aids.

However, there are also suspicions that he was murdered because one of his eyes was gouged out of its socket and he had a gaping wound in his skull when his body was brought home for burial at the Avalon Cemetery.

For his family, Mashinini's death remains a mystery.

But to ensure that his memory lives on, the Sunday Times installed the artwork by Phokela in the park on busy Mphuti Street in Jabavu, Soweto. The 2m by 3m artwork is designed to look like a massive textbook and also serves as a podium used by local orators.

Phokela, who was 10 when the riots took place, remembers the day well: "I was at school. We started coughing and the teacher closed the windows. We were told to lie on the floor. We were kept at school until it was safe.

"Coming out we saw big smoke. People started burning public businesses, especially those considered to be owned by whites, and drinking places like bottle stores... We had a clue about what was going on: it was a protest against Bantu Education," said Phokela.

back to the Tsietsi Mashinini memorial page

"I, Tsietsi Mashinini, appeal to students to report back to school."
Tsietsi Mashinini, 1976
Picture © British Thames Television


In this lesson plan, learners are asked to think about how the different people in their lives would describe them. They are asked to reflect if they think that their caregiver or teacher would say the same things about them as their best friend. They will apply their insights on differing perspectives to historical sources such as newspapers and letters.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
Images from the short life of Tsietsi Mashinini.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Five views of the Tsietsi Mashinini memorial
The concept for the memorial
Johannes Phokela discusses the development of his concept for the memorial to Tsietsi Mashinini
Take a 360º tour of Mashinini's memorial opposite his former high school on Mputhi Street, Soweto.
Audio Slideshow