Young, cool and defiant

Teboho 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 from the start, and later in life he married a former Miss Liberia.

On June 13 1976 at a meeting of hundreds of students at the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre, 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 their 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 with Mashinini rousing support at schools along the way.
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!'

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 security 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 threw stones at 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 security police and travelling through Soweto with Winnie Mandela, a member of the Black Parents' Association, helping to bury the dead.

Secret meetings were held in Dube at activist Drake Koka's house, which they called The House of Exile after a Jimmy Cliff song.

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. Police surrounded the Morris Isaacson High School and let out the students out one by one in search of Mashinini. He sauntered past them wearing a girl's dungarees and a beret. The police looked him up and down, and let him pass.

Another time he was outside Moroka police station in Soweto with a group of friends who brazenly raised their fists in a black power salute - a pose captured by photographer Peter Magubane. Mashinini told a journalist: "I don't say they can't get me... but there will be another Tsietsi, a day or even an hour later."

His life in danger, Mashinini fled South Africa in September that year. A Pretoria minister, Reverend Legotlo, offered to drive him across the border to Botswana, but Mashinini was hesitant: "I don't want to leave the struggle. What good will I be in exile?" he said.

He went to say goodbye to his family who gathered in a circle while his father said a prayer for his safety.
He didn't do it for the ANC, he didn't do it for Azapo, he didn't do it for the individual, he did it for our liberation

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 home in a coffin on August 4 1990. Though both the Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo) and the ANC wanted to control the funeral, Mashinini had never joined either organisation and had never become involved in any of their support structures in exile. His funeral became a display of alternating affiliations. Each time someone from a different organisation spoke, the flag and the guard of honour were changed.

The day before the funeral, just before the brothers could kill a cow to be slaughtered to feed the mourners, it escaped from the front of the Mashinini home - and was never caught. Some people believed this was a reflection of Tsietsi's name, which means "trouble, problems" in Sotho.

The master of ceremonies at the funeral spoke of graffiti on a wall near the Mashinini home: "He didn't do it for the ANC, he didn't do it for Azapo, he didn't do it for the individual, he did it for our liberation."

On June 16, 1995 Mashinini's tombstone was unveiled at Avalon Cemetery. Etched in black granite were the words "Black Power".

Mashinini's mother, Nomkhitha, who was detained for 197 days, testified at the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) in Soweto in July 1996 that informers would tell the police they had seen Mashinini at the house.

Then the police "would come, open wardrobes. They wanted to find Tsietsi under the beds, under ballpoints, under a watch, under everything, searching for Tsietsi, and Tsietsi would never be there because he would never come, he would never come..."


Researched by Gillian Anstey, with acknowledgements and thanks to:


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