They died for freedom?
By Yasmin Sooka
“My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.”- Kalushi
Powerful words, but 42 years after Solomon Mahlangu was hanged, those responsible for the crime of apartheid are yet to be held accountable and our people, particularly young people, still do not enjoy the fruits of freedom.
Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu was born in Pretoria on 10 July in 1956, the second son of Martha Mahlangu, a domestic worker who brought him up herself, as his father had abandoned the family. A pupil at Mamelodi High School up to Standard 8, Solomon was unable to complete his schooling as a result of the school’s closure and the ongoing protests against the apartheid state. The demonstrations culminated in the Soweto uprising in 1976 against the racist oppressive regime in which education was a tool used systematically.
Solomon joined the African National Congress (ANC) in September 1976, and left the country to join Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), returning to South Africa after his training. On the 13 June 1977, Mahlangu and his comrades Mondy Johannes Motloung and George ‘Lucky’ Mahlangu, were spotted on their way to Soweto by apartheid agents and police and were cornered at John Orr’s warehouse in Goch Street, Johannesburg. Lucky Mahlangu, Mazibuko and others managed to escape while Solomon Mahlangu and Motloung got involved in the gun battle that ensued with police officers. Motloung was the first to fire and after his attempt to escape had failed, Motloung fired a few rounds until his gun got jammed. The battle also resulted in the death of two civilians. The two trained MK combatants had no option but to surrender.
Solomon Mahlangu and Motloung were both arrested and charged on two counts of murder and several charges under the Terrorism Act. The trial of Solomon and Motloung commenced on the 7th of November 1977 and lasted until the 1st of March 1978. While both Solomon and Motloung were brutally tortured following their arrests and detention, only Motloung was declared unfit to stand trial. Solomon who had also been brutally tortured pleaded not guilty to the charges. Tragically, the judge held him accountable for the actual killings even thought he had not shot any of those killed. Instead he was found guilty under the common purpose doctrine: although Motloung was the one who fired the shots that killed the two civilians and wounded two others, the Prosecution argued that under the law of common purpose, Mahlangu shared intent with Motloung and George ‘Lucky’ Mahlangu, making him guilty of murder whether or not he pulled the trigger. Solomon was found guilty on two counts of murder and three charges under the Terrorism Act, despite not having had a gun or firing a shot. He was sentenced to death by hanging on 2 March 1978. It is unacceptable that Solomon’s crime was not recognised as a political crime by the presiding Judge as he had opposed an unjust political system of apartheid which had been declared a crime against humanity in 1973 by the United Nations. The doctrine of common purpose was also politicized and used as a tool to convict him quite unfairly.
On 15 June 1978 Solomon Mahlangu’s leave to appeal application was refused by the Rand Supreme Court, a decision which was upheld on 24 July 1978 by the Bloemfontein Appeal Court. Despite the campaign by the United Nations , international organizations and solidarity groups all over the world that his execution be stayed, Solomon Mahlangu was executed in Pretoria Central Prison on 6 April 1979. His execution provoked international protest and condemnation of South Africa. Solomon’s remains have been interred at the Mamelodi Cemetery, where a plaque states his supposed last words:
“My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.”
As we remember those who died for freedom, we need to ask the question ‘Have we as a society done enough to ensure that young people in our society do not have to die of hunger or the lack of opportunities to enjoy the benefits of freedom? Youth constitute more than a third of South Africa’s population, almost 20,4 million according to Stats South Africa. Approximately 8.2 million 40.1% of South Africa’s young people aged 15 to 34 have not been employed, educated or trained, with the vast majority, black and women. There has been a remarkable lack from the side of the government of a clear and coherent vision to incorporate young people particularly from the marginalised communities into the economy. A clear vision on creating a conducive environment in the country that is sustainable and which allows young people to reclaim agency so that they can grow and flourish as independent economic actors in their own right. This is what Solomon and his comrades fought for – a life with dignity, a dream that has not been fully realised. In that we and our government have failed. All of us are complicit in that failure as long as we remain silent about malnutrition, the lack of resources for early childhood development, the stunting of young black children and the lack of opportunities for black youth. We have to build solidarity in taking up the struggle for socio-economic justice in our country. We can no long remain silent in the face of such an unequal society in which poverty is racialized and criminalized.
Had Solomon Mahlangu lived, perhaps he would have returned the award that he was given posthumously “The Order of Mendi for Bravery in Gold for bravery and sacrificing his life for freedom and democracy in South Africa” in disgust. After all what is freedom without dignity?
In memory of Nokathula Simelane, Portia Ndwandwe, Ahmed Timol, Ford Calata, Mathew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Sicelo Mhlauli, Ashley Kriel, Mathews Mabelane, Abraham Tiro, and the many thousands of young South Africans who gave up their lives for freedom.
16 June 2020
Ms Yasmin Sooka is an international human rights expert, the Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan and a former Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR). Ms. Sooka continues to support the FHR in her role of a strategic advisor to the ‘Unfinished Business of the TRC’ Programme.