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The homecoming that wasn't


In 1990 the apartheid exiles started coming home to their families. Tsietsi Mashinini, a Soweto student leader on 16 June 1976, came home to his family too . . . in a coffin.

Unlike many other parents celebrating the return of their long-lost children, his mother, Nomkhitha Mashinini, had to testify that the bruised body was his: one eye was missing and he had a large wound behind his ear. He had died in Guinea, but she was never told what happened.

"I am sorry he died when many people were coming home," says Nomkhitha of the son who had left in September 1976 after being harassed by the police. He lived in exile for 14 years.

She received one letter from him in exile, but had no other contact with him, she says. Communicating with relatives in exile was impossible as the apartheid government charged them with having contact with terrorists.

"(His death) didn't make us happy," she says. The death certificate didn't help either - it was in a foreign language. It has subsequently gone missing.

The funeral was a huge event, says Tsietsi's sister, Lindy. "There were questions but no answers," she says, adding that her mother got through the funeral because she is a very strong woman. "She believes in God - she believes everything happens for a reason."

Tsietsi was born on 27 January 1957 in Central Western Jabavu, Soweto. This year he would have been a 49 years old and a grandfather.

He attended Morris Isaacson High School. His physical science teacher, Fanyana Mazibuko, testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1996: "He was not bad at physical science but he loved more the languages and other social sciences."

According to the South African History Online website the 19-year-old Tsietsi was known as "an intelligent person with lots of energy, creativity and sportsmanship".

The website quotes one of his teachers, Benadette Mosala: "He had real potential in the theatre and asked for assistance for his productions. He had high aims for himself and would refuse to play second fiddle. He was a very attractive and handsome young boy."

Surviving photographs show him to be tall and slim, fashionably dressed, often in bellbottoms, sporting an Afro haircut. Says Mosala: "His social life was very vibrant and [never] short of boredom. Mashinini was loved and adored by girls. He was indeed himself a well-dressed Casanova."

11 boys and twin girls

Nomkhitha Mashinini had 11 boys and twin girls. Tsietsi was her second eldest son. She has lost three other sons: in 1996 Tshepiso fell in his house in Linden and "was put in a blanket". He was pronounced dead shortly afterwards. Another son, Elvis, had leukaemia and died in 1996. And in 1995 her eldest son, Ronald Mokete, took his life, leaving her with his two sons. Their mother also died in 1995.

Tsietsi, like many other exiles, lived in various African countries. At one time he lived in Conakry, Guinea, with the first husband of singer Miriam Makeba, Sonny Pillay, nicknamed Banjo. "We knew he was staying with Banjo," says Mashinini. "Miriam Makeba came and told us about him just before 1990."

A year or two after he left South Africa he married Welma Campbell, Miss Liberia at the time, but divorced two years later. They had two children, Nomkhitha and Thembi, who now live in the US, where Welma also lives. All three attended his funeral in 1990.

On the morning of 16 June

According to Philip Bonner and Lauren Segal in Soweto, A History, Tsietsi proposed a meeting on 13 June to discuss the government's imposed use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction for some subjects. "Mashinini was an extremely powerful speaker and his suggestion was greeted with cheers of support." Tsietsi was the leader of the South African Students' Movement at the school.

Mazibuko says that on the morning of 16 June after assembly, "Tsietsi Mashinini climbed onto the platform and he started a song and placards went up and he led the students out of the school".

A memorandum written by Tsietsi said: ". . . we are the voice of the people and our demands shall be met".

Morris Isaacson learners joined a march that started at Naledi High School, picking up other learners as it moved towards Orlando Stadium. But the 15 000 learners only got as far as Orlando West, where the police began firing, killing and wounding many of them.

The confrontation spread countrywide, and 16 June, now commemorated as Youth Day, will forever be remembered as the day of the beginning of the end of apartheid. It was followed by the turbulent 1980s, when the walls of apartheid began to crack, aided by boycotts and international sanctions.

In February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison and four years later the first democratic elections in South Africa were held.

After 16 June, the Mashininis were constantly harassed by the police. Mashinini told the TRC in 1996: "Now they 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."

Tsietsi was on the run from police, often taunting them by walking past them in disguise. Mazibuko recounts one incident in the school grounds several months after the ill-fated march: "I saw Tsietsi pass between me and the police wearing a balaclava and an overall and he was singing very casually, pushing a wheelbarrow like one of the people who were busy building the laboratory in the school."

Mazibuko said it was at this point that it became clear that Tsietsi had to disappear. "He had to be advised to get out of the scene. And also we felt that if he got killed the morale of the students would go down."

Life in exile

Tsietsi's brother, Dee, who at 15 followed him into exile in 1977, says of his brother's existence: "Tsietsi was isolated, but healthy. He was not coping at all. His situation had turned for the worse from what he was in earlier years."

"Exile was a confined environment with not much to do other than political education and global awareness, training and development," says Dee, adding that Tsietsi was studying town planning at a university in Nigeria at one time.

Mashinini said that because the "police were after him" even before 16 June: "I wanted him to go." After that day, he would come home at midnight or early morning, aware that the police were looking for him. Besides Dee, her son Ronald also went into exile but returned in the 1990s, like Dee.

"We never thought he would come back," she says, explaining that she tried to speak to organisations that would help bring him home.

"It was like the only thing I lived for was gone," says Dee.

Tsietsi a good son

Describing her relationship with Tsietsi, Mashinini says he was a person "who would do things as he wants". She says he didn't like Afrikaners and hated Afrikaans.

He was a good son. "Domestically, he was very good, he helped me run the home. He liked his schoolwork, he was very, very good in all subjects, and good at helping other students." He was doing his matric at Morris Isaacson High School when the uprising began.

He involved himself in everything and was a member of the Methodist Church, where his father, Ramothibi, was a lay preacher. "He was a good organiser, a good communicator."

A contemporary of his, in the same grade at the school, Oupa Moloto, programme co-ordinator of the June 16 Foundation, says Tsietsi was a member of the debating committee at school, a position which established him as a leader. "He was an energetic young man, very eloquent and very curious. He always defended students who were victimised."

He didn't like criminals, says Mashinini. Says Sahistory.org.za: "Mashinini was very good in a street fight. During the period 1974 to 1976 when gangsters were tormenting the communities, Mashinini single-handedly went to find them in their homes and finally broke the Damaras gangster in White City."

Life in Pimville

Mashinini, now 71 and with around 30 grandchildren, says life is "not easy, even now". She lives in Pimville with one of her daughters and is surrounded by her children. "They're here, they can't do anything for me, they are always with me."

She has had several jobs - in a clothing factory for 11 years, a warehouse for four years. She now works for Meals on Wheels for the Methodist Church.

After Tsietsi fled the country she was harassed by the police and eventually banned from being hired after her employer labelled her a communist and fired her. "After that I never got a proper job."

She was detained for seven months at the Standerton Prison but released after no evidence was produced. Her husband, who died three years ago, worked for the LTA construction company.

Another son, Mpho, was detained many times, and the younger children for a few hours, or even overnight.

Mashinini says she gets comfort from reading the Bible. "Death is in the hands of God."

She told the TRC: "I am happy he took part in the struggle, South African struggle. I am happy and proud of it."

Tsietsi is buried in Soweto's Avalon Cemetery, with the words "Black Power" etched on his black granite headstone. A large slab on the ground reads: "The height of repression he gave impetus to the liberation struggle".

Source: joburg.org.za

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