Friday Feature: A Youth Leader: Tsietsi Mashinini

Names: Mashinini, Teboho "Tsietsi" Macdonald

Born: 27 January 1957, Central Western Jabavu, Soweto, South Africa

Died: 1990, Guinea

In summary: Student leader,in the Soweto student uprising of 16 June 1976

Tsietsi Mashinini was born on 27 January 1957 in Central Western Jabavu, Soweto. Mashinini was the second son of Ramothibi, a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, and Nomkhitha Mashinini, and was one of 13 children (11 boys and twin girls). He was active in his local Methodist parish and chairperson of the Methodist Wesley Youth Guild at the age of 16.

His education started at the Amajeli crèche in 1963. He went on to Seoding Lower Primary, after which he proceeded to Itshepeng Higher Primary. In 1971 he became a student at Morris Isaacson High. He was a passionate reader.  This was spotted by his History and English teacher, Abram Onkgopotse Tiro, who taught at Morris Isaacson after was expelled from the University of the North (Turfloop) for his political activities. Tiro had great influence in shaping Mashinini's political thinking and subsequent adherence to the ideology and philosophy of Black Consciousness. He mentored him and supplied him with reading material. Through Tiro, Mashinini started reading about the history of Africa’s struggles, American slavery, the Human Rights Movements in the USA and about the evil of apartheid. Mashinini was the chairperson of the debating team at his school, and his excellent academic performance became the basis for his influence among his peers.

Mashinini’s energy, creativity and sportsmanship became evident through his recreational activity, which included theatre, baseball, ballroom dancing, martial arts, swimming and tennis. Former teacher Mrs Benadette Mosala said of him: “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. I know the girls loved him and he was very confident.”

As a teenager of his time, he preferred African-American fashions, especially drawn to hippie culture.

He sported an Afro and wore bell-bottomed trousers and high-heeled shoes, and had a vibrant social life.
Mashinini joined the South African Students Movement, a student body established to assist students with the transition from Matric to university.

On 13th June 1976, about 500 Soweto students met at the Orlando Donaldson Community Hall to discuss ways and means of confronting and challenging the Department of Bantu Education.
 The students decided to stage a peaceful protest march on 16 June against the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

An Action Committee was set up to prepare for the campaign. Mashinini was elected chairperson of the Action Committee, which was later renamed the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC), with Mashinini as its first president (until he was succeeded by Khotso Seatlholo from Naledi High School). Mashinini and Murphy Morobe were the two representatives from Morris Issacson High School serving in the Soweto Student Representative Council.

During assembly on the morning of 16 June at Morris Isaacson High School, Mashinini climbed onto the podium and led students into song, and out of the school grounds towards their assembly point for the planned student demonstration.

After June 16,the intense scrutiny compelled Mashinini to flee the country. He left the country for Botswana in August 1976, living there for few months before he proceeded to the West Coast of Africa. Heads of states, notably Sekou Toure of Ivory Coast, and African parliamentarians received him. He resided in countries like Nigeria where he was briefly hosted in the presidential guest house in Lagos. While in exile Mashinini was interviewed by many media organisations and he addressed students at universities, revealing the realities of the South African political situation.

Mashinini finally settled in Liberia, where he married Welma Campbell, the daughter of a parliamentarian, in 1978. The marriage was blessed with two daughters, Nomkhitha (named after his mother) and Thembi. However the marriage ended after a few years.

Mashinini later visited the United Kingdom and the United States, where he addressed the United Nations on the brutalities of the apartheid regime. By many accounts, Mashinini did not join any of the established liberation movements in exile.

One of Mashinini's admirers was his compatriot, Miriam Makeba, who was in exile in Guinea. She had offered Mashinini a place to stay in her home in Conakry shortly before his death. Mashinini died under mysterious circumstances in 1990. He was hospitalised for multiple injuries, aparently the result of an attack.  He died a few days later. Mashinini's body was terribly disfigured: his left eye had fallen out into his coffin; his left ear was bleeding and he had deep bruises on his face, including a large scar on his forehead.

At his funeral service, held at the Amphitheatre Stadium in Jabulani, Soweto, former Azanian People’s Organisation  President Professor Itumeleng Mosala said: “The students of 1976 took the struggle from the classroom to the streets; the students of today take the struggle from the streets into the classroom.” Leaders of the June 16 uprising spoke in praise of Mashinini, saying he had made an indelible mark in shaping the history of the country.

The epitaph on his tombstone reads: “At the height of struggle, he gave impetus to the liberation struggle.” His tombstone at Avalon cemetery in Soweto was twice vandalised, and the marble stone was removed.

On 27 April 2011, the State President, Jacob G Zuma honoured Tsietsi Mashinini, posthumously, with the Order of Luthuli in Gold for his inspirational leadership to young people, for the sacrifices he made while leading students against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, and for his role in the struggle against apartheid.

Accessed on on 13 June 2014.

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