The six political prisoners released with Govan Mbeki yesterday hail from political organisations as diverse as the Pan Africanist Congress and the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging. Lawyers and friends of the freed men – who served sentences ranging from four years in the case of the AWB prisoners, to 24 years for a PAC life-prisoner – said news of their release had come as a surprise.
John Nkosi, 46, had recently instructed lawyers to investigate exactly what his life imprisonment sentence meant according to his Pretoria attorney. Nkosi was an unmarried 21-year- old when he was jailed for life in 1963. He had been charged with 16 others, and was found guilty of carrying out PAC activities, committing acts of sabotage, and participating in a conspiracy to overthrow the South African government. His parents still live in Atteridgeville, Pretoria. Nkosi, who was held on Robben Island refused President PW Botha's offer two years ago to free prisoners who renounced violence.
Two PAC men were among the three political prisoners who received remission of sentence yesterday. They are Michael Matsobane and Zifozonke Tshikila. The third was African National Congress guerrilla Tom Masuku.
Matsobane was among 18 accused who stood trial in Bethal from 1977 to 1979. He was in his mid-30s at the time. They were charged with involvement in a PAC conspiracy to overthrow the government with furthering the aims of the PAC, and with promoting the 1976 uprising. One trialist was acquitted and one received a suspended sentence. The remaining 16 were sent to Robben Island with sentences varying from five to 30 years. Matsobane received a 15-year sentence. At the time of his arrest he was head of the Young Africans Christian Movement. He was found guilty of carrying out military training at his home, producing home-made bombs, and causing damage to a clothing outlet in Krugersdorp.
Mwasa general secretary Sthembele Ikhala – a fellow accused – recalls that the judge said Matsobane had "corrupted the minds of the youth and bedevilled race relations in this country". While on Robben Island, Matsobane studied for a B Proc degree. Ikhala described Matsobane as "an inspiration to young fellows like myself. He never lost hope of things changing in this country. He had the belief that whatever happens to him, the ideas he lived for and was prepared to die for would continue." Matsobane had previously served a five-year prison sentence. His wife and two children live in Kagiso.
Tshikila, believed to be in his late 50s, was tried with three others for furthering the aims of the PAC and recruiting people for military training. He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in 1979. He comes from East London. Masuku, who left the country in the middle of the 1976 uprising, was sentenced in 1978 to 20 years' imprisonment for ANC activities. He was convicted of having undergone military training in Angola and elsewhere. He hails from Mamelodi, Pretoria.
The two AWB men granted special remission are Jacob Viljoen and Hendrik Jacobsz. They were each convicted of terrorism under the Internal Security Act and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in June 1983. They were refused right to appeal against their conviction. According to the Survey of the South African Institute of Race Relations, the two – who resigned from the AWB in May 1983 — had been charged with planning to overthrow the government. The court found that they intended to sabotage multi-racial hotels and the President's Council offices in Cape Town. They also planned to assassinate certain black politicians. Viljoen and Jacobsz were both former policemen. The court found they had collected fifths of explosives, arms and ammunition to carry out their aims.
The Island's man of peace
If there was a single political prisoner in South Africa to whom unity bewteen the ANC and the PAC could possibly be attributed, it was John Nkosi. The only PAC prisoner in B- Section at the time of my release from prison in March this year, Nkosi breathed peace throughout my stay on the Island. Soft-natured Johnnie — as he was affectionately called by inmates participated in almost every committee whose task was to promote peace and unity among prisoners in the section.
I once served with him on the welfare committee of B-section. The duty of this committee was to organise birthday, welcoming and farewell parties. The committee, which was democratically elected every year, kept a record of everyone's birthday so that celebrations could be planned. It also arranged parties to welcome back any inmate who had been hospitalised for a long time in a private or provincial hospital, and organised tea parties every Saturday morning in order to inspire a community spirit in the section.
Johnnie only used to receive visits once a year, during the festive season, from his aged mother. Prior to my release I asked him whether I should encourage his relatives and others people to visit him frequently, but he declined the offer. He was only 21 when he was sentenced in 1963, together with other PAC cadres including Masemola, his former schoolteacher during his primary school days in Atteridgeville.
Spending his free time in his cell – No 5 Nkosi read extensively for a BSc degree. When I was released he had not yet completed the work for his degree. He is one of two PAC lifers who rejected Botha's "forswear violence" offer of release. He vowed he would not accept such a conditional offer. He believed he and another PAC lifer, Jeoff Masemola would be released unconditionally one day. – Thami Mkhwanazi
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.