Twenty years after a young MKcadre was hanged, his family is still suffering the effects. Peter Makurube tells Solomon Mahlangu’s story
On April 6 1979, Umkhonto weSizwe fighter Solomon Mahlangu was hanged at Pretoria Central prison. The charge: murder of two white civilians in Johannesburg two years earlier. This week, on the 20th anniversary of his execution, his family is still suffering from the effects of his death.
Mahlangu left the country in 1976 after the Soweto uprising at the age of 19. He was sent to Angola, where he was chosen for training for an elite force to return to South Africa to carry out a mission commemorating 1976.
Mahlangu was in the first group to leave for South Africa, via Maputo. It was here that Siphiwe Nyanda, now chief of the South African National Defence Force, planned missions into South Africa as head of Umkhonto weSizwe operations.
The mission, according to Nyanda, was ”to join the thousands of schoolkids who were definitely going to remember the day with protests. This time the leaders decided the youth would be facing the armed police and army with their own arms.”
According to Nyanda, Mahlangu ”knew from the underground work he had been trained for how important discipline was for missions to be successful. He was a quiet, unassuming, disciplined young man who would today be part of the national defence force, protecting the country.”
Mahlangu joined a group of cadres from Duduza. Among them was Monty Motloung, a sniper, and George ”Lucky” Mahlangu. These three made it as far as Johannesburg, but while walking in Goch Street they were confronted by police. In the ensuing gun battle, two people were killed.
Nyanda rejects the notion that Motloung, who fired the fatal shots, went for civilian targets. ”The man was being chased by people and he was merely trying to avoid arrest,” he says.
The unit split up. ”They deliberately acted as decoy for the other comrade [George Mahlangu] to get away so that he could report to the leaders,” says their commander, Dumisani Makhaye. Motloung was caught and assaulted by police and onlookers until he suffered brain damage.
Solomon Mahlangu, who had not fired a shot, faced the murder charge alone since Motloung was declared mentally unfit to stand trial. He was sentenced to death.
Desmond Tutu, then secretary general of the South African Council of Churches, called for amnesty for the young fighter. The Black Students Society at Wits University and the Students Representative Council collected 4 000 signatures to petition the state president to stop the hanging.
Mahlangu’s mother, Martha Mahlangu, tried to see then minister of justice Jimmy Kruger, but he gave her the runaround. The United Nations Security Council appealed for Mahlangu’s life, as did United States president Jimmy Carter, the Organisation for African Unity, European governments and the Anti-Apartheid Movement – in vain. He sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika on the short, long walk to the gallows.
Mahlangu’s mother stopped working after her son died, and another son, a prison warder, was fired when the authorities discovered he was related to Solomon Mahlangu. The Mahlangus have been surviving on handouts from the law firm of Priscilla Jana, now an MP, who defended Solomon Mahlangu in court.
”I’m old and destitute,” said Martha Mahlangu as the 20th anniversary of her son’s death approached. ”I live on a meagre pension of R530 a month. Even now my water and lights have been switched off because I owe the council. The African National Congress Youth League came to my home this week and I informed them of my problem, but I still haven’t heard anything yet.” The ANC, she says, has ”made promises, but I don’t know what became of such promises”.
Youth league secretary for organisational development Nathi Mthethwa says the issue has been settled amicably and it’s all systems go for the 20th commemoration of the fallen soldier. ”The Mahlangus were not the only family affected by the lights and water problem,” explains Mthethwa. ”All the people in the area had their services cut by the council.”
If Mahlangu’s execution was an attempt to scare potential Umkhonto weSizwe recruits, it was a miscalculation. Thousands left the country, swelling the ranks of the liberation armies.
A school the ANC was building in Tanzania was named after Mahlangu. At the entrance are the words, ”My blood will nourish the tree of freedom,” reputed to be his last words.
Mahlangu wanted to become a teacher, says his mother. ”Solomon was very conscientious. Now, in my old age, I miss him even more.”