/ 18 June 1999

The Soweto 11: Two decades later

Jonathan Ancer talks to some of the `seditious’ students who were blamed for the 1976 Soweto riots

Twenty-three years after the June 16 Soweto uprising, the “seditious” students convicted of inciting the rebellion are influential members of the new South Africa they helped to create. There’s an MP, a Department of Foreign Affairs official, a school principal, a mediator, a journalist, a fundraiser for needy children and one with a lot of influence over the public purse.

A very satisfying moment for Murphy Morobewas standing at the Civic Theatre in Braamfontein in 1994 and watching the old South African flag come down. A few metres away stood the man who had helped send him to prison, the former attorney general of the Transvaal, Klaus von Lieres und Wilkau. “I gave my most strident rendition of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, but I don’t think Von Lieres even recognised me. To him I was just another case number,” says Morobe.

In September 1978, Morobe stood in the dock with 10 of his comrades accused of instigating the Soweto uprising. They had been held in custody for more than a year before the state charged them with sedition.

“Sedition,” Morobe shakes his head. “I think the charge had last been used at the beginning of the century in the Bambata rebellion. There was nothing that pinned us to any incident, but because we had organised rallies, we were held responsible for the violence of the uprising.”

The state alleged that the 11 members of the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) had held gatherings which led to confrontation with police. The accused, who became known as the Soweto 11, pleaded not guilty. Eight months later, they were found guilty. Seven received suspended jail terms and four were sent to prison.

Morobe was arrested on December 31 1976 after the Security Branch had broken Tokyo Sexwale’s African National Congress cell. Sexwale was charged with treason and became part of a group of trialists known as the ANC 12. “I had made contact with the underground and Tokyo was my commander. I was arrested with two others … They wanted us to become state witnesses in the ANC 12 trial, but … we wouldn’t testify, even if it meant death.

“In September 1977, I refused to testify and was sent to Leeukop prison for six months’ hard labour. When I had served my sentence I was detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. The hardegat state was bent on teaching me a lesson, so they incorporated me in the sedition charge.”

Morobe was sent to Robben Island for three years. “Going to Robben Island was a seminal period in my development as a political activist. I learned about survival. When I returned in 1983, I helped establish the United Democratic Front [UDF] and … [was] in and out of jail. When [Patrick] `Terror’ Lekota was detained I was made UDF publicity secretary. I was shy but when `duty calls, comrades’ you manage somehow.”

In June 1987, Morobe was arrested again. Fourteen months after he and Mohammed Valli-Moosa were detained, they escaped. “We were not the stone-throwing types, and we had to avoid physical scuffles. We devised an elaborate plan and escaped with style.”

On June 10 1977, SSRC president Dan Montsitsi and his committee were preparing to mark the anniversary of the uprising when the police swooped. Montsitsi was taken to Protea police station. “Major Visser, who was in charge of the investigation, warned me that if I didn’t co-operate, he had medicine for me,” recalls Montsitsi. “The police used brutal force to extract information from me. They squeezed my testicles with pliers, gun-butted my face, punched me and beat me with rubber truncheons. After Steve Biko’s death, I wasn’t tortured again.”

When handing down his sentence in the Soweto 11 trial, Judge H van Dyk referred to Montsitsi as having behaved “seditiously” from the first day of unrest. “I didn’t know what the hell sedition was, but if it meant organising the students to fight against bantu education then, ja, the judge was right, I behaved seditiously.”

Montsitsi received four years in prison. “I expected Robben Island to be a place of dark horror, but when I arrived I discovered a political institution. Walter Sisulu gave lectures on the struggle of the workers and [Govan] Mbeki Snr was an expert on the development of capitalism.”

In July 1983 he was released. “Morobe and I made a noise when we came out. When we addressed rallies we would say, `No, it’s not me speaking, it’s [Nelson] Mandela.’ Through us, people could see Mandela and Sisulu were alive.”

Sibongile Mkhabela was the only woman among the accused. She was kept in solitary confinement for months and smuggled out a letter to her friend, the Reverend Frank Chikane, who would later become her boss at the Office of the Deputy President.

“I knew the state wanted to destroy the emerging black leaders, and that’s why they went after students. But they couldn’t destroy my spirit. I was in control, no matter how brutal they were. The Soweto uprising was … also a celebration of having found our spirit. This generation doesn’t seem to have something that they are prepared to defend with their lives,” says Mkhabela.

Mkhabela was sentenced to three years, which she served at Kroonstad and Pretoria Maximum prisons. “The second day after my release, I was served with a three-year banning order.

“Although the 11 of us have drifted politically, we remain in contact … While we acknowledge our ideological differences, we understand that we have a common history. The National Party tried to get rid of us, but they couldn’t and in our own way we’re now making a positive contribution to society.”

Where are they?

Chief Wilson Twala: Department of Foreign Affairs official in Nigeria

Daniel Montsitsi: ANCMP

Seth Mazibuko: Former Gauteng school principal

Murphy Morobe: CEO of the Finance and Fiscal Commission

Jefferson Lengani: Journalist at Drum magazine and active in the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM)

Sibongile Mkhabela: The Nelson Mandela’s Children Fund

Thabo Ndabeni: Director of the Independent Mediation Service of South Africa

Reginald Mngomezulu: Died in October 1998 after a long illness

Sello Khiba: Was involved in the BCM

Kennedy Mogami: Shot in the leg by hijackers in Gauteng

George Twala: Was involved in publishing