Motsamai journeys from prison to Parliament

Former political prisoner Kenny Motsamai spent 28 years in prison for a crime committed as a member of the Azanian 
People’s Liberation Army during apartheid. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP)

Former political prisoner Kenny Motsamai spent 28 years in prison for a crime committed as a member of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army during apartheid. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP)

From swapping the orange overalls of a prisoner for the red overalls of the Economic Freedom Fighters, to the National Council of Provinces, Kenny Motsamai says his fight for freedom is not over.

The newly sworn-in delegate was only recently released from Boksburg prison and is on parole after serving almost 28 years behind bars. He was convicted in 1989 for the murder of a traffic officer in Rustenburg.

At the time he was a commander in the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (Apla), the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress.

During a bank robbery, which Apla said was to finance its armed struggle, combatants encountered police and the traffic officer was killed.

He was released on parole in January 2017 but arrested later for violating his parole conditions. He was released again in 2018 and, that July, joined the EFF.

“There’s a lot of change,” says Motsamai, after being sworn in last week as a member of the sixth democratically elected Parliament.
“I’m happy that, at the end of the day, all South Africans are free. We are enjoying the democracy that we fought for. Even though there are some political prisoners who are still not free.”

He was welcomed by a round of applause and cheering from most members of the National Council of Provinces.

Technically, Motsamai should not qualify for his seat. The Constitution says people who are sentenced to a prison term of more than 12 months without the option of a fine cannot serve in Parliament or any provincial legislature. But, before the swearing-in ceremony, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng explained why Motsamai qualified. “The particular delegate was convicted in 1989 and the Constitution took effect in 1996 … So this section seems not to extend to or to exclude that delegate.”

Motsamai says that, although the EFF’s legal team hadn’t expected any problems, he was still anxious. “After the chief justice commented on that it was a shock to me. I didn’t know what to say.”

Motsamai believes that he and other political prisoners who are still serving time have been forgotten by the current democratic dispensation governed by the ANC since 1994. “I served for 28 years. More than Nelson Mandela. I’m in the league of President Mandela, Tokyo Sexwale, Mathews Phosa and other political prisoners. I served 28 years like Jafta Masemola, but I was not recognised by our black people.”

Even though he’s now a representative in the legislature, Motsamai says he still wants to clear his name and have his criminal record erased. “There’s nothing to be expunged. Apartheid was a crime against humanity. And if you say I have a criminal record? I feel I can’t be a criminal in a criminal state.”

Motsamai says his task in the National Council of Provinces will be to serve on committees dealing with military veterans and to bring attention to the many apartheid-era political prisoners still in jail.

“I want to focus on the issue of military veterans. Those who are now old and suffering. Those who I was with in the liberation struggle. I also want to focus on political prisoners. Those I was fighting with against the system, they are still behind bars. I have to talk to the government of the ANC to release those political prisoners, and to ensure their criminal records are squashed.”

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