Interview by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, Johannesburg, December 1993
Suspension points in this interview and in any quotes extracted from this interview indicate a pause or break in the flow of conversation.
Ellipses in square brackets indicate text omitted.
But, if I were to tell you how I got involved myself, I would tell you that it has been partly because of what I have just said now, and partly because of my background, my life background from my family where I grew up. I grew up in a family that was a bit open, that had a vision, regarding the injustices, the unjust practices that were taking place. And the main contributing person to my background here was my elder brother, who kept on indoctrinating me while I was still a very small boy. So when I went to secondary school, for my secondary education, already I knew what was happening in South Africa. Maybe in a broader [spirit? struggle? unclear] than most of my contemporaries.
And in 1976, when we got involved, I remember that I was, I was the chairman of the local school, of the local political suborganization at our high school. I was the chairman then and, if I were to remember very well, this suborganization fell under the BPC, you should be knowing the BPC … and I was a member of the BPC then. So we were exposed, quite exposed, to the organization in the country as a whole against apartheid. We would have some speakers, some guests that would be coming from the Reef here, Johannesburg, they would come and visit us and they would talk with us, you know, as the executive committee … things of that sort. What should I tell you more about my involvement? I should tell you that when the whole strike happened 1976 I was leading it at school. Mainly I was leading it. To an extent that when I was arrested I became accused number two, and accused number one was a friend of mine, that we associated with very well. But I became accused number two, and this accused number one was a young man that came from Pretoria—I have never seen him since. But I got arrested. We were 35, all the students that were arrested at school and we went to prison. We stayed for about two months in prison. And eventually we were taken to court, where we appeared, magistrate's court, locally at Sibasa. And we had some legal representatives that we didn't understand so much as to how they were organized, but later on we understood that it was through the BPC political organizations—Black Consciousness Movement. So these representatives, legal representatives, they came and they stood on our behalf until the case was transferred from the magistrate court to the regional court, and it went to Louis Trichardt. At Louis Trichardt, that is where the case ended eventually. But there had been some rumors then, you know, there had been some rumors that we would end up locked [up], that we were going to end up in Robben Island, and all things like that.
I am trying just to come up with an account here, in not so much an organized form. I might go back. Because I am remembering that the 1976 era before, before we were arrested, the activities in which we were involved, there were such activities at school as organizing and conscientizing other students. We had a very organized body then, and we would also try and organize other schools. Our school, which was Sibasa High School, was seen to be the center of this movement. So we would go out and organize other schools as well, go traveling as long distances as, covering long distances as about 40, 50 kilometers, without any sponsor. We would just do that from our pockets, as students from our pocket moneys, sacrificing our time. And of course we, we had also done away, before we were arrested we had done away with the school program … class programs … for about three months, I think, we were no more engaged in school activities.
Before I got arrested, there has been a day, which I think you would be interested to possibly know. A day, whereby we had a strike at the school. And … we were living in the school boarding facilities of course … and we were no more attending, like I tell you, we were no more attending the classes. There had just been a standstill of program, every program at school. And the police decided to visit our campus. These were black police, white police, Afrikaners. And they came to the school. But, they didn't know what to do. They were not called by the principal of the school, the authorities of the school. But apparently they had been informed and called by some security people that lived around the school, you know, what we used to term in those days: "informers."
They came in many, I think about five, vehicles, the police vehicles, and there were quite a lot. Now, when they came to the school, they had a problem of, of what to say to the students. You know, we were just striking peacefully, we were not burning anything, destroying anything, but then they had a problem. And the only thing they could try to do was to try to find who the ringleader, or who the ringleaders were. And we stood with them there, facing each other. They were grouped, and we were grouped one side, facing them. They were addressing us and they were asking us, "Who are your leaders?" And they said we want to know your leaders, so your leaders have to tell us exactly what you are striking for. But I understood that they wanted a ringleader. And that they didn't want a ringleader for the purpose that they were saying, but for other reasons … for interrogation, and things of that sort.
I didn't regard myself really to be a ringleader as such, but I knew that I was one of those that could be regarded as leaders there. Without answering them, I don't know how they detected these people, these people have leapt out [unclear]. They … one then asked me a direct question, came to me, and he said, "Man, we have been told that you are the leader of the group, is it true?" Then I asked him, "Who told you?" And he said, "The principal told me." And then I asked him, "Who did the principal say I am?" And then he couldn't answer the question because he wasn't told by the principal. And what he did, rather, was to call other police, and shout, "Here is the ringleader, here is the ringleader." That they came and I was beaten. Taken into the van, locked into the van, and everybody was looking at me, from the police, very suspiciously and very surprisedly, comments about "you are the ringleader," and they would call me names, insults…
And then what happened was, while I was there, the girls started to join, to come march from their dormitory and joining up with the boys. And they demanded that I must be taken out. Then the police realized that arresting me was going to cause much havoc to the school than otherwise. They came then eventually to me and they said, well, this was an Afrikaner person, I just forget his name, he came with an interpreter, and he said, "Man, we would love to know your names." And I should tell you that I didn't give my right names there [laughs]. But then, having written my names, he apologized, I asked for an apology. He said, "Well, we have realized that we have wronged you … we were not told by the principal." The principal had already come to the van, and he had looked at me, and he had asked, "What's happening?" And then I told him, "They are alleging that you told him, you told them that I am the ringleader." And I think he went and talked with them.
So they came and they said [about being a sellout], "No, we apologize and we realize that we have wronged you and we are now going to release you, but on condition please, if you could promise us, that you are going to report to us any mishap that will happen in this school from now on." I should tell you that in my life I haven never faced a more difficult question than that. You know, this question you don't know what to answer. You don't know whether you should give an affirmative or negative answer because of the implications involved if you say no, you feel that you are going to be targeted as an enemy because this is what they will understand. And if you say yes, you know that from that day on, you will be selling your own people.
The day we striked, and eventually I got arrested, we had gone out of school… it was the first day of writing examinations for the senior students, that's Form 5, Standard 10. And then we decided that we were going to tear, to destroy all the examination papers, because we didn't want to write "Bantu" examinations. So, I lead the whole group and we got into the examination room where the students had already sat, and we told them that they should get out, grabbed all the papers that they were having, even those that were not distributed as yet, and we destroyed them. We bent them, we tear them, just confiscated all of them, and we even went to the office of the principal and we demanded that we must be given the balance of all the papers of other subjects. During those days they would bring all the papers of the examinations of all the subjects [even to return in the two weeks to come? unclear]. So we demanded all those papers, and we were given all those papers, and we destroyed them. After that I remember the principal was very much scared, he was scared because the students wanted now to start looting the property, burning the cars [unclear] schools. I remember that I had to tell them that they shouldn't do it. And, students used to respect me, they would listen to me. When the principal called me he was more concerned about their cars. Their cars were parked in one area, all the cars of the teachers, and he said, "Sam, tell me that they are not going to burn the school." I said, "There will not be any burning of the school." And then he asked me, "Are our cars safe?" I said, "Your cars are very safe." But students had already started throwing some stones at some few cars. And I went and I stood where the cars were, and I gave orders to all the students that no car should, [unclear] no stoning of any car. Students knew my philosophy regarding this. I had ever held, held high, the philosophy that, you know, when you are struggling, you need not to be violent, you don't need to destroy the property. Property is something else, that doesn't know anything. And, once I ordered them that they shouldn't continue destroying the cars, stoning the cars then they stopped. And then they went past.
We were going to hijack the buses that we should be transported to other schools so that we should destroy the [whole] examination process in all other schools.
Now, when we were still doing that, and we had already ordered some students, that were writing examinations, out of their examination room and confiscated the papers they were busy with. While we were still doing that, the police arrived. The police station was very close to this school, a distance of about two kilometers. And so they arrived, and when they arrived, we ran out. We ran out of the campus and we grouped together. Now, police were afraid. Once we were grouped together they wouldn't just come as readily as all that. When we started marching back, from Sibasa north, marching northward, going back now to our school, the police came again, following us, and they came with guns, rifles. And then they started shooting.
There was no one of us who was hurt. We ran, wildly, and in an unorganized fashion. Just as we were running, then they started chasing after us. I was not arrested there and then. I managed to run away there. And when we were free, marching down, until we were almost free of any fear, we thought they wouldn't follow us any more, then we saw some cars coming, the vans of the policemen. And, at first I shouted, "We must not run away," because I knew that solidarity would spare them. But, some students started running away, and eventually I started running, also. And as I was running away, without necessarily seeing any policeman that was running after me, I heard a shot, sound of a gun, and when I looked back I saw that a white policeman was chasing after me and he had shot what I regarded to be a warning shot. Then I stood and surrendered, lifted up my hands and he came and he arrested me, handcuffed me, and then he said, "We must go back to the road" where he had left the van. We went back. Along the way, as we were going through the bush area, as we were going back, I saw him stand still at a certain place, he looked around, and he, you know I thought he wanted to get a stick to beat me, but then he went, and he [unclear] and he picked up a bush knife. Came back with the bush knife and he said in Afrikaans, "Dis joune," that's yours [laughs]. Then I said, no that's not mine. I knew I had not carried a bush knife. I should admit that were some students that had carried some bush knives and things of that sort from the school when we left. I, all the time, I regarded violence as not part of the struggle, and I wouldn't carry such a thing. So, we went black to the van where a black sergeant has been waiting for us, who started asking me the details of my names and all that, opening a docket for me, and when the Afrikaner policemen said, "This is his bush knife," I objected. The policeman said, "Don't worry, I'm not going to write that this is yours." [He] talked in Venda.
But when we got to the police station, and interrogation started, I realized that he had deceived me. He had written that I was holding a bush knife. And the interrogation was very tough, very tough. We would get into the interrogating room one by one, and we would find a group of policemen, a group of about five, and then they would start grabbing you, each one of them, in his own way. You would fall down, I would fall down, and they would kick, kick the ribs, stamp on your body. And the interrogation would usually be, "Tell, who are other people, other than those that were arrested, that you were with?" And you would start by mentioning your friends, people you thought that they would understand if they knew that it was very difficult, under very difficult circumstances when you mention their names, eventually you would run out of friends. And you would start just mentioning every other person, every other student that was present there. I want to tell you that we were interrogated even by other means, the means of a sack that would, that would be put in water, it would be wet sack, little sack, then it would be put around your neck and they will tighten it.
I want to believe that we were free, mainly because of the lies of the police. This is what the judge said. And of course the judge, they had to employ a special judge, from Johannesburg, who they believed understood the havoc, as they called it in 1976, was associated with what was happening here. And, as much as he wanted to find us guilty, but he confessed at the end of it all, that he was mostly disappointed by the lies of the police.
So, when we went to court we would tell our lawyer, [our? unclear] advocates, that they are lying. They are not the people that arrested us. And they wouldn't even remember where they arrested some of the people. They arrested most of us that day while we were marching back, but from the file that they drew, when we were revealing other names, they would even pursue and follow other people, other names. Arrested them later, at school, in different homes, they would follow them. And they just kept a very poor profile … record. And so, they would tell a different story. The policeman would stand up and he would say, "I arrested so-and-so," and they knew only the names and they didn't remember the faces of the people that they arrested.
And we had told our lawyer, I remember that he came to a proposition where he eventually asked us that we must mingle, we must get disorganized in as far as the order, the sequence of our numbers is concerned. And then he asked us that we must turn our numbers up side down, inside out. And then he asked those policemen. [Unclear] they told them that you are not the ones that arrested these people. And they would say, vehemently, "We are the ones that arrested them, we know them very well." And you know how the police will react, police will always think that the law is with them, and they will answer very stupidly. And they said, "You are telling us we are not the ones, not he ones who arrested, we are the ones. If you say that we are not the ones, then you should tell us who arrested these people."
And eventually then he said, "OK, could you …" call one policeman, and he said, "Could you go and point at the students that you arrested." And you see, it would be easy for him just to count. If he knows he has arrested, he has written, he has arrested number ten, eleven, twelve. Then he will go, "This one, and this one, and this one." And the lawyer would say to him, "Could you mention the names?" [laughs] this was very interesting, and then he would mention the names and then the lawyer would say, OK, to those accused, OK turn your cards the right way now. And the police is like dismayed, he would find that he has pointed the wrong people altogether. So maybe it has been, because of that, that eventually the law couldn't do anything with us, and we were released.
I didn't tell you that when we got arrested in 1976 we were placed in the same custody with criminals, and when you would get in there … you would be abused, criminals, criminals would hit, would start beating you inside. We were very much beaten by criminals. But, fortunately, we were changed, a day after we were put into custody, from the cell wherein I was, we were divided into various cells. But I was changed from there, I was placed into custody number one, cell number one, which is the hardest, it has got the criminals that are hard, you know, those that murder [unclear]. And, when we got there, at first I thought that it was to my disadvantage of course, but when we got in we found a certain man who knew us, who was arrested. And he was the boss of that cell. He came from very close to our school. And so when we got there, he just said, "What do you want here?" He was a taxi man, he said, "What do you want?" and ordered us to sit down, and then we were no more abused. But the abuses in the cells range from being beaten, they go to sodomy, and we have some students that we were arrested with that were exposed to such circumstances. Very bad circumstances indeed. And we would be exposed to all the atrocities in the cells. Forced to scrub the walls, being forced to drink the waters from the toilets, things of that sort.
I should tell you that we went back to the school and we wrote examinations, though we had disrupted those first examinations. And of course, we had learned that after we had gone to prison, the students … the government provided other examination papers, and the examination process continued peacefully in all the schools. So when we went out we just went back and we wrote examinations. The first day that I got to the school, I remember that I arrived around 2 pm, got into the examination room, without even a paper, without finishing, without a pen in hand. Just to sit down and write mathematics … Standard 8. But then I managed to pass.
And in 1977, after the acquittal, there was a second strike… The whole of 1977, when we assumed the program, we presumed the program of the school, we didn't attend school… I was doing Standard 9 then. But it was just a habit for us to organize ourselves, and we wouldn't attend any program until June, July, same time. We organized the whole country. All the students, all the schools. We are talking about 100 or so high schools and secondaries that we should get to a stadium where we should address students. And after addressing students, then we should go home, and never returning. Because, still, Afrikaans was not done away with as yet, and we were still objecting against the same objection. And, of course, we wanted even our prisoners, our political prisoners, to be released, Mandela, Sisulu, Oliver Tambo… We wanted him to be back. We had Robert Sobukwe then, with PAC, we had quite some few, that we were calling, that they should come back… [Bandera? unclear] of AZAPO who was in Robben Island then … that was toward the end of '77. And then this very, this particular day wherein we gathered together at the stadium. We went to the stadium, we were a massive crowd of students come by busses from all angles of the country. We were so many that police came, but they wouldn't dare to enter the stadium. They just parked their vehicles outside, and they addressed us through the megaphones, shouted to us. So we didn't listen to them, and we were doing our own business here.
But then, as we got out of the stadium, the police knew that we were broken in as far as solidarity was concerned, because we were now marching in broken fashion so to say. And then they came, they had called for some other police from Pietersburg, from Pretoria, it was the first time I saw some police putting on the camouflage attire, and I saw some van, police vans, that had the protection, of the mesh wire so to say. And they came with big dogs guns and they came driving steadily, and we were all shouting, "Let us not run away." But when you are in this type of organization you will find that there are some students that don't know exactly what they are doing there, they are just following, under mob psychology. And these are the first people that start running away, that start to get scared. I want to believe that, had we not run away, we would not have been hurt the way we were, eventually. So when, we started running away, running away, running away, then everybody started running away. And, I for one, knew that I was in a great danger if I were re-arrested, because the case … our case had just ended about two months ago. And we were given a suspended acquittal, so that for the coming five years we must not be found doing anything that's related to that… Otherwise we will go to prison for five years. I was with my accused number one friend and I told him that we will be in danger here, we better be safe. And then we ran, ran away from the police. Fortunately we were not arrested, I think there were some few students that were arrested. Though they were acquitted, did not appear in court.
But then, when we ran away that particular day, I decided that I was no more going to go back home because I knew that they were going to follow me at home, they knew my home very well. So I decided that I was going to hide somewhere far away from home. I went to a place about 40 km from home and that was at my brother-in-law's home, and I hid myself there. Now, some of the students had hidden in different areas, some in the township around Sibasa, some in the villages around.
Now Maanda went hiding somewhere in a village around, before you get to Thohojandou from Louis Trichardt. And he had a group of some few there … students. Now, where I was hiding, I was alone. But, what we did was, we communicated, we told each other where we were all of us. Now, this brings you to how Maanda left, eventually, and how I remained in the country. The night Maanda left with the group of some young people they brought a message to my brother-in-law's job. Unfortunately I was not in in the afternoon, I had gone out in between, to be at some other place. And the message didn't get me, the message that … they left the message that I should not sleep that night before I would get to where Maanda was [unclear]. But I came back and I felt a bit tired and bored, and I said, well, it's a bit late now, let me see them in the morning. And the first thing in the morning was to drive my brother-in-law's van, I went to the place where they were. And when I got there I found that they had left he previous night. It was very painful to me. More painful, more so because there was no one ready to direct me where they had gone to. I think my brother-in-law would be prepared to drive me, until I could have possibly found them, but there was no-one who wanted to divulge where they had gone to. And I want to believe that [unclear] could have possibly asked, they didn't really know the route that the group was going to follow as they were going to cross the border. Maanda has just told me now the place that they had gone to, that I didn't think they had gone to. But, had I known, I would have found them still in the country there … and eventually … that is what happened.
I didn't go back to school that year, although the examinations were written eventually again. But I decided that I was no more going to go there, because definitely I was going to be arrested. So I left school in Standard 9 then, 1979 [pause] … '77. And then '78 I looked for some work around the area. I worked as a rep for a mill and '79, I was still working as a rep there. 1980 I decided that I should go back to school [laughs] and then I went back to that very high school, Sibasa high school, asking the principal that I should be admitted. No he was a different principal, the former principal was transferred to a different school. This new principal told me that he was not going to admit me at the school. And he knew me very well, he said, "No, you are not going to be admitted at the school, because if we admit you in the school you are going to cause problems … in the school." Now, I told him, I said, "Please, I am not going to cause any problems anymore. I just want to go to school, get educated." He told me I was not going to be admitted, if I were admitted, he said, anything that would happen and disrupt the school program, I will be held responsible thereof, even if I could not be present at the time of happening. He said, whether you are at home, or you have gone out of the country, wherever you shall be, if there is any disruption of the school program, you are going to be the first person to be arrested. And so I said to him, "OK, let it be like that, I'll admit it." He said, "No, you are not admitted." OK, I asked for a transfer, a letter of transfer. He said, "I'm not going to write a letter of transfer for you."
So, he really wanted to kill my future, that man. What I did was, I followed the principal, the man who was the principal when the strikes took place, went to the secondary school where he was and I told him my predicament. Number one, I didn't want to repeat Standard 9. I felt that I had done, I had covered the syllabus of Standard 9. It was only that we did not write examinations. And I felt that I could try Standard 10. And then, number two, I told him that I didn't have a letter of transfer, and I told him of the problem that I was facing in the school. He was an understanding man, he said, "Come and do your work here." And I was admitted in the school, I did Standard 10 and I passed. That's 1977, 1976. Possibly you would be having some areas that you would like to understand.
And my father, being an old person, born in 1908, he wouldn't love these things. But if we sat around the fire and we were talking about the injustices of the oppressors he would tell us some practical stories of what happened to him when he was a migrant laborer on the farms of the Boers in the western part of the country around Rustenburg. How he had some of his friends killed there, buried on the farm and that was the end of their life, all those things. My father was a very good historian, he was not educated at all, he didn't know how to write his name, but he was a very good historian, better than I am. He would come up with accurate dates of events [laughter]… That is still another mystery to me. I don't understand how he managed to do all those things.
So he would tell us about the struggles, the wars between black people and white people, he would tell us about the First World War, such things, though they were not related, directly, to the struggle in the country. I am saying that he was such a type of person, if we are seated together he will tell us about the ills and the pains that they have suffered as black people, but he didn't want us to get involved, he didn't. And whenever we would be arrested, he would, he would, at all times when we would be back, say, "But can't you think about leaving this thing." But [at the worst?] that was the home.
Except for my other brother, the other elder brother, the one that I come immediately thereafter, he is a teacher by profession. He has not been that much involved. He has … actually been … one time or another … he has been a part of the system. Not only as a teacher, but … been very active in organizing the, whatever, rallies that were selling the ideas of the government, things of that sort. It created great tension, which still exists today to a great extent…
But like I say, things have changed now, and he's just an unfortunate person. We try to give him the warmth that we can, as much as we can, as much possible as we can, but … that tension remains. So I would think that, forever really, it has divided our home. It has divided our home, yes. You would find for instance his children singing slogans of the Afrikaners, singing slogans of the Homeland regime, reciting slogans. He would teach his children to do likewise. And I remember 1985, when I decided to establish my home, my own stand, separately from where he was. Though at first we had thought that we would stay together, just, I would be having my side adjacent to his, but eventually I decided that I must be independent. Go a little distance out of the way. Because, partly because I would find my children also starting to use … that he would indoctrinate my children also on these things. Then I eventually decided, no let me get out. Then I should give an education that I think is right for my own children.
My mother has just been that type of a person. She would understand very much the struggle, and she would encourage us to go ahead. She was a devout Christian. She would pray for us, very much, even in our struggle. She would give refuge to others politically … those that were engaged in politics, that would run to my home for refuge, if they were being sought after in their villages far away, then they would think at least of coming to our home. And I remember that at one time we had three gentlemen hidden at our home, in our home, and eventually the police came, and they had heard that they were there. My mother told them, "They are not there." And she had locked them in one of the rooms, and [laughs] … and the police eventually left. They never thought that an old lady such as my mother could be engaged in such things, and so they trusted her so much that, when she told them they were not there, they said OK, they believed it. [laughs]
Source: Sam Mashaba, interview by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, tape recording, Johannesburg, September 1993.