Paying tribute to SA’s freedom soldiers


22 June 2011

An exhibition in Johannesburg focusing on heroism and martyrdom celebrates the 50th anniversary of the formation of liberation army Umkhonto weSizwe.

Hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and entitled In Pursuit of Liberty: Legality vs Justice, the exhibition focuses on “heroism, martyrdom and the ethical principles of South African liberation movements”.

Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) was the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1961 by Nelson Mandela and his peers.

The exhibition, in the foyer of the foundation offices in Houghton, portrays the struggle of MK cadres in particular against apartheid, with pictures of the Rivonia trialists and their capture at Liliesleaf, the trial and execution of 23-year-old Solomon Mahlangu, the Silverton Siege, and the Soekmekaar and Silverton trials, which became the “turning point of the liberation struggle”.

“The exhibition portrays how freedom fighters used the apartheid courts and police holding cells as sites of struggle,” indicates a press statement. It is hoped that this history will not be forgotten by the present generation.

“It evokes unpleasant memories of the turbulent apartheid years, but it can help those who were born after the dawn of democracy to understand the heavy price their forebears paid for democracy.”


Time as a MK cadre


In a moving address at the opening of the exhibition this week, in which she sang a verse of a freedom song, the deputy minister of public service and administration, Ayanda Dlodlo, talked about her time as an MK cadre.

“Ours was a just war and it should be celebrated,” she said. “It was a war that had to be fought to find freedom.”

She described the “vigorous training” that she and many other young South Africans went through in the 1970s, when they left South Africa after the 16 June 1976 uprising.

She thanked advocate George Bizos, who was present in the audience and who defended Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki in the Rivonia Trail, for his support during the struggle years; and the people of countries like Angola, Mozambique, Russia, Sweden and Cuba for the support they gave MK in exile.

People like Joshua Nkomo, Quincy Jones, Fidel Castro and the Reverend Jesse Jackson had also offered unfailing support to the ANC.

“Whites were not our enemy, the system was the enemy,” she said.

Dlodlo, who is also the Military Veterans Association secretary-general, stressed that the comrades in exile were very young – some were 18 and 19 years old. The women cadres in exile were called “flowers of our revolution”, the term coined by the ANC leader in exile, Oliver Tambo.


Mahlangu and others


James Mange, an MK commander who was arrested with Mahlangu and 12 others, described his experience of the trial, and how the death sentence hung over them.

“There was no doubt in our minds that John Vorster [the leader of the country at the time] would hang Solomon,” he said. Despite international appeals to save his life, Mahlangu was hanged in 1979. His hanging “just gave us strength and more determination”, added Mange.

Mahlangu’s last words were reportedly: “My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.”

Mange was also given the death sentence while his comrades were sent to Robben Island. However, his death sentence was commuted to 20 years after an appeal.

“We were afraid to disgrace the generation before us,” he said, stressing that the present generation needed to learn about the sacrifices made by his generation, in going forward into the future.


Legends of Freedom


A DVD, taking the title of the exhibition and part of The Legends of Freedom series, was shown at the exhibition’s opening. Produced by Mandla Dube of Pambili Productions, it contains interviews with some of the Rivonia trialists, Bizos, and the MK commander and politician, Siphiwe Nyanda, among others. It is part of a series to be shown on SABC1 in the coming months.

The South African Post Office will also issue a set of stamps in support of The Legends of Freedom series.

The exhibition at the Nelson Mandela Foundation will run until the end of the year. Viewing is by appointment – call Ethel Arends on +27 (0)11 547 5676.

Source: City of Johannesburg