Since October last year some political prisoners have been released from jail. But many more have been left behind. David Moisi is one of the over three hundred prisoners still on Robben Island…
When a son was born to Emily and Zacharia Moisi on 18 April 1956, their lives were filled with great joy. Ntate and Ma-Moisi were happy that they now had a son to look after them when they grew old.
The nurses at the Kroonstad Hospital named the little boy “Tshehla” — because he was light in complexion. The Moisis named their little son David Motshwane Moisi, after two of their parents. But the name of Tshehla stuck!
Today, thirty four years later, the Moisis’ dream for their only son has not come true. David is not there to look after them as they had hoped. He is in jail on Robben island where he is serving a life sentence for ANC activities. This is the story of how he got there.
THE EARLY YEARS In 1973
In 1973 “Speech” — as David is known by his friends in his hometown, Sebokeng, near Vereeniging — started his secondary education at Tshepo-Themba High School in Residensia, near Sebokeng. His favourite subjects were mathematics and physical science. At the end of 1975 he passed his Junior Certificate examinations.
David wanted to continue studying science up to matric level. But Tshepo-Themba did not offer the subject at that time. So, at the beginning of 1976 he went to study at Orlando High, in Soweto. His life would never be the same again!
In that year on June 16, thousands of Soweto students took to the streets in protest against the use of Afrikaans as a teaching language. David was one of them. He threw himself into the struggle, taking part in demonstrations, marches and stayaways. He, and others, experienced at first hand the brutality of the police sent in to crush the uprising. It was the beginning of active political life for him.
Soon there were demonstrations and marches in Sebokeng. David was there. On one day in particular, 18 August 1976, police confronted a peaceful march in Sebokeng. They ordered the marchers to disperse. When the people did not disperse the police opened fire. The marchers ran away but not everybody reached safety.
David was running next to a friend when a shot was fired in their direction. He was so scared that he threw himself on the ground. When he lifted his head seconds later, he saw his friend a few metres away, lying in a pool of blood, dead.
THE YOUTH MOBILISE
David never forgot this day. It made him more determined than ever to involve himself in the struggle. In early 1977 he joined the South African Students Movement (SASM) — an organisation which represented black high school students. (This organisation, together with 17 others, was banned by the government in October of the same year).
A few months later, in May, David and his other comrades started a SASM branch in the Vaal. He became the branch’s first chairperson. Soon he was involved in other struggles in the township. In June the Orange Vaal Administration Board increased house rentals for all the townships under its control — including Sebokeng. There was a lot of dissatisfaction but the parents did not know what to do.
But not so the youth. The rent increase affected their lives and the children saw how their parents were struggling to make ends meet and to pay for their fees. A group of youths met in the veld outside the township and discussed the rent increases. They decided to mobilise more youths to come to their meeting. They decided that they would march to the Administration Board offices.
On 30 June David and other youths led the march through Sebokeng township against the high rents. But before they could reach the Administration Board office, the police arrived and dispersed them with teargas and buck shot.
A SOLDIER FOR FREEDOM
It was not long before the police came for David and some of his comrades who had organised the march. They were detained and later charged for organising and attending an illegal gathering. They were found guilty and given a suspended sentence. After this, the police visited David often and asked him endless questions about his involvement in politics. Once he was detained for fourteen days and released without being charged.
All this time, David’s political understanding was deepening. He could not forget how his friend was killed by the “Boers”. Gradually, he became attracted to the idea of becoming a soldier for freedom in the struggle against apartheid.
Finally, David left the country in January 1978 and joined the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He was trained in the skills of war and sabotage in Angola and was later sent to East Germany for advanced training.
“PLEASE, DON’T WORRY”
We visited Ntate and Ma-Moisi at their simple house in Sebokeng where they live with their two daughters, Mosele and Makgokgodi.
Ntate Moisi is on pension and runs a “spaza” shop from his house. Before starting the shop, he worked at Vanderbijl Park’s Metal Box firm for 15 years. Ma-Moisi still works hard as a domestic worker in Vereeniging.
“Sometime before 1978”, Ma-Moisi tells us, “David said to me ‘One day I am going to leave this country. You should not worry but you must know that wherever I am, I will be alive.’ I did not ask him many questions because he had told me that he was tired of being harassed by the police. I sympathised with him because the police were really troubling him.”
LEAVING THE COUNTRY
“One day when I came back from work, he told me that he would soon be leaving,” says Ma-Moisi. “I asked him to take some clothes and money but he refused, saying we should rather spend that money on our own living expenses. Not long after that, he left.”
Ntate Moisi takes over the story: “When I came back from work David was not at home. It did not bother me because he was a young man who had his own things to do during the day. But when he did not come back in the evening I became worried. The following day I started looking for him. I went as far as Kroonstad but I could not find him.”
Ma-Moisi explains: “I was afraid to tell my husband that David had told me he was leaving. It was only much later, when he had given up looking for him, that I reminded him that David once said he wanted to leave the country.”
“Sometime after he had left, the police came and asked us where he was,” continues Ntate Moisi. “We said we don’t know. Truly we did not know where he was. They harassed us for many years. Sometimes they would arrive in the middle of the night, surround the house and knock very loudly. They would tell us that they had heard that David was around.”
“For years we heard no news of David’s whereabouts. We hoped that one day he would write to us and let us know that he was okay, but he never wrote. And then, one day in late 1980, news came, but it was not the news we wanted,” says Ntate Moisi.
“I was called to the Security Police offices at Vereeniging police station,” Ntate Moisi tells us. “There I was asked by some white policemen whether I knew David. I said ‘Yes, of course, he is my child’. They then produced a reference.book. The picture was David’s but the names and the surname were not. I told them that, even so, he was my son.
“They told me that they had arrested him. I asked them where he was and why he was arrested. They refused to tell me. They said they would collect us the day they brought him to court. “The police did not keep their word. We were not told when David appeared in court. Instead, we heard it from a family friend who had seen it in the newspapers.”
SENTENCED TO DEATH
In May 1981 David, Anthony Bobby Tsotsobe, from Soweto, and Johannes Mandla Shabangu, from Mhluzi township in Middleburg, Transvaal, appeared in court in Pretoria. They were charged with treason.
According to the charge sheet, in the early hours of 2 June 1980, David and three of his comrades cut a fence at Sasol Two in Secunda, Eastern Transvaal, and crept onto the property with limpet mines. The resulting explosion caused damage of R3-million to Sasol property. (On the same morning ANC soldiers successfully placed limpet mines at the Sasol plant in Sasolburg.) David was arrested in October 1980 after entering South Africa for the second time on another ANC mission.
Tsotsobe was accused of bombing the Dube railway line and the West Rand Administration Board offices in Soweto. He was also charged of having attacked the Booysens police station in Johannesburg. Shabangu was charged for trying to kill a black police constable in Malelane in the Eastern Transvaal.
After the first court hearing, the Moisis managed to visit David in Pretoria Central Prison. “The fact that we saw him behind bars after so many years didn’t matter to us. What was important to us was that he was alive and all the time we had been thinking he may be dead,” says Ntate Moisi.
The trial lasted 20 days. David and his two comrades were found guilty of treason on Tuesday, 18 August — exactly four years after his friend was killed. The following afternoon Judge Theron sentenced them to death.
THE UNBEARABLE PAIN
Ma-Moisi was in court that day and she wept for her son. Ntate Moisi was not present. He thought that sentence would only be passed on the Thursday.
“I heard about the sentence on the radio,” Ntate Moisi remembers. “I was at home with our daughters. When we heard the news, they started crying. I couldn’t console them and I too cried.
“Family and friends also heard the news on the radio. They came to comfort us. They knew David and they knew that he was a good boy — not someone who did bad things to others, and they sympathised with us.
“We visited the boys on Death Row for many months. We could not afford to see them as often as we wanted to. But we tried to see them whenever we could. During that time they were joined by Thelle Mogoerane from Vosloorus, Marcus Motaung and Jerry Mosololi, both from Soweto. They also were ANC soldiers sentenced to death.
“They all remained on Death Row from 1981 to June 1983. During that time the six of them appealed but they were unsuccessful. The lawyers then petitioned the State President. In June the sentences of David, Bobby and Mandla were changed to life. But Mogoerane, Mosololi and Motaung were hanged.
“Although our son was saved we were disturbed to hear that the other boys’ lives were not saved,” Ntate Moisi told us with a heavy voice. “On the day they were hanged, I came back from work because I couldn’t bear the pain.”
David has been on Robben Island since 1983. In December 1989 the Vaal Youth Congress elected him its honorary president — a fitting honour for one of the brave sons of the Vaal.
We asked Ntate Moisi how he feels about his son not being around to help them. “I have come to understand that my son became a freedom fighter because of his opposition to apartheid. David and many others made sacrifices for the benefit of all of us,” Ntate Moisi replied.
“We are therefore proud of what he did. As a child he would often say that he wanted to learn how to pray for people who were sick or suffering. Perhaps it was the same wish to care for others that led him to fight for their rights.”
Ntate Moisi said he never thought that his son would be released during his lifetime. “According to my understanding, a life sentence means ‘diliga jele’ — ‘you will only be released when the prison walls are destroyed’. But when the other leaders were released in October last year, I started to have hope that soon David would join us. After all, they all belong to the same organisation.
“My hopes were crushed when Mr De Klerk said some of the prisoners won’t be released. I understand that my son is among that group. What disturbs me is that my son belonged to the ANC. It is unbanned now but my son and others have not been released — and in fact so far the government has released only a few people.
“I thought that De Klerk was trying to correct things by releasing political prisoners. But he is not doing enough. He should release all our children, friends and relatives. I am saying to De Klerk that if he wants to negotiate, let him release those people who are still inside so that we can see that he is serious,” Ntate Moisi concluded.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
We left Sebokeng impressed by the courage of Ntate and Ma-Moisi. Like millions of other people in this country, they do not have an easy life. They struggle to make ends meet. Their only son is not around to help them as they enter old age, as they had wished when he was born.
But the Moisis are not bitter. Instead they stand by their son, proud of the sacrifice and contribution he has made to the struggle.
They believe that one day apartheid will go forever and there will be no more reasons for sons and daughters to leave their homes to learn the skills of war and sabotage in far away countries.
Perhaps, the State President and his government will soon see the wisdom of releasing David Moisi and all the other political prisoners. But we cannot wait until the government makes up its mind.
As we fought for the release of Comrades Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and others who were released recently, we must struggle on. We must not rest until every single comrade is back home where they belong, with their people and their loved ones.
NEW WORDS brutality — cruelty and violence sabotage — damaging or destroying enemy property honorary president — an organisation may honour a person for his or her good work with a special position, for example, honorary president
LEST WE FORGET THEM
There are many political prisoners in South Africa. We cannot give you all the names here. Below are the names of those who have been hanged by the government and those sentenced to life since 1977.
ANC SOLDIERS HANGED
Solomon Mahlangu — found guilty of murder in 1977. Hanged in 1979.
Thelle Mogoerane Marcus Motaung Jerry Mosolodi — charged for attacking two police stations in Soweto where four policemen died. Also established bases inside the country. Found guilty of treason. Hanged in 1983.
Benjamin Moloise — found guilty of killing a Pretoria security policeman in 1983. Hanged in 1985.
Andrew Zondo — found guilty of placing bombs in Durban. Seven people killed. Hanged in 1988.
POLITICAL PRISONERS SERVING LIFE SENTENCE
In brackets are their ages when they were sentenced.
Matthews Meyiwa (52) Zakhele Mdlalose (51) John Nene (32) Anthony Xaba (42) — ANC members from Natal sentenced to life imprisonment in 1977 for ANC membership and for recruiting people to go for military training. All had previously served prison terms between 1964 and 1974 for ANC activities.
Naphtali Mariana (24) Johnson Lubisi (24) Petrus Mashego (20) — ANC soldiers sentenced to death in 1980 for treason. Sentence commuted to life in 1982.
Anthony Tsotsobe (25) Johannes Mahlangu (26) David Moisi (25) — ANC soldiers sentenced to death in August 1981. Sentence commuted to life in 1983.
Lizo Ngqungwana (27) — MK commander in the Western Cape region. He was sentenced in 1987.
Linda Hlope (26) Daniel Mbokwane (22) Sannah Twala (23) — activists from Duduza. All sentenced in 1987 for the killing of a suspected police informer at a funeral in Duduza, Nigel, in 1985.
Dieter Gerhard — a former South African navy base officer sentenced in 1983 for spying for the Soviet Union.