Japhta Masemola knew the bitter taste of prison much better than he knew the taste of being outside. He spent 26 long years in jail and only five short months out of it before he was killed in a car crash. He was 59 years old.
Bra Jeff, as he was called by many people, was a founder member of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Like many other people fighting for a just South Africa, Bra Jeff had a dream. The dream of seeing freedom in his lifetime. But this was not to be. Perhaps this is the saddest part of Bra Jeff’s early death.
FROM ANC TO PAC
Japhta Masemola was born on 12 December 1931 in Bon Accord, Pretoria. He was the youngest of 11 children born to Sekgoramedi and Evelyn Masemola. When he was only two years old, both his parents died and Japhta went to live with one of his older sisters.
He worked hard at school and went on to get a teacher’s diploma at the famous Kilnerton Institution. His first teaching job was at Bareng Primary School in Atteridgeville, near Pretoria. It was while working at this school that he joined the African National Congress Youth League in the 1950s.
In 1959, Masemola and some members of the ANC broke away from the organisation to form a new movement called the PAC. It was not long before he became a leader of the PAC in his area — he was elected onto the executive committee of the organisation’s Pretoria region.
In 1960 the ANC and the PAC were banned and their members went into exile or went underground.
Masemola was one of the members who decided to stay in the country and carry on working.
Soon afterwards, both the ANC and the PAC decided to take up arms. The PAC called its army Poqo. Masemola was given the job of organising Poqo in Pretoria.
A few months later, on 21 March 1963, Masemola was arrested together with his branch of Poqo. They were charged with planning to overthrow the government with violence. In July of the same year they were sentenced to long terms in prison. Masemola and five others were sentenced to life imprisonment. They were all sent to Robben Island prison.
THE KEY TO FREEDOM
Conditions on the Island were bad. Often prisoners had to fight with the authorities for better conditions. Sometimes the prisoners went on hunger strikes that lasted many days. Masemola showed that he had guts in these battles.
He often fought one-man battles against the authorities, too. Sometimes he won, and sometimes he lost. But he never gave up.
Masemola had other interests as well. He got his BA degree while in prison. He also learnt carpentry, building and plumbing. He loved gardening and even made a little vegetable patch.
It was during this time that Masemola made his famous Island key. Comrades from the Island tell this story: While he was doing carpentry, Masemola managed to make a key that could open the prison doors. Other prisoners heard about it and the story spread from cell to cell. Many of the prisoners thought about escaping but none of them ever tried — they were too afraid of the rough and cold Atlantic Ocean. So the key was never used.
“THE FIRE BURNS ON”
In 1985 the State President PW Botha said that he would release political prisoners if they renounced violence. Some prisoners agreed and were released. Even though Masemola and others had been in jail for many years, they stood their ground. No release with conditions!
Masemola had to wait four years before he was finally released. On 15 October 1989, he and seven ANC leaders (Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Wilton Mkwayi, Elias Motsoaledi, Oscar Mpetha and Andrew Mlangeni) were finally released in the way they wanted — without any conditions. The government realised that it had failed to break them.
Masemola was given a warm welcome in his home town of Atteridgeville. It was not long before he took up his rightful place in the community and as a leader in the struggle.
He did not stop there. He looked around and saw that not much had changed in all the years he was in prison. Apartheid was still alive. Black people were still suffering. So he threw himself into the struggle again, travelling the country trying to organise people. As he said: “The fire burns more fiercely in me than ever before.”
But the long years on the Island had left their mark on Masemola’s health. He was often sick and had to go to Garankuwa hospital for treatment.
It was on one of these trips that a truck crashed into his car. He died soon afterwards.
Thousands of people attended the funeral in Atteridgeville, on 28 April 1990. The PAC praised Masemola for his courage. They said he was a great fighter who never gave up. Other organisations like the ANC, the UDF and the Azanian People’s Organisation also said Masemola’s death was a loss to the struggle. But perhaps it was Masemola’s sister, Dora Maodi, who summed up the sadness when she said: “We just could not believe it… to die after 26 years in prison.”
Learn and Teach shares the sorrow of Masemola’s comrades and family. Hamba kahle Bra Jeff!
NEW WORDS to go underground — to do political work in secret to have guts — to be brave and have lots of courage to renounce violence — to stop fighting with weapons