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Save the Upington 14

Welcome to Paballelo, says a brand-new sign as you drive into Upington’s black township. The main road is tarred, and at night, street lamps light the streets.

It seems like the tarred road and the street lamps were always there for the 10 000 people living in this township. They were not.

Paballelo was built in the early 1960’s, when black people were forced to move there from Blikkies, Upington’s only township at that time. Blikkies is now for “coloured” people only. For many years, Paballelo was a conservative, quiet — and poor — community.

A survey done two years ago showed that the majority of breadwinners in Paballelo, most of whom support seven other people, earned less than R250 a month. This is not even half the minimum living wage.

Unemployment is almost three times higher in Paballelo than in most other townships. There is much overcrowding and many stands are shared by two families.

It was only in 1985 that the people began to organise themselves. The youth took the lead and founded the Paballelo Youth Organisation (PYO). Many people joined and later students formed their own organisation, the Upington Students Organisation.

There was a class boycott for the first time in March 1985 in protest against the poor quality of teachers and in support of demands for a Student Representative Council.

It was only after the people of Paballelo came together to protest against their living conditions that things in the township improved a little — like the putting up of street lamps and the building of a tarred road.

But it was the wave of protest after the council increased the rent in November 1985 that was to change the face of the township forever. It was to lead to the death of a municipal policeman, Lucas “Jetta” Sethwala — and to the charging of 26 people for his murder.

Today, three and a half years later, 14 residents of Paballelo are sitting on death row waiting to be hanged for the killing of the policeman.

The death sentence can never be justified — and especially so when one looks at cases like that of the “Upington 26”.


It all began on November 9,1985 — four days before the policeman was killed — when a pregnant woman, Miriam Blaauw, who was on her way home from the shop with bread and milk, was shot dead by police. A court later found that the police were not guilty of any crime.

But the shooting troubled many people in the township. The night after Miriam’s murder, the houses of councillors were attacked. The next day, Tuesday, was quiet, but the township was tense. Police and army vehicles patrolled Paballelo.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 13,1985, three thousand residents gathered on the soccer field for a meeting. One of the items on the agenda was the increased rents. The town council had promised that rents would be decreased, but instead they went up. People were angry.

The police came and ordered the people to disperse. Some left and went home, but others stayed on to say a prayer and sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Before they had finished singing the anthem, police fired teargas and the people scattered in many directions.

Some people ran from the soccer field and stoned a police Casspir before pushing over a wall of the beer hall.

More teargas was fired. The crowd — which by this time was about 300 — gathered outside the house of a municipal policeman, “Jetta” Sethwala.

When the people started to stone the house, Sethwala opened fire with his shotgun from a window, wounding an 11 year-old boy. In court, the defence spoke of how the crowd got even angrier after the policeman injured the little boy.

Sethwala escaped through the backdoor. He tried to get help from his neighbours, but they would not help him.

The crowd chased Sethwala and one of them, Justice “Basie” Bekebeke, caught him and hit him twice over the head with his own shotgun. Sethwala fell to the ground, dead. Others then started kicking, stoning and stabbing him. Then his body was set alight.


An uneasy calm settled in the township, but Paballelo would never be the same again. A couple of days later the police started arresting people.

Sethwala’s mother and other state witnesses identified more than 50 people who were part of the crowd which stoned the policeman’s house.

Eventually 26 of them were charged with murder. When the three and a half year “Upington Trial” ended in June this year, 25 were convicted of murder, while one was found guilty of attempted murder. The judge, Mr Justice Jan Basson, sentenced 14 to death.

Six others got sentences of between six and eight years. The other six were sentenced to six years suspended for five years on condition they complete 1 200 hours community service in Upington.

Although the court found that only one person struck the blows that killed the policeman, the other 13 were found guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose” — in other words, they shared the aim to drive the policeman out of his house and kill him.

The judge said that it was of no importance that there were more than 300 people at the scene of the crime and that only 26 were arrested and charged. He said that it was no excuse that the killing happened after many years of anger about the poverty and the living conditions in Paballelo.


This was not the first time that a judge had sentenced people to death on the grounds of “common purpose”. This unfair and unjust law has been attacked by many people, both in South Africa and in other countries.

This law says that any person who identifies with a group that intends to commit murder, is guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose”. What must a person do or say in order for a judge to find that he or she identified with the crowd. This, is the controversial question.

“How can the court tell who was just watching and who was really taking part in the crime?” asks Professor Etienne Mureinik, a lecturer from Wits University and a member of the Society for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in South Africa. “How does the court decide who to prosecute and who to use as a witness? And does this law mean that anything you say in the heat of the moment could put you on death row?”

Earlier this year, 12 men from Mdantsane were sentenced to death in Bisho in the Ciskei for the murder of five other men, on the grounds of “common purpose”.

But probably the most famous “common purpose” trial was that of the “Sharpeville Six” — they were given the death sentence in 1985 for being part of a crowd which killed the deputy mayor of the Lekoa Town Council, Khuzwayo Dlamini, in September 1984.

Theresa Ramashamola, one of the “Sharpeville Six”, was given the death sentence for something she said in the heat of the moment. She did not lay a hand on the deputy mayor. All she did was shout: “He’s shooting at us, let’s kill him!”

In the Upington Trial, only one person was found to have actually delivered the blows that killed Sethwala. Judge Basson said that it was not necessary for the state to prove that all the accused who stoned his house, also killed him.

He said that it did “not really matter which of the 300 in the crowd killed the deceased. The crowd had a common purpose and each person who made an active contribution to the achievement of the purpose is responsible for his death.”


Last month, the lawyer for the “Upington 26” went to court to ask for leave to appeal against their convictions and sentences. The application was heard by the same judge, Mr Justice Jan Basson, in the Supreme Court in Kimberley.

The defence argued that the judge had erred in his judgement when, for example, he found that every person who threw a stone at the policeman’s house had “a common purpose” to kill him — and also by finding that those who chased the policeman intended to kill him, rather than assault him.

He said the “moral blameworthiness” of the accused was lessened because they were not acting as individuals — but as an angry crowd that had lost control in an angry outburst. The judge was incorrect to say there had been a “semi-organised riot”.

As to the “moral guilt” of Justice “Basie” Bekebeke, who struck Sethwala twice over the head with the butt of his own gun, the lawyers said he lost control of himself as a result of inhaling teargas, the breaking up of the meeting and the shooting of a child by Sethwala.

The judge refused the Upington 26 leave to appeal. He said that he did not believe that the Appeal Court would find differently.

The accused must now apply to the Chief Justice in Bloemfontein for leave to appeal. If this application is refused, and if the State President refuses to grant clemency, they will hang. And that is something that must never be allowed to happen!


The story of each of the people sentenced to death in the Upington trial is one of struggle. Trapped in the hot, overcrowded township of Paballelo outside the conservative white town of Upington, they have suffered the pain of life under apartheid.

Those who dreamed of getting a proper education saw their hopes destroyed when their parents no longer had money for them to continue studying. Others, like Evelina de Bruin, never got the chance to go to school at all.

Many of them — like Kenneth Khumalo — found that they could not get a good job after leaving school because of apartheid laws like influx control, and because there are few jobs in Upington.

And the jobs they could find did not pay a living wage. Even so, nearly all of them were helping their families with money, and many of them have children to support. Evelina de Bruin and Gideon Madlongolwane, who live together as man and wife, have 10 children.

All of these people know what it is to be a black South African. In court, the 26 accused sang: “What is our sin…it is our black skins. They have caught us, now they are trying to murder us. What is our sin? What have we done?”

A better question might be: what has apartheid done to our people? If you read the life stories of the Upington 14, you may find some of the answers.

KENNETH KHUMALO (33) Kenneth was born on June 1, 1956 in Blikkies, one of eight children. He is married to Martha Plaatjies and is the father of three children. Martha is unemployed.

Kenneth managed to pass matric in 1977, even though there were boycotts all over the Eastern Cape that year. After being refused admission to Fort Hare, Kenneth went to Johannesburg to look for work, but had to return to Upington because of the influx control laws. In Upington, Kenneth worked as a debt collector, then as a clerk, before becoming unemployed.

He joined the Upington Christian Movement and was elected vice- president. In 1985, Kenneth became a member of the Paballelo Town Council and was elected mayor. Later he became treasurer, but he was fired after “Jetta” Sethwala’s death.

Justice Basson found that Kenneth was part of the crowd which stoned the policeman’s house and that he was seen with a bottle which may have contained petrol. He found Kenneth guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose.”

TROS GABULA (30) Tros was born on February 6, 1959. He was brought up by his grandfather Samuel, a railway worker. Tros never knew his father and did not see much of his mother, Gerolena, who worked as a domestic to support her six children.

He completed Standard Ten in Guguletu, although classes were disrupted by boycotts.

After matric, he tried to find a good job, but couldn’t.He moved from job to job, looking for a permanent job that paid good wages. Early in 1985 he got a job as a packer in an Upington supermarket. He was unemployed at the time of his arrest.

Tros is the father of a 15-month-old child and is an active member of the AME Church.

Justice Basson found that Tros had thrown stones at the house, and was guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose”.

ANDREW (29) and DAVID LEKHANYANE (24) Andrew and David’s family were always very poor. Their father, Ferdinand, is a preacher in the AME Church and does not get a salary. Andrew was born on October 4, 1960 and David on August 13, 1964 in Nelspoort in the Beaufort West district. The family moved to Upington when Mr Lekhanyane was transferred in 1977.

After failing Standard Eight in 1979, Andrew started work. He had several jobs. His last job was with an electrical firm where he worked for three years.

Just before Sethwala was killed, he was retrenched.

Andrew has three children with his common-law wife Elsie Vice. David was writing his matric examinations at the time of his arrest. His ambition is to be a mechanic.

David and Andrew were both keen soccer players and active members of the AME Church. David was president of the AME Youth Fellowship, a member of the choir and a Sunday School teacher of long standing. Andrew was secretary of the Paballelo Youth Movement in 1979.

During the trial, Andrew and David’s mother, Joyce, died. The judge would not grant permission for them to attend the funeral.

The judge found that David and Andrew, by throwing stones at “Jetta” Sethwala’s house, were guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose”.

GUDLANI BOVU (29) Born in Blikkies on March 14, 1960, Gudlani moved with his family to Paballelo when he was a baby. His father, Jack, is now an old man of 81 but he cannot retire without his son’s financial support.

After passing Standard Eight in 1977, Gudlani left school because there was no money. He passed matric through a correspondence course.

Gudlani wanted to be a teacher. He eventually entered the Cape College of Education at Fort Beaufort for a secondary teacher’s diploma. During this time he became “politically aware”. The judge found that Gudlani was part of the group which stoned Jetta’s house and that he associated himself with the group’s purpose.

ZUKO ZABENDLINI (32) Zuko was born on 11 February, 1957 at Kleinbroek, near Upington. When he was nine months old he fell and was injured. Today, he has one leg shorter than the other and he limps.

Zuko’s father, Wilson, drank a lot. Zuko’s parents separated when he was 11 and Zuko was left with his father. Soon afterwards his father was fired from his job because of his drinking.

When his father was in financial difficulties, Zuko left school and started working in Upington. His first job was as a petrol pump attendant. At the time of his arrest, he was working for the United Building Society in Upington. Zuko has a child, who he saw regularly and helped support until his arrest.

The judge found that Zuko, by throwing stones at Jetta’s house, was guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose”.

JUSTICE “BASIE” BEKEBEKE (28) Basie’s ambition was to become a doctor. At school, he did very well and even skipped a standard. His mother remembers: “He loved reading, he just wanted to learn.”

In 1978 the school was disrupted by boycotts. The school closed and when Basie could not get admitted to another school in King Williams Town, he got work at a petrol station in Upington.

In 1980 he managed to complete four of his matric subjects and went to Welkom to train as a nurse, hoping that this would lead him closer to his dream of becoming a doctor. But his pass book was out of order and he had to return to Upington.

After two months he went to Katutura Hospital in Windhoek, where he trained as a nurse. All the while he was trying to get accepted at a college for further training. He eventually got a place at Butterworth College, where he taught Sunday School.

Basie was a founder member of the Upington Youth Movement and was active in the organisation, which raised funds to help pay students’ school fees.

Basie feels that black people in Paballelo are oppressed and saw “Jetta” Sethwala as part of the system of oppression because he was a municipal policeman. He said he had not meant to kill Sethwala — but when the policeman injured a small child, it made Basie extremely angry.

The judge found that Basie played a leading part in Sethwala’s death. By stoning the house, he was guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose”, the judge said. And when Sethwala tried to run away, Basie chased him and hit him over the head twice, so killing him.

Basie’s brother, Barry, 23, was also convicted of murder during the trial. He was sentenced to six years’ jail totally suspended for five years on condition he complete 1200 hours community service.

ZONGA MOKGATLE (31) Zonga was born on February 24, 1958. As a child, he was cared for by his grandmother. In Standard Six, when he was 15, he got a girl pregnant and had to leave school. He tried to continue his schooling, but couldn’t, so he trained as a waiter on the railways instead.

In Upington, Zonga couldn’t find a job as a waiter so he worked as a labourer and then as a sales assistant before finding a better-paid job at the Coca- Cola factory. After a year he left this job. When he was arrested, he was working in a shebeen.

Zonga has a child and lives with his family in a zinc shack behind his grandmother’s house in Paballelo. The judge found that Zonga was guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose” because he stoned Sethwala’s house and also took part in the attack on his body and the blows which knocked him down.

WELLINGTON MASIZA (27) Wellington was born on March 10, 1962 at Keidebees in the Upington district. When he was three his father died, leaving his wife to support the five children. His mother then married Elliot Masiza.

Wellington passed Standard Eight, but because there was no money, he couldn’t continue studying. He worked as a labourer at a salt works for eight months before resigning because the wages were too low. Afterwards he worked for the Upington municipality, and then for BP. He was fired from this job during the uprising.

Wellington’s home in Paballelo is overcrowded and there is no privacy. They owe a lot of rent. The family depended on the wages he and his brother, Ronnie, brought in. Ronnie (23) was also convicted of murder during the trial and sentenced to six years’ jail.

Justice Basson said that Wellington was guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose” because he stoned the house and he also possibly took part in the attack on Sethwala’s body.

BOOI JAFTA (24) Booi was born on March 31, 1965. Booi’s father was Xhosa-speaking and his mother was classified “coloured”. The family of five children lived in Blikkies and only saw their father on the weekends in Paballelo.

When Booi was in Standard Six his father became ill and the family struggled for money. Booi left school and went to Johannesburg to find work. But he had no success and returned to Upington, where he did casual jobs. His father died in 1984, leaving the family with money problems.

Booi’s mother, Sarah Johnson, told the court that whatever Booi earned, he shared with the family. Booi also helped in the house and with looking after the young children.

When Booi eventually received an offer of a permanent job, he had to wait for his ID book. By the time it arrived, he had already been arrested. The judge found that Booi was guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose”.

EVELINA DE BRUIN (53) Born in Postmasburg’s black township in about 1935, the daughter of a farm labourer, Evelina never went to school. When Evelina was about 15, the family — who were always very poor — moved to Upington so that the older children could get work more easily.

Evelina got a job as a domestic worker. She has had only four employers in her life. She worked for her last family for about 18 years, cooking their food, raising their children and going on holiday with them.

She married William Dandiso and had seven children by him. But he drank and wouldn’t give her any money. After they divorced, she met Gideon Madlongolwane. They never married, but they had lived together as man and wife for 12 years when they were both arrested. Their youngest children, aged nine and ten, are now being cared for by relatives in Paballelo while their parents sit on death row.

The court found that Evelina took part in the stoning of Sethwala’s house and was guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose”.

GIDEON MADLONGOLWANE (61) Gideon was born in about 1928 in Zingqutu Reserve near Queenstown 35 LEARN AND TEACH where, as a child, he looked after the family’s sheep, cattle and goats. His father was a communal farmer who worked on white farms for extra cash. He died when Gideon was 12.

When he was 24, Gideon moved to Upington. He started working for the railways on January 7, 1952 and was still working for them when he was arrested — 36 years’ unbroken service. Gideon has many certificates of good service from the railways. Gideon had three children by his first wife who died of TB. Two of them, Cedric and Welcome, are teachers. They were detained under the state of emergency during 1988.

Gideon was a well-respected member of the Paballelo community. He was an executive member of the Paballelo Chiefs soccer club.

The court found that he took part in stoning Sethwala’s house and was guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose”.

XOLILE YONA (25) Xolile was born on September 30, 1964 in Blikkies. He was the youngest of six children and his family was very poor. The family moved around a lot, but they eventually settled in Paballelo. His parents separated and he stayed with his mother.

After he failed Standard Three, his mother — a schoolteacher — sent him to stay with her family in the Transkei. Xolile failed again and went back to Upington. He was 13.

Xolile became very interested in boxing. His mother did not like boxing, but Xolile found he could earn a living taking part in boxing tournaments and charging gate money.

Xolile was an active member of the Upington Youth Movement, and served on its disciplinary committee.

During the trial he told doctors he suffered from headaches which made him aggressive. After tests, it was decided that he was not mentally ill and could stand trial.

The court found that Xolile took part in the attack on Sethwala after he was hit over the head by Basie and that he returned from the scene of the murder chanting, “Hey, hey, the dog is dead”.

ALBERT TYWILLI (27) Albert was born on April 22, 1962 in Louisvale, near Upington. His father, Michael, was a contract worker who came home only every six months. Mr Tywilli died in 1974 of diabetes, aged 41. Albert’s mother Jane, worked at a school hostel to earn money to support the family.

When Albert left school at 16, he worked at his uncle’s shop. In 1982 he joined the police and trained at Hammanskraal near Pretoria. At this time he started to drink and smoke.

After working in the SAP at Upington for a while he was sent to the Transvaal for “bush” training. But he was sent back to Upington after being found guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol and without the owner’s permission. He was later expelled from the SAP, once again for driving while drunk and without a valid driving license.

Albert, who was a good friend of Sethwala’s and sings in the choir of the Baptist Church, has four children. His mother is now raising the children. The youngest child is not yet a year old.

The judge found that because he stoned Sethwala’s house, he was guilty of murder on the grounds of “common purpose”.

NEW WORDS controversial — something that is controversial causes a lot of discussion, argument and strong feelings of anger to strike or deliver a blow — to hit or strike someone to err — to make a mistake to intend— to have a desire and aim to do something to grant clemency — to show mercy by changing a death sentence to a prison sentence financial — anything to do with money is financial

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