When “Oom” Gert Sibande died in Swaziland in January at the age of 86, South Africa lost somebody who was very special.
Gert Sibande was a big, strong man who spent most of his life fighting for the freedom of his people. He was called the Lion of the East – because like a lion, he was a fighter until the very end.
THE SON OF FARM WORKERS
Gert Sibande was born near Ermelo in the Eastern Transvaal in 1901. He was the son of poor farm workers. Like most children on the farms, he did not go to school – not even for a day. There were no schools for the children of poor farm workers. He started working for the farmer when he was only eight years old.
His first job was to ride on the wagon at the farmer’s side, opening and closing the gate. When the farmer found out that the young boy’s name was Shadrack Sibande, he told him that he didn’t want anybody with an English name working on his farm. The farmer decided, there and then, that the young boy should be called Gert, after him.
Sibande spent the next twenty years working on different farms in the Eastern Transvaal. The young Sibande never stayed on the same farm for very long -because he liked to argue with the farmers about working conditions. The farmers called him “a trouble-maker.”
In the 1930’s Sibande moved to the Bethal location and started helping farm workers with their problems. At first he helped workers by making complaints to the magistrate. Some of the magistrates were helpful, some were not.
At that time, farm workers were treated worse than slaves. They were forced to work from sunrise to sunset. Sibande remembered how workers were fed their “phutu” and gravy on sacks instead of plates. The workers had to eat quickly – before the gravy soaked through the sacks.
THE FARM WORKERS ASSOCIATION
Gert Sibande started a Farm Workers Association. This was the first organization to help farm workers in South Africa. At that time many farm workers got land to plough for themselves as part of their wages.
But often the farmers would take the farm workers’ crops just before harvest. The Farm Workers Association helped people to get their crops back. They also helped farm workers who ran away from the farms because of the way the farmers treated them.
In 1939 the farm workers sent Sibande to meet the ANC in Johannesburg. He came back and started an ANC branch in Bethal. The branch grew quickly and became one of the strongest ANC branches in the country.
TALKING TO THE PAPERS
But life for the farm workers in the Eastern Transvaal still did not get better. Sibande now thought of a new plan. He decided to “talk to the papers”. In June 1947 Sibande took a priest and a journalist by the name of Ruth First on a tour of the farms in the Bethal district.
They went back to Johannesburg and wrote about the suffering of the farm workers in Bethal. But the stories did not help.
Five years later, Sibande helped the late, great Henry Nxumalo from Drum Magazine. Nxumalo, who was called Mr Drum, shocked the world with his stories about the suffering of farm workers in Bethal.
THE FIRST BANNING ORDER
The next year, in 1953, Sibande got his first banning order. He was told he had eight days to leave Bethal.
Sibande went to the magistrate to ask for advice. When Sibande asked him where he should go, the magistrate told him that no farmer or town would take him. The magistrate then told him to buy a donkey and a little cart and to keep on moving.
Sibande left Bethal and moved back to Ermelo – but not for long. Before a month had passed he was arrested. Sibande then took his family to live in Evaton, near Vanderbijlpark.
ON THE RUN
There is a great story of the time Sibande went to a meeting in Kliptown in 1956. He was “on the run” but he wanted to speak at the meeting. He stood with the crowd, his collar turned up and a “copperhat” over his head.
When his turn came to speak, he got onto the platform and took off his hat. But before he said a word he heard somebody shouting, “It’s Sibande, it’s Sibande”. The voice belonged to Sergeant Moeller of the Security Branch.
Moeller’s friends rushed forward to grab Sibande, but the sergeant told them to move back. He knew the crowd loved Sibande and he was scared there would be trouble if they arrested him. Moeller waited for Sibande to finish his speech – and then gave him a five year banning order.
THE TREASON TRIAL
Three months later, Gert Sibande, together with 154 other people, was arrested and charged with high treason. The trial lasted nearly five years.
While Sibande was in court, he was chosen to sit on the National Executive of the ANC. He was also chosen to be the president of the the ANC in the Transvaal. He was the last Transvaal president of the ANC before it was banned.
LIFE IN SWAZILAND
Soon after the Treason Trial, the government told Sibande that he had to live in Komatipoort – a small town near the borders of Swaziland and Mozambique.
Sibande stayed there for only a few months before he “skipped” the border into Swaziland. A few months later he skipped back into South Africa and went to Bethal to buy a tractor. He drove the tractor back to Swaziland.
For many years afterwards, he made a small living by ploughing fields for people in Swaziland. Gert Sibande spent the last years of his life in a flat in Manzini. At the end his health was poor and his big body was tired.
May the Lion of the East rest in peace.