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The scars of struggle

Chief Matsiketsane Mashile still has scars on his back from the whipping he got 30 years ago in the Barberton prison.

In 1957 the chief led the people of Mapulaneng in the eastern Transvaal into the African National Congress. When the government banned the ANC in 1960, Mashile and his people refused to leave the organisation.

The chief paid the price. He was sentenced to eight lashes and 15 months hard labour in Barberton — one of the most feared jails in the country.

Today Mashile is an opposition member of parliament in the homeland of Lebowa. He is the sort of person that many anti-apartheid organisations are now thinking of working with in the struggle to destroy apartheid.

In fact, Mashile fought so hard that two years ago he was arrested again. They kept him in jail for two months and then charged him, and nine other people from Mapulaneng, with terrorism. But the judge found them not guilty — and Mashile was released from jail with his spirit as strong as ever.


Mashile was born into a royal family. But he has lived the life of his people — and that meant he was poor. White farmers had long before taken the land of the Pulana people and forced them to work on the farms for low wages and a bit of mielie meal every month.

So in the 1940’s, the young prince had to go out and find work on the Reef. His first job was as a servant in a white man’s kitchen. His employers were the Jefferson’s who lived on a mine called Vlakfontein near Springs.

“It was the time (in 1946) when the black mineworkers went on strike. They wanted 10 shillings a day. I remember how the police attacked the people. At some mines, like Spa Waters, the workers put electric wire between the poles. Then when the police attacked they were choked by the wire,” says Mashile.

“Mrs Jefferson could not believe that the workers went on strike. She said: ‘Gosh! They want such a lot of money. If black people get 10 shillings a day, then soon they will want us to marry black people. Then she asked me if I would do such a thing and I said ‘Yes. Of course!’.”

That was the end of Mashile’s first job.


From the kitchens, the prince found a job at the huge Amato Textiles factory near Springs. At that time the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) was trying to build trade unions all over South Africa. One of its strongest branches was at the Amato factory.

It wasn’t long before the workers at Amato saw that Mashile was a bom leader. They elected him to speak to the bosses for them. The prince was now a shopsteward for Sactu, which at that time worked closely with the ANC.

In 1955 Sactu began its famous “pound-a-day” campaign. The Amato workers were in front of the fight for a living wage. They held one of the biggest strikes to support the demand — with Mashile the shopsteward as their leader.

The strike was crushed by the police and the Amato workers failed to win their demands. Two years later, Mashile’s father died and he was called back home to take over as chief.

The young new chief was soon fighting another battle. “There was a company in our area. And it was punishing my people in Mapulaneng very badly,” says Mashile.

“People were forced to work for two pounds and ten shillings a month. Schoolchildren had to work for 10 shillings a month — and the company’s month was six weeks!”


Mashile says the company “even broke down our cattle kraals and stole the cow-dung.” His people needed the dung to make manure for their crops. They also used it to make fires in the homes because wood was too expensive.

Mashile knew that the actions of the company were illegal. So he went to Jo’burg in search of people he had known during his days as a Sactu shopsteward.

In the ANC office a man called Walter Sisulu told the chief that the ANC would help the people of Mapulaneng to fight the company in court.

“I came back and held a meeting. About 400 people attended. They decided immediately to join the ANC. They each paid 15 shillings for the court case and we made a good heap of money for our fight,” says Mashile.

“Soon after that Sisulu and Govan Mbeki came and opened a branch of the ANC — right here in my home.”

“One day Mandela paid us a visit. The CID came to the meeting and said he must follow them to the police station at Pilgrim’s Rest. Nelson said ‘OK’ but along the way he just turned off on one of the gravel roads and got away.”


Then in 1960 came the big anti-pass campaigns and the police shootings at Sharpeville. The ANC was banned — but Mashile’s people refused to give up the work of the organisation.

Mashile used his tribal court to run the business of the ANC. “When the police came,” he remembers, “we used to put the ANC minutes under the table and take out the books of the tribal court. When they asked us what we were doing, we just said ‘tribal business’— and then they just used to go away.

“But one day a man came to the meeting and said: ‘If you stand strong the ANC will do something for you.’ Meanwhile the bugger was a CID.”

A few days later the police came and took Mashile away. The informer gave evidence in court and the chief was found guilty and sent to the prison in Barberton.

Mashile remembers the lashings he got there: “They hit me and I saw stars. But I said: ‘You buggers! You think you can take my country and that you can frighten me because you lash me. You can kill me. But I will come back’.”


When Mashile came out of jail, he found that much of his land had been given away to the rulers of the Tsonga people, who live near Mapulaneng.

He started organising his people to fight for their land back. But once again, Chief Mashile paid the price. He was banished to a small village in the Transkei. He lived there for 14 years.

Then in 1978 Mashile decided to go home. “While I was sleeping my father came to me and said ‘Go home. Fight for your country, your people and your chieftainship’.”

When he got home, Mashile went into the mountains. There he fasted and prayed for eight days. When he came down from the mountains, he knew what he had to do. He had to fight for the right to remain with his people and to get their land back.

In 1982, Mashile set up an organisation called Leihlo la Naga — the Eye of the Nation. “We called a meeting and told the people the country is gone and none but ourselves can fight for our rights.

“The aim of Leihlo la Naga was to help unemployed people. Ever since the Lebowa government began ruling our people in Mapulaneng we are not given work in the government departments. All the senior clerks and teachers come from Seshego.”


In 1983 the Lebowa government held elections for the homeland’s legislative assembly (parliament).

“My followers told me to go and register for the elections. I said I was tired but they told me ‘Fight until you die’. So I was elected in March 1983.”

Mashile — helped by the Eye of the Nation — fought for the rights of his people. He has used his position to get more teachers for the schools in Mapulaneng.

In 1986 a wave of unrest swept through the Eastern Transvaal. At that time many of the youth blamed old women for the problems of the Pulana people. They called them witches and burned them to death.

Mashile and other young men from Mapulaneng formed the Mapulaneng Crisis Committee (MCC). The aim of the MCC was to stop the witch burnings and to show the youth the real cause of their problems.

The MCC held large mass meetings to talk about these problems. The government came to see the organisation as a threat. Mashile and nine other MCC members were arrested and charged with terrorism.


After six months in detention, the chief and his friends were found not guilty. When they came out of jail, they carried on working closely with each other. Every day people come to Mashile’s home to get help with their problems. People with a shortage of land come and see him. Others talk about being fired from work or the problems they have claiming money from the unemployed insurance fund (UIF).

In September 400 workers were fired from the Kraal Gallery in Bushbuckridge because they went on strike. Their demand was for the bosses to talk to their trade union. Mashile helped most of the workers to get their jobs back.

“An MP’s real duty,” he says “is to talk to the government about the problems of the people. The people are the life of a chief. A chief is a chief because of the people.”

The scars on Mashile’s back may have healed — but they are still there as a sign of his deep wish to heal the suffering of his people.

NEW WORDS gravel road — a road made of sand and stones a lashing — a whipping, like from a sjambok banish — to force somebody to go and live in another place a fast — when people don’t eat


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