“I Saw a Nightmare…”
Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976
by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick
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Chapter 4

The Participants

Sam Mashaba

(See also: Full Interview)

Sam Mashaba was 17 years old in 1976, a senior student at Tshivase High School in Venda and already an active student organizer. Now he is a minister of the Seventh-Day Black Adventist Church.

All quotes are from a tape-recorded interview of Sam Mashaba by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick in Johannesburg in September 1993.

Sam Mashaba was a senior student at Tshivase High School near Sibasa in Venda, one of the areas north of Johannesburg slated to become a "homeland." Tshivase (Sibasa) High School "was seen to be the center of this movement" in Venda. Tshivase was many hundred miles distant from Soweto but the "media, the newspapers, were very good about informing us about what was happening there. We had a newspaper that was banned eventually, which was called The World, it was a good paper which we used to read very much as students. So I would say that it offered us much information, regarding what was taking place here." Despite what he called the "diverse different perspective" of students in the northern Transvaal, explaining that students at his school were involved in the struggle "not necessarily because of their interests in politics," it was clear that agendas in the north were not dissimilar and that protest action was not much different.

[T]hey were having an interest then in doing away with Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in school, which was disturbing many black people for obvious reasons. Afrikaans has been known as the language of the oppressor, the oppressor of the fathers of the children who were then teenagers. And so Afrikaans was just an out language, it wasn't loved by many young people. So the objective there, the object that the students were really fighting against, and that I was fighting against there, was mainly Afrikaans as the medium of instruction.

Some of the continuities were undoubtedly the result of a network of communications that linked the cities to the countryside. Every second week or so, as Sam Mashaba related, the students met with certain people at a mission station.

We would have some speakers, some guests that would be coming from the Reef here, Johannesburg, they would come and visit us and they would talk with us, you know, as the executive committee … things of that sort.


And they would feed us the information as to what was happening there [in Soweto] and what we needed to do also, in turn. We had people also in Venda, that were very, very good, some of them are still respected greatly today, who were elderly to us, and who would keep on informing us. People such as Dean Farisani, people like Reverend Mashaba, who happens to be my elder brother, they were leaders of BPC there.But, if I were to tell you how I got involved myself, I would tell you that it has been partly because … of my background, my life background from my family where I grew up. I grew up in a family that was a bit open, that had a vision, regarding the injustices, the unjust practices that were taking place.

The Black Consciousness Movement had responded to what was clearly a growing desire for information and enlightenment as well as for a way to shake the paralysis that many felt in the face of white domination:

Quite some few students, not few, but maybe the majority of the students, that they didn't understand anything about the ills of apartheid. That they didn't understand anything about the worthiness of the black man, that didn't have any confidence in themselves, that wouldn't be able to face a white person and talk like we are talking, such things. The majority of the people wouldn't understand really. So, the problem of conscientization, it was a good program, to make all students being aware of what was taking place.

Students like Sam, who had studied and read a lot and who had engaged with the history of struggle in the country, would have had some knowledge of the ANC, its political history and ideals and leaders:

We had materials at home, books at home, that my brother would tell me "you'd better read these books," and I would read such books.


I will remember books such as Roots, I read it through, at my very earliest age. Some few other that I read, the pamphlets from the organization, about the life of Mandela, his struggle, the Rivonia trial. I read those things before I went to my secondary school. So when I went to my secondary school, I already had a clear vision of what was taking place.

The more detailed account of Mashaba's family history and description of his mother and father came much later and deeper into his narrative. Sam was born "in a peasant home, a very poor home indeed." His father was illiterate, his mother went only as far as Standard 2 in school (the equivalent of fourth grade). He was the "fourth and last, born in the home." Not surprisingly for the "remote areas of the Northern Transvaal," the oldest sibling, as sister, was not educated.

I regard it miraculous that I am where I am today, I even have managed to go to college. Mainly I want to believe that it has been because of my mother. My mother held education very highly and she would force every child to go to school. So once my elder brothers had seen the light at school, then they in turn would take it upon their shoulders that they should encourage me to go to school.

He described the relationship to his own mother, recognizing, no doubt from the perspective of an adult at the time of remembering, similar patterns in the way she embraced her children's struggle:

My mother has just been that type of a person. She would understand very much the struggle, and she would encourage us to go ahead. She was a devout Christian. She would pray for us, very much, even in our struggle. She would give refuge to others politically … those that were engaged in politics, that would run to my home for refuge, if they were being sought after in their villages faraway, then they would think at least of coming to our home. And I remember that at one time we had three gentlemen hidden at our home, in our home, and eventually the police came, and they had heard that they were there. My mother told them, "they are not there." And she had locked them in one of the rooms, and [laughs] … and the police eventually left. They never thought that an old lady such as my mother could be engaged in such things, and so they trusted her so much, that when she told them they were not there, they said OK, they believed it. [laughs]

Divisions even within one family were not simply a question of generation or even cohort. As Sam Mashaba's story illustrated, in some cases the ambivalence within a family gave way to that most dreadful of divisive schisms: one family member turning on the others. Sam Mashaba's story about his brother began simply enough but, as he told the story, his pain became evident:

Except for my other brother, the other elder brother, the one that I come immediately thereafter, he is a teacher by profession. He has not been that much involved. He has … actually been … one time or another … he has been a part of the system. Not only as a teacher, but … been very active in organizing the, whatever, rallies that were selling the ideas of the government, things of that sort. It created great tension, which still exists today to a great extent … you see, what I've just told you now here, is very painful to me, very painful … Whenever I would face some, some persecutions, even after 1977, because the police wouldn't stop to chase after me and followed after me, I realized that at times that my brother was playing an active role.

Different personalities were to be expected in every home, Sam Mashaba acknowledged, but his brother's cooptation revolved somehow around his profession as a teacher and around his need for security:

When he eventually became a teacher, it is simply that he minded so much about his own security, the work security, and he felt that it would be good if he could as possibly as he can, disassociate himself from us by way of a lifestyle, and also by way of propagation to whoever we should know, that he is not one with us.

As change came to South Africa, so it altered the meaning of the betrayal of Sam Mashaba's brother. The "terrorist" became the respected political activist, and the erstwhile teacher loyal to the government was unmasked as the informer and sellout he had been:

I should tell you, that it's not, it's not very safe to tell anyone in Venda that you are associated with a Mashaba. It's not very safe, maybe now, but because of the history, because of what was happening then. Saying that you were associated with a Mashaba at one time, was tantamount to saying that you are a terrorist.

Fear of betrayal gave way to vindication marred by sadness and the lingering effects of the division within the family. The story of this family passed through different layers of time, each with a different and changing political context.

The experiences of the past then were not easily discarded, since it was the memory of the betrayal in the past that was carried into the present, and that, together with the new political realities of the present, formed the framework around which Sam had to construct his ideas of family and loyalty, and of himself:

I think … now … the elder brother, now, the brother that I am talking about, he is in a problem now that the country is changing like this, he is trying by all means that he must find acceptance from me and the eldest brother, of mine, that has been instrumental in my life. We accept him. [Is it difficult?] Very difficult. I think it has created a tension that will never, any time change, it will never be eradicated. Because we understood him to be feeding the information to the oppressors at times. He would remark, give remarks, when he would be with his friends, about what was going to happen to us, and surely we would see it happening. And we realized that he was just one with them.
So I think that he tried to care so much for his own security that he needed to make it clear to the authorities that he was a different person, a different personality from his elder brother and from me. And I think this is why he engaged in such practices. But like I say, things have changed now, and he's just an unfortunate person. We try to give him the warmth that we can, as much as we can, as much possible as we can, but … that tension remains. So I would think that, forever really, it has divided our home. It has divided our home, yes. You would find for instance his children singing slogans of the Afrikaners, singing slogans of the Homeland regime, reciting slogans. He would teach his children to do likewise.

Sam Mashaba, who at the time of the interview was a very senior minister in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in South Africa, told a story that resonated with wisdom. His words show perhaps the clearest evidence of how occupational position in the present shaped the way the story of Soweto was remembered. More clearly than anywhere else, his account distanced itself from the violence that was part of resistance and that had, by the time of the interview, so wracked South African daily life:

I grew up in a family that was Christian, only from 1961, and I want to believe that this has been, this contributed into my view of life regarding violence. That I have ever affirmed, that people don't need to, whereas we have got the right to struggle, we don't need to engage ourselves in violence: taking out of life, destroying property.

Sam was very aware of the broader issues of apartheid and of the immediate concerns in the schools.

I grew up in a family that was a bit open, that had a vision, regarding the injustices, the unjust practices that were taking place. And the main contributing person to my background here, was my elder brother, who kept on indoctrinating me while I was still a very small boy. So when I went to secondary school, for my secondary education, already I knew what was happening in South Africa. Maybe in a broader struggle than most of my contemporaries.

And so for Sam Mashaba, none of what was happening was new. He remembered growing up in the presence of a politically active brother and with the constant threat of the police:

[W]ith me, in particular it wasn't so new. I remember that when I grew up in our family, as early as 1968/69, I would see the police inundating our home, special branch, inundating our home, to an extent that I remember we had a road getting into my home, whereas there was no vehicle in our home. The vehicles of the police, and this is no exaggeration, they would come, day in and day out. My brother, my elder brother would be arrested, many, many days, so many times. They would take him into custody, release him, bring him back, go for cross-questioning, and interrogation, bring him back, and all that. So, I at least grew with a certain degree of perception regarding the ills that were happening.

Meaning was not always consciously articulated. It was often embedded in the very shape of the narrative was shaped, in how events were consciously or unconsciously juxtaposed by the narrator so that they spoke directly to each other, enhancing what would have remained a lesser impact had each of them stood on their own, without any relationship to each other. Describing a student gathering that ended in confrontation with the police, Sam Mashaba spoke of how some of the students broke rank, thus heightening the danger to each one individually. It seemed no coincidence, then, that the "black sergeant" who at first promised him not to include the information about the weapon later broke ranks as well, to betray one of his own. The meaning of this episode was underscored by the contrasting of the two languages and the implications of assumptions we make about the association of one with evil and the other with solidarity. Sam Mashaba had found himself cruelly misled by the way the black police sergeant had relied on the intimacy and solidarity implicit in his use of Venda. It was a juxtapositioning that Sam Mashaba deliberately placed in his narrative by quoting the policeman-enemy in Afrikaans immediately before this.

And, at first I shouted "we must not run away," because I knew that solidarity would spare them. But, some students started running away, and eventually I started running, also. And as I was running away, without necessarily seeing any policeman that was running after me, I heard a shot, sound of a gun, and when I looked back I saw that a white policeman was chasing after me and he had shot what I regarded to be a warning shot. Then I stood and surrendered, lifted up my hands and he came and he arrested me, handcuffed me, and then he said "we must go back to the road" where he had left the van. We went back. Along the way, as we were going through the bush area, as we were going back, I saw him stand still at a certain place, he looked around, and he, you know I thought he wanted to get a stick to beat me, but then he went, and he [unclear] and he picked up a bush knife. Came back with the bush knife and he said in Afrikaans, "dis joune," that's yours[laughs]. Then I said, no that's not mine. I knew I had not carried a bush knife. I should admit that were some students that had carried some bush knives and things of that sort from the school when we left. I, all the time, I regarded violence as not part of the struggle, and I wouldn't carry such a thing. So, we went black to the van where a black sergeant has been waiting for us, who started asking me the details of my names and all that, opening a docket for me, and when the Afrikaner policemen said "this is his bush knife," I objected. The [black sergeant] policeman said, "don't worry, I'm not going to write that this is yours." [He] talked in Venda. But when we got to the police station, and interrogation started, I realized that he had deceived me. He had written that I was holding a bush knife.

Sam was under the impression that few girls were involved in the uprising:

They were not [involved]. I don't remember a single girl who did [take part]. There could have been some, some girls in other areas maybe that would be active, but not so much. You could think about this and understand it in this light that, in the whole group that eventually left the country, there wasn't any girl, not a one that I think of … from the northern Transvaal.


Girls were just in the background. We never had a meaningful active participation of schoolgirls in the struggle during those days.

In his narrative, however, the girls did eventually reemerge from the background, briefly. During the first strike at Tshivase High School, police tried to arrest the "ringleaders" they thought they had identified. Sam Mashaba was among the first to be singled out, but:

then what happened was, while I was there, the girls started to join, to come march from their dormitory and joining up with the boys. And they demanded that I must be taken out. Then the police realized that arresting me was going to cause much havoc to the school than otherwise.

That was the only day whereby we saw girls, waiting, standing in solidarity with us, marching out of their hostels singing and they came and they joined with the boys in the year that I was being arrested. And I think this should have signaled a clear message to the police that didn't expect that girls could stand up and do such a thing. [emphasis added.]

I have never given myself much time of looking at the reason why, but I would think that this has been partly because of the cultural background [unclear] where women are women, they don't have to be active in anything. I want to believe that we had some girls that sympathized and understood the conditions, but they wouldn't dare to just be out.

Sam Mashaba was central to the student resistance in Venda. On September 6, 1976, he and other "delegates from Khwevha, Mphaphuli, Tingazwanda Training College, Venda College of Education, Phiriphiri and Rambuda" launched the Zoutpansberg Students' Organisation (ZOSO) at Sibasa, a small town in Venda, an area roughly 200 miles north of Johannesburg abutting the Limpopo River and the border to Zimbabwe (then still Rhodesia), slated to become one of South Africa's "independent homelands."

What should I tell you more about my involvement? I should tell you that when the whole strike happened 1976 I was leading it at school. Mainly I was leading it. To an extent that when I was arrested I became accused number two, and accused number one was a friend of mine, that we associated with very well. But I became accused number two, and this accused number one was a young man that came from Pretoria.

Students at Tshivase (Sibasa) High successfully boycotted classes at their own school for about three months and felt that they could do anything, that nothing could stop them.

So we would go out and organize other schools as well, go traveling as long distances as, covering long distances as about 40, 50 kilometers, without any sponsor. We would just do that from our pockets, as students from our pocket moneys, sacrificing our time.

Students at other schools, such as Mpapuli High School, were more cautious and fearful of the nearby police station. When those students refused to boycott exams, those from Tshivase compelled them in no uncertain terms.

[I]t was the first day of writing examinations for the senior students, that's form five, standard ten. And then we decided that we were going to tear, to destroy all the examination papers, because we didn't want to write "Bantu" examinations.

In rural areas the schools—Tshivhase, Mpapuli, Khwevha—were often many miles apart, and so the students from Tshivhase decided to hijack buses:

To be transported to other schools so that we should destroy the [whole] examination process in all other schools… The busses came from diverse angles, diverse areas of the country, mostly from the eastern side of the country. And also from the northern side of the country … Makuya, such areas, as you know. And so we knew, that we could possibly come up with about four busses, and we did that. We went out of the school premises and we went to the main road and we blocked the busses, hauled all of the passengers out, got into the busses and we ordered the busses that they should take us to where we wanted to go. And they took us to the schools where we wanted to go.
So, I led the whole group and we got into the examination room where the students had already sat, and we told them that they should get out, grabbed all the papers that they were having, even those that were not distributed as yet, and we destroyed them. We bent them, we tear them, just confiscated all of them, and we even went to the office of the principal and we demanded that we must be given the balance of all the papers of other subjects. During those days they would bring all the papers of the examinations of all the subjects [even to return in the two weeks to come?]. So we demanded all those papers, and we were given all those papers, and we destroyed them.
We were 35, all the students that were arrested at school and we went to prison. We stayed for about two months in prison. And eventually we were taken to court, where we appeared, magistrate's court, locally at Sibasa. And we had some legal representatives that we didn't understand so much as to how they were organized, but later on we understood that it was through the BPC political organizations -- black consciousness movement. So these representatives, legal representatives, they came and they stood on our behalf until the case was transferred from the magistrate court to the regional court, and it went to Louis Trichardt. At Louis Trichardt, that is where the case ended eventually. But there had been some rumors then, you know, there had been some rumors, that we would end up locked [up], that we were going to end up in Robben Island, and all things like that.

Political Affiliation

For Sam, the teachings of Black Consciousness were important, and the sensitization—"conscientization"—of students to the oppression that surrounded them was an important step toward liberation:


I was the chairman of the [BPC] branch.


[G]enerally speaking I remember it … [made] us aware of the injustices of the country. You see, it was an education, it was an educational program, which would conscientize us, to make us aware of the ills that we were suffering under the apartheid rules, which would cover the history, historical background of what the white regime, the apartheid regime did on arriving in South Africa, and also what they did to our fathers who were migrant laborers, and what they did, the struggle against apartheid, also would be one-faced [?], and this would also include such things how our political leaders started to fight the white people. We had one church [?] leader, who was in the country, a co-founder of the PAC, Mr. Matsunje [?] who has passed away about three, four years or five ago. And he was very much active also in organizing us. His son now is the chairman of the regional branch in Soweto of the PAC. They would tell us what should we do, as a black person you have to stand for your rights, you have to know that you are not inferior, to be confident of yourself, to believe that you are a person, there is something that you can contribute meaningfully and equally to a white person's performance in the country. It was a conscientizing program, an educational program. We didn't cover much really about violence. They wouldn't tell us such things. But they would tell us that it is our right to disrupt the program of the school, if we realized that it is a program that was enhancing the thoughts of the oppressor.

Sam Mashaba described divisions among students at Venda schools, divisions that had to do with seniority and age and that compelled ZOSO (the Zoutpansberg Students' Organization) to enforce solidarity:

The day we striked, and eventually I got arrested, we had gone out of school … it was the first day of writing examinations for the senior students, that's form five, standard ten. And then we decided that we were going to tear, to destroy all the examination papers, because we didn't want to write "Bantu" examinations. So, I led the whole group and we got into the examination room where the students had already sat, and we told them that they should get out, grabbed all the papers that they were having, even those that were not distributed as yet, and we destroyed them. We bent them, we tear them, just confiscated all of them, and we even went to the office of the principal and we demanded that we must be given the balance of all the papers of other subjects. During those days they would bring all the papers of the examinations of all the subjects [even to return in the two weeks to come? unclear]. So we demanded all those papers, and we were given all those papers, and we destroyed them.