Gert Shadrack Sibande (1901 - 1987)
The Order of Luthuli in
Profile of Gert Shadrack Sibande
Gert Shadrack Sibande was born the son of a tenant farmer in the Ermelo district of the then Eastern Transvaal in 1901.
He started working on the farm at the age of eight. His real name was Shadrack Sibande. The name ‘Gert’ was imposed on him by a farmer who did not allow English names on his farm.
Sibande spent 20 years working on different farms in the Eastern Transvaal. He never stayed on the same farm for very long because he invariably challenged his employers about working conditions, earning himself the label of troublemaker.
In the 1930s, Sibande moved to the Bethal Location and started helping farm workers with work-related problems. During those days, farm workers were forced to work from sunrise to sunset, were fed phuthu and gravy on sacks and had to eat quickly before the gravy soaked through the sacks.
Sibande started the Farm Workers’ Association, on record at least, the first organisation in South Africa to fight for the rights of farm workers. At that time, many farm workers obtained land to plough for themselves as part of their wages but most of the time the farmers would take the farm workers’ crops before harvest. The Farm Workers’ Association helped farm workers recover their crops and assisted those who had been maltreated.
In 1939, Sibande was introduced to members of the African National Congress (ANC) in Johannesburg. He returned to Bethal and started an ANC branch, which became one of the strongest branches in the country.
In 1947, he took a priest, Michael Scott, and a journalist by the name of Ruth First, both political activists and writers, on a tour of farms in the Bethal area to expose them to the near slavery conditions of black people.
He helped the late and legendary Henry Nxumalo from Drum magazine to write stories about the suffering of farm workers, which reports shocked the world.
Hounded by the authorities and deported from Bethal in 1953, Sibande was charged with treason in 1956, at which time he was a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC. In November 1958, while still a defendant in the trial, he was elected provincial president of the Transvaal ANC, a position to which he was re-elected in 1959.
Soon after the Treason Trial, the Government told Sibande that he had to stay in Komatipoort near Swaziland and Mozambique. He stayed there for a few months and then decided to skip the border into Swaziland, in 1962. A few months later, he returned to Bethal where he bought a tractor. He drove the tractor back to Swaziland and for many years afterwards made a small living by ploughing for people in Swaziland.
Gert Shadrack Sibande was a moving inspiration. During the very height of racial oppression, he proved to be a valiant fighter against apartheid who never doubted the righteousness of the cause and believed that one day South Africa would see the dawn of a new, democratic and just society.
He died of natural causes in Manzini in 1987.