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Tsietsi Mashinini (1957 - )

The Order of Luthuli in

Tsietsi Mashinini (1957 - ) Awarded for:
For his bravery and leadership of the Soweto Student Uprising of 16 June 1976.

Profile of Tsietsi Mashinini

Mr Tsietsi Mashinini was born on 27 January 1957 in the Western Jabavu, Soweto. Clad in his famous school uniform with a lean tie on, Mr Tsietsi Mashinini’s image immaculately hid the fiery revolutionary who led and agitated students across Orlando township on that fateful yet defining student uprising day in 1976. 

The events of 16 June 1976 were to catapult him into a radical young man, leading masses in the Student Uprising. He was already active in his local Methodist parish and chairperson of the Methodist Wesley Youth Guild at the age of 16. A student at the famous Morris Isaacson High School where it all began, he chaired the school’s Debating Society. 

Mr Mashinini joined the branch of the South African Students Movement as a member, a student body established to assist students with the transition from Matric to university. He was elected president of the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC) at the time of the uprisings. 

It is now related that at a meeting of students from various schools in Soweto on Sunday, 13 June 1976, Mr Mashinini delivered a moving and remarkable speech, calling for a mass demonstration the following Wednesday, 16 June, against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in all black schools. 

A well-read student and a gifted public speaker, he used both these qualities to maximum effect, mobilising students into action. When an action committee was set up to prepare for the June 16 event, later renamed the SSRC, he emerged as an undisputed leader of the student uprisings that soon spread to the rest of the country. 

On that fateful and historic morning of 16 June, at Morris Isaacson High School during assembly, Mr Mashinini climbed onto the podium and led students into song, and out of the school grounds towards their assembly point for the planned student demonstration. 

They were then joined by students from other schools in Soweto. It is estimated that about 20 000 uniformed students joined the mass demonstration that day. As they marched down in a throng, they came across a police barricade on their way to the mass demonstration assembly point. He stood on a makeshift podium to make an impromptu yet spirited address, telling students to march peacefully, orderly and not to provoke the police. 

The horrific events of that day, which saw the South African police shoot live bullets at peacefully protesting students, turned him into an instant hero and an activist of national importance. Not surprisingly after 16 June, he became the most wanted man in the country by the apartheid police. He nonetheless continued to promote the message of student resistance against Bantu education, particularly the use of Afrikaans as a medium of education in black schools. 

Against harassment by the State and imminent police arrest, he stood firm and steadfast by issuing press statements, calling for students to boycott classes, and wrote critically of the police’s actions on 16 June that saw innocent students massacred. He became a sworn enemy of the apartheid Government with police continuously searching for him, a situation that compelled him to flee the country. The police even offered a reward for information that could lead to his arrest and he was declared the most wanted person in South Africa at the time. 

It is generally agreed that the events of 16 June 1976 assisted in the biggest recruitment drive that saw large numbers of youth joining the ranks of the African National Congress (ANC) and its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, eventually leading to more vigorous mass action, international boycotts against apartheid and finally, the forced political fortunes in South Africa.

He eventually left the country for a brief stay in Botswana. Mr Mashinini later visited the United Kingdom and the United States where he addressed the United Nations on the brutalities of the apartheid regime. By many accounts, however, Mr. Mashinini did not join any of the established liberation movements in exile, the ANC or the Pan Africanist Congress preferring to call for their unity. 

He died mysteriously in Guinea Conakry in 1990, on the eve of our political emancipation. In the end, Mr Tsietsi Mashinini paid the ultimate price for fostering a revolution against the oppressive Bantu education system and apartheid in general. He will always be remembered as a fearless fighter and student leader whose name would forever be etched in memory as one of the outstanding leaders of the South African revolution, and for the sacrifices that he made for his country to be liberated.

We are proud to honour Mr Tsietsi Mashinini with the Order of Luthuli in Bronze for his inspirational leadership to young people, for the sacrifices he made while leading students against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction and for his role in the struggle against apartheid.