Mpho Masemola is Secretary General of the Ex-Political Prisoners Veterans Association of South Africa (EPPA) and was an underground guerrilla fighter as a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress. He was a political prisoner, incarcerated along with Nelson Mandela at Pollsmoor Prison and later at Robben Island. Masemola was one of ten signatories of the International Delegation to the 2021 Syrian Presidential Election (bit.ly/syria2021). He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
This interview was recorded June 16, the 45th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising, when 20,000 Black students protested white supremacist schooling policies in apartheid South Africa. The full audio of this conversation can be heard at wwp.pub/pod.
Workers World: Comrade, how did you get involved in the struggle against apartheid?
Mpho Masemola: When I was arrested, I was just a young person. I was a young political activist, but I was a student during the time, a high school student. Because of the height of the struggle and the situation that we were living in, the abhorrent situation of racial segregation and the education that we got in South Africa.
In South Africa during the ’80s, it was the height of the struggle where our masses were very much politically conscious. It was the height of the resistance of the Black population, then the non-white population. And then it is where the nonracial element of the struggle emerged, as white liberals joined the popular movement under the banner of what we call the United Democratic Front. It was a nonracial institution, galvanizing and mobilizing our people across racial lines to say, “We want to build a South Africa that is nonracial, democratic, nonsexist and free.” That was the message to the world.
During that height of the struggle, the president of the African National Committee in exile — my comrade, the late Oliver Tambo — made a declaration to the country through Radio Freedom (propaganda arm of the ANC) to say, “Now is the time, South African youth; you can and must make apartheid ungovernable!” And during that time, I joined the underground movement. Because, remember, the ANC was banned in 1960.
So nobody could operate overtly and raise the banner of the organization. Many activists faced arbitrary detention, were tortured, thrown in solitary confinement and faced imprisonment for carrying the flag of the ANC and for carrying the document that is called the Freedom Charter. It was illegal! Apartheid was so evil, to such an extent that when you walk in town in the so-called white areas, there was a place reserved for white people on the pavement! So if they find you walking on the pavement, then you get arrested. Right. And if you want to relieve yourself, you see the signs of apartheid.
Those were the attitudes that formed apartheid. And in the ’80s, all those things were visible to us. And we said, “Now is the time to make apartheid ungovernable.”
A guerrilla army defeats apartheid
WW: How is it that guerrilla armies like Umkhonto we Sizwe, without superior military technology and resources, were still able to defeat a system like apartheid?
MM: Ted, maybe that question you can ask the Americans when they were defeated by the Vietnamese. (Laughter) Maybe ask that question to Ho Chi Minh! (Laughter) Some of our fighters were trained in Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh in the art of warfare. And it worked. One of the important elements in guerrilla warfare — you must work within the masses. Political propaganda, it must be the cornerstone of your campaign.
The military wing of the ANC was providing us with military combat work, as well as political education. You cannot lead people without political education; you must understand the content and the context of the national democratic revolution right here in South Africa. Who is the enemy? Why are we fighting? You must understand the working class is the pillar and the social force to be mobilized in order to transform the society from apartheid into a nonracial, democratic society.
Underground, we received so-called “banned” material from the ANC. We were reading it, and we educated ourselves. We were taught by various guerillas underground about military combat work and political education up until we were arrested in 1985.
It was on the 11th of August of 1985. As I recall, the day after I was arrested, the apartheid minister of police, Adriaan Vlok, declared the state of emergency because of the height of the struggle. The country was ungovernable. There was a call from the international community to release political prisoners, for apartheid to to be demolished.
I was arrested on the 11th of August from the safe house, together with my two comrades. One of them escaped; and later he resisted with an AK-47, but he was shot at and died. They found a lot of material. The so-called banned material of the ANC.
Unbroken by torture
On the first day of our arrest, we were tortured, brutally tortured. I was electrocuted on the testicles. They put some wires there. And then there was a generator where they increase the voltage. And then they touch it on your testicles. You urinate on yourself, you can’t control it. Continuous interrogation techniques.
Sleepless — you don’t sleep. They continue to interrogate you the whole day and night. You have been deprived of food. They use physical violence. They broke my hand; even now, you can see it on the knuckles of my right hand. Here it was, broken, broken, totally broken, the hand. With a chair. You are being beaten to a pulp. This was at the police station, the time of the interrogation.
The apartheid regime used a system that is called the Straitjacket. It’s like a blanket, but it is made out of rubber with a belt. They strip you naked and lying on the cold floor; they pour water on you, then wrap you in it. They squeeze you in it tight; they squeeze you to such an extent that you can’t breathe. Then they throw you down there; they pour water on you, then they leave you like that up until the following morning.
And I want to tell you now that many of our comrades died of suffocation. If you have ailments, if you are asthmatic, you can’t breathe in that thing. If you’ve got high blood pressure, you will die in that thing. I’m talking out of experience. You can’t breathe in that thing. When they come the following morning, if you are lucky, you will still be breathing. And then they wanted you to confess: “Where is the ammunition? What are you doing; who are your sources?”
I lost close to six to seven comrades who died with me watching them. The following day, you see them on the stretcher, covered, and they are no more.
So that was the system that they used. And I survived that.
There was a notorious Apartheid clause, Section 29 of the Internal Security Act. Very similar to what the Zionists use in Palestine. Detention without trial. It’s an arbitrary detention, where you don’t have any rights, no visits, no books. We are being punished with a “spare” diet, they called it, half rations. So if you are diabetic, then you won’t survive. You’ll die.
They throw you in a small cell, four meters square. No bed. Just a mat. With a blanket so thin, you can see the light through it. Sometimes they take your blanket and throw water on the floor. They don’t switch off the light, a very bright light to torture your eyes.
WW: Were you in solitary confinement at this point?
MM: Yes, when I left the police station with a broken hand, they charged me with Section 29. I was sent to an isolated prison, maximum security, with a special site where they held us as political prisoners. This was before Robben Island.
WW: What do you do under those conditions to keep your humanity?
MM: Well, Ted, all those things were mechanical. But I would like just to tell you something. Because of courage and our commitment to liberate this country, there was nothing that was going to stand before us. So many people died, being shot at, resisting. Now that we are in prison, why should we abandon the struggle?
We knew that Nelson Mandela was in prison for quite a long time. Fighting for us. We knew that one day we would win, through courage, resilience. And another tool that made us very strong is political education.
In Robben Island after solitary confinement, then we were charged with high treason and terrorism. You see, saying you wanted to overthrow the apartheid regime makes you a terrorist. They were the terrorists. But they’re saying I’m a terrorist. So I was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Then I met Nelson Mandela. It was during the night, a stopover from Johannesburg to Cape Town at Pollsmoor Prison. We were told that Mandela was there. And I’m telling you, chief, we couldn’t sleep. We couldn’t do anything. We said we’re not going to eat. When they wanted to give us food, we said no, we don’t want food. We want to see Madiba. They refused. After three days, he was told. Then he said, allow them to see me. Then we saw him.
I’m telling you — I did not wash my hand after that. The morale was so high. Madiba was asking us: “Hey, you young man, why are you here in prison? What do you want here?” Then we said, “Madiba, we’re here to release you. We’re here to, you know, take you out of this jail.” He said, “But you are also in jail! And serving long terms!” Morale was so high, I could see then that we were going to be free.
Remember, Madiba was moved from Robben Island in 1982. The white regime, they wanted to start negotiations with him and say: “Can you save us now because the country is ungovernable? Can you talk to your people and tell them to resist violence?”
Later when I was transferred to Robben Island in 1985, it was a different phase of the struggle.
The Soweto uprising
WW: Comrade, what significance does June 16th hold for South Africans?
MM: Today, as you will know, it is the 45 year anniversary of the 1976 June 16 uprising where the South African Black youth stood up and said “no” to Afrikaans. Because Afrikaans is the language which has been used as an instrument to suppress the Black people. So-called Bantu education was given to us to make us subjugated to white supremacists. So today it was the celebration of Youth Day in the country.
I was very young at that time and still doing my primary education. I was still a little boy, but was reading revolutionary material, being influenced by the Black consciousness movement, by revolutionaries like Steve Biko. But my uncle, William Masemola, was involved; may his soul rest in peace. He passed on.
My uncle was arrested and detained for some few weeks, because he was teaching history in one of the famous secondary schools in one of the provinces in Mpumalanga. He’s famously known as “Mr. Masemola.” Unequivocally, he was teaching history from the current material conditions that were happening in the country. Our “history” was based on the white history. There was no Black history. The African National Congress, after liberation we said to them: “We need to change the structure of education from the kindergarten to the primary level, so that our youth can be able to know what happened, about the struggles against colonialism, about the struggle against apartheid, and who were the leaders that were involved in the struggle.”
Now, I’m happy that they are putting that history into context. My son is doing grade eight; I saw his history book. He asked me, “Daddy, I saw they are speaking about Robben Island here. What happened in Robben Island? You were there with Mandela!” So, I was very much happy to hear that recently our history has been recognized.
Because we’d been taught about Jan van Riebeeck. He was the settler colonialist who made a mess when he landed the first time on this country in 1652. A colonial settler, coming from Holland, who dispossessed our people of their land and cattle. This launched the Khoisan war, the resistance of the Black chiefs. Those who resisted, some of them were beheaded.
Some of them, the chiefs, were sent to Robben Island in the early 1600s. It was a colony of torture. It was a hellhole. [They taught that] those who had a different opinion in the country must be thrown into the hellhole. And in isolation there, in solitary confinement in very harsh winter conditions, isolated from the community.
But fortunately, we as political prisoners, with Madiba as our leader, we have turned the tides; we have turned Robben Island into a university. From the hellhole to the triumph of the human spirit. Against pettiness. Against evil things. Because we did not want Robben Island to be our monument of suffering. We turned it into a beacon of freedom to all the world, to the peoples of the world. A message that, coming from the hellhole, hole of separation, terrorism and torture, we emerged as victorious. As a winning people to say to the world, even if our detractors have killed us, this is for the future of our people. Here we are today, Ted, as a proud nation.