Did Solomon Mahlangu and his comrades die in vain?
"My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight." – Kalushi
Powerful words attributed to Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, the youngest prisoner ever to hang at the hands of the apartheid state. Forty-two years on, those responsible for the crime of apartheid are yet to be held accountable and young people in our country still do not enjoy the fruits of freedom.
Solomon Mahlangu was born in Pretoria on 10 July 1956, a son of Martha Mahlangu, a domestic worker who raised him herself. A pupil at Mamelodi High School up to Standard 8, Solomon’s schooling was interrupted by the ongoing student protests, which culminated in the Soweto uprisings in 1976 against the racist apartheid regime.
Solomon left the country to join Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in September 1976, returning to South Africa after his training in 1977. On 13 June 1977, Mahlangu and his comrades Monty Motloung and George "Lucky" Mahlangu, were intercepted on their way to Soweto, by the apartheid security forces.
Lucky Mahlangu managed to escape. Solomon and Monty were cornered at John Orr’s warehouse in Goch Street, Johannesburg, and became embroiled in a gun battle with the police. Motloung, fired a few rounds until his gun jammed, foiling their attempt to escape, leaving the two MK combatants no option but to surrender. The crossfire also resulted in the death of two civilians.
Mahlangu and Motloung were arrested and charged with murder and several charges under the Terrorism Act 83 of 1967. Their trial commenced on the 7 November 1977 and lasted until the 1 March 1978. Motloung, however, was declared unfit to stand trial, having sustained brain injuries arising from the torture.
Solomon, who had also been tortured, pleaded not guilty and tragically was held accountable for the actual killings based on the doctrine of common purpose, even though Motloung had fired the shots that killed the two civilians and wounded two others. The prosecution argued that Mahlangu's shared intent with Motloung and George Mahlangu, making him guilty of murder.
The court focused on Mahlangu’s presence at the crime scene, and his association with the commission of the crime without proving his participation in the crime. The politicisation of the doctrine of common purpose was used against freedom fighters who opposed the apartheid state.
Solomon was ultimately convicted on two counts of murder and three charges under the Terrorism Act, despite not having had a gun or firing a shot, and was sentenced to death by hanging on 2 March 1978. On 15 June 1978, Solomon’s leave to appeal application was refused by the Rand Supreme Court and was upheld on 24 July 1978 by the Bloemfontein Appeal Court.
The United Nations, international organisations and solidarity groups all over the world campaigned that his execution be stayed. Solomon Mahlangu was finally executed in Pretoria Central Prison on 6 April 1979 at the age of 22, the youngest prisoner to go to the gallows.
His execution provoked international protests and condemnation of South Africa: The United Nations condemned the execution as a "brutal act in flagrant defiance of General Assembly demands that freedom fighters be treated as prisoners of war in conformity with the Geneva Conventions (…). The hanging of Mr. Solomon Mahlangu is one more instance of the extremes to which the Pretoria regime will go to preserve its exploitative and repressive policies of racial discrimination and apartheid”.
The UN Security Council also convened a special session of the Security Council calling upon South Africa to spare his life. Solomon Mahlangu’s remains have been interred at the Mamelodi Cemetery, where a plaque bears his last words: "My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight."
Solomon’s death compels us to question whether young people in our society have been able to benefit from freedom, which he and so many others gave their lives up for. South Africa’s youth bulge amounts to 20.4 million, a third of the total population, with approximately 8.2 million young people between the ages of 15 to 34 unable to access employment, education and training opportunities, with the vast majority being black and women.
Solomon and his comrades died for freedom, dreaming of a better life for young people. That dream has not been fully realised more than 42 years after his death, in part due to a lack of vision from our government on creating sustainable opportunities for young people, particularly from marginalised communities, so they are able to fulfil their potential in our society.
As beneficiaries of the transition, we are complicit in our government’s failure if we continue to remain silent about the fault lines that Covid-19 has exposed in our society – the criminalisation of the poor, racialised inequality and poverty, malnutrition, hunger, diminished early childhood development, and the lack of opportunities for youth, all of which l are indisputably black.
Solomon Mahlangu, if he had lived, would probably have returned his award, “The Order of Mendi for Bravery in Gold for bravery and sacrificing his life for freedom and democracy in South Africa, given to him posthumously”. After all, what is freedom without dignity? Envisioning a new South Africa requires courage, solidarity and political will.
* In memory of Nokathula Simelane, Portia Ndwandwe, Ahmed Timol, Ford Calata, Mathew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Sicelo Mhlauli, Ashley Kriel, Mathews Mabelane, Abraham Tiro, Prakash Napier, Yusuf Akhalwaya, Barney Molokaone and the many thousands of young South Africans who gave up their lives for our freedom.
* Yasmin Sooka is an international human rights expert, the Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan and a former Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR). Ms. Sooka continues to support the FHR in her role of a strategic advisor to the ‘Unfinished Business of the TRC’ Programme.
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.