Three lessons from Solomon Mahlangu
- Shaka Sisulu
- 13 Apr 2015 (South Africa)
About a week ago, we celebrated the rise of a global martyr – Jesus Christ.
The very day after Easter Sunday, Monday the 6th, commemorated the demise and ultimate rise of another young man viciously beaten and killed by the state.
Though more contemporary, and certainly less renowned, Solomon Mahlangu has since his hanging 36 years ago developed into a cult figure of South African martyrdom.
I have childhood memories of a poster bearing his name and a poetic quotation ascribed to him on the wall of my mother’s single-roomed flat. It read: My blood shall nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom.
That was the first lesson Solomon taught me: that the pursuit of justice was a valiant cause; one worth dying for.
He’d left the country in the wake of the 1976 uprising. Like many youngsters, he went into exile intent on finding arms with which to fight the Apartheid regime. He returned months later trained in weaponry and explosives, and carrying both. He and the two members of his MK unit smuggled their way into SA from Swaziland, and after two days, found themselves in Jo’burg town, alighting a taxi bound for Soweto.
They were accosted by a black policeman, who viewed their bags suspiciously and barked at them: “Laat ek sien what het julle daar!”
Notice the contradiction between all the blacks in the scene? Although they are all equally persecuted by virtue of their skin colour, only three are actively battling against this tyranny.
The black policeman, however, is not only collaborating with the system, but actually relishing the “power” it grants him. Notice how he addresses them, in Afrikaans, on the eve of the anniversary of the uprising sparked by this language.
He represents the worst aspect of oppression, the one who will try to get a leg up by helping the oppressor.
Today you will recognise their ilk in the black people that tell us to scrap Affirmative Action, or to worry about something more important than statues. They will say things like, “It’s not about race, it’s about class”. They will steal from their people in the name of a noble cause.
Wittingly or unwittingly, they perpetuate the legacy of oppression by collaborating with its defenders.
Sadder still is the truth that, faced with oppression, the majority of us will just want to get on the taxi to get home and get on with life.
Anyway, this cop tugged at their bags, causing an AK and a grenade to fall out. Everyone panicked and ran. The policeman first. Two of the three ran into a cul-de-sac on Goch Street, where a shoot-out ensued. The other one slipped away in the crowd and escaped. His name was Lucky.
Solomon found a hiding place in a warehouse and the other, Monty, found himself pinned in. He fired his rifle, killing two and wounding another two. His gun jammed, the cops pounced on him and pounded him like maize. Hearing his mate’s hapless screams, Solomon emerged from his hiding place.
Here’s another lesson, this time in humanity. A timely one for us. Last week I was disturbed by the Garissa killings. And greatly perturbed by the silence in our society about it. The headlines of one Sunday paper focused on the death of a strip club owner. A hundred and forty-seven young lives couldn't compete with a lap-dance peddler. My very own favourite Sunday publication (for which I’m a columnist) disappointed, opting to try derobe an already naked emperor.
Once captured, Solomon bore the brunt of the regime’s ire. Two whites lay dead and Monty was too brain-damaged to stand trial. So Solomon did, and got the death sentence. A year, a denied appeal, and many ignored international pleas later, Solomon was hanged on the anniversary of the day Jan van Riebeeck landed 327 years earlier. It was symbolic.
Just as the decision was to make Solomon into a cult figure by the ANC. They developed posters, created songs and even carried out a four-year wave of terrorist attacks in his name. They crafted a popular folklore around him, naming a college after him. It was symbolic.
Similarly, the statues that litter our skyline were and remain symbolic. They were and are testament to supremacy.
Just as Jesus’ legacy was carried by his disciples, such that we today enjoy holidays in his name, so too did the disciples of Rhodes, Kruger and Verwoed et al do the same. They made sure the future would always look up to them.
The story of Solomon is a story of how folk heroes are made. They exemplify everything we hold dear. Those men, and women, that do not stand for what South Africa stands for today, do not deserve to stand tall on her horizon. Let them fall.
Let our Solomons rise. DM
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