Defend Truth


Remembering Andrew Sibusiso Zondo, executed by the apartheid regime 35 years ago


Sihle Zikalala is the Premier of KwaZulu-Natal.

There can be no doubt that our freedom was paid for with the precious blood of martyrs like Cde Andrew Sibusiso Zondo, Cde Solomon Mahlangu, Cde Portia Phila Ndwandwe as well as black consciousness leaders like Onkgopotse Tiro and Steve Biko. We must remain vigilant and protect our freedom and democracy, and jealously defend our hard-won rights.

Thursday, 9 September 2021, marks exactly 35 years since the young combatant and gallant fighter of our glorious movement, Cde Andrew Sibusiso Zondo, was executed by the apartheid regime.

We dip our revolutionary banner of black, green and gold and salute his heroism and commitment to ending the atrocious apartheid system. We extend this tribute to his comrades in the Butterfly unit of Umkhonto weSizwe. Learning about the December 1985 Maseru massacre that left nine cadres of our movement dead, the young Andrew Zondo could not sit by as if all was normal in such an abnormal situation.

In evoking his memory, we do so in the hope of inspiring today’s generation to embody his sensitive and compassionate conscience so that it too can rally to the battlefield, pick up his spear and proclaim, “Victory or death, we shall win!” in pursuit of the generational mission of economic emancipation in our lifetime.

The unjust, barbaric execution of Andrew Zondo brings to mind the subject of the rule of law and justice, as this goes to the heart of why, on 9 September 1986, the apartheid regime carried out its sentence and executed Cde Zondo — who was only 19 years old.

We must do so because as a liberation movement we are also engaged in a crucial struggle of memory against forgetting.

We must deliberately remember not because we are prisoners of the past, but because the past provides the best point of reference for our present and can be our guide to a better future. No doubt, the brutal and unjust execution of Cde Zondo speaks to many of our contemporary challenges, including historical revisionism and attempts to trivialise apartheid, which the United Nations defined as a crime against humanity.

The signs of denying the crime of apartheid were already there before we attained freedom in 1994. Addressing the Transvaal Law Society in October 1993, ANC president Nelson Mandela said: “It has now become fashionable to be in favour of democracy and against apartheid. I have heard it being said, it will soon be difficult to find anyone who will admit to having been in favour of apartheid.”

Madiba then went on to challenge the apartheid judiciary for its complicity in propping up the grossly unjust apartheid system, saying: “At the time of the worst excesses of apartheid, judges and lawyers on the whole remained silent. Judges, magistrates and prosecutors enforced apartheid laws without protest. Unwarranted sentences were called for and imposed for contravention of statutes passed to uphold apartheid.”

From accounts by human rights activist Paula McBride during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and from the late ANC stalwart and gender activist, Fatima Meer, we are able to reconstruct words directly attributable to the late Cde Zondo, whose voice many of us never had a chance to hear.

Thanks also to the late Cde Fatima Meer for publishing in 1987 the book, The Trial of Andrew Zondo: A Sociological Insight, which is a treasure trove of information on this hero of our liberation. Meer argues that the ostensibly white court needed to contextualise Andrew Zondo beyond 23 December 1985 at Amanzimtoti Mall. Instead, the court “separated Andrew Zondo on the 23rd December, from Andrew Zondo at all other times in his history”.

On his childhood, Zondo recounted: “We lived in a house that belonged to the church on church property. My father was the minister there. But the white ministers who came there were always the most important people. They had cars, and they came to fetch us and take us to their homes… I did not understand why we had to go to their house. I was always very uncomfortable there… It made me conscious of myself as an African.”

The South African Journal of Human Rights reports that between 1974 and 1989, 1,742 people were hanged in South Africa. Paula McBride told the TRC how “28 people were killed in a week in December 1987 during the Christmas leave period. The inmates called this the ‘Christmas rush’.”

Cde Zondo was sentenced to death five times over by Judge Ramon Leon, who one author describes as “a liberal judge, of the most liberal bench — Natal — in South Africa”.

Indeed, Judge Leon was the father of former DA leader, Tony Leon. The judge refused Cde Zondo leave to appeal against the death sentence and failed to look at any evidence in mitigation of sentence, including the young age of Cde Zondo.  

Cde Zondo petitioned the Supreme Court of Appeal, and again he was unsuccessful in overturning the death sentence. These senior justices, as in the case of Solomon Mahlangu, have also over the years escaped any form of scrutiny. Within nine months of the Amanzimtoti bombing, Cde Zondo was rushed to the executioner. Justice Leon sent Cde Zondo to the gallows by relying on the testimony of a compromised witness who sold out Zondo and his comrades.

And sadly, over the years, based on the evidence of this flawed witness, Thembinkosi Mofokeng, the lie has been repeated that Cde Zondo actually wished that more people had died. Judge Leon simply rejected Cde Zondo’s testimony that he had planned to make a call for the shopping mall to be evacuated. Till today, an organisation like AfriForum repeats the portrayal of Cde Zondo as someone who was motivated by racial hatred, when he was in fact a victim of racial oppression and a liberation soldier.

As Meer puts it about the unjust, brutal sentence handed down by Judge Leon: “Two men had set out on the 23rd of December ‘carrying death’ in their bag. Together they had planted a mine… The one had claimed that he had attempted to phone in a warning; the other made no such claims. The first man was hanged, the other lives…”

After sentence was passed, Cde Zondo said to Cde Paula McBride:

“I listened to the prosecutor and I realised that he did not have any ideas about us. He was ignorant of our ways and feelings. I looked at the judge and the prosecutor and the thought came to me that they were ants, and in engaging with them we were dwarfing ourselves. It is a curse to be a judge when you believe that you hold the life of a person in your hands. Only God holds our lives in his hands. He gives it and He alone can take it.”  

There can be no doubt that our freedom was paid for with the precious blood of freedom martyrs like Cde Zondo, Cde Solomon Mahlangu, Cde Portia Phila Ndwandwe, as well as black consciousness leaders like Onkgopotse Tiro and Steve Biko, who passed on 12 September 1977. We must remain vigilant and protect our freedom and democracy, and jealously defend our hard-won rights.

In the past, our courts served injustice and white supremacy at the expense of the dispossessed and landless masses of our land.

One US legal scholar, David Dyzenhaus, suggests that if South Africa had more jurists with the moral conscience of Bram Fischer, and protested not just against apartheid but also against the courts that protected this evil system, perhaps the apartheid regime could have been brought to its knees much earlier.

Dyzenhaus reminds us that in October 1997, the TRC held a three-day hearing into the role of the legal community during apartheid. A few of our judges made written submissions, but none accepted the invitation to appear before the TRC. They had no sense of moral responsibility for their complicity in shoring up apartheid and perpetrating injustices.

A visibly disappointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the TRC, said their failure to attend showed that many of South Africa’s judges had not changed their mindset that belonged to the old order.

In remembering Cde Sbusiso Zondo, we also pay tribute to his family who also suffered immensely in the course of our Struggle. We also honour the two youths — fondly known as the Majali grandchildren — who were fatally shot while returning from his memorial service. We pay tribute to his comrades, Phumezo Nxiweni and Sipho Bhila, who were followed and murdered by the Special Branch.

We remain indebted to Cde Andrew Sibusiso Zondo who, at a very young age, chose to be at the frontline of the people’s defence. Like generations in the Luthuli Detachment and the June 16 Detachment, he lived up to the promise of the original MK pledge: 

“The time comes in the life of any people when there remain two choices: to submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We will not submit but will fight back with all means at our disposal in defence of our rights, our people and our freedom.”

On the 60th anniversary of Umkhonto weSizwe, we recommit ourselves to fight with all that we have to restore the dignity of the majority poor.

In memory of Cde Zondo and many brave MK combatants, we rededicate ourselves to the ideal of a united, non-racial, non-sexist, equal and prosperous society.

We will spare neither effort nor strength to advance the National Democratic Revolution in favour of blacks in general and Africans in particular.

Side by side with all ANC cadres and activists, let us work for the unity of the African National Congress and Umkhonto weSizwe.

Victory or death, we shall win! DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    Sympathy is tempered by the loss of innocent lives, no matter how justified the struggle. Everywhere there are parties that would kill the innocent in the name of their Struggle. This article is flawed in that it completely omits the consequences of the act. That said, I am against the death penalty.

  • Chris Green says:

    Congrats DM for publishing this article. Please continue to take up the role of sharing the context of historical events – it surely assists our country to understand the past and heal the wounds which remain deep. I share little respect for the writer and his apparent duplicity as he works his way to being President of our country in a decade or so (hopefully not a mussolini in the making ) and share a concern that he still espouses the “victory or death” mantra which was fully understandable and valid, in my opinion, before ’94. We should all be striving to LIVE for our country, as our national anthem exhorts us to do !!

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