By: Veli Mbele
“They just killed somebody in jail – a friend of mine – about 10 days before I was arrested.” These were Bantu Biko’s words in one of the last interviews he gave before his brutal murder in detention. That somebody that Biko was referring to was Mapetla Mohapi. Biko did not know that 13 months later, he would die in almost similar circumstances as his friend Mohapi.
The 5th of August marks the 44th anniversary of Mohapi’s death in detention. In a number of ways, Mapetla story embodies all the grotesque elements of what it means to have a Black skin in a world that is built on and sustained, through anti-blackness.
Mohapi was born on September 21, 1947 in Sterkspruit, Eastern Cape. He was a year younger than Biko. At the time of his death, then 28 years old, Mohapi held a degree in social work.
Mohapi’s life and example pose serious questions that our generation of Black Consciousness (BC) inspired activists must answer. One such question is, what sacrifices is my generation prepared to make to ensure that Mapetla’s dream of a world wherein Black people can ‘call their souls their own’ is realised?
More precisely, what is our generation prepared to do to end chronic Black poverty, underdevelopment, general powerlessness, the mass theft of Afrika’s wealth and the disgrace of being a race that continues to rely on other races for the education of their children, employment and so on.
Like Biko, Mohapi was one of the early leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). He joined the BCM through the South African Students Organisation (SASO), while a student at the University of the North (now the University of Limpopo). He served SASO in a number of capacities, including as permanent secretary and administrator of a trust established to look after the needs of former political prisoners and their families.
Mohapi’s rise in SASO and growing prominence as a freedom fighter began to attract the attention of the apartheid security establishment. This led to him being detained along with other leaders of SASO for his involvement in the famous Viva Frelimo rallies in 1974.
These rallies were organised by the leadership of SASO to celebrate the victory of the people of Mozambique over Portuguese invasion. In April 1975, he was released without charge. Three months after being elected as SASO’s permanent secretary, he was banned under the notorious Suppression of Communism Act and was confined to the areas of Zwelitsha and King William’s Town.
Realising that the detention and constant harassment didn’t tamper with his commitment to the liberation struggle, the apartheid security apparatus detained him again on the 16th of July 1976 – this time under the Terrorism Act. This was to be his last detention. He died three weeks later, on August the 5th, under mysterious circumstances in police custody.
Mohapi was found hanging from a pair of jeans from the bars in his police cell with the police’s version stating that he had committed suicide. They also claimed a suicide note had been found in his cell. Both his family and the leadership of the BCM rejected the account of the police and a handwriting expert later confirmed that the note had been forged. His widow Nonhle Mohapi later sued the minister of police blaming that the security police for her husband’s death. Sadly, no one was held responsible for Mohapi’s death.
Reflecting on the meaning of Mohapi’s life, his peer and a BCM stalwart, Professor Itumeleng Mosala, had this to say, “He was a committed activist of the BCM. A strong soul. A sharp mind and courageous revolutionary. May his sacrifice inspire us. We shall forever remember him.”
Tragic as his death might have been, Mohapi’s life also embodied the virtues of selflessness and moral courage. It is people like him who inspired the poet Donato Mattera to write:
“Salute the warrior, motionless on the battlefield, shorn of life, yet living evermore, he who gave his last, gave his sacred best, that we might be free, carrying our load, he wrote our destiny.“
Today, 44 years later, the Mapetla family has still not gotten any justice. In the context of the legal developments around the Ahmed Timol case – it is my firm view that, as Black people, we must form a common front, and help the Mapetla family and many other families in their quest for justice.
Mbele is an Afrocentric essayist, political historian, secretary of the Black Power Front and co-founder of Mutapa.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Vernac News.