Now You Know How Mapetla Died: The Story of a Black Consciousness Martyr

Zikhona Valela, Now You Know How Mapetla Died: The Story of a Black Consciousness Martyr (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2022)

In the 1980s, Black Sash meetings began with a roll-call of those who had died in detention without trial under the South African police state’s security laws. Many of the names were obscure; although they became increasingly familiar and with time slightly poetic through constant repetition. At number twenty-four on the list was Mapetla Mohapi. He was the first Black Consciousness detainee to be murdered in detention – on 5 August 1976 at Kei Road.

It is a tall order to write a biography of a political foot soldier who died aged only 28. Mohapi was born in the Sotho-speaking area of Herschel, also the birthplace of Joe Gqabi and a stronghold of the Pan Africanist Congress. Mohapi was a social work student at University of the North (Turfloop) from 1970 to 1973 at a time when its students were at the forefront of the development of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). There are some contradictory opinions about this part of his life: a claim that he was an ANC recruit and that he was readmitted to Turfloop after expulsion as a known radical.

What is certain is that he and his wife Nohle were activists in King William’s Town, a key location for the BCM in the 1970s operating from a Leopold Street office that belonged to the Anglican Church. As Zikhona Valela emphasises, a great deal of the anti-apartheid struggle took place in small towns in areas remote from well-reported metropolitan centres and this constitutes a largely hidden history. Just as King was central to the BCM struggle, so for example was Cradock to the ANC.

Donald Woods provided space in the Daily Dispatch for a column written from a black consciousness perspective. Mohapi also worked for the Zimele Trust Fund that organised self-help for former political prisoners in the hope of achieving solidarity between different groups. This included an attempt to engage workers and officials from the bantustans (one was Barney Dladla from KwaZulu). Various affiliates of the BCM worked on practical projects to reinforce its ideology of self-belief. They had links with the church and their above-ground presence had something in common with Namibia’s SWAPO (although no external armed branch at this stage).

Mohapi seems to have triggered the police special branch radar over organisation of pro-Frelimo rallies at Turfloop and Currie’s Fountain (Durban) on 25 September 1974. This led to his first detention on 11 October 1974, during which he was assaulted and tortured. He was also involved in organising cross-border passage for recruits to the armed struggle and one of these episodes may have been a police trap that led to Mohapi’s arrest on 16 July 1976 under s.6 of the Terrorism Act. Less than three weeks later he was dead, officially a suicide. The second half of Valela’s book looks at subsequent events and the unsuccessful struggle for justice.

Incommunicado detention meant a death sentence for dozens of activists. Comrades and a sympathetic policeman attested to Mohapi’s good spirits and high morale on his arrest. This was a young man with a family and an uplifting political cause; not a candidate for suicide. His post-mortem was attended by lawyer Griffiths Mxenge, Ramphela Mamphele and the district surgeon, but neither of the medics present had forensic training. The funeral at Sterkspruit was an enormous embarrassment to the government, attended by 4 000 people in spite of restrictions, roadblocks and targeted arrests.

The inquest took place at King the following January. A supposed suicide note that read in part ‘you can carry on interrogating my dead body’ was countered by three notes smuggled out of custody by Mohapi. One witness was Thenjiwe Mtintso, held at Kei Road in late 1976. While being strangled by a security police captain named Hansen, she was told ‘Now you know how Mapetla died’. Apartheid-era inquests involving detainees were routinely fabricated and as Valela correctly puts it, ‘a policeman was like God’ (127). The verdict implied suicide, finding no one responsible, a blatantly unsound finding.

This was so obvious that a civil claim against the police was opened in October 1979. It involved British and American handwriting experts who testified that the suicide note was indeed a forgery. Mtintso was a witness again, this time from the relative safety of Maseru, but in July 1980 the case was dismissed. In the meantime, Nohle Mohapi had been detained with Steve Biko and held at Walmer (Gqeberha) for six months, then again in Grahamstown; and her job opportunities were wrecked by the police. Her two small daughters were brought up by grandparents.

Twenty years elapsed between Mohapi’s murder and the deliberations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Valela has some harsh words for its modus operandi that echo AZAPO’s standpoint and some may find unreasonable. Where she is on firm ground, however, is to question exactly how the TRC has served justice in Mohapi’s case. No one came forward to seek amnesty and the government did nothing to pursue the known suspects. Not only is accountability unfulfilled, but the original inquest verdict is still part of the judicial record, and historical truth remains incomplete.

As Valela points out, where inquests have been successfully re-opened this has been due to private initiative and resources. Ironically, Mohapi was awarded a post-apartheid honour, but so far has been denied the dignity of re-examination of the circumstances of his death. This can be ascribed to the general state of corrupt inertia in government.

Perhaps this book will alter a shameful state of affairs. But even if it has no effect on this particular case, it serves as a telling warning of the extreme dangers of a police state operating outside the bounds of the rule of law. Given the contempt displayed by major sections of the present-day ANC for the latter, a return to such circumstances is not impossible.

Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld