Kalushi – The story of Solomon Mahlangu

South African history is full of heroes whose stories were never told. One of the stories I am talking about is the story of Solomon Mahlangu. I have never heard of Solomon or knew who he was. The only time I heard about him was when there was an opening of the movie Kalushi – the story about his short life and his courage under the severity of the apartheid regime.

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 Mahlangu 

Who is Solomon Mahlangu?

Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu was born in Pretoria on 10 July in 1956. He was the second son of Martha Mahlangu. His father left him in 1962, and from then on only saw him infrequently. His mother was a domestic worker and took sole responsibility for his upbringing. He attended Mamelodi High School up to Standard 8, but did not complete his schooling as a result of the school’s closure due to ongoing riots.

He joined the African National Congress (ANC) in September 1976, and left the country to be trained as an Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) “The Spear of the Nation” soldier. The training was received in Angola and Mozambique and on 11 June 1977 he returned to South Africa as a cadre, heavily armed, through Swaziland to assist with student protests.

On 13 June 1977, Mahlangu and his companions, Mondy Johannes Motloung and George “Lucky” Mahlangu, were accosted by police in Goch Street, Johannesburg. “Lucky” Mahlangu managed to escape, however, in the ensuing gun battle two civilian men were killed and two wounded. Solomon Mahlangu and Motloung were arrested.

Solomon Mahlangu was tried from the 7th of November 1977 to the 1st of March 1978, for charges associated with the attacks in Goch Street in June 1977. He was therefore charged with two counts of murder and several charges under the Terrorism Act. Mahlangu pleaded not guilty to the charges. His council stated that he entered South Africa in June 1977 as part of a group of ten, bringing arms, ammunition, explosives and ANC pamphlets into the country.

The judge accepted that Motloung was responsible for the actual killings, but since he had been so brutally beaten during the course of his capture, he had suffered severe brain damage and was unfit to stand trial. However, as common purpose had been formed, Mahlangu was therefore found guilty on two counts of murder and three charges under the Terrorism Act. He was sentenced to death by hanging on 2 March 1978.

On 15 June 1978 Solomon Mahlangu was refused leave to appeal his sentence by the Rand Supreme Court, and on 24 July 1978 he was refused again in the Bloemfontein Appeal Court. Although various governments, the United Nations, international organizations, groups and prominent individuals attempted to intercede on his behalf, Mahlangu awaited his execution in Pretoria Central Prison, and died on 6 April 1979.

The execution provoked international protest and condemnation of South Africa’s internal policy. In fear of crowd reaction at the funeral the police decided to bury Mahlangu in Atteridgeville. On 6 April 1993 he was reinterred at the Mamelodi Cemetery.

In 1993, the Solomon Mahlangu Square in Mamelodi was dedicated to his memory. The ANC hailed him as hero of the revolutionary struggle in South Africa, and subsequently named a school after him, in honour of his courage and dedication: The Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO). He was awarded “The Order of Mendi for Bravery in Gold for bravery and sacrificing his life for freedom and democracy in South Africa” posthumously in 2005.

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Through my research I came across the excerpts of a book written by  Solomon’s lawyer at the time Priscilla Jana.

This is what she had to say about 

1. Handling the case

So when the exceptional case of Solomon Mahlangu landed on my desk, and in view needed exceptionally bold handling, I just got on with it knowing I was actually risking my position with Ismail Ayob. If things became difficult, I decided , I was ready to strike out on my own. And that is exactly what happened. The murder file I was handed became one of the biggest landmark cases in the appalling history of apartheid-era judiciary. It shocked the world.

We had searched for months to find a senior counsel prepared to take the case working with me as attorney. Only Clifford Mailer, a junior counsel, had the courage to join me in court. Like me, he was utterly traumatised by the circumstances of Solomon’s trial, and remains so to this day.

He argued that the doctrine of common purpose was being totally distorted and misused. He fought against the appointment of the notorious Judge Theron and his two assessors, the whole team having a reputation for toughness, cruelty and outright racism. He sought to have the judge recused but failed. Mailer has described to me how lonely he felt throughout the trial in the absence of a silk to lead. He said: ‘ To my dying day I will be disgusted that no senior counsel came in. It was the most distressing case of my career.’

2. On her encounter with Solomon Mahlangu

There was a mob hysteria, with whites choosing to believe that terrorists were on the loose in Johannesburg  city centre. ‘It was clear that Solomon had no intention to kill.’ The circumstances were clear. I had questioned him closely and all the evidence pointed to his truth. He was an exceptional young man; I had never met anyone like him. He was utterly dedicated, quiet, respectful and courteous towards us, understanding that we were doing our job as well as we could in the face of ferocious opposition.

3. On his conviction

His conviction for murder was a travesty.

For Solomon there was to be no such justice: he was to be hanged. I heard gasps of delight from a white crowd baying for blood. He held his head high, turned around and raised his fist. Taking a lead from Mandela at his own trial, he shouted : ‘Amandla!’ Power to the people. I made an instant decision to raise my fist in solidarity and shout the response : ‘Awetu’ – which means ‘ To Us’. In doing so I was going against my legal duties and my status in court, but it was irresistible. I would do the same thing today. For that breach of lawyerly conduct I was made to suffer. Judge Theron laid a complaint of unprofessional conduct against me to the Law Society.

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In as much as there were positive stories about Solomon’s bravery , there was also opposition towards lack of recognition for Mondy Motloung and George Mhlangu who were with Solomon on that fateful day.

This is what was said on the article I read titled:The F- word: SA was not freed by a Lone Ranger

Solomon Mahlangu is a cult figure in liberation-army folklore. He is perhaps to South Africa what Dedan Kimathi is to Kenya or Joan of Arc is to France.

The sad thing about South Africa’s political and struggle history is the tendency to individualise it and the need to be dead for your sacrifice to be recognized.

If it were not, the sacrifice that Motloung made would not be reduced to a nonevent just because he did not die along with Solomon. In fact, it is quite possible for some of Motloung’s family members would have preferred seeing their son, who was once fired up by the desire to fight for the freedom of his people, dead than reduced to a cabbage.

If we did not isolate Solomon Mahlangu from his context, the question about whatever happened to George after fleeing on that day would be as important as the cruel fate the state visited on Solomon.

The isolation of heroes from their context and movements that produced them is the unintended consequence of the necessity of giving the struggle a face and a name that the international community could recognise and rally around.

That said, our love and need to honour heroes must not make us abdicate our historically responsibility of correcting the unfortunate impression that our struggle was waged by various incarnations of the Lone Ranger and Zorro, whose solo efforts delivered a people from a wicked regime.

Verdict: I have always been a person who loves history and the lives of the people who came before me. Solomon Mahlangu, Mondy Motloung and George Mahlangu’s stories were not different. If I did not watch the movie, I wouldn’t have learned about their bravery and sacrifice they made for me to have a better life. It was because of them and others , I am enjoying the freedom I have today.

The movie and their stories reminded me to appreciate every single moment of it and to find something that I am willing to fight for. If that moment comes, will I have the courage to stand up and fight? I really hope so.

Sources: 

South African History online

News 24 article

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