Human faces of Freedom-26 years of democracy


In the midst of a nationwide lock-down in South Africa as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 27th April will mark 26 years since the country’s first democratic elections.

As the country remembers the first inclusive General Election, the late Burkinabe President, Thomas Sankara, reminds us that, “It  took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today.”

I had numerous and friendly conversations with the late Matsobane Morris Matsemela, over anything refreshing but rooibos tea which he loathed. These conversations were perhaps the clearest evidence that he was part of the madmen who “paid the supreme price for the lofty cause of freedom for our country”, in the spirit and letter of Mayibuye (special Issue), 15 November 1966. 

The same issue further declared that “WE SHALL NEVER FORGET the families of the heroes of our struggle”, therefore as I was penning this piece, I put a call to Matsemela’s son, Mathews and he assured me that the whole family is doing okay.

Formative years

Matsemela was born on the 5th November 1931 to Moraka Johannes and Ramokone Magdeline some 40 kilometres Northwest of Polokwane in Maune village, Ga-Mashashane, where he attended school up to Standard 6 at Mashashane School.

In his own words, the injustices of the then government drove him to join the Lady Selborne branch of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1957. 

The height of the struggle

As the country grappled with the aftermath of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre,  Matsemela was detained at the Pretoria Prison with five others and were fined for banning their passbooks (dompas).

In 1961, he became one of the early Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) recruits, whereafter he took command of a group of operatives in Lady Selborne.

The 90-day detention in February 1963 for involvement in acts of sabotage directed at the offices of the Minister of Agriculture and other detentions at places like Gezina and Marabastad were a regular occurrence. He was ultimately sentenced to seven years in 1964, thus incarcerated at the Pretoria central prison before being transferred to Leeuwkop, where he met other political activists.

You could see the fire in his eyes as he was narrating his subsequent transfer to Robben Island in chains and under heavily armed security around the 5th January 1965.

In the midst of waging the fight for freedom and before his incarceration, he had worked at a dairy farm in Lady Selborne, PPC Ltd and the Pretoria General Hospital.

Our 2013 chat when he served as a Propositional Representative (PR) Councillor under the defunct Aganang Local Municipality is still vivid, as he boldly declared that he was never one to sell out.  This is well documented, as he did not cooperate with the police and refused to testify against his comrades.

Our conversations sometimes had their way of evoking memories of my brother and two sisters not sleeping at home in the mid-80s, as police raided homes in the nearby Mohlonong village, for any young person capable of joining a toyi-toyi.

How can one forget our failed strike action at Madenathaga primary school, this against the Mathematics teacher who took our lunch break privileges, as punishment for our poor performance in her class!


Upon his release from the Island in 1971, a Section 9 (1) Suppression of Communism (Act No. 44 of 1950) banishment to Lenyenye, Tzaneen awaited.

It was in 1975 and while still in Lenyenye, that he found employment at the Checkers store, later relocating to the then Pietersburg in 1981 to work in the newly opened store until he retired in 1993 and settling back in Maune village.

The latter years

The harsh conditions Matsemela endured during the struggle against apartheid never made him lose the sense of humour and he could belt out a song whenever the occasion allowed.  Even in his advanced age, he still had a knack of reading for pleasure.

A branch of the ANC in the Mashashane area which is under the custodianship of Kgoshi Magandangele II, Ward 40 of Polokwane Municipality, is named in his honour whilst he remained an active member to the end.

The 2011 ‘Order of Luthuli’ silver award was bestowed on him for contributing to the struggle against apartheid and standing for the ideals of a free, just and democratic South Africa.

He was also a member of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) and Limpopo Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) member of the ANC Veterans League (ANCVL).

In a phone call I put through to him prior the 2019 General Election, he reiterated that he never had any regrets for having dedicated his younger years to the freedom of all and a just South Africa.

News of Matsemela’s 7th July 2019 passing came through a sharp and short call, “Mokhote wakho o khambile”.  He was buried on the 13th July and is survived by his wife, four sons, three daughters, ten grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

As the country continues to be under a nationwide lock-down, Matsemela would have unleashed the label “pudi” or “bok” to those who are not complying to the lock-down Regulations, as he would do to anyone acting out of character.

Though having fought for the right to free movement most of his life, I have no doubt that the restrictions the country is currently facing due to the lock-down would have received his 100% support.

Significantly, he was born in the 11th month, as we #FlatternTheCurve and remember the 1994 turning point, let me share 11 of his quotes:

#LiberationStruggle “The injustices of the apartheid government drove me to join the African National Congress (ANC) in 1957 while working on a dairy farm in Lady Selborne.”

#LiberationHeritage  “I have no regrets for having dedicated my younger years to the freedom of all and a just South Africa.”

#MKCommand “Groups of operatives were always kept small in order to minimise infiltration among others.”

#1964Trial  #Resoluteness “Even when I was tortured, I could not sell out my Comrades by testifying against them.”

#Solidarity “I refused to cooperate with the police in a case against some of my Comrades.”

#FacesOfDemocracy “The fight for Freedom meant laying down one’s life, no matter the price.”

#Prisoner12331 “During my transfer to Robben Island in 1965, I remained unshaken though I was heavily guarded and in chains.”

#Banishment “Although I was mostly isolated from the Lenyenye community, I did not allow that to break my spirit.”

#Knowledge #Stimulation “Reading keeps my mind stimulated and I am always willing to share my book collection.”

#2013Chats “I do not drink Rooibos tea,  my lungs are still okay.”

#2019GeneralElection “There is no way I am not voting, my Comrades and I laid down our lives for this right.”

Maubane is a public relations strategist and a social commentator:  born, bred and buttered in Mohlonong village.