Dan Sechaba Montsitsi, a student leader during the 1976 Soweto uprising, died on Thursday night from Covid-19 complications.
“It feels like the whole leadership of 1976 is disappearing. It becomes lonely for people like me, losing my comrades when we’re trying to protect the 1976 legacy,” said an emotional Seth Mazibuko, a 1976 student leader.
“I was informed of Montsitsi’s death last night and I haven’t been able to close my eyes since then,” Mazibuko told Daily Maverick by phone on Friday.
Montsitsi, who was 67, lived in Dobsonville, Soweto.
His death was announced by Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla on Friday morning during a media briefing.
“There’s no more Khotso [Seatlholo], there’s no more Tsietsi [Mashinini], now there’s no more Dan,” said Mazibuko.
“With the leadership vacuum that we see in this country, we need more leaders like Dan. Even when he was in Parliament he never distanced himself from the issues people in the township faced. He was also a leader that was passionate about education,” he said.
Montsitsi, Mashinini and Seatlholo were key leaders of the 1976 Soweto uprising who became presidents of the Soweto Students’ Representative Council.
Montsitsi served in the South African Students Movement in 1974 and was an executive committee member of the National Youth Organisation.
A year after the 1976 protests he was arrested and tortured while in custody.
The state argued that the 11 members of the Soweto Students’ Representative Council had held gatherings that led to the violent protests and crackdown by the apartheid state from 16 June 1976. It’s estimated that between 150 and 700 people died.
See a reflection on this year’s June 16 commemorations here: Young, gifted, black and still left behind – South Africa’s youth struggle continues 45 years later
The accused, who became known as the Soweto 11, pleaded not guilty. Eight months later they were found guilty. Seven received suspended jail terms and four were sent to prison. The latter included Montsitsi and Mazibuko.
When handing down his sentence in the Soweto 11 trial, Judge Hendrik van Dyk referred to Montsitsi as having behaved “seditiously” from the first day of unrest.
Montsitsi was sent to Robben Island for four years.
“I expected Robben Island to be a place of dark horror, but when I arrived I discovered a political institution; Walter Sisulu gave lectures on the struggle of the workers and [Govan] Mbeki was an expert on the development of capitalism,” said Montsitsi in a Mail & Guardian interview in 1999.
Montsitsi later served as an ANC MP. In 2013, the party named him as the leader of its parliamentary caucus. He also served on the Ad Hoc Committee on the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill, the Standing Committee on Defence and the Select Committee on Labour and Public Enterprises, among other portfolios.
Montsitsi was also deputy chairperson of the June 16 1976 Foundation. Over the years he had become vocal about State Capture and called for the arrest and conviction of those who he said spat “on the graves of our martyrs through corruption and theft”.
Montsitsi said some leaders in the ANC and government compromised the “advancement agenda of moving South Africa from a developmental state into a world-class democracy with economic boom and a high quality of life for ordinary citizens”.
Speaking about the news of Montsitsi’s death, Phaahla said: “Before I went to bed late last night I got a very distressing message that one of my very own old comrades and colleague, comrade Dan Sechaba Montsitsi, passed away.
“This is not just a statistic, but it’s people we know as well. We want to pass our condolences to the family of comrade Montsitsi, his children and the rest of the family.”
A statement released by Phumla Williams, director-general of the Government Communication and Information System, said: “He was known for being vocal in the fight for equal education for the youth. As a country, we are grateful for the resilience and determination by the youth of 1976 that was led by leaders like Montsitsi who stayed the cause for a fight for a free and just democratic South Africa.”
New Johannesburg mayor Jolidee Matongo sent condolences to Montsitsi’s family. “It was his humbleness that saw him easily succeed in persuading other young people of his generation to join the fight against the apartheid system,” he said, adding that Montsitsi’s death was a “great loss” to the people of Johannesburg, especially those who looked forward to learning from his wisdom. DM