U. Conn Speaker On Apartheid Activism

This story was written by Michelle Firestone, The Daily Campus
Survivor. Political prisoner. Inspirational leader. Thulani Mabaso identifies with all of these labels.

Mabaso, a native of South Africa, spoke at the Dodd Center Monday about his experiences as an activist and victim of the apartheid government in his country. The apartheid movement, which granted the white minority population control and power over the black majority, was dismantled beginning in 1990.

During the uprising of 1976, Mabaso and other schoolchildren threw stones at police, harassing them.

"That was our way of fighting back," he said.

This incident was the beginning of a lifetime of activism for Mabaso. At the age of 19, he led a group of South African revolutionaries throughout the country. The first stop on their tour was Swaziland, where they were confronted by military officers who questioned them about their intentions. Mabaso - who had received official military training, including how to use explosives - had every intention to fight back against his repressive government.

"He asked what we wanted, and I said we wanted guns to kill the white people," he said.

Their next stop was Johannesburg. One Wednesday, Mabaso and his army entered a building carrying a shoebox full of explosives. They made efforts to notify people of the bombing beforehand, which resulted in only minor injuries and no deaths.

After three months of activism, Mabaso was arrested and administered to Superior Court to be placed on death row in 1984.

The human rights lawyers who defended his case managed to get him off death row, getting him an 18-year prison sentence instead.

In his speech, Mabaso described the horrific details of his treatment at the hands of the South African police. At the John Foster Square police station, the police made him take off his pants and proceeded to squeeze his genitals. They also chained him, covered his mouth with a handkerchief and plaster and put his feces in his mouth.

"They didn't stop interrogating and beating me," he sad. "I was screaming all the time."

Mabaso was eventually transferred from Johannesburg to a prison on Robben Island, where he was classified as a "Bantu." Of all the prisoners, Bantus received the worst selection and the lowest quantity of food.

Twenty-four years after his 10-year prison sentence, Mabaso is still coping with the trauma he was put through as a victim of apartheid. He continues to go to therapy and finds sharing his experiences as a tour guide at the Robben Island Prison Museum to be therapeutic, although it is hard for him to do.

Mabaso is very optimistic about South Africa's political situation. He feels that the nation has made great political strides, especially by adopting a constitution that protects the rights of all citizens. The first democratic elections were held in 1994, when the African National Congress became South Africa's ruling party and Nelson Mandela was elected president.

"It was a dream and it happened," he said.

Despite the nation's progress, it still has a long way to go. Although not as big of a problem as in the past, apartheid continues to be an issue in the country. A Human Rights Commission has been established to monitor the treatment of individuals. Mabaso remains hopeful that with the new measures, justice will eventually be served.

"We never stop selling these ideas of reconciliation," he said.

Mabaso's life and experiences have been documented in various different works of literature and documentaries. In the play, "Song of Freedom," written by a Norweigan playwright named Anne Hiort, Mabaso plays the narrator, appearing as himself. He is also the model for the main character in "Blind Faith," a fictional novel written by Barbara Folscher.

UConn once had a partnership with the African National Congress, which is the major governmental body in Africa and also a main political force that helped end apartheid, according to its Web site. As part of the partnership, UConn trained people to conduct oral histories with various leaders in the anti-apartheid movement through its Oral History office. There are a number of special collections and archives about South African history available at the Dodd Research center.

Valerie Love, curator of the Human Rights Collection at the Dodd Center, explained the importance of these documents.

"During the apartheid era, it was often dangerous to have written documentation," she said. "Oral history is important in telling these stories so that they are recorded for history.

Mabaso was brought to campus to tell his personal story.

"His experiences relate well to the collections," she said.

© 2008 The Daily Campus via U-WIRE