Joseph Fansio Mati

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Biographical information


Member of the ANC, ANCYL and MK, political prisoner and secretary of the UDF’s Border region.

First name: 
Last name: 
Location of birth: 
Near Adelaide, Eastern Cape

Joseph Faniso Mati was born on a farm near Adelaide, Eastern Cape and grew up in Port Elizabeth. During high school, teachers encouraged students to attend speeches of Professor ZK Matthews, Chief Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela. As a result, Mati joined the African National Congress (ANC) and became an organiser for the ANC Youth League. He became a street steward for the Congress and thus was also involved in the activities of the executive of the local ANC branch.

Mati became a source of advice for anyone who had problems and was regularly asked to write letters. After a report by journalist Gideon Khumalo on the conditions on the potato farms, Mati became involved in organising the potato boycott of 1959. He was also involved in organising bus boycotts, but Mati’s main focus, as he stated in Coetzee, Gilfillan and Hulec (2002), was always the issue of the pass books.

In 1959, at the annual ANC conference, Mati was elected as a member of the ANCYL’s executive, thus stepping up his involvement in the Congress’s activities. After the ANC was banned, Mati was recruited into uMkhonto weSizwe (MK). He was sent to Johannesburg, where he received military training. During this time Mati was working at the municipal laboratories, from which he stole chemicals to be used to make explosives.  

During the first state of emergency in 1960, Mati went into hiding. He was responsible for looking after the families of those who were detained. In July 1963 the police raided Mati’s house and he was arrested. Mati was one of 29 who were arrested on the same day, all under the new Sabotage Act. They were kept in solitary confinement for two weeks. Later they were transported to Walmer police station. The trial of the 29 was held in Port Alfred where they were charged with sabotage. In April 1964 six of those on trial were sentenced to death while the rest were given lengthy prison sentences. Mati was given 10 years and a few days later taken from Port Elizabeth to Robben Island where he was given the prisoner number: 398/64.

While on Robben Island Mati shared a cell with Dr Pather, a medical doctor. He also joined various societies set up by the ANC, such as the Science and Literature Society, and was part of the ANC’s Disciplinary Committee.

Mati was released from Robben Island in 1974. He was immediately placed under a banning order which restricted him to the East London area. However, in 1975 the ANC chose Mati to travel to Swaziland. Due to problems caused by the Group of Eight, which tried to topple Oliver Tambo, the ANC wanted to strengthen the Party within the country. Mati was charged with the task and he began to make contact with ANC members in the Western Cape. In trying to ensure that MK recruits from the Western and Eastern Cape could travel out of the country, Mati regularly defied his banning order to travel between South Africa and Swaziland. In December 1976, he was caught at the Swazi border – but managed to convince the border guards that he was a tramp and they let him go.

In 1976 Mati’s banning order was lifted as the Security Police were of the opinion that he was no longer a threat. As a result of his ANC activities he was sent to Maputo to meet with Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo. However, in June 1977 Mati was caught at the Golela border post with stacks of June 16 leaflets and R3,000. After a period of interrogation he was taken back to East London, where he was charged with using his premises for ANC activity, carrying money for the organisation and being a member of a banned organisation. He was sentenced to five years and found himself on Robben Island once again. However, with the formation of the Release Board, Mati was amoung the first prisoners to be released by the board. Instead of being released in November when his prison term ended, he was released in July 1982.

After his release Mati became involved in the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and was elected secretary of the UDF’s Border region. After the second State of Emergency was declared in July 1985, Mati was again detained in East London for two years for being a member of the UDF.

• Dick, A. n.d. “Censorship and the reading practices of prisoners in South Africa, 1960-1990” in Innovation, 35 [online]. Available at [Accessed 25 August 2012]
Coetzee, J.K. and Rau, A. 2009. “Narrating Trauma and Suffering: Towards Understanding Intersubjectively Constituted Memory” in Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 10: 2 (14) [online]. Available at [Accessed 25 August 2012]
Coetzee, J.K., Gilfillan, L. And Hilec, O., 2002. “Chapter 3 Joseph Faniso Mati: The Organiser” in Fallen Walls: Voices from the Cells that held Mandela and Havel. South Africa: Robben Island Museum

Last updated : 08-Nov-2012

This article was produced for South African History Online on 08-Nov-2012