Matlakana Philemon Tefu

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Biographical information


Member of the PAC, former political prisoner on Robben Island and he was the Deputy Secretary General of PAM. 

First name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
Date of death: 
13 November 2012

Philemon Matlakana Tefu was born in 1940 and grew up in the township of Riversdale in Pretoria. In 1954 his family was forcibly removed from the area to Mamelodi where his political life began.

One of the factors that contributed to Tefu’s political awareness was developments on the African continent. In 1957 Ghana became independent under Kwame Nkrumah. The news of its independence and its leadership under a black a person became a dawning moment. While Tefu was still at school, his teacher, Joe Matlala also contributed to his political awareness. Matlala taught about inequalities in South Africa and the oppression of African people under apartheid. After completing Standard 6, he left school and went to look for work. While working in Pretoria he became interested in current events and read extensively from the Rand Daily Mail and the Star.

During this period, he became friends with a certain Makhubela from Springs. The two travelled together en route to work. After the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) broke away from the African National Congress (ANC) in 1959, Makhubela recruited Tefu to join the organization. The PAC began organizing an anti pass campaign which culminated in the Sharpeville Massacre. After this incident the PAC was banned forcing its operatives to go underground.  The PAC then formed its armed wing, Poqo in 1961. Poqo began organizing a rebellion against white minority rule and Tefu became involved in its activities as one of the organizers. The plan was to attack whites with pangas, (machetes) in their suburbs. Tefu, together with others, was instrumental in recruiting people, establishing cells and branches of the PAC in the Mamelodi area.

Tefu worked in secret with others to carry out the plan. At the beginning of 1962, Tefu gave up his job to work full time for the PAC.  By the end of the year he was promoted from being a cell leader to a Task Force leader. In June 1962 the Task Force led by Tefu planned to storm the Baviaanspoort Prison to release PAC members who were held in detention. The plan was not carried out. That same year Tefu and Isaac ‘Ike’ Mthimunye attacked a truck carrying explosive at the Premier Diamond Mine intending to steal the explosives for the PAC’s cause. In February 1963, he went to Lesotho to meet Potlako Leballo to receive instructions and plans for the insurrection.

On 22 March 1963, Tefu and others were arrested after attending the Sharpeville commemoration service. Amongst those arrested with him were Isaac Mthimunye, Dikgang Moseneke, John Nkosi, Japhta Masemola and Samuel Chibane. He was taken to Silverton Police station where he was detained while awaiting trial. On 22 June he was sentenced to life in prison and sent to serve his sentence on Robben Island.

Tefu was subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment meted by prison warders particularly in the early 1960s.  He was placed in the Landbou Span (agriculture team) where they were forced to move sand around.

Tefu was released from Robben Island in 1985 and resumed his political activity. He first searched for Azanian National Youth Unity (AZANYU) the only legal organization of the PAC since the main party was still banned. Tefu played an active role in the formation of the Pan Africanist Movement of Azania (PAM) and he was subsequently elected as the deputy secretary general.

In May 2012 he was honoured by the PAC for his contribution to struggle. 

• Fleminger, D, World Heritage Sites of South Africa Robben Island, pp.90-103
• Solani, N and Nieftagodien, N, Political imprisonment and resistance in South Africa: The Case of Robben Island 1960-1970, in The Road to Democracy in South AfricaVolume 1, 1960-1970, (2004), (Zebra Press), p.394.
• Mthanatha, S, The PAC and Poqo in Pretoria, 1958-1964, The Road to Democracy in South Africa Volume 1, 1960-1970, (2004), (Zebra Press), p. 299-318.
• Motjuwadi, H, (2012), PAC vets honour Robben Islanders, from Sowetanlive, [online] Available at [Accessed 30 May 2012] 

Last updated : 16-Nov-2016

This article was produced by South African History Online on 06-Jun-2012

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