Matthew Goniwe was born on 27 December 1947 in Lingelihle Township on the outskirts of Cradock in the Eastern Cape. His parents David and Elizabeth were farm labourers.  He was the youngest of eight children. Goniwe attended St James' Primary school and afterwards attended Sam Xhallie Secondary School, where he obtained his junior certificate.  As a boy, Goniwe played rugby and took part in boxing for a club in the township.  His love of music led him to join, at an early age, the Cradock Male Voices under the leadership of his brother, Jacques.

He matriculated at Healdtown, then studied for a teachers' diploma at the University of Fort Hare. His majors were mathematics and science. It was whilst studying at Fort Hare that Matthew became involved in student politics. Goniwe returned to Sam Xhallie Secondary, to teach mathematics and science, where he was became popular teacher. In 1972 Goniwe and another school teacher in Cradock, John Hllekani founded a school at Mqanduli, in the Transkei, which eventually became known as Holomisa High School. In 1975 Goniwe married Nyameka. She later qualified as a social worker. They had two children, Nobuzwe and Nyaniso. 

Matthew’s political views had been influenced by the Rev Canon James Calata (a founder member and former secretary general of the African National Congress (ANC)) and his eldest brother, Jacques Goniwe. Jacques was the first person to burn his pass book in Cradock as part of the ANC’s Defiance Campaign of the 1950s. In 1960 Jacques left to join the ANC in Maseru. He was killed by the Rhodesian security forces  in the Wankie-Sipolilo campaign.

While in the Transkei, Goniwe joined a reading group which studied Marxism and communism. The group’s activities were betrayed by a student from Fort Hare, and Goniwe was arrested on 19 July, 1976. Five men (including the Ntsebeza brothers, Dumisa and Lungisile) were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. After a controversial year-long trial in the Transkei, Goniwe and four others were convicted. Four of them were sentenced in the Umtata High Court to four years in jail (one of them got a suspended sentence). While he was in jail Goniwe studied and obatined a B.A. degree through UNISA, majoring in political science and education.

Upon his release from Umtata Prison on 31 August 1981, the security police sent Goniwe back to Cradock. On 1 March 1982, Goniwe obtained a post as acting principal, at Ngweba High in Graaf-Reinet. He subsequently became principal of Sam Xhallie Junior Secondary School in Cradock. Together with a colleague, Fort Calata, he worked at restoring discipline in the school.

In 1983, the Cradock Youth Association (CRADOYA) was launched with Goniwe being elected as its first chairperson and Fort Calata, as its secretary. One of the first tasks that they embarked upon was to take a stand against the unfair rental system being proposed by the East Cape Administration Board. This precipitated the formation of a civic association in Lingelihle to deal with the crisis and Goniwe was elected as chairperson. In May 1983, Goniwe called a mass meeting to discuss how the community should respond to high rents, and the Cradock Residents’ Association (CRADORA) was formed. CRADORA applied sufficient pressure and won the fight as rents were lowered. After the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) on 20 August 1983, CRADORA affiliated to this broad-based movement of organisations against Apartheid.

The security police which wished to remove his influence from Cradock pressured the Department of Education (DET) on 18 October 1983 to Goniwe’s transfer to a school in Graaf-Reinet as principal. Goniwe refused the appointment. He applied to become an ordinary teacher at a school in Cradock, but this was turned down. The DET sent Goniwe a telegram on 29 November 1983, informing him of his transfer to Graaff Reinet from 1 January, 1984. A Cradoya meeting attended by about 2 000 people from the community refused to accept the transfer. When Goniwe did not report for work in Graaff Reinet the following year, the DET told him he had “dismissed himself” and he was officially fired on 27 January 1984. This sparked a school on 3 February which spread throughout Cradock and then to the surrounding areas lasting 15 months. The CRADORA, CRADOYA, UDF and other   organisations from Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage held meetings which supported the boycott. By 11 March 1984, 4 236 pupils had joined the boycott.

 On 6 March 1984, Goniwe was appointed rural organiser for the UDF. At the same time he was placed under surveillance by the Cradock security police chief Major Eric Winter. His phone was tapped and a tamatie (electronic listening device) was planted in their house. On 23 March, 1984 the local magistrate banned all CRADORA and CRADOYA meetings, This sparked a riot as the community responded by throwing stones which was suppressed by the police.

On 19 March 1984, at a State Security Council (SSC) meeting, former Finance Minister Barend du Plessis proposed the “removal” of Goniwe: " In Cradock is daar twee oud-onderwysers wat as agitators optree. Dit sou goed wees as hulle verwyder kon word.” (In Cradock there are two ex-teachers who are acting at agitators. It would be good if they could be removed.)

Two days later, the head of Security Police intelligence, Major Craig Williamson (a former student spy) dispatched a subordinate, Jacobus Jan Hendrik Van Jaarsveld to go down to Cradock and investigate if it was possible to “take out” Goniwe. Former President F W De Klerk said he remembered the SSC meeting clearly, but that Goniwe was to be “redeployed”. Van Jaarsveld later testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about this incident.

 Days later, on 30 March, the Security Police swooped at night and detained Goniwe, Fort Calata, and Goniwe’s cousin Mbulelo Goniwe. Two days earlier they had detained Fezile Donald “Madoda” Jacobs, the head prefect of the local high school. They were detained under Section 28 of the Internal Security Act.  On 31 March the Minister of Law and Order, Louis le Grange, banned all meetings for three months. Tensions escalated and  riots borke out with petrol bombings, stoning of houses of community councillors. Boycott-related violence began on 15 April, when students marched through the township demanding the reinstatement of Matthew Goniwe. On 27 May, police and the South African Defence Force (SADF) cordoned off Lingelihle township searching for public violence suspects. In June 1984, Goniwe, Fort Calata, Mbulelo Goniwe and Madoda Jacobs who were still in detention were listed in terms of the Internal Security Act as a potential threat.

After the police tear gassed the township on 15 June, the community began a boycott of white owned shops for one day on the anniversary of the Soweto uprising, June 16. The police dispersed the crowd with sjamboks and teargas, and police vehicles were stoned. More than 200 people were charged with arson and unlawful gathering. In August, a successful seven-day boycott of white shops was called to protest against the detentions of their leaders. The detained men were released on 10 October to a heroes’ welcome.

 That December, Goniwe called for a “Black Christmas”. The community of Lingelihle did not buy liquor or food from white-owned shops, infuriating the white business community. In January 1985, he was visited by Danny O’ Grady of the US Embassy, Sheena Duncan of the Black Sash, and he travelled to Cape Town to meet Senator Edward Kennedy. In February 1985, at a funeral for Thozi Skweyiya, (shot during the riots of 3 February) Goniwe and others appealed to the community to stop the violence.

CRADORA meanwhile had held several meetings with the DET and its regional director, Merboldt, in an attempt to get Goniwe reinstated. A senior DET official, De Beer, declared the case “closed”. After a community delegation to Cape Town, the DET decided to re-open the case and agreed to meet Goniwe in Cradock. Goniwe told them he wanted the children to go back to school. CRADORA asked De Beer to help them get permission for a public meeting (there was a banning order for all meetings) on 29 March 1985, which De Beer did, and the meeting was held on Easter Monday. Goniwe said the children had to go back to school – after 15 months.

In May, when it appeared Goniwe would be reinstated, the army and SAP raided Lingelihle, which was sealed off and pamphlets linking CRADORA to “violence, communism and terrorism” were dropped from helicopters. Matthew was verbally attacked over loudspeakers from the helicopters: “Goniwe did not give you water. The ANC is among you. Stay in your houses.” Ten hours later the operation ended with a blaring voice: “Thank you for your cooperation.”

 The police made regular death threats against Goniwe. He had received death threats over the phone, and also received a bottle containing a note with a graphic of a gallows and “Goniwe” written on a cut-out of a human figure hanging from it. The bottle also contained a dead grasshopper. The Security Forces suspected Goniwe was working underground for the ANC; what they didn’t know was that he was chairman of the ANC’s underground Military Working Committee (MWC) in the Karoo.

 Lingelihle was one of the first townships to introduce street committees. Under the guidance of CRADORA, the 17 000 residents were divided into seven zones. About 40 activists were assigned to these different areas and held meetings in each zone to elect officials and each household could vote for their street representatives. This was known in some circles as the “G-Plan” or “Goniwe’s Plan”. By late 1984, Cradock and the township of Lingelihle, a long-time area of resistance and struggle, were seen as models of organisation by the UDF. The committee structures that Matthew Goniwe helped to set up were copied by other townships.  In his new position as rural organiser of the UDF, he established street committees in Adelaide, Kirkwood, Noupoort and Kenton-on-Sea.

Goniwe had been transforming ANC political underground structures into military formations. Activist Arnold Stofile had helped Goniwe set up an underground ANC area political committee (APC) for the Karoo region in 1980. The fledgling Cradock structures were linked through Stofile to the chief of the ANC’s underground mission in Lesotho, Chris Hani, later to become the leader of the ANC’s military wing, Unkhonto We Sizwe (MK). By 1982, when Goniwe had enough cells in his area, he reported directly to Hani. By 1983 Goniwe was organising Graaff Reinet and wider afield throughout the Eastern Cape region.

Goniwe was seen as the biggest problem in the Eastern Cape, and he was referred to as a “terrorist”. His file was at least six volumes, which was moved to a strong room after his death. Each volume contained a diary called an SAP 5, containing inscriptions of field workers own observations. His file was seen in the strong room in 1987 (it was used for the Delmas Trial, and a Major Winter would sometimes take documents to Port Elizabeth), but it later disappeared.

Thursday 23 May, 1985, was a significant day. The Deputy Minister of Law and Order, Adriaan Vlok visited Port Elizabeth and Cradock. The same day the Eastern Province Joint Management Committee (JMC) met over the Goniwe issue, chaired by the local military commander, Brigadier CP “Joffel” van der Westhuizen, and attended by regional Security Police chief Harold Snyman. It was decided that Matthew had fired himself, although DET regional director, Merboldt, did not support the decision.

 After the meeting, Vlok phoned the Minister of Cooperative Development and Education in Cape Town to delay the reappointment of Goniwe until Law and Order Minister Louis Le Grange had discussed the matter at a Cabinet meeting scheduled soon after in Pretoria. Also following the meeting, the local military commander, Brigadier CP “Joffel” van der Westhuizen, sent a signal to the SSC in Pretoria, in which he described a discussion at an Eastern Province JMC meeting on 25 May 1985 at which the situation at black schools was discussed. Brigadier Van der Westhuizen urged the SSC to “urgently consider” the recommendation that Goniwe and Calata should “never, ever” be reappointed to any post in the DET “under any circumstance”. It was sent by Colonel Lourens du Plessis.

 In a separate development, the next day, Friday 24 May, DET official Jaap Strydom, and DET Deputy Director of Community Communications, Johannes Vermaak, met Goniwe at the Masonic Hotel in Cradock to discuss his future. Strydom told him only the Minister could reappoint him.

 At the beginning of June 1985, Winter ordered an intensification of surveillance of Goniwe. On 5 June, activist preacher the Rev Allan Boesak visited Cradock and spent the night with Goniwe. On Thursday 6 June, 1985, the DET’s Jaap Strydom travelled to Cradock again and subsequently supported the case for reinstatement, against the wishes of the security hawks. EP Security Police Chief Harold Snyman wrote to the SSC in a telex marked “Streng Geheim” (Top Secret) which stated that Goniwe should not be reappointed, his view supported by a Major Schutte and Major Eric Winter (the head of the Cradock Security Police). Also on 6 June 1985, Deputy Minister of Police Adriaan Vlok chaired a meeting of the Action Committee at Police HQ. This “Secret” document, censored at a later date by unknown persons, discussed the situation in Cradock, described as “fairly quiet”.

 Jaap Strydom, from the DET, reported on his meeting on 24 May with Matthew Goniwe. It was at this meeting that it was decided the SSC would convene a “works committee” that would recommend a course of action to the chairman (Vlok) by 12 June.

 On Friday 7 June, 1985, Major General J Frederick Johannes Van Rensburg, of the SSC Secretariat, phoned “Joffel” van der Westhuizen to discuss Goniwe. The two officers decided Goniwe and two other people (Fort Calata and Mbulelo Goniwe) should be “permanently removed from society as a matter of urgency”.

 Gen Janse van Rensburg wanted a submission to this effect from “Joffel” because he wished to brief the same day the special works committee. As a result of this discussion, Colonel Lourens du Plessis sent a “Signal Message Form” dated June 7, 1985 – addressed to the SSC and detailing the earlier telephone discussion. It was marked urgent and top secret. Adamus P Stemmert, head of SSC Strategic Communication, said he was shown the signal by Van Rensburg as an example of “unacceptable terminology”.

Meanwhile, at the SSC, Gen FJ Van Rensburg’s special works committee to deal with the Goniwe issue contained Col MacDonald of the SAP (known to be opposed to Goniwe’s reinstatement) and chaired by Air Force General Pieter “Kiewiet” Johannes Geldenhuys. The Secret document weighed up several options: arrest and charge him, detention without trial, restrict him, find him other work, or return him to education. The report of Gen Geldenhuys was made on 12 June 1985, and was altered and edited by Gen Van Rensburg without Geldenhuys’ knowledge, before it was forwarded to the Cabinet Ministers in Cape Town.

 Also on this day, it is believed (the minutes remain classified) that the SSC met (present were President PW Botha, SADF chief Constand Viljoen, Foreign Minister Pik Botha, Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee, and Security Police Chief Gen Johan Coetzee, and Defence Minister Magnus Malan). At this SSC meeting, it was recommended that Goniwe be reinstated, despite opposition from the security chiefs. Van Rensburg says he tabled the signal from “Joffel” Van Der Westhuizen verbally, but others at the meeting dispute this. Some claim that Minister of National Education Dr Gerrit Viljoen and Law and Order Deputy Minister Adriaan Vlok were discussing the merits of reinstating Goniwe.  In later court evidence, it was said the signal was received by Gen van Rensburg only on June 17, after the group had made its recommendations, but this is also disputed.

 The SSRC “Works Committee’s” undated Top Secret report to Vlok had two options: neutralising Goniwe through security legislation, or bringing him “back into the fold” by reappointing him. The security options were dismissed as not solving the problem and the report recommended he be reappointed where he could be “controlled” and “disciplined” within the professional teaching code.
 On 13 June, 1985, a Stratcom Policy Guideline was sent to Brig P J Geldenhuys regarding the reappointment of Goniwe as a headmaster. This Top Secret document recommended Goniwe be sent on “orientation courses” and he be carefully monitored. It suggested covert attempts should be made to restrict his extramural activities.

 On 14 June the DET met community representatives and was assured the schools situation would be normalised with Goniwe’s reappointment. In a secret memo to senior DET officials dated 18 June, it was stated that the local Cradock Security Forces knew of Goniwe’s impending reinstatement, and supported it. It also hinted at the conflict the DET had been through with the police. The final approval for the reinstatement had to come from the Minister, and the matter was discussed on 28 June (the day after the four activists had disappeared). A handwritten note on the document states that news of the burnt out car reached the DET on 29 June, and the death of Goniwe on 3 July. Then there is a curt “put away these files please” written at the bottom.

Van Rensburg was a key figure for the Geldenhuys “werkscommitee”, he represented the attitude of the “veiligheidsgemeenskap” (security community), report backs were sent to him, he received the signal, and his name was on the (changed) Geldenhuys report.

In court, Van Der Westhuizen and Van Rensburg both agreed that reference to higher authority for approval of operations involving extra-legal activity is a recognised practise in counter revolutionary warfare. Van Der Westhuizen denied that he or the EP JMC ever planned or approved the murder of any person.

Given the fact that the Cradock activists were killed within weeks of the Eastern Province JMC’s assassination proposal being made to the SSC Secretariat, it is almost certain that the full SSC, chaired by President PW Botha and attended by Nobel Peace Prize winning former South African president, FW de Klerk, sanctioned it. At the time the SSC made the murder decision, FW de Klerk was a “co-opted” member of the council. After the Cradock murders, the man responsible for implementing the death warrants, “Joffel” Van der Westhuizen, was promoted to SADF commander of the Johannesburg area, and later to Chief of Staff of the SADF’s Military Intelligence.

 On 25 June, 1985, the Commissioner of Police submitted a Top Secret report to the Minister of Law and Order, outlining the actions surrounding Goniwe. With such a flurry of activity around Goniwe, it seems some wanted to see him reappointed, and others were saying: “Over my dead body”. In the event, it seems that the hit squad triumphed.

Goniwe usually went to Port Elizabeth every Wednesday to report to the UDF leadership.  As a UDF organiser, Goniwe travelled a lot, in a car which had been given to him by the UDF for his work. On 24 June he called Derrick Swarts in Port Elizabeth to say he would come down a day later because he had to address a rally in Cradock on the Wednesday 26 June. The Security Police knew about his changed travel arrangements, they had monitored the call. It was Security Police practice to inform the Port Elizabeth Branch if Goniwe was going to be there. Snyman or Hermanus du Plessis would be informed. Cradock Security Police chief Eric Winter and two other white Security Policemen left the office on the morning of the 27th, and did not say where they were going. They returned the following day, seeming anxious and secretive.

On 27 June 1985, Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli (known as the Cradock Four) left for Port Elizabeth at about 10am. Sicelo was an old childhood friend of Matthew’s. He was a school principal in Oudtshoorn, and was in Cradock for the holidays. He decided to go with Matthew “to catch up on old times”. The car was spotted at Cookhouse by police there, at around lunchtime. In the afternoon, Matthew attended meetings with his comrades.

His last meeting, at the house of UDF activist Michael Coetsee, finished at around 21h00 and the four left at about 21h10, after Matthew refused the invitation from his friend Derrick Swarts, to stay over and not travel at night. He told Derrick he didn’t spend enough time with his family and wanted to get home. He would only stop for the police.

It was the last time they were seen alive. The four were abducted from a car in which they were driving, and assassinated. Mystery surrounded the finding of the burnt-out car, with two different sets of number plates, and then, in two different areas, burnt bodies were found (Sparrow and Sicelo). The police could not explain how, if the activists had been under constant and intensified surveillance, and travelling together, they could have disappeared and been murdered. Days later, the bodies of Goniwe and Calata were found, also burnt, stabbed and mutilated.

Two inquests failed to get to the truth, the second inquest opened after a newspaper, New Nation, on 8 May 1992, published a copy of a top-secret “signal message'” sent to the State Security Council on 7 June 1985 from the Eastern Province Joint Management Centre. The message detailed a telephone conversation between Brigadier CP “Joffel” van der Westhuizen and a General Van Rensburg, a senior member of the SSC secretariat. Three names, Matthew Goniwe, Mbulelo Goniwe and Fort Calata were targeted to be “permanently removed from society, as a matter of urgency.”

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