Tsietsi Mashinini was born on 27 January 1957 in Central Western Jabavu, Soweto. Mashinini was the second son of Ramothibi, a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, and Nomkhitha Mashinini, and was one of 13 children (11 boys and twin girls). He was active in his local Methodist parish and chairperson of the Methodist Wesley Youth Guild at the age of 16.
His education started at the Amajeli crèche in 1963. He went on to Seoding Lower Primary, after which he proceeded to Itshepeng Higher Primary. In 1971 he became a student at Morris Isaacson High. He was a passionate reader. This was spotted by his History and English teacher, Abram Onkgopotse Tiro, who taught at Morris Isaacson after was expelled from the University of the North (Turfloop) for his political activities. Tiro had great influence in shaping Mashinini's political thinking and subsequent adherence to the ideology and philosophy of Black Consciousness. He mentored him and supplied him with reading material. Through Tiro, Mashinini started reading about the history of Africa’s struggles, American slavery, the Human Rights Movements in the USA and about the evil of apartheid. Mashinini was the chairperson of the debating team at his school, and his excellent academic performance became the basis for his influence among his peers.
Mashinini’s energy, creativity and sportsmanship became evident through his recreational activity, which included theatre, baseball, ballroom dancing, martial arts, swimming and tennis. Former teacher Mrs Benadette Mosala said of him: “He had real potential in the theatre and asked for assistance for his productions. He had high aims for himself and would refuse to play second fiddle. He was a very attractive and handsome young boy. I know the girls loved him and he was very confident.”
As a teenager of his time, he preferred African-American fashions, especially drawn to hippie culture. He sported an Afro and wore bell-bottomed trousers and high-heeled shoes, and had a vibrant social life.
Mashinini joined the South African Students Movement, a student body established to assist students with the transition from Matric to university.
On 13th June 1976, about 500 Soweto students met at the Orlando Donaldson Community Hall to discuss ways and means of confronting and challenging the Department of Bantu Education. The students decided to stage a peaceful protest march on 16 June against the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.
An Action Committee was set up to prepare for the campaign. Mashinini was elected chairperson of the Action Committee, which was later renamed the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC), with Mashinini as its first president (until he was succeeded by Khotso Seatlholo from Naledi High School). Mashinini and Murphy Morobe were the two representatives from Morris Issacson High School serving in the Soweto Student Representative Council.
During assembly on the morning of 16 June at Morris Isaacson High School, Mashinini climbed onto the podium and led students into song, and out of the school grounds towards their assembly point for the planned student demonstration.
They were joined by students from other schools in Soweto. It is estimated that 20000 uniformed students joined the mass demonstration. As they marched down in a throng, they came across a police barricade on their way to the assembly point. Mashinini climbed a makeshift podium to deliver a spirited address, telling students to march peacefully, to remain orderly and not to provoke the police.
The horrific events of that day, which saw the South African police shoot live bullets at peacefully protesting students, turned him into an instant hero and an activist of national importance. He stood steadfast against State harassment and imminent arrest, issuing press statements, and calling for students to boycott classes, and wrote critically of the police’s actions on 16 June that saw innocent students massacred.
As President of the SSRC, Mashinini issued many press statements on behalf of the organisation and the larger student body. He called for unity, class boycotts, stay-aways, and disseminated information. But he also used the platform to attack the State, reacting to the State’s violence against the masses. In response to the shootings of June 16, he said: “We see it as an official declaration of war on the black students by our ‘peace-officers'.”
Mashinini became an enemy of the “system” and, in particular, the hostel dwellers. The police frequently converged on his home in an attempt to arrest him. On two occasions, he came dressed in a female outfit and eluded arrest, becoming the most wanted man in the country. The police offered a R500 reward for anyone who could supply information that would lead to his arrest. A Colonel Visser of the Soweto CID made an appeal to Mashinini to hand himself over, saying he risked being killed by angry hostel dwellers who were antagonised by the recent unrest. Visser further said it would be best if his parents brought him to the police station. “We believe that Mashinini is active and moving about Soweto and other townships, but we have never been able to locate him. If you spot him, or know where he is, you must report him to the nearest police,” said Visser.
The events of 16 June 1976 saw large numbers of youth joining the ranks of the African National Congress (ANC) and its military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), eventually leading to more vigorous mass action, and international boycotts against apartheid and South Africa.
The intense scrutiny compelled Mashinini to flee the country. He left the country for Botswana in August 1976, living there for few months before he proceeded to the West Coast of Africa. Heads of states, notably Sekou Toure of Ivory Coast, and African parliamentarians received him. He resided in countries like Nigeria where he was briefly hosted in the presidential guest house in Lagos. While in exile Mashinini was interviewed by many media organisations and he addressed students at universities, revealing the realities of the South African political situation.
Mashinini finally settled in Liberia, where he married Welma Campbell, the daughter of a parliamentarian, in 1978. The marriage was blessed with two daughters, Nomkhitha (named after his mother) and Thembi. However the marriage ended after a few years.
Mashinini later visited the United Kingdom and the United States, where he addressed the United Nations on the brutalities of the apartheid regime. By many accounts, Mashinini did not join any of the established liberation movements in exile.
Tsietsi Mashinini will always be remembered as a fearless fighter and student leader whose name will forever be etched in memory as one of the outstanding leaders of the South African revolution.
One of Mashinini's admirers was his compatriot, Miriam Makeba, who was in exile in Guinea. She had offered Mashinini a place to stay in her home in Conakry shortly before his death. Mashinini died under mysterious circumstances in 1990. He was hospitalised for multiple injuries, aparently the result of an attack. He died a few days later. Mashinini's body was terribly disfigured: his left eye had fallen out into his coffin; his left ear was bleeding and he had deep bruises on his face, including a large scar on his forehead.
At his funeral service, held at the Amphitheatre Stadium in Jabulani, Soweto, former Azanian People’s O rganisation President Professor Itumeleng Mosala said: “The students of 1976 took the struggle from the classroom to the streets; the students of today take the struggle from the streets into the classroom.” Leaders of the June 16 uprising spoke in praise of Mashinini, saying he had made an indelible mark in shaping the history of the country.
The epitaph on his tombstone reads: “At the height of struggle, he gave impetus to the liberation struggle.” His tombstone at Avalon cemetery in Soweto was twice vandalised, and the marble stone was removed.
On 27 April 2011, the State President, Jacob G Zuma honoured Tsietsi Mashinini, posthumously, with the Order of Luthuli in Gold for his inspirational leadership to young people, for the sacrifices he made while leading students against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, and for his role in the struggle against apartheid.