Vuyisile Mini was born in 1920 in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth. Mini's father was a Port Elizabeth dockworker active in labour and community struggles, which inspired Mini, at 17, to take part in bus fare and rent increase protests. He was also active in campaigns against forced removals of Black people from Korsten (where he lived) to Kwazakhele. After completing elementary school, he worked as a labourer and trade union organiser.
His union comrades knew Mini as the 'organiser of the unorganised', because of his courage and tireless efforts to organise workers across the Eastern Cape during the increasingly repressive 1950s. Mini was tasked by the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) to organise the metal workers and he subsequently became the Metal Workers' Union Secretary. Together with another activist, Stephen Tobia, they founded the African Painting and Building Union. He was also a founder member of the Port Elizabeth Stevedoring and Dockworkers' Union, which embarked in the 1950s, on one of the longest protests for a wage increase, and fought against the use of convicts as cheap scab labour. He became SACTU secretary for the Eastern Cape in 1960.
Mini's militant political activities began in 1951 when he joined the African National Congress (ANC). In 1952 he was jailed with Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba for three months in Rooi Hel (‘Red Hell' or North End Prison, Port Elizabeth) for participation in the ‘Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws' (Defiance Campaign). He intentionally entered railway property reserved for Whites only, and because of his imprisonment, lost his job as a packer in a battery factory.
On his release he married his trade union work with political activism, and rose rapidly in the ranks of the ANC. He was elected secretary of the ANC Cape region. In 1956 Mini was one of 156 defendants in the famous Treason Trial of 1956. The state's case collapsed for lack of evidence and Mini was discharged on 20 April 1959.
Mini was a gifted actor, dancer, poet and singer (he was a member of various groups and a prominent member of the P.E. Male Voice Choir). He is remembered for the songs he composed as well as their delivery in his powerful bass voice, sometimes militant, and at other times nostalgic. His words composed during the Treason Trial, ‘ Thath' umthwalo Buti sigoduke balindile umama no bab' ekhaya ' (‘Take up your things Brother and let's go, they are waiting, our mothers and fathers, at home'), came to take on new associations as the forced relocation scheme of apartheid made Black people refugees in the land of their birth. He is remembered for composing one of the most popular liberation songs of the 1950's, ‘Pasopa nansi 'ndondemnyama we Verwoerd ', (‘Look out, Verwoerd, here are the Black people').
In 1961 Mini was one of the first groups of people to be recruited into uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and become a member of the Eastern Cape High Command. Mini was arrested on 10 May 1963 together with two other prominent ANC members, Wilson Khayinga and Zinakile Mkaba. They were charged with 17 counts of sabotage and other political crimes including complicity in the January 1963 death of Sipho Mange, an alleged police informer. In March 1964, the three were sentenced to death.
Mini, and his two comrades were offered their lives in exchange for giving information about sabotage activity in their area. Mini wrote:
”I am presently awaiting execution at Pretoria Central Gaol having been sentenced to death at the beginning of the year. On October 2, 1964, Captain Geldenhuys and two other policemen came to see me. They asked me if I had been informed that my appeal had been dismissed. I told them I was not interested to know from them what my advocate said.
They then said there was still a chance for me to be saved as they knew I was the big boss of the movement in the Eastern Cape. I must just tell them where the detonators and revolvers were, and they would help me. I refused. They then asked me about Wilton Mkwayi (subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment) and whether I was prepared to give evidence against Mkwayi, whom they had now arrested. I said no, I was not. When they asked would I make the Amandla Ngawethu salute when I walked the last few paces to the gallows, I said yes.'
Their death sentence provoked an international outcry, and clemency appeals by President Nasser of the United Arab Republic, on behalf of the Non-aligned States, and by Secretary-General U Thant of the United Nations (UN) were unsuccessful. So too were approaches by the UN Special Committee on Apartheid and the UN Security Council. Mini, Wilson Khayinga and Zinakile Mkaba were hanged in the Pretoria Central Prison on 6 November 1964. Mini went to the gallows singing freedom songs, some he had composed. In a spirit of defiance, Mini made a death row statement after an approach by security police to get him to bear witness against comrades. In the same year the apartheid regime also executed other MK combatants, Nolali Mpentse, Daniel Ndongeni and Samuel Jonas.
Ben Turok, a previous co-accused of Mini's in the 1956 Treason Trial, was serving a three-year term in Pretoria prison for MK activities at the time of Mini's execution. He recalled the last moments of Mini's (44), Khayinga's (38) and Mkaba's (35) lives in Sechaba, the official ANC journal:
“The last evening was devastatingly sad as the heroic occupants of the death cells communicated to the prison in gentle melancholy song that their end was near... It was late at night when the singing ceased, and the prison fell into uneasy silence. I was already awake when the singing began again in the early morning. Once again the excruciatingly beautiful music floated through the barred windows, echoing round the brick exercise yard, losing itself in the vast prison yards.
And then, unexpectedly, the voice of Vuyisile Mini came roaring down the hushed passages. Evidently standing on a stool, with his face reaching up to a barred vent in his cell, his unmistakable bass voice was enunciating his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. In a voice charged with emotion but stubbornly defiant he spoke of the struggle waged by the African National Congress and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come. And then it was Khayinga`s turn, followed by Mkaba, as they too defied all prison rules to shout out their valedictions. Soon after, I heard the door of their cell being opened. Murmuring voices reached my straining ears, and then the three martyrs broke into a final poignant melody which seemed to fill the whole prison with sound and then gradually faded away into the distant depths of the condemned section."
Mini's unmistakable bass voice, ringing out loud and clear, sent his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. Charged with emotion, but stubbornly defiant, he spoke of the struggle and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come. After his 1964 execution, Mini was secretly buried in a pauper's grave at Rebecca Street Cemetery in Pretoria.
Mini is remembered not only for how many unions and workers he organised but, as Luckhardt & Wall put it, “more importantly for the spirit and dedication they brought to the struggle.” To honour his stand, the ANC Mission Office in Tanzania opened a Furniture factory that was known as the Vuyisile Mini Factory (VMF). In addition many of the songs sung by the freedom fighters of today are Mini's compositions. The bodies of Mini, Khayinga and Mkaba were exhumed in 1998 at Rebecca Street Cemetery in Pretoria and he was given a heroes funeral in Port Elizabeth.
At the time of his death, Mini was married, and had six children. One of his children, Nomkhosi Mini became a member of MK and survived a March 1979 South African Defence Force attack on the Novo Catengue camp in Angola. Nomkhosi Mini, a founding member of Amandla, the Cultural Ensemble of the ANC, was among those killed in the South African commando raid on Maseru, Lesotho on 20 December 1985 Seven members of the Security branch, including its then deputy chief were refused amnesty for this raid.