24 DECEMBER1951 – 27 JUNE 1985 (AGE 33)
Sparrow Mkhonto was born on 24 December 1951 at Bhongweni section of Lingelihle Township in Cradock. He attended Macembe Lower Primary School, Akena Primary School and Sam Xhali Secondary School. He passed Junior Secondary Certificate Level at Sam Xhali Secondary School. He was taught by Matthew Goniwe but left school in Standard 8 (Grade 10) due to his disadvantaged financial background.
PRESIDENT OF A SOCCER CLUB
Though unemployed, Sparrow was a man of initiatives. He loved sports especially soccer. As a result he established a soccer club. He became president of the club. Some of the comrades he later worked with in CRADORA were members of this club. He inspired his co-players to be victorious. When Matthew returned to Cradock in 1981 he identified Sparrow as one of the youth he could possibly develop for political activism. As a result, Sparrow was one of the Lingelihle activists who regularly attended Matthew Goniwe’s political classes.
It was the practice of his club that after winning a match they would celebrate. It was during one of these celebrations that he met Sindiswa, who he later married in 1972. She enjoyed watching soccer and Sparrow’s club was her favorite.
Sparrow was finally employed by the Department of Railways and Harbours at a depot in Cradock. Workers elected him as a shop steward. When the Cradock Workers Union(CRAWU) was formed he became its organiser. As a steward he had to be the bridge between workers and the employer. As an organiser he had to see to it that workers were unionised. He integrated the working class struggle into the national democratic struggle. His vision was to work for the fulfillment of the liberation of the oppressed and a free South Africa. These union roles made him unpopular among his employers and police security who saw him as a communist in the mode of Fort Calata and Matthew Goniwe.
Sparrow, like many others, lived and worked under trying conditions. Sparrow lived in a house where there was no electricity or hot water and their bucket system was in a small shack outside the house. The roads were dusty and untarred, with no stormwater drainage and no social amenities. There was little employment in Cradock and people who did have jobs did not earn well. The average wage of Cradock railway workers in 1983 was R242/month.
Simmering discontent among the residents of Cradock led to the formation of the Cradock Residents Association(CRADORA) in 1983. The workers elected Sparrow in his second meeting with CRADORA. At the time people were fighting with regard to rent. He was a senior office bearer of CRADORA. He saw no alternative to the struggle for unity of all classes and population groups in South Africa. He had to integrate the workers’ struggle with the broader community struggle. This was in line with the National Democratic Struggle. He emerged as one of the influential struggle activists within the CRADORA. He became chairperson of the Broad Forum which consisted of the CRADORA executives and leaders from the various sector organisations in Lingelihle. They would meet at the house of Ntombelas to strategise on their struggle. They would come up with programs and solutions to problems. As the chairperson of this forum he championed unity of purpose and action.
Sparrow worked with other comrades to establish people’s organisations of power in areas outside Cradock. He saw no alternative to the struggle for unity for the people of South Africa. As a result he motivated the members of CRAWU to participate in strikes and mass actions organised by CRADORA. Sparrow’s involvement with CRADORA and the railway union made him be seen by his employers as a communist who was destabilising the smooth functioning of the Department of Railways and Harbours. Consequently the security police, in partnership with his employers, conspired to fire him and dismissed him from work in 1983 because they perceived him a bad influence. This happened after the security police had threatened, physically assaulted and severely injured him.
The security police in neighbouring towns worked together in an attempt to break the organisational influence of Cradock by targeting activists. It was a common tactic of the security police to destabilise the ecomonic situation of activists by having them fired, transferred or by creating other financial problems for them. On many occasions, Sparrow was taken to the security police headquarters at the SANLAM building in Port Elizabeth, where he was assaulted before being released. He made a statement regarding this to his lawyer, and laid charges against the security police. The police never investigated. Later, Sindiswa, his wife, was fired from her job as well for being ‘the wife of a communist.’
Sparrow was part of the second layer of leadership Matthew was developing as a counter strategy to the detention of leaders by security police. Boycotts and labour strikes that had started in the 1970’s had gained enough momuntum to criple the country. Local organisations joined forces in creating mass resistance through the careful planning of boycotts and strikes around civil society issues, such as transport, school fees and rent. As the boundaries between student, worker, civic and political organisations came together, people realised the potential to ‘make apartheid unworkable.’
“IT WAS ONLY NATURAL THAT WE (THE CHURCH) BECAME PART OF IT (CIVIC ORGANISATION) BECAUSE THE
COMMUNITY WAS ONE, AND THE PROBLEMS THAT WE ENCOUNTERED, LIKE RENT INCREASES, THE STATE OF OUR
ROADS AND ALL THAT, THE BUCKET SYSTEM, THOSE WERE THE ISSUES THAT UNITED US IN OUR FURTHERANCE
– Gilly Sithethi Sikweyiya
26 & 27 JUNE 1985
During the celebrations of the Freedom Charter on 26 June 1985, in the Lingelihle Community Hall, Sparrow spoke on behalf of CRAWU. His speech focused on the future of the New South Africa which would respect the right to own land and would also see to it that the workers benefit appropriately from the sweat of their labor.
After this celebration the CRADORA leadership collective met to discuss various issues, among others, that of a weekly UDF meeting on 27 June 1985 in Port Elizabeth. It was decided that Sparrow Mkhonto would be part of the delegation with Matthew, Fort and Sicelo, an old school friend of Matthew’s. After the meeting, the four men left Port Elizabeth only to be intercepted at a police roadblock and illegally abducted. The four men were handcuffed, separated and driven back towards Port Elizabeth under the impression that they were being detained.
THE EVENTS THAT FOLLOWED
Sparrow Mkhonto was the first body to be found in Bluewater Bay, near Port Elizabeth. He was found 1 kilometre away from the burnt car in which they had been travelling, burnt, handcuffed and tied with rope, with gunshot wounds to his head and a stab wound to his chest. Sparrow left behind Sindiswa, his wife, and his son Lonwabo.
On 27 June 1985 security police assassinated these four comrades for their vision of a just society. The security police who were involved in the murder of the Cradock Four were General Nico van Rensburg, Major Herman du Plessis, Captain Izak van Zyl, Lieutenant Eric Alexander Taylor, Sergeant Gerhardus Johannes Lotz and Colonel Harold Snyman. They confessed their cruel deed before the 1998 hearings of the TRC. Their pleas for amnesty were unsuccessful.
On 20 April 2006, the South African government honoured Sparrow Mkhonto by conferring him with the Luthuli Medal in Bronze on Mkhonto, for his tremendous contribution in fighting for a free and democratic South Africa. The selflessness in which these four heroes dedicated their lives for the cause of freedom in South Africa is commendable. The struggle was their life.
“WE MUST ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT PEOPLE DO NOT FIGHT FOR IDEALS OR FOR THINGS ON OTHER PEOPLE’S
MINDS. PEOPLE FIGHT FOR PRACTICAL THINGS: FOR PEACE, FOR LIVING BETTER IN PEACE, AND FOR THEIR
CHILDREN’S FUTURE. LIBERTY, FRATERNITY AND EQUALITY CONTINUE TO BE EMPTY WORDS FOR PEOPLE IF THEY
DO NOT MEAN A REAL IMPROVEMENT IN THE CONDITIONS OF THEIR LIVES.”
– Amilcar Cabral, Semin rio de quadros, Conakry, 1969