Today marks 36 years since Human Rights attorney, African National Congress (ANC) and African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) member and political activist, Griffiths Mxenge was brutally murdered.
Griffiths Mxenge was born on 27 February 1935 in King Williams Town, Eastern Cape. He was the eldest son of Johnson Pinti and Hannah Nowise Mxenge, who were farmers from Rayi in the Eastern Cape.
While attending high school Mxenge became increasingly interested in politics and decided to join the ANCYL. Although Mxenge was involved in various protests throughout these years, he completed his LLB at the University of Natal in 1970 and married his childhood sweetheart, Victoria Nonyamezelo Ntebe. After obtaining his degree, Mxenge became a prominent human rights lawyer and a political activist in the Eastern Cape during the late 1970s and the early 1980s. He fought against the Apartheid regime and was recognised as one of the famous attorneys who defended numerous Africans who were arrested, charged and imprisoned, based on unjust laws.
Due to Mxenge’s campaign against the Apartheid regime and his impact in court, the threatened racist regime ‘ordered’ his assassination to remove him as a threat forever.
He was brutally murdered on the evening of 19 November 1981. He was abducted, stabbed and hammered to death. His mutilated body was found next to Durban’s Umlazi stadium. Victoria Mxenge had to identify her husband’s body and concluded from the onset that her husband’s death was politically motivated.
Although in exile at the time, ANC president Oliver Tambo sent condolences to the Mxenge family and also supported Victoria’s Mxenge’s view that her husband’s death was politically motivated. He stated that:
“On the night of 19 November in the South African city of Durban, agents of the Pretoria regime brutally assassinated Griffiths Mxenge. Using knives, the murderers were not content just to take away the life of this outstanding patriot. In unbridled savagery, they extensively mutilated his face and cut off his ears… The massacre of our people in Matola in January, the murder of Joe Gqabi in Salisbury in July and now the assassination of Griffiths Mxenge are a sign of the desperation of the enemy who increasingly finds himself unable to stop the forward march of the people, the ANC and the popular army, Umkhonto we Sizwe.”
Despite the anger surrounding Mxenge’s death, 15 000 mourners, which included United Democratic Front patron Albertina Sisulu and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, attended the funeral in King William’s Town to honour his memory.
The funeral was a peaceful affair where Mxenge’s body was laid to rest. It was only when Mxenge’s coffin, which was covered in ANC colours, was lowered into the ground that things took a turn for the worse. A Transkei security policeman by the name of Detective-Constable Albert Gungqwana Tafile was found secretly tape-recording the funeral which led to the crowd attacking the policeman. Although Archbishop Desmond Tutu tried to protect the policeman, the crowd attacked him and left him dying behind a makeshift VIP platform at the funeral.
The violence at Mxenge’s funeral was a powerful historical event as it exposed the drastic split between the Apartheid regime and the majority of Africans. As history student Jacob Manenzhe argued in his Masters thesis:
“The policeman, never mind being Black, was a servant of the State, and was therefore regarded as a puppet and a spy for his master, while Griffith’s coffin was a symbol of the oppressed Blacks.”
Mxenge’s murder remains one of the most notorious political assassinations in South Africa. Amnesty was granted to Mxenges killers, identified as a death squad operating from Vlakplaas, west of Pretoria, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997 despite severe objections by his family
Obituary for Griffiths Mlungisi Mxenge (1935 – 1981). http://remembered.co.za/obituary/view/4077
Jacob Manenzhe, THE POLITICISATION OF FUNERALS IN SOUTH AFRICA DURING THE 20th CENTURY (1900 – 1994). Masters Thesis. University of Pretoria. January 2007.
Statement by Oliver Tambo on the murder of Griffiths Mxenge. http://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/statement-oliver-tambo-murder-griffiths-mxenge-01-november-1981