The system of racial oppression in South Africa touched every aspect of life here.  As a result, over time, black South Africans and their allies built the freedom struggle in four arenas of action: mass action, underground organization, armed struggle, and international mobilization.  In this way, each aspect of the system would be met with an appropriate and commensurate strategic response – meeting mass mind-washing with mass action, violence (bodies) with violence (property, albeit officially), and meeting exploitative economic power with collective economic dissolution.  As the fight against apartheid wore on, and the government only growing more resistant, it was this last tactic, coordinated across the world, which finally broke the back of the apartheid regime, and ushered in a negotiated settlement. 


International mobilization included policies of boycotts, divestiture and sanctions, from the mid-60s up until South Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990s.  It was created in response to the increasing cruelty of the apartheid regime, and refusal to extend full citizenship rights to the majority of its citizens, and became a highly effective means of influencing despot regimes to uphold basic human and economic rights.  Today’s global BDS strategy as a means of punishing and isolating cruel regimes was borne out of the anti-apartheid movement in the United States from the 1980s well into the mid-1990s. 


Selby’s story begins as an 18 year old 11th grader at Morris Isaacson School in Soweto in early June 1976.  That story has been told here and here.  Selby Semela left South Africa in August 1976 because his life was in danger – he had been identified as one of the organizers of the Soweto Uprising and StayAway campaign enforcers.  

Selby received a citation from the New York City Council in June 2013, in honour of his role in the Soweto Uprising.


After two years based in London, the three who left together in ’76 were deployed internationally – Tsietsi to cover Africa, Barney to Europe, and Selby to the United States. He remained in the US and spent the next 15 years traveling the country speaking out against the apartheid regime, advocating for boycotts, divestiture and sanctions, which is what ultimately crashed the seeming invincibility of apartheid.  Selby was awarded political asylum by the U.S. in the mid-1980s and in 2013, was awarded a special citation of recognition from the New York City Council.    


We interview Mr. Semela, who lived on three front lines of the anti-apartheid movement, from mass mobilizations to armed struggle in Soweto, and for 15 years, as an outspoken advocate of international mobilization.  Selby grew to understand the vital importance of divestiture to end apartheid.  Selby helped persuade hundreds of corporations and churches, local governments and pension funds to withdraw from South Africa, allowing lost profits to buy time for Mandela to negotiate the transition to a democratic South Africa.  Selby is one of the few South Africans who took the Struggle to two continents, and won.


In August 1976, the first three students to escape the South African apartheid regime’s vicious reprisals for organizing the Soweto Uprising just two months earlier, sat in London deciding their new fate.  They were high school classmates – Selby was just 18 and still reeling from being away from home – and just beginning their lives as political exiles.  In the months following, it was agreed that Tsietsi Mashinini, the leader of the Soweto Student Representative Council, would return to Africa to carry on the struggle in Nigeria; Barney Makgatle, would stay in Europe, and Selby Semela, it was decided would head to the United States.  Selby would not return to South Africa again for almost 20 years, returning for the first time since exile in 1995.

Selby headline snip

Less than a year after organizing the Soweto Uprising, Selby was speaking out against the South African government, in the UK and then across the US.

When he got to the United States through New York, Selby realized that coverage of the uprising was gaining traction as a symbol of a new generation of protest for racial dignity and human rights.  The powerful images of the South African government shooting its own children was a wake-up call to the international community to find its will.


A natural orator, Selby soon became an able spokesperson, encouraging the international community to apply pressure in any way possible to compromise and ultimately topple the apartheid regime. Assaulted by South African agents in London, he was re-deployed to the United States where he became an active organizer on behalf of corporate and public divestment.


His voice on behalf of the people of South Africa had a part in the early divestment efforts, which quickly snowballed.  By 1977, Selby was speaking out on the importance of strengthening sanctions, boycotts, and divestiture efforts, up through the early 1990s.  He partnered with local activists to win new allies and more effectively apply pressure for divestment of investment funds, boycotts at public ports and sanctions on business in South Africa.  In the early 1980s, he became one of the first (possibly the first) black South African to win political asylum in the U.S. following the 1976 uprisings, opening the door for others and stabilizing his status while he continued his work on behalf of the Struggle.


FLOW Magazine:  how did you hear about divestiture? What made you think it might work?


Selby: I heard about divestiture when I was living in California in 1978. The idea had come about from students on college campuses who were frustrated that moral arguments against apartheid were not having any effect, especially as the images on TV reminded them of the US civil rights protests.  Having lived through the work boycott after June 16 [the Stay Away campaigns], I understood the power of economics. It seemed clear that we were never going to have superior fire power – there had to be another way.

“We can’t be responsible for the social affairs of a country. Where there’s commerce and trade, we feel we should be part of it.” Chairman, Chase Manhattan Bank, 1976


FLOW: as you know, the US government opposed sanctions because they perceived South Africa as an important Cold War ally.  What were some the common arguments you heard against sanctions and how did you respond?


SS:  the most common was that sanctions would hurt the people they were intended to help.  We responded that millions of black South Africans were not part of the formal economy and wouldn’t be directly affected any worse than they already were.  Yes it might hurt those South Africans with formal jobs at those American companies, but for most oppressed South Africans, apartheid hurt more people and worse than sanctions did.  There was solidarity – we had foresight to see past struggle to freedom.


Some felt that we should go slow.  In the United States, people were struggling for civil rights.  In South Africa, we were not fighting for access to lunch counters and busses.  We were fighting for our natural rights, and that’s a different thing.  We wanted a complete change in the political structure.  I am reminded of a quote by Stephen Biko when I hear people talk about sanctions hurting black people more than apartheid did: “The basic tenet of black consciousness is that the black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic dignity.”  The sanctions that were finally put in place until 1991 were the toughest the US and most of Europe had ever taken.

FLOW: What was your strategy and how did you roll it out?  How did you end up in meetings with the boards of these universities? Why were they compelled to meet with you?

Berkeley Shantytown

Students began building shacks on college campuses. Police would tear them down, and they would reappear overnight.

SS: I was living in Berkeley (California) when the movement started gaining some steam, and then it spread to other UC campuses. Berkeley coordinated with other campuses and that’s how I got involved with other universities [across the US like Michigan].  I was not in a position to get access – I was so young, and so new to the US. But I was able to talk to the people with access and win their support. In those days I was more of a spokesperson than an organizer.  In Oakland, I got to meet members of the Black Panther Party (where it was founded).  It was the American black power movement in the 1960s and 1970s that influenced the black consciousness and student movements in South Africa in the 1970s.
The divestiture movement targeted companies strategically, at least at first.  IBM printed the dreaded passbooks, Polaroid’s logo was imprinted across the photographs inside.  Awareness began to build – Polaroid employees stumbled across South African government contracts and they began a worker’s boycott and divestiture movement from inside the company. Polaroid divested in 1977.   


Selby NOLA port mtg

Semela’s outreach included dockworkers unions in California and New Orleans, who agreed to boycott the unloading of South African cargo ships, a protest strategy still deployed today.

FLOW:  Divestiture and sanctions appeared to roll out in stages – universities were first, then local governments then corporations.  Why do you think it rolled out that way?


SS: That’s true. Universities, churches, trade unions, public pension funds. By the time I got to the South (southeastern United States), I’d learned to leverage local left wing movements to gain allies. In New Orleans, people on the left supported each other’s causes, and I organized the New Orleans Committee Against Apartheid that got a lot of widespread support.  We worked with the New Orleans Port Authority trade unions, who agreed to boycott the unloading of South African cargo.  Oakland did too.  That was a huge help.

FLOW: What was the biggest turning point in the divestiture movement?  Coca Cola divested in 1986 -the first company to withdraw on moral grounds- and auto makers began to sell their operations to local black owners in the mid-1980s?  When did the dam break?


SS: When companies started closing down their South African operations. And it was about that time that the U.S. government approved sanctions against the South African government that were the toughest they were ever going to approve.


Selby Gov Brown snip

Semela speaks at an anti-apartheid rally with California governor, Jerry Brown, who implemented the United States’ first state government divestment, totaling $11 billion in 1979.

In 1979, Selby was living in Oakland, California and working with the University of California board of regents, when it divested of its South African holdings, totalling $4 billion through 1986. The state of California quickly followed suit, divesting over $11 billion. By 1988, hundreds of corporations and banks, local and state governments, faith organizations and over 150 universities across the United States had divested upwards of almost $1 trillion dollars from South Africa, destabilizing the South African economy, and forcing the apartheid government to the bargaining table.  As Mandela opened secret negotiations with South African president P. W. Botha, Oliver Tambo wrote: “Don’t manoeuvre yourself into a situation where we have to abandon sanctions.  We are very concerned that we should not get stripped of our weapons of struggle, and the most important of these is sanctions.”


FLOW:  There is a survey taken in August 1988 by The Africa Fund which itemizes over $700 billion in divestments from 155 colleges and universities.  Where were you when you heard Mandela had been freed?  What was that like for you?


SS:  I was in California when Mandela was freed. I went to the Coliseum in Oakland when Mandela came to the U.S., and I could see that there was no turning back. I was in shock – for the very first time I thought I might be able to go back home – I never thought that would be possible.


FLOW: What was divestiture’s greatest value to the Struggle? What are you most proud of?


SS: It brought the eyes and conscience of the international community to South Africa in a very tangible way. I was in awe of all the time and effort that Americans were putting into the effort – it was amazing to me. That I had something to do with motivating that was something to be proud of. I was also proud to have a big role in mobilizing activism on behalf of South Africa in the American South. The people there were hungry for knowledge about what was happening – very different from the California scene. If I hadn’t lived there during that time, they wouldn’t have had access to the story in a way that made it their story. I felt a strong affinity for many people in the South.

Mrs King and Mandelas at King Centre

With Mrs King and Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s mayor, at Dr. King’s memorial, 1990.

FLOW: Yes, Coretta Scott King was a very outspoken critic and leading advocate against apartheid.  What do you want South Africans to know about it?  What would you tell people who seem to be facing insurmountable systemic odds?

SS: That if the International community had not played the role that they did, apartheid would not have been dismantled. As long as we were isolated, we were vulnerable. It’s very important to broadcast your issues to the world, rather than suffering in silence. It’s amazing the support you can find when you are open to it.


The forces of economic change for good won out.  Adele Simmons was the president of Hampshire College when in 1977 in the months following the Soweto Uprising, it became the US’s first college to divest of South Africa investments.  She wrote in 2013:


When I met F.W. de Klerk, the last president of the apartheid regime, in Chicago two years ago, he was clear: “When the divestment movement began, I knew that apartheid had to end.” And when I met with Mandela in 1990 in New York, he said that divestment was a crucial factor in ending apartheid. The movement against apartheid was led by South Africans, and Mandela was an inspiration throughout the decades, but the actions of U.S. investors gave the movement both visibility and legitimacy and had a decisive economic impact.

Once, I asked Selby, of all the amazing things you have accomplished in your life, what are you most proud of?  Without a pause, he said, “divestiture.” It also happens to be the thing his fellow South Africans know the least about.  Hopefully that will change.

Selby speaking Spence

Selby continues to teach about his experiences: in Manhattan, NYC, he speaks to a class of high school students, April 2016.

Award-winning 7-part series on the global anti-apartheid movement


List of American colleges and universities divested as of August 1988.


Selby speaks at Spence School in Manhattan, NYC, April 2016


Mandela’s comments on sanctions


One of my dearest friends is also one of the most extraordinary, and the humblest.  Today, 40 years after the fact, I took Selby to the Hector Pieterson Museum to help him find himself.  Literally. He was one of the students at Morris Isaacson High School, who in 1976 gleefully hopped out on the morning of June 16, to finally do something about his future, namely protect it from a Bantu education.  He was promptly shot in the back for his enthusiasm by a guard waiting for them at the bottom of the hill.  You can read his story here.

He went on to do many amazing things in his life in return for the favour, including traveling the United States speaking out for divestiture from South Africa of US companies and academic institutions, as well as inspiring dockworkers in California and New Orleans to boycott South African ships. This strategy is known today as “BDS:” Boycott, Divestiture, Sanctions. After proving it’s  success by killing apartheid’s business model, the world community has deployed BDS against many evil regimes ever since.  Most of us would feel purpose in doing one of those things. Selby did them all.

While he was in Johannesburg, we went to the Hector Pieterson museum, his first visit.  Whether out of humility, or loss, or anger or guilt, I’m not sure but he had never been.  I managed a conversation with the curator, Mr. Gule, and arranged a visit to the archives so that Selby, for the first time, might find a picture of himself.

Selby looking for himself3 31 Mar 2016

What can he be thinking?

Judy assisted us there, and led us through winding corridors to the stacks. Whether humility, or manners or fear of what he might find, he insisted I lead behind her. Whether out of respect, or fear of what might feel, I insisted he go first. We walked very slowly then, almost losing our way in the process.  As he walked, head high, looking around at the pictures and the space we were in, I wondered what was going through his mind. I think he was absorbing everything around to stay present, to not have anything – expectations, fear, dread – going through his mind.

Judy pulled open the wide drawers quietly, handing us two cotton jackets to wear. The archivist jackets cloaked us in purpose and history and respect. The ghosts of that day clung heavily to us as each drawer opened. Selby pushed the ghosts away – the education he never received, the friends whose lives were stunted or lost, the message that never made it through, the neighbourhood, the country he never lived in again.  Today we are back in his Soweto, frozen in time, our purpose is to scan faces for his own.

As I stood leaning by, my heart would stop each time his finger tapped a page.  He’d say, “I knew her,” or “…Tebello…”  He might shift a print, stop and go back to it. He smiled when he had to pull out his new glasses.  We would shut that drawer of ghosts and open another.

They handed us several books on the uprising, most filled with images of that day.  There were framed mattes of the headlines around the world, with writeups of various emphases and collection of facts arranged to suit the senders’ message, the students as freedom fighters, the students as violent provocateurs. We skimmed those, like I skim my twitter timeline.

We wanted – I wanted – incontrovertible proof of Selby’s participation on that day. He says many friends had applied for and received a veterans’ pension, yet his application continues to be declined. His struggle continues.  I want a picture for his grandchildren, for his many talks to schools around the US and South Africa, for a documentary film on his life.

I stand behind quietly taking pictures of him looking at pictures, wishing our thoughts could actually be bubbles floating above our heads. He was so deliberate and calm.  What is he thinking? Is he seeing it again, the chanting and joy, the gunshots, the screams? Is it upsetting to see pictures of that day? What will happen when he sees himself?  Will it be the 18 year-old man chanting shoulder to shoulder with his best friends, or the wounded teenager shot in the back by his government?

Neither of us can answer that question, because we shut the drawer and closed the books, not having found his ghost – the smiling, jubilant boy on the last day he ever felt truly free.  Why have you never been to the Hector Pieterson museum before now? I inquire.  He answers he never really thought about it, til I suppose that burden was placed on him by people like us, who a bit voyeuristically hover over his shoulder with a camera, waiting for that moment of recognition which never comes.

It may not come. But neither did free education. Economic equity. Peace and security. All those things that we thought would come with bullets and teargas and a free South Africa.  Selby slides the last drawer shut and looks up at me with a short sigh.

I look down at him. Was he shot in the left shoulder or the right one? I can’t remember, the scar has healed. The physical one.  The ones in his mind, and in his heart, those continue to bleed.  Unfinished business.  Come on, I say, my chin up, we will keep looking until we find it.  We will find you.

He doesn’t seem particularly disappointed when we leave.  Not as many pictures as I would have thought, he says.  One in particular, we are thinking, and we drive away.


Visiting the museum

Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum
Tel: +27 (0)11 536 0611

From Johannesburg’s Western Bypass, take the exit to the N17.  At the roundabout continue straight which turns into Klipspruit Valley Road. Take a right onto Pela Street.  At the end of the street, bear right to stay on Pela Street. As the street appears to dead end, bear left and the museum is on the left.  Parking is in the back.

Adelaide Steedley interviews Selby Semela and Barney Mokgatle, two leaders of the Soweto Uprising: what we can learn in our own lives from ordinary people who became heroic in theirs?

There are times in history, as in life, when events seem unfair, chaotic, surreal, even sublime.  While we could ponder them all day, at some point, history and lives must be lived. At what point does a person decide to step in?  What can we learn about choosing to step into pivotal moments in history from those people who did?  Not that they did anything historic at the time, they were doing what they thought had to be done.  It only became part of History afterwards.

I sat with Selby Semela and Barney Mogkatle, two seemingly ordinary high school students in Soweto in 1976, to learn more about the infamous days that they – aided by the horrific response of the South African Police force – created, which so profoundly shifted the momentum of the Struggle in South Africa.  The day they stopped pondering events happening to them, and stepped in.

A Soweto classroom in 1976

In 1974, the South African education department announced that all modes of instruction would be in Afrikaans.  It was an ingenious measure because while appearing nationalistic and business-oriented, the rule’s impact on the black educational experience was more confusion, humiliation, and ultimately, mass resistance.  In that way, it was ingenious, just not in the ways intended by its overseers.  The rule was implemented in phases, incorporating older grades year by year.  Students had begun organizing in Soweto, and the new rule added fuel to that fire.  Selby and Barney, 18 and 22 respectively, with their friend Tsietsi Mashinini, 22, watched the encroaching shift with seething anger and agitation.

Where were you in 1976? How did you know each other?

BM:  We both knew Tsietsi, he was the leader of the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC).  We were all at Morris Isaacson High School.  Tsietsi and I were both Matrics.  I was 22 because I had switched schools, and had been a bit rebellious.

SS: I was 18 in grade 11.

So what was going on?

BM:  When they started making students learn in Afrikaans, we thought if we agree to this, we will be oppressed mentally, which was worse than being bound and chained.  You were no longer who you were.  If you were bound and chained, at least you remembered who you were.  Roots define where you are going because you know where you came from.  Your kids would not know.  We felt we had to stop them before they got to the high school- the following year we were anticipating that.

SS:  We began to read more about Black Consciousness.  I mean, the things our girlfriends were doing to make themselves look white, it was a shame.  The Black Consciousness Movement was a philosophy of blackness, knowing yourself.   Meetings of the South African Student Organization [founded in 1969, with Steve Biko as its founding president] and the SSRC were already going on.  We were inspired by the movement.

BM: We were aware of the same thing going on in the United States – we felt if they could rise up with Black Power in that great big country, we could too. We called the US the Python – it’s threat of violence was more like a slow squeezing, and we called South Africa the Cobra, it’s violence was a quick, spitting bite – you never knew when it might strike. We may have been surrounded by violence, and oppression and poverty. But we said God did not make a mistake to make us black.

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor, is the mind of the oppressed.” Steve Biko, I Write What I Like, 1978

How did things start to intensify? How did the idea of a march come on?

BM: It happened over about a month, the planning.  We had been having meetings with all the other schools, sharing ideas and frustration.  We spoke to the teachers about planning a march to hand over a petition to the Vorster police station (now Johannesburg central police station).  It was secret, only the heads of schools we trusted were included.  They gave us motivation and guidelines from the Black Peoples’ Convention [founded as an offshoot of the BCM in 1972].

SS:  Our principal had the idea. It would be more harmful if the teachers protested [they were expected to teach in Afrikaans], but if the students protested, it would be difficult for the system to hold them accountable for a peaceful student march.  No one could blame the teachers.

BM: The teachers were happy with it, they said we must always proclaim it would be a peaceful march.  They said not to go to our parents – our parents grew up with this [oppression], they didn’t want us killed for something political.  Not even all the teachers knew.

SS:  Yes, our parents didn’t know. They couldn’t know, or they would never have let us go ahead.

What was the plan?

BM:  After the morning assembly before going to class, leaders were to go to the front and explain we were marching from the school now, and taking a petition against Afrikaans instruction to Orlando Stadium, where we were going to join up with the other schools, and the petition would be delivered to John Vorster (the police station).

SS: We would assemble at Orlando Stadium for speeches, and then go back to school.  We would march over again, until we got Afrikaans out of the classroom.  That was our goal.


How it was supposed to be: between 3 000 and 10 000 school children marched. The government had just completed a school building spree in Soweto to meet booming urban migration and business demand for better trained employees.  

What happened to you that day?  Were you afraid?

BM: It was a Wednesday, we just picked it because it was about a month away from when we started planning.   And no, we weren’t afraid, we weren’t expecting violence! We were excited, as it was the first time students would be marching.  That morning, Tsietsi spoke at the assembly. We sang, and we left.

SS: We headed down Mahalefele Street, towards Orlando Stadium.  As people began to see what was going on, they started streaming in from the side streets to join, so the crowd was getting bigger and bigger very fast.  We were singing, and then as the street turned down towards the valley, we saw the white casspirs rolling down along the highways, across the other side of the hill towards us.

BM:  I think someone, a teacher or somebody, must have called the police from the school, they (the police) came so fast.  There’s no way they could have had such a well-organized response that fast if they didn’t know. The helicopters started buzzing overhead to figure out which way we were going, to try to stop us.

SS: We kept marching down the hill, and the police built a block across the road at the bottom of the hill.  They didn’t do anything for a long time, we saw them just standing there.  One of them with a bullhorn says for us to stop marching and disperse immediately or they will start shooting in two minutes.  I don’t know why he even said that – they started shooting right away.  At first we thought it was blanks or just shooting in the air, but when people started screaming and falling, we realized then and there that they were using actual bullets.  Everyone started running. Many, many people got shot as they were running away [official figures stand at 176 deaths over the two-day riot].  As the day went on, those of us who organized the march, we were devastated, we felt horrible.  What had we done? People had died. That was not the plan.

BM: where I was, the police started shooting from behind because they had to follow us marching, because they did not know which way we were headed.

What was the most important thing you think you did, what was your most important role?

BM: Well, I was one of the few who was old enough to drive and I had a car, so I drove the leaders from meeting to meeting.  They depended on me to get them from place to place.  Without that, I think they could not have organized, it was of course before cellphones.  Getting a car, getting the license sorted, I think I was the engineer of organizing that – we could not move without that.

SS: well, honestly, I didn’t do anything before 16 June except go to meetings.  My piece started on 16 June, in response to the violence and the Stay Away campaign.  We made up the Suicide Squad, there were nine of us, and we became the enforcing arm of the SSRC (laughs). I was a very proud member.  A friend of Barney’s, he’d been trained in petrol bombs or something in Mozambique.  It was something else. It was crazy.

What’s that? What happened next?

BM:  We spent the next few weeks in hiding.  The police found out who we were and were looking for us, harassing our families constantly.  Because of the police harassment, the BCM and other organizations had proposed a Stay-Away campaign to protest the police violence, but the adults were not participating- they needed their jobs, they needed to go to work, so the campaign was not working. We decided to make it impossible for them to go to work, so we organized what we called the Suicide Squad.

SS: We decided to blow up the logistics of getting to work.  We blew up train stations, and signal posts. I think they [the parents] knew what we were doing, it gave them the excuse to stay away from work.  But the police stepped up their search for us. It was very bad.

At what point- how did you decide to leave South Africa? How did you get out?

SS:  The police were offering a R500 reward for information about where we were.  Then, that was a couple of month’s salary, it was a lot of money and we understood that.  Also, our pictures were in the papers. Eventually, we were told that we should leave the country, we were endangering ourselves, and our family.

BM: Selby had been shot at the march, but when he went to hospital, the police made him nervous and he left.  Tsietsi had decided he had to leave, he was getting the most harassment.  We realized that even if he left, the police could capture us and get all the information they needed from us, and his exile would be wasted.  We all agreed to exile together. I did not want to exile.  I did not know what the exile world would be like…

SS: Over those weeks, I mean, this thing had gotten so much bigger than any of us, than any of us had imagined.  It had taken on a life of its own.  Adults talked to us and they raised money to arrange for flights out from Botswana, to Europe, Amsterdam.  As a decoy, we had the papers report that we had already left the country. We then drove in the middle of the night north to Botswana.  The driver dropped us in a field just before the border crossing, and was supposed to pick us up on the other side.  We must have walked for three or four hours in the pitch black, our shoes and clothes tearing on the bush, and feet bloody. We were freezing, we were lost and we were sure that we were going to die.  The driver found us eventually and we made it to Gabarone.

BM: Our sponsor, the Council of Churches, had organized flights to Amsterdam.  From Gabarone, we flew to London through Lusaka.  In London, we were stalled in Gatwick because we did not have visas.  A friend of ours, John Blair, of London television, whom we had met during his coverage in Soweto contacted the media, and the next thing we know, the media were all around us in Gatwick. We were the first students involved with the uprising to make it out of South Africa and it caused a very big stir.

Tsietse Moshinini, Selby Semela and Barney Mokgatle salute the South African government, London, 1977

We made it: Tsietsi Moshinini, Selby Semela and Barney Mokgatle salute the South African government from Heathrow, London, 1977

SS: That picture was taken at the airport.  We wanted to show the South African police that we had made it out of South Africa.  And our families.

What do you think about what you did, to pull off one of the seminal turning points in history? What does it mean?

BM: Looking back, we believed that we are never free unless we are mentally free.  The freedom we had in 1976 was mental and conscious freedom, freeing ourselves in how we think. The freedom we got in 1994 was the power to vote, and some more economic freedom. But today, when people vote, do they understand? A vote today is based on personalities, not from a sense of real freedom and democracy. Is the person you’re voting for giving you the right sense of freedom, or enriching themselves?  They told the people that we were free because of Mandela, when in fact Mandela was free because of themtheir resistance. I mean, how do you understand freedom? Youth today don’t view themselves as liberators, they are more concerned about individualism, individual freedom, not the collective. There’s still a lot of work to do to liberate black people.

SS: For me, it was to actually see a contribution amount to something, to do things that were unthinkable. You don’t realize how much power you have until you use it. Before [16 June], we were just high school students taking it. I grew up with many questions. I was living in a world that didn’t make sense. I had no idea what I wanted to become, because I didn’t see where I belonged. That was very scary. Then, after the uprising, we weren’t alone. They [organizations or people] came to help us, but none of them were in a position to take on the South African government. That was the biggest disappointment of my life.


The author’s son with Selby (and his image) on the 16 June memorial wall, across from Morris Isaacson High School, 2013.

What do your children think of what you did? How did it affect their lives?

BM: My kids are proud (laughs), one is a teacher, building a better foundation through education, helping kids understand themselves for tomorrow.

SS: We took them to meetings, conferences, they were like sponges.  One of my sons, Naledi, when he graduated from (Colgate) university, he received a new “Voice of Conscience” Award in race relations in 2010.  The university president said things about him, we were shocked. I am very proud of my sons.

“In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.” Steve Biko, I Write What I Like (1978).

Life Turns Out

Both Selby and Barney lived as exiles, traveling the world speaking out against the apartheid regime, mobilizing actions around strategies such as divestiture, dockside strikes and a maintained media spotlight. Barney returned to South Africa in 1993 and now lives in Alexandra. He enjoys speaking of his experiences to youth organizations. Selby lives near Washington, and has recently begun returning on a regular basis.  Tsietsi died in Guinea in 1990; a statue of him stands at the Morris Isaacson School.

Barney and Tsietsi at Morris Isaacson, 2014.

Barney and Tsietsi at Morris Isaacson, 2014. The statue now sits at the interpretation centre across the street.

The famous picture of the trio, splashed triumphantly all over the world, is embossed on the June 16 memorial wall across from the high school.  Their giddy jubilation still shines through.

What will it take

Not many of us can claim to have the self-confidence, the sense of urgency, and the courage which Selby, Barney and Tsietsi showed when they stepped in during those pivotal months in 1976, and after.  But understanding how they stepped forward – ordinary students who created extraordinary moments – we can learn more about our potential to claim those moments ourselves, and correct the course of our own histories, our communities, or our nation. If we can find what it takes to grasp those moments, and not be intimidated by them, we can bend the arc of history, which while it may be long, bends towards justice.

 Interviews with Selby Semela and Barney Mogkatle, by Adelaide Steedley.