South Africa

Mzwakhe Mbuli:
Rebel Voice Behind Bars

Revolutionary Worker #985, December 6, 1998

"My underpants pulled down
My private parts exposed
Is this a `New South Africa'?
Is this the `Rainbow Nation'?
My intelligence is beyond humiliation
My resilience is beyond malicious allegations
My spirit cannot be broken."
Mzwakhe Mbuli,
Pretoria Prison, South Africa, 1998

Under the apartheid regime of South Africa, the deep voice of Mzwakhe Mbuli--and his incendiary mix of music and the spoken word--was outlawed. Today it is a bitter comment on the New South Africa that Mzwakhe Mbuli is incarcerated in Pretoria Prison--framed up on bogus charges of bank robbery, facing 15 years in prison if he is convicted.

Mzwakhe came up in the youth upsurge at the time of the Soweto uprising; and for his outspoken anti-apartheid stand and his support for Nelson Mandela, Mzwakhe's poetry was routinely banned by the apartheid regime. Known as the "people's poet," Mzwakhe fought the apartheid system with his words. He survived prison detentions, torture, six months in solitary confinement, and three attempts on his life.

The release of Nelson Mandela from prison coincided with the first time an album by Mzwakhe was not banned. He became internationally famous on a world tour--six of his eight albums have gone `gold'--and he was a recent contributor on Peter Gabriel's AIDS album. After the '94 elections Mzwakhe was invited to recite his poetry at Nelson Mandela's inauguration. But Mzwakhe expressed deep disappointment with the program carried out by Mandela's regime and remained an outspoken critic of injustice and government corruption.

Since October 1997 he has been held at Pretoria Central Prison, denied bail three times and held in maximum security for five months. But he remains defiant. In a recent interview with two journalists, Ron Sakolsky of Beat magazine, and Sheila Nopper of Rhythm magazine, Mzwakhe shared his story.

Mzwakhe believes he was set up because he was planning to denounce government corruption, arms smuggling and drug trafficking. He had contacted local Security authorities and was scheduled to see Mandela himself when he was arrested. The tale of his arrest smacks of political intrigue and the methods of the South African political police.

On October 28, 1997, Mzwakhe received an anonymous phone call. The caller claimed to have information about a 1996 attempt on his life--which left Mzwakhe's car riddled with bullets--after Mzwakhe protested government corruption. The police never discovered the shooters, and Mzwakhe publically condemned them for this. The October 1997 phone call, promising information on his would-be assassins, lured Mzwakhe to Pretoria. There he was handed an envelope which was supposed to contain the names of the assassins. But Mzwakhe was quickly jumped by police, who examined the envelope and found 15,000 Rand which they claimed was stolen from a nearby bank. Mzwakhe was arrested and police confiscated a gun he carried to protect himself--citing this as evidence in the robbery.

At 6'4", Mzwakhe is as recognizable as he is famous--an unlikely candidate for committing a bank robbery which netted less than $4000. As a best-selling recording artist, he regularly gets $3-4000 per performance; and before his arrest he had just banked a check for $100,000 for a music spot he did endorsing the national railway system.

Mzwakhe told Ron Sakolsky: "I maintain my innocence. I have no doubt in my mind that the people behind my arrest are politicians who are involved in the drug trade. Given my stature and popularity it is not possible to go and rob a bank without even some form of disguise. Police have abused their power and issue wild, tarnishing and malicious statements to ruin my reputation. However, they only succeed in enhancing it. It is a sorry state of affairs that the Mandela-led government has inherited apartheid police who were previously involved in acts of terror and atrocities. Public support is overwhelming since I was arrested. I remain the victim of a grudge and political vendetta."

Mzwakhe's trial in June was a travesty of justice--reminiscent of the courts which tried and convicted Steven Biko and so many opponents of the apartheid regime. None of the key witnesses could identify Mzwakhe, and the bank security cameras were conveniently not activated the day of the robbery. Witnesses recanted testimony--one said he had been bribed by police. And one of the arresting officers committed suicide just before the court date. Delays by the court, day after day, led to a rescheduling of the trial until January 1999. And Mzwakhe remained in prison.

In Maximum Security Mzwakhe was put in a cell on Death Row, 50 steps from the gallows. Sharing his cell was Janus Walusz--the admitted murderer of Chris Hani. Hani was head of the ANC military wing and a close personal friend of Mzwakhe's--whose funeral oration for Hani is featured on Resistance Is Defense. In April 1997 Mzwakhe led a hunger strike calling for expansion of visitors' rights and he was moved from maximum security. "Presently, I share my cell with 64 other prisoners with only one toilet." Mzwakhe told Sheila Nopper, "We use a bucket of water to flush." The prison is constantly cold.

Mzwakhe has had more than 1,000 visitors; and each time he appears, the courtroom is packed with supporters and fans. His case is being considered for investigation by Amnesty International. In a full-page birthday greeting published in the `Mail and Guardian,' dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah wrote, "I truly believe that a nation can be judged on how it treats its poets."

"The justice system is still the same as under the apartheid regime," Mzwakhe says, "Apartheid appointees--judges and magistrates--continue to run the country through the courts. The so-called `Independent Judiciary' is just a myth. Human rights in South Africa is a circus. Here in prison people question my sacrifice and dedication to the past, and, because of my imprisonment, express their doubts about the sincerity of the present regime." The ANC has maintained a cool distance from Mzwakhe.


"I am vulgar-proof No regime can take away my dignity
No police force can arrest my talents
Oh, beloved South Africa
The truth is yet to come
And the truth shall set me free."

Mzwakhe Mbuli, Pretoria Prison, 1998

Unlike other ANC members now in government office, Mzwakhe has continued to stand with the poor, raising his voice in the hopes that the Mandela regime would change its course. He told Ron Sakolsky: "I am like a mirror in the society and reflect the true situation. I do not fictionalize. I do not worship leaders nor governments. The struggle is not yet over. The material conditions of the people in the townships are deteriorating. Silence is no longer golden when taxpayers' money is daily squandered by government officials. Corruption and rot has reached unprecedented levels.... Failure to alleviate unemployment, homelessness and untold poverty in the townships will result in an uprising. Our situation is like a powder keg. The people on the ground are angry. In the future mass anger will transform itself into civil disobedience. Life after Mandela won't be rosy, but thorny. The government of the day has failed us. People were promised heaven on earth and this promise has become a mirage. The South African people cannot be fooled all the time. The absence of war does not mean peace...."

On January 26, 1999, Mzwakhe Mbuli is scheduled to stand trial. He has vowed that until his release, his "pen will roll without a stop." And he has appealed to the international community to "get to the bottom of this vicious conspiracy."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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