THE death of Thomas Madikwe Manthata, popularly known as “Tom” on Friday 10 July 2020, marks the end of an era among South Africans who had wholly dedicated their lives to the struggle for liberation and the restoration of the dignity and humanity of the black people in South Africa. Tom died of complications to COVID-19. For some time Tom had endured poor health, and with deteriorating eyesight stemming from torture at the hands of the security police, he eventually lost his eyesight altogether. Tom was an exemplar of a dedicated soldier for peace with justice.
Tom Manthata straddles many divides in our country, and in many respects served as a trusted bridge and reconciler. He began his adult life as a seminarian in the Roman Catholic Church but soon left to pursue other interests. His yearning for justice that got him out of seminary became a driving force of his character. As a school-teacher in Soweto, he was not only a dedicated educator, but he was also a friend and mentor to his students. His keen eye for the discernment of character, his empathy and understanding of the struggles that his students were confronted with soon meant that he became the interpreter of the anger of the students when they walked out and demonstrated in the streets of Soweto in 1976. It was to him that parents and teachers could turn in order to understand the minds of the young revolutionaries of Soweto. He became the driving force behind the Soweto Committee of Ten that was led by the late Dr Nthato Motlana. That soon made sure that there was no divide between the young people and their parents about their aspirations and the struggle they had embarked upon.
Tom Manthata is a product of the church. A devout lifelong Catholic, in his earlier life he was active in the Bishops’ Commission on Justice and Peace that was led by the late Archbishop Denis Hurley. With such like Catholic priests as Clement Mokoka, Anthony Mongameli Mabona, Smangaliso Mkatshwa, Lebang Sebidi, together with a large army of active lay people like Drake Koka, Chris Mokoditoa, Vincent Maphai, Mogobe Ramose and others they radicalized the approach of the Roman Catholic Church not just to questions of justice and peace but also to understand the aspirations of the people and their thirst for liberation. In such a manner, the church then had to become part of the solution and not a problem.
But Mathata once again bridged the divide between the secular and the ecclesiastical. He became an active member of SASO as early as 1972 following the nation-wide strikes by students at Black Campuses following the Tiro Speech at Turfloop. In that, he gave support to his own students who formed themselves into the Soweto Students’ Representative Council. He was a SASO delegate at Hammanskraal. Later that year, he was among the delegates to the founding Congress of the Black Peoples’ Convention, later emerging as one of the Deputy Presidents.
The years that followed were marked by the fateful banning orders of February 1973, the outflow of many young activists en route to exile and military training to join the armed struggle;, the Frelimo Rally to mark the independence of the Portuguese Colonies; more arrests, the BPC/SASO Trial of 1976, the Soweto Student revolts, culminating in the death of Steve Biko in September 1977 and the Black October that was meant to bring about the total vanquishment of any vestiges of Black Consciousness activism that remained in society. Following the banning of all Black Consciousness organisations, Tom Manthata once again joined with other activists to claim the right of the people to organize openly and lawfully to organize for their own liberation. Thus the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) was born.
But Mathata was not at an end. Alongside his activism in SASO and BPC, he was also active in the University Christian Movement in its espousal of Black Theology. With a growing number of Catholic priests like now Archbishop Buti Tlhagale OMI, the enculturation movement in the Catholic Church gathered pace, giving rise to Contextual Theology. Tom Manthata was once again active as a bridge-builder, this time between the Catholic activism contributing to the wider radical ecumenical movement in South Africa.
The South African Council of Churches soon became the home, under the Bishop Desmond Tutu as General Secretary, for more of the creative minds who were resolved to keep hope alive. Two of the key programmes of SACC were the Peace and Justice under Dr Wolfram Kistener and Dependants’ Conference under Ms Anne Hughes. The groundbreaking work of research on policy of forced removals was undertaken. So also, support for dependents of those who were under arrest or detained for their families. Tom Manthata was a Field Worker supporting the families, investigating their circumstances, ensuring support for schooling, health care or the unemployed thereby undermining the purpose of the apartheid regime to crush the spirits of the fighting forces against apartheid. Arguably, those days there were very few people who were in touch with every nook and cranny of this country as Tom did, who knew first-hand the struggles of those victimised by apartheid. Tom thus became the reservoir of knowledge that was relied upon by the SACC in its campaigns against apartheid.
Beyond the ecumenical movement, Tom Manthata was also the link between the struggles of the people within South Africa and with the liberation movement in exile. He was among those who supported the freedom fighters in their forays into South Africa. So involved was he that he became one of the accused in the Delmas Treason Trial (1985-1988) with the late Moss Chikane, Popo Molefe, Mosiuoa Lekota and others. Found guilty but on appeal were released in 1989 by which time they had been in jail for four years. Upon his release from prison, and with the onset of the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela, Manthata set off with his family for studies in England at Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham where he obtained a Master’s degree in Education.
With the establishment of the TRC in 1995, Tom Manthata was called upon by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, now the Chairperson of the TRC to assist the Commission on account of his vast knowledge of people and places where the victims of apartheid were to be found, and from whom he was arguably the one person best trusted by the victims of apartheid. He assisted the TRC in connecting with the people, making arrangements for them to give evidence and attending to their transportation and logistics for the TRC Hearings. Tom Manthata thus played a crucial role in bringing the system of apartheid to account.
With that vast knowledge and empathy Parliament appointed Tom Manthata a Commissioner of the South African Human Rights Commission. At the Commission, once again, he specialized in the Rights of the Older Persons where he championed the appropriate legislation and brought to attention the needs of this much-neglected section of the population. In this he broke new ground as there had been no such focus in the work of the Commission before. He was also the Commissioner responsible for education where his love for education and his understanding of young people was always at the forefront of his mind.
Tom Manthata truly spans the history of the liberation of this country and his entire adult life has been dedicated to the struggle of the people of South Africa for freedom and human dignity. He was a consummate reconciler, with ease for empathy for the causes of others, and his devotion to works for justice in society. His store of knowledge and experience always informed his activism, and his love for people always meant that his heart and mind came together in bringing passion to his work and outcomes that served the people best.
Tom Manthata is an example of the complexities of our history and society but ones which in him are simplified by his singular devotion to the dignity of all humankind. For that Manthata expected no rewards, claimed no benefits for himself and sought no recognition save the legacy of a South Africa as a constitutional state built on the values of “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.” In all those respects, Tom Manthata is the epitome of a free human being.
Tom Manthata’s life and death perhaps were echoed in the last words of Patrice Lumumba:
… for without dignity there is no freedom, without justice there is no dignity, and without independence there is no free man… No brutality, abuse, or torture have ever led me to ask for grace, for I prefer to die with my head high, steadfast in faith and deep trust in the destiny of my country…
Tom Manthata is survived by his devoted wife Barbara (born Matthews), and three adult children to whom the Patron of The Thabo Mbeki Foundation, President Thabo Mbeki and the Chairperson of the Board, Dr Brigalia Bam, on behalf of the Board of Trustees join millions of South Africans, in expressing sincerest condolences, and pray that they may be comforted in this hour of darkness.
Hamba kahle, Madikwe! Robala hanhle Ntate Manthata!