Born as the second son, Solomon was raised in Pretoria by his mother Martha Mahlangu, who was a domestic worker. He dropped out of school during Grade 10 due to the riots and subsequent closure of his school, Mamelodi High School.
He joined the African National Congress (ANC) in September 1976 during the youth uprising that gripped the country, which was sparked by the Soweto youth in the former Transvaal. Mahlangu, Masuku, Temba Nkosi and Richard Chauke left South Africa via Mozambique to join Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and spent six months at Xai Xai refugee camp. They were rescued later and transported to an ANC training facility, called Engineering, in Angola. Mahlangu was reassigned to various cells within the training camp but he eventually joined a smaller unit of 10 men under Julius Mokoena, who reported to the commander in chief, Joe Modise. Amongst the 10 were George ‘Lucky’ Mahlangu and Mondy Motloung. The unit was trained at Funda Camp; they underwent crash courses in sabotage, military combat, scouting and political education.
Solomon Mahlangu left to join Umkhonto we Sizwe without informing his family, who thought he was still selling goods on trains and had ended up in Pietersburg. Mahlangu left a letter under his brother’s pillow: “Boet Lucas, don’t look for me, I have left and you’ll never find me”. Later, Temba Nkosi’s father, the young man Mahlangu left the country with, came to inform the family that their son had left to join the ANC in exile.
Mahlangu’s MK unit left Angola in mid-1977 on a mission to join student protests commemorating the June 16 Uprising and the police massacre that followed. They travelled through Mozambique to Namatswa on the Swaziland border, where Collin Ramusi met them. Ramusi drove them to a safe house in Mbabane, where they were briefed by General Siphiwe Nyanda and given suitcases filled with false bottoms containing pamphlets, guns and grenades. The packages in which cadres received their sabotage material were known as ‘Dead letter Boxes’ (DLBs). It was common for each unit to be split into cells of three cadres when travelling into South Africa. Mahlangu was assigned to a cell with Lucky and on the 13th June 1977, the trio made their way to the Diagonal Street taxi rank in Johannesburg where they planned to catch a taxi to Soweto. As the first anniversary of the Soweto uprising was just three days away, police presence was strong and evident. A Black policeman on patrol noticed the trio entering a taxi with large bags and approached them. The policeman said “laat ek sien wat het julle daar!” The policeman grabbed the bag and a hand grenade and AK-47 rifle fell out, with the policeman running for cover. The trio panicked and fled from the taxi, disappearing into the crowd. Lucky ran in the direction of Park station and managed to elude capture.
Mahlangu and Motloung ran towards Fordsburg along Jeppe Street, not realising that they were running towards John Vorster Square, the most notorious police station in the country. On the way Motloung got into a tug-of-war with an off-duty policeman. He managed to get away, but the policeman shot at the running pair, hitting Mahlangu in the ankle. The pair kept running, turning left into Goch Street. Running slightly ahead of Motloung, Mahlangu ran into John Orr’s warehouse, where he took cover. Desperately seeking Mahlangu, a panicked Motloung entered the warehouse and fired shots, killing two John Orr’s employees.
Within minutes police surrounded the entire area. Mahlangu and Motloung were outnumbered. They were arrested, beaten by onlookers and the police, and detained at the nearby John Vorster Square Prison. Mahlangu and Motloung were brutally abused while in police custody. The police detained them under the 90-day Detention Law giving the state time to fabricate a case against the pair. Before the trial could commence, Motloung was so badly beaten that he sustained severe brain damage. Clinical psychologist, Annah Venter, declared Motloung unfit to stand trial.
Solomon Mahlangu was charged with two counts of murder and other charges under the Terrorism Act. The judge accepted that Motloung was responsible for the actual killings, but since he had been so brutally beaten during the course of his capture, he had suffered severe brain damage and was unfit to stand trial. However, under the common purpose principle, Mahlangu was therefore found guilty on two counts of murder and three charges under the Terrorism Act. The Common Purpose law argues that all parties together committing a crime should face the same consequences regardless of whether they carried out the same acts or knew of each other’s intent. For the acts that Mahlangu had in fact committed, he should have received a maximum of five years’ imprisonment. He was sentenced to death by hanging on 2 March 1978.
On 15 June 1978 Solomon Mahlangu was refused leave to appeal his sentence by the Rand Supreme Court, and on 24 July 1978 he was refused again in the Bloemfontein Appeal Court. Although various governments, the United Nations, international organizations, groups and prominent individuals attempted to intercede on his behalf, Mahlangu awaited his execution in Pretoria Central Prison, and died on 6 April 1979. In apparent defiance of Prime Minister PW Botha, Mahlangu’s last message was inspirational. Before he was executed, Mahlangu said:”My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.”
The day of execution, observers believe, was deliberately chosen to coincide with the 327th anniversary of Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape in 1652. In the apartheid era, 6 April was a public holiday known as Van Riebeeck’s Day.
The execution provoked international protest and condemnation of South Africa’s internal policy. In fear of crowd reaction at the funeral, the police decided to bury Mahlangu in Atteridgeville. On 6 April 1993 he was reinterred at the Mamelodi Cemetery. The Solomon Mahlangu Square in Mamelodi was dedicated to his memory. The ANC hailed him as hero of the revolutionary struggle in South Africa, and subsequently named a school after him, in honour of his courage and dedication: The Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO). He was awarded “The Order of Mendi for Bravery in Gold for bravery and sacrificing his life for freedom and democracy in South Africa” posthumously in 2005.
(Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu from South African History Online, www.sahistory.org.za)