Some twenty years ago the remains of one of South Africa’s greatest struggle activists and musical talents were exhumed from a pauper’s grave at the Rebecca Street Cemetery in Pretoria. Vuyisile Mini was executed by way of hanging by the apartheid government on the 6th November 1964, having been found guilty of 17 counts of sabotage, including complicity in the death of purported police informer, Sipho Mange. Mini was just forty-four years old at the time of his death.

Vuyisile Mini (second from right) with comrades
Vuyisile Mini (second from right) with comrades

Prior to his execution he was offered clemency in exchange for information relating to the operations of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), as well as testimony against fellow trade unionist and MK member, Wilton Mkwayi. Mini turned down the offer, aware that he would soon meet his fate at the gallows.

The story of how Mini and his co-accused spent the evening before their execution filling the prison walls with songs of protest is a haunting one, and speaks to the significant role that music played in South Africa’s fight for freedom.

The last evening was devastatingly sad as the heroic occupants of the death cells communicated to the prison in gentle melancholy song that their end was near… It was late at night when the singing ceased, and the prison fell into uneasy silence. I was already awake when the singing began again in the early morning. Once again the excruciatingly beautiful music floated through the barred windows, echoing round the brick exercise yard, losing itself in the vast prison yards”. Ben Turok, a previous co-accused of Mini’s in the 1956 Treason Trial recalls the last moments of Mini’s life.

As Abdullah Ibrahim famously proclaimed, “the revolution in South Africa is the only revolution anywhere in the world that was done in four-part harmony”, a statement which served as inspiration for the 2002 documentary, Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony.

Vuyisile Mini is one of the many protagonists in the film, having not only been active in the ANC and MK, but also as someone responsible for composing some of South Africa’s most famous protest songs. Pasopa nantsi ‘ndodemnyama we Verwoerd (‘Look out, Verwoerd, here are the black people’), an iconic anti-apartheid song written by Mini was made famous by the late songstress, Miriam Makeba. It speaks to the power of song that Vuyisile Mini is credited as much for his dedication to the ANC and his acts of service as he is for the spirit that he brought to the struggle through his music.

The soundtrack to Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony tells the story of apartheid through music and is well worth a listen, or better yet, if you have time, the full documentary is available for viewing via YouTube.

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