MEC touches Mpumalanga potato struggler Gert Sibande at Book Week celebration

A Mpumalanga MEC has called for National Book Week 2016 to be used to encourage learners to read but more importantly history books that explain where do we come from as a country.

Arts and culture MEC Norah Mahlangu-Mabena used this week’s celebration of the government’s initiative to call on all those who are young to read books, especially those “that tell the undiluted history of the liberation struggle, such as Gert Sibande,” she said.

“Sibande was the leader of the 1950s Potato Boycott in Bethal,” she told the audience.

Mahlangu was addressing pupils outside the JM Mkhwanazi public library in the Gert Sibande region’s area of Glenmore in Mpumalanga.

“This offers us the opportunity to hit two birds with one stone, to encourage one another to read books that tell the undiluted history of the liberation struggle, such as that of Gert Sibande, after whom this District is named,” the MEC said.

The event was attended by dance and music star Zakes Bantwini, who is the 2016 Book Week national ambassador, Chief Albert Luthuli local municipality mayor Dan Nkosi as well as officials from the provincial department and South African Book Development Council.

“The aim of the National Book Week is popularise reading, especially reading in indigenous,” she said.

“People like Zakes Bantwini will galvanise the youth to read, own and distribute books,” she told the audience.

Born in Ermelo in 1901, Sibande is the activist and farm-worker who in 1947 helped journalist Ruth First exposed conditions equal to slavery at a Bethal potato farm where he also worked.

Writing on 31 August 2008 with the Star newspaper (, journalist Janet Smith said workers conditions at the farm were “murderous exploitation” after more journalists, including Henry Nxumalo with the Drum magazine in the 1950s also exposed the cruel conditions.



Smit said: “What happened in Bethal in the 1950s should never be forgotten.

“Many of the farmers compelled their workers to dig up the potato harvest with their bare hands.

“And those who could not keep up, or became exhausted, were beaten unmercifully.

“The men and women who died, either from the beatings or the cruel

manual labour, were mostly buried out in the open fields, with members of their own families sometimes having to load the bodies into the earth,” Smit wrote.

SEE ALSO: Book Week ambassador Zakes Bantwini wants indigenous languages

Sibande was an uneducated labourer in the farm and became an ANC spokesman in the 1930s.

Known as the Lion of East by the ANC at the time because he remained a thorn on the side of white authorities, he was deported from Bethal to Vaal, in present day Gauteng, in 1953 but then in 1956 Sibande was charged along Nelson Mandela and hundreds of others for planning to overthrow the white government.

READ ALSO: SACP’s Bonakele Majuba eyes fourth term as provincial secretary

Sibande was banished in the Vaal and decided to go back to Mpumalanga – then “Transvaal” – where he lived in Komatipoort before he skipped the country to Swaziland where he died in 1987 at the age of 86.

The MEC said at the gathering: “I’m calling on all of you to start a culture of reading in your families, in the workplace and among your circle of friends as this will ensure the country has a growing number of readers.

“The library is full of materials that will endow your imagination with a good sense of understanding the history of this country,” she said to pupils.

(edited by ZK)

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