MAREF was a human rights organisation formed in March 1990 after a number of school children had been detained in various parts of Bophuthatswana. Its members were comprised predominantly academics at the University of Bophuthatswana, several of
whom had joined the ANC, and relatives of those incarcerated by Mangope’s regime.
Initially, it was an affiliate of the National Anti-Repression Forum (NAREF) based inJohannesburg. MAREF existed for just over four years. While NAREF was able to cease its functions due to the repeal of repressive legislation in South Africa following the unbanning of the ANC, MAREF found itself faced with continuing repression and human rights violations in Bophuthatswana. This was because Bophuthatswana never committed
itself to full participation in a negotiated settlement after the release of Nelson Mandela. It refused to sign the National Peace Accord in 1991, and did not attend CODESA 1 (the Convention for a Democratic South Africa) for the framing of a new political and constitutional dispensation, though Bophuthatswana representatives did join in some of the negotiations during CODESA 2. Instead Bophuthatswana, in particular President
Lucas Mangope, tried to prolong the fantasy of the homeland’s independence by playing a game of regional politics in opposing the ANC. For ANC sympathisers and activists based in Bophuthatswana this was a very frustrating situation.
When MAREF was formed, the ANC had just been unbanned. In several places in Bophuthatswana the intention to open ANC branches was announced. But Bophuthatswana promulgated legislation that made it extremely difficult to open and operate as a branch of the ANC. Like many progressive organisations and bodies before it, the ANC was declared a foreign organisation in the homeland, and had to fulfill certain obligations in order to legalise its status. Failure to do so led to assaults on people attempting to form ANC branches, the arrest of known ANC members (61 were arrested at Itsotseng on 7 April 1994) against whom charges were laid. Some of those detained were schoolchildren in the Itsotseng area.
These detentions caused a number of concerned people, specifically Laura Taylor, a high school teacher, Paul Daphne a university lecturer, Nonvula Hlongwane, a secretary at Sefalana Employees’ Benefits Organisation (SEBO); and Dr David Green, a local doctor who had treated some of the detained children, to take the initiative and form a human rights body that catered in the first instance for political detainees. Thus MAREF was born. MAREF’s main role was to monitor and then publicise human rights abuses as a consequence of political repression in the homeland. Much of its efforts were directed at simply gathering information and disseminating it. In addition, it attempted to defend the interests of the victims, by means of seeking legal redress and relief from suffering and deprivation. Another of its important objectives was to make a public demand for political reform in Bophuthatswana in accordance with the changing nature of political reform in South Africa as a whole. A final crucial achievement of MAREF was to present information about Bophuthatswana to the bodies negotiating for the new dispensation in South Africa.
The regime responded by detaining MAREF members such as Taylor and Hlongwane, or deporting others such as Daphne. Some such as Butho Mahila were fired from their jobs and cases of arson on Maref members were reported. In May 1991 a fresh crisis broke out in Bophuthatswana. This was the decision by the 143 soldiers imprisoned for the attempted 1988 coup and a number of political detainees (still imprisoned despite the signing of the Pretoria Minute by which political prisoners in South Africa were to be released) to embark on a hunger strike.. MAREF tried to deal with the crisis by keeping the press informed, by visiting and monitoring the men, and by appealing to President F.W. de Klerk to release the strikers. MAREF communicated closely with Africa Watch, a committee of Human Rights Watch, a human rights observer and activist group. By the end of June the strikers were in a weakened state and about a dozen were admitted to Odi and Victoria hospitals, in Ga-Rankuwa and Mafikeng respectively. MAREF decided to stage a sit-in at the US consulate in Pretoria on 10 July to draw further international attention to the crisis in Bophuthatswana. As a result of these initiatives, the Odi hunger strikers were visited at midnight on 12 July by a delegation comprising Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, who was then Deputy-President of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa, Secretary General, and Leon Wessels, the South African Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs. . Mandela negotiated with the hunger strikers and assured them that they would be released within a reasonable period of time. Consequently they suspended their protest action.
This was not the end of the hunger strike issue. Despite Mandela’s attempts to normalise the situation and to get Bophuthatswana to observe the Pretoria Minute, only 19 of the former BDF soldiers had been released. Accordingly, the men resumed their hunger strike. The BDF soldiers were now joined by a number of political prisoners which included political prisoners and nine villagers from Braklaagte and Leeuwfontein convicted of murder
whilst resisting incorporation. The Bophuthatswana regime remained unmoved, and tried to discredit the hunger strikers. On 15 October a political prisoner, Rabusang Monnana, died in Rooigrond prison. He was not a hunger striker himself, but in a press release MAREF stated that his death could easily have been avoided had he received proper medical attention. Johannes Simelane another hunger striker was released on the 61st day of his hunger strike, but a number of other men who had joined him a bit later were not set free and these men continued to fast. On 18 November one of the men, Bushy Molefe, lapsed into a coma, another, Johannes Nhlapo, had suffered a heart attack, and a third, George Biya, an AZANLA operative, was in intensive care. A week later the Bophuthatswana authorities, now under huge international pressure, released these men. Tragically, Molefe (who had become South Africa’s longest hunger striker) died six months after his release, most probably as a result of the damage the hunger strike had caused to his physical condition.
Another important role played by MAREF was to provide information to CODESA and other multi-party negotiating teams regarding conditions in Bophuthatswana. For example, in a document entitled ‘Problems in the Climate for Free Political Expression in Bophuthatswana’, MAREF analysed the nature and implications of Bophuthatswana’s draconian security legislation, the control of the media by Mangope’s ruling party, and provided a brief overview of repression in the homeland. MAREF also coordinated opposition to Bophuthatswana through the formation of the Anti-Bop Front, a broad range of organisations and bodies united in wanting to topple the regime.