A Brief Overview
Bethal’s cultural precinct and Nomoya Masilela Museum pay homage to many of South Africa’s prominent liberation struggle heroes, such as Richard 'Gert' Sibande, Nokuthula Simelane, Ruth First and Henry ‘Mr Drum’ Nxumalo.
The predominantly agricultural town of Bethal in Gert Sibande Municipality pays homage to many of South Africa’s prominent liberation struggle heroes, including Richard ‘Gert’ Sibande, after whom the district municipality was named in 2003. Bethal’s cultural precinct, in the centre of town, is in the shape of a ‘T’ and consists of a bronze statue of Sibande that looks in the direction of a statue of Nokuthula Simelane with the recently renovated Nomoya Masilela Museum in the background.
Despite having no formal schooling, in the 1930s Sibande, alongside fellow human rights activist and journalist Ruth First, helped expose the inhumane living and working conditions of black potato farm workers in the Bethal region in Drum Magazine. Sibande was a champion of the oppressed, who organised farm workers into South Africa’s first farm workers' association, so as to improve the socio-economic relations between farmer workers and their employers. He also supported the redistribution of land and became known as the Lion of the East. His towering statue depicts his ideological stature, which led him to become provincial president of the Transvaal African National Congress (ANC). He was one of the first accused in the Treason Trial that started in 1956, alongside Nelson Mandela and various other struggle activists, but was acquitted in 1961. While exiled in Swaziland, Sibande assisted members of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, to travel from Mozambique through Swaziland back to South Africa. He died of old age in Swaziland in 1987 and in April 2007 Sibande’s family received the order of Luthuli in Gold that was awarded to him by then President Thabo Mbeki.
A few steps away is a life-size statue of Simelane, who was a member of Umkhonto weSizwe and symbolises the hundreds of South Africans who, like her, went missing during the liberation struggle. Simelane served as an ANC courier between South Africa and Swaziland, while her father and uncle planned the routes to and from the targets and sheltered Umkhonto weSizwe members. In early September 1983 she was kidnapped from the Carlton Centre in Johannesburg
by members of the Soweto Intelligence Unit, who had infiltrated ANC ranks – she thought that she was meeting with a fellow comrade. Simelane refused to become an informant and is believed to have been tortured to death on a farm near Thabazimbi, in present day Limpopo Province. While eight Soweto Security Branch operatives applied for amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for her detention and torture, no one took responsibility for her disappearance. The whereabouts of her remains are a mystery to this day, but her memory and sacrifice are immortalised here.
On the other side of Bethal cultural precinct is the Nomoya Masilela Museum, which was opened on 21 March 2012 – Human Rights Day – and is named in honour of the student from Mzinoni High School, who was shot dead during a 1980 student protest in the area. The museum, which is housed in the former Magistrate’s Court built in 1910, is a place of remembrance. This national monument includes 24 exhibitions and honours those who fell during the liberation struggle, it also houses Ruth First's and Henry ‘Mr Drum’ Nxumalo’s former prison cells.