An official photograph of the group known as the ‘Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela’. Peter Swartz is standing in the back row, third from the left (Photo source: National Museum).
He was one of Nelson Mandela’s so-called ‘12 disciples’; he was born and bred in Heidedal; and an informal township (‘Peter Swart’) in Mangaung was named after him. Say the name ‘Peter Swartz’ today and some people might have heard of him but, sadly, few really know who this mostly ‘unknown’ figure and ‘lost disciple’ of South Africa’s liberation history really is. The reason for this unfortunate situation is that much of Peter’s life history is obscure; it remains hidden in the grey areas of South Africa’s struggle history. Fortunately, Peter’s sacrifices are neither hidden nor lost. His important contribution to South Africa’s liberation history has cemented his name as one of the country’s great struggle veterans who fought for basic human rights for all South Africans.
Peter Swartz, also known among some Mangaung residents as ‘Pieter Swarts’ or ‘Peter Swart’, was born in Bloemfontein in 1937. As a brown or ‘coloured’ South African, he grew up in the then racially segregated coloured township known as Heidedal (formerly known as Heatherdale). During the early 1950s, Peter attended the then Bantu High School (now known as Sehunelo Secondary School) in Mangaung’s historic Batho township. At the time, former Free State premier Winkie Direko was the school principal. It is believed that during Peter’s time at Bantu High School, he and many of his classmates became politically conscious. They were inspired to become involved in the struggle for democracy and human rights for all South Africans. Among his peers, Peter became known as a vigorous activist and as a true revolutionary.
Peter joined the African National Congress (ANC) and he soon became an active member of the organisation’s Heidedal branch. During the late 1950s, former president Nelson Mandela conceived the so-called ‘M-plan’ which envisaged the restructuring of the ANC to enable underground operations should the organisation get banned by the then apartheid regime. Mandela approached a group of 12 young men from Bloemfontein to become actively involved in the plan. Their mission was to tell the world about the injustices caused by apartheid and to spread the ANC’s liberation message abroad. In addition, the group had to call upon countries to apply sanctions against the apartheid regime.
Before Peter joined the group of political activists tasked to implement the M-plan, he had made two unsuccessful attempts to clandestinely leave South Africa. However, each time he was arrested and sent back home. Peter was the only brown man in the group of 12 young men who became known, rather prophetically, as the ‘Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela’. The other 11 were Billy Mokhonoana, Selebano Matlhape, Theodore Motobi, Moses Modupe, Benjamin Pule Leinaeng, Joseph Shuping Coapoge, Elias Pule Matjoa, Percy Mokonopi, Mochubela Seekoei, Mathew Olehile Mokgele and Bethuel Setai. Because they were all from Bloemfontein, the group was also known as the ‘Twelve from Bloemfontein’.
The 12 ‘disciples’ were destined to join Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in exile. MK – the military wing of the ANC – was officially formed in December 1961. Peter left Bloemfontein on his own in 1960, and joined the rest of the group in Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania. In Dar es-Salaam, he attended the Kivukoni College where he studied with an economics scholarship. In 1963 Peter went to the United Kingdom where he enrolled for further studies at the famous London School of Economics.
Contrary to the lives of the rest of the group of 12, not much is known about Peter’s life in exile, especially after his arrival in Britain. He reportedly disappeared in London in 1965 and since then he has never been seen or heard of. Even his family in Heidedal, who destroyed his personal items and photographs due to police harassment, remains in the dark about the details of the struggle icon’s life in exile. Some of his family members are still searching for traces of Peter locally and abroad.
Although much of Peter Swartz is still shrouded in mystery, the people for whom he fought have not forgotten him. In 2006, former Free State premier, Beatrice Marshoff, bestowed an award on him posthumously. At last, he had received official recognition for his contribution and commitment to the liberation struggle and his quest for basic human rights for all South Africans, irrespective of colour or creed. In addition, the Peter Swartz Foundation was formed by Peter’s Heidedal family to honour his memory and the sacrifices which he had made to liberate the oppressed. Peter Swartz may be an ‘unknown’ struggle hero; however, he is certainly remembered for his sacrifices, particularly for his struggle to extend basic human rights to all South Africans.
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