On Freedom Day last month, a film inspired by the real-life incident that sparked the global “Free Mandela” movement was released. Silverton Siege, which was created by South African filmmaker Mandla Dube, is based on a real event that happened in 1980 when three members of UMkhonto weSizwe, otherwise known as MK, a group started by Nelson Mandela, held civilians in a bank in Pretoria hostage.
The trio made several demands, including the release of Mandela. Their act, which was first condemned, turned out to be a watershed moment in the history of South Africa as it inspired the “Free Mandela” movement that led to the release of Mandela from prison and changed the country forever.
Mandela had been imprisoned in 1963 after being accused of engaging in acts of sabotage against the white minority government. While in Robben Island prison, Mandela, with the help of fellow prisoners and visitors, smuggled out letters and messages to his followers including the MK to ignite the anti-apartheid movement that was ongoing.
On January 25, 1980, three MK cadres — Stephen Mafoko, Humphrey Makhubo, and Wilfred Madela — were reportedly on their way for a planned MK sabotage mission on petrol depots at Watloo, Pretoria when they realized that they were being followed by the police. In their attempt to escape, they decided to enter a branch of Volkskas Bank in Silverton, Pretoria, one of the major banks in South Africa.
Around 1 pm when the trio entered the bank, they took 25 people hostage and moved them into a corner cubicle, according to South Africa History Online. But since the siege was on the ground floor, staff of the bank on the upper floor were able to escape the building. Bank accountant Andre Theron stayed in hiding. Soon, the Police Anti-Terrorist Unit arrived. Members of the unit gained access to a building nearby, where they set up surveillance equipment which allowed them to monitor what was happening in the Volkskas bank through a periscope. A tape recorder and a microphone enabled them to record every sound and to essentially hear what was happening in the bank.
The unit then started negotiating with Mafoko, Makhubo, and Madela, who sang freedom songs “to keep up their moral and remain focussed.” The trio released two hostages carrying notes outlining the trio’s demands. Among their demands was the release of Mandela, a meeting with the South African president, money, and an aircraft to take them to Maputo.
By 6 pm, the police were able to gain access to the basement of the bank using a stairway to get to the first floor and to Andre Theron. The police now had a view of the hostage situation from above. By 6.30 pm, the police were ready to move in to bring the siege to an end. Police Commissioner, General Mike Geldenhuys, ordered the area around the bank to be cleared. People who had gathered to watch what was happening were asked to move away while ambulances were made to get closer.
By 7.05 pm, the first gunshots were heard. To date, it is not known if MK cadre Mafoko fired the first shot after realizing the police had entered the building or if it was the police that fired first. Makhubo and Madela were killed not too long after the shooting began but Mafoko continued shooting. He threw a grenade but one of the hostages grabbed it and tried to throw it away. In the process, it exploded, injuring some of the hostages.
At the end of the day, Mafoko was killed by the police, bringing the Silverton Siege to an end. All three MK members died, alongside two hostages. Around 10 years after the siege, Mandela was released from prison and he would go on to lead South Africa as president largely thanks to freedom fighters Mafoko, Makhubo, and Madela, whose Silverton Siege started the “Free Mandela” movement.
Filmmaker Dube hopes that his new film about the trio would inspire other young people to believe that they have the power to change the world.