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‘Chris Hani – “Country Bumpkin”? Umkhonto we Sizwe in the Transkei, 1974 – 1994’
University of Oxford
To be delivered at University of Pretoria inter-disciplinary
Seminar on 25 August 2009
At 9.30am on Tuesday morning in August 1981 gunshots ran out across Cuba Township, which lay on the edges of the Transkeian town of Butterworth. A passerby saw a screaming woman running out of the neighbouring house, followed by a man she knew as George, who had been drinking with a friend earlier that morning. But now he had a gun in his hand and was chasing down a black policeman – shot to the ground just metres away. “George” and his friends, it later emerged, were members of an MK Special Operations Unit, suspected of bombing a shopping centre in East London minutes before rush hour at dawn that day.1 They had been uncovered; possibly betrayed by the girlfriend of a sympathiser who was hiding them at House 2465, Cuba Location.
The two men fled to a safe house in Umtata, where their comrades had been taken by members of the ANC underground in the Transkei earlier that morning. There was a terse debate. ‘Our view was that they should go into hiding for a week’, a member of the ANC underground, Manford Matomela, later recalled. ‘I think they panicked and insisted they wanted to go to Lesotho... So arrangements were made’ for the four man unit – Mavuso Siyenzangabom, Sureboy Dali, Lesetja Sexwale and Thabo Rakuba – to escape. They were to be driven across the border by Junior Saliwa, part of Transkei’s ANC network, in a white Toyota Corolla belonging to another ANC man. But police road blocks had been thrown up throughout the region. At a checkpoint in the neighbouring Elliott district later that day, the car was stopped and searched. There was a shoot out: ‘Comrades Mavuso and Sureboy died on the spot’; Saliwa was chased down and arrested; ‘Sexwale and Rakubu managed to breakthrough the encirclement’ and ‘fled on foot into mountainous terrain’, only to be ‘betrayed ‘six days later… by a farm worker at Barkley Pass’. Police trapped them in the hut where they were hiding – ‘they were arrested; handcuffed, both hands and feet; then shot in cold blood’. 2
Days later, a meeting of senior police chiefs decided the dead men ‘could become new martyrs in the struggle against apartheid’. So they were buried in a shallow grave on the remote farm of a police reservist. There ‘the bodies might never have been found but for Gauteng Premier Tokyo Sexwale’s determination to find his [dead] brother… The investigation took a year… Then someone broke ranks and told all, setting in motion a chain of events which culminated in Truth [and Reconciliation] Commissioners… digging up the skeletons’ in April 1997. 3 INTO FOOTNOTES?
These were the opening shots of a brutal, escalating conflict between the apartheid security forces and MK units, supported by the local ANC underground. In a decade when open insurrection was simmering in South Africa, Transkei was quiescent in one sense: the crushing of the DPP Youth League confirmed the brutality of the Bantustan regime. But paradoxically ‘KD drove a lot of people underground’. In the early 1980s ‘Transkei was the soft underbelly into South Africa’; at the forefront of the secret war waged between the MK and the South African security forces.4 Following a rethink of its strategy at the 1969 Morogoro Conference, the ANC shifted strategy, moving its armed wing into the Frontline states that bordered South Africa. In 1974 Chris Hani ‘set up shop in Lesotho’, taking advantage of the close relationship the movement had established with the Head of State, Leabua Jonathan, and ‘the good relationships MK operatives had cultivated with Lesotho security men’.5
In the 1970s, the MK established secret cells across the Eastern and Western Cape, including at least 10 cells in the Transkei. ‘We were laying the foundations for a long underground campaign which bore fruits in the 1980s’, remembered a cadre deployed in the region during that time, Charles Setsubi. ‘The homelands system helped [us]. I had more than 10 passports [obtained from sympathisers] in the townships… [who] would do [i.e. issue] the passports without recording them’, he recalled. Then there was the strength and depth of the underground structures. ‘There were many entries [into Transkei from Lesotho] we were using... There were many hide outs for both the personnel and the arms... Pondoland was very active... and in areas like Engcobo and Umtata’ [REF].6 ‘The interesting thing is that Transkei at the time was… accommodating guerrillas [who then travelled] literally throughout the country. [To come into the country] from Cape Town right up to Gauteng you had to come through the Transkei’ [REF].
In many ways, the MK guerrillas infiltrating into Transkei brought a decisive change to the politics of the region. Many cadres came from urban areas far from Transkei, and were bearers of the political traditions and the social milieu of township politics. Three of the guerrillas killed following the Butterworth shootout in 1981 were from Soweto, for instance. Lesitja Sexwale was born in Orlando West and grew up in the middle of the turmoil of the townships, before he went into exile and joined the MK. When their bodies were found by the Truth Commission in 1997, the three were buried in Heroes Acre in Soweto.7 The tempo of politics in Transkei was also radicalised and embittered by the presence of the guerrillas. When the Special Operations Unit unmasked in 1981, it was only using Transkei as a hideout from which to attack targets in the urban centres of South Africa. The secret ANC cells based in Transkei, which were uncovered and rolled-up in the wake of the Butterworth shoot-out, were revealed to be members of the political underground, rather than cadres trained in the armed struggle. Their task was to spread ANC literature and support MK units, who came in from Lesotho.
A spectacular operation on 25 June 1985 marked a new chapter in underground operations. COLOUR: BOMB WENRT OFF – FIND DAILY DISPATCH QUOTE. Earlier that evening, two MK cadres,8 Mzwandile Vena and “Pieces” Maqekeza, the head of the MK in Transkei, had sneaked under a barbed wire cordon, and placed limpet mines on the fuel depot in Umtata owned by the apartheid government sponsored, Transkei Development Corporation. If their munitions had functioned better, they would have brought Transkei’s capital to a complete standstill. Later that day ‘two unexploded limpet mines were found at Umtata Muncipal Electricity Power Station and a mini-limpet mine was at the [main] water pipeline’.9 Apparently, the ANC’s strategy was now to demolish buildings associated with the Bantustan regime as it ‘frustrate the development projects of the South African Government’.10 From then on, the Transkei was kept under curfew every night [REF].
Two bombs placed by MK cadres at Cala Post Office and the Wild Coast Casino in Eastern Pondoland, less than a year later, signalled the arrival of an even more bitter phase of the armed struggle in Transkei. The Cala blast caused no injuries; but the Wild Coast bomb, placed in the casino’s toilets, killed a young black boy and a white pensioner. It was too much for Lusaka; ‘the ANC denied responsibility for the attack’.11 These attacks were, in part, caught up in the escalation of armed conflict across South Africa. Country-wide, incidents of sabotage and armed attacks increased exponentially from 1982 to 1986, levelled off in 1987, and then rapidly increased again.12 The attacks also had local roots: they were blows in the increasingly brutal war between the security forces and dissidents in the Transkei. Not only was the Transkei Security Police arresting and torturing dissidents, working hand-in-glove with their apartheid counterparts, but the suspected connections between Transkeian students and the ANC underground had attracted the attention of the mysterious, “Third Force”, death squads, who made havoc in the Eastern Cape during the 1980s.
3/10/85 200 TDF and police seal off Ngang and Ikwezi in raid
The brazen murder of the young dissident Bathandwa Ndondo, killed in broad daylight by a hit squad, epitomised this spiralling sequence of events. Ndondo had been student activist – rusticated for his involvement in student unrest and in contact with the ANC underground – who was now living with his cousins, the Ntsebeza family, in Cala. On 24 September 1985 he was abducted from his home by a hit squad; he broke free from the kidnap vehicle ‘in a side street neat the centre of’ Cala, but was immediately shot-down by ‘outside the home of Nontobeko Thunzi and her elderly mother... Old mother Thunzi was horrified. “Whose child is this you are shooting like a dog?” she demanded, with all the authority of her advancing years. “He is a terrorist” came the reply’ from the Third Force killers. Kaiser Matanzima would endorse the murder, claiming (untruly) that Ndondo had been responsible for the Umtata Fuel Depot bombs. 13 In response to such incidents the MK attacked on the Umtata police station in July 1986. Mvula Mthinkulu, a member of the MK underground in the Transkei, was party to the agonised debates before the attack. ‘It was the first time where the MK had chosen a [human] target in Transkei… A lot of people [later] asked: “why [attack] the police station and not the army barracks… Is it because you fear soldiers?”’ But, for Mvula, the logic was inexorable – they had to strike back: The people beating us up were the police… It was brutal… That was the political message… “You [the police] can bully, but you cannot respond to your equals [in the MK]”.14
But if the guerrilla attacks marked a new phase and radicalisation in Transkei’s politics, there were continuities too. Chris Hani was constructing an underground network from the rubble of left behind by Govan Mbeki’s earlier attempts to create guerrilla units in the Eastern Cape. In doing this he wove an older generation of stalwarts – including some members of the Great Place Gang – into the youthful fabric of radical armed resistance. Indeed, Chris Hani was well placed to make use of cross-generational linkages. The Hani name carried weight because the exploits of his father, Gilbert Hani, in the early 1960s – especially his opposition to Kaiser Matanzima in Western Thembuland – were well remembered in the region. Now settled in exile in Maseru, Gilbert Hani was also able to help his son by providing introductions to senior figures in Government of Lesotho [REF]. From his base in Lesotho, Chris Hani ‘immediately began contacting ANC stalwarts coming out of Robben Island… through couriers… He even made forays into South Africa, especially through the Transkei… [He was] very brave – in a class by himself’.
These stalwarts formed the nervous system of the underground network, conveying comrades, arms caches and communiqués into Transkei, then on into South Africa. MK cadres infiltrated into Transkei would pass through the hands of Dr Njongwe, banished to Matatiele for his role in the ANC during the 1950s, whose children were now involved in the underground. Then they would go to Qumbu and “Old-Man” Charlton Ntuli, an ex Robben Islander, already aged 76 in 1980, who was the Secretary to the local Tribal Authority, as well as an avid reader of banned literature such as ‘Lenin’ and ‘Peace, Freedom and Socialism’. Finally they would end up in the hands of Tata (Daddy) James “Castro” Kati – a hybrid salutation of respect to the old man, who stood at the centre of the ANC underground network in Transkei, paying tribute to both his patriarchal wisdom and revolutionary zeal.15
Even the landscape that the cadres travelled through, as they were infiltrated from Lesotho into Transkei, through the hands of Hani’s Robben Islanders, was layered with memories of resistance. The route between Qachas Nek and Matatiele was the one used by Govan Mbeki and his compatriots in the early 1960s. ‘It was impossible [for security forces to effectively] patrol’ the mountainous fastness full of caves and steep gorges, even though they used ‘local reactionary elements to tip them off about infiltration routes’. Many young cadres also travelled across a landscape full of memories of their ancestor’s resistance to colonial conquest, which was woven together with images of Third World, revolutionary, guerrilla war. One cadre who regular smuggled his compatriots over the border, Charles Setsubi, later explained:
Between Quthini and Qachasnek… there are 3 mountain peaks called the Three Sisters… When you looked at it from Matatiele… they look so serious and beautiful… The code name for the route was the Luthuli Highway… a name in honour of the Ho Chi Minh trail … The first day you climbed up [into the mountain range]… the second day you go down…In winter you risk being trapped up there by snow and in summer you risk… mist… You would be stranded there for days while the weather clears up.
Guiding MK operatives through the region he was reminded that the Drakensburg range had provided a mountain retreat for Mosheoshoe; ‘and [that] the Transkei was the last resistance point in the colonial wars’.16
Once inside Transkei, the underground often functioned best in rural areas where there was a history of resistance to the Matanzima regime. Underground networks were often built by notables with a longstanding history of local leadership. James Kati, for one, established a network of arms caches and safe houses around his home location of Luheweni, an area in Umtata district that had been a centre of resistance to the imposition of Bantu Authorities. He was captured in 1981 and, after severe torture, forced to return to his home, shackled and bruised, to reveal the exact place the weapons were buried. But his humiliation was saved by the solidarity of fellow residents. ‘The people in the community refused to provide them [the police] with anything to use to dig [for hidden caches by] my house’. Instead, the security police were forced to retreat to Umtata for the spades which would uncover the buried arms.
A few months later, when his dear wife died, 2000 people turned up to her funeral at Luhewini. Kati was allowed to attend – but manacled and escourted by five police cars. Sitting in exile, King Sabata smuggled R1000 across the border, through ANC underground networks, to help pay for a dignified funeral. It was a shrewd and powerful display of personal sympathy. More than fifteen years after his wife’s death, James Kati’s first request to the TRC was that her grave be given a suitable headstone. Their Paramount Chief’s benevolence was also dutifully remembered in the Commission hearings.17 MORE ON KATI: CHILDREN’S NAMES AND TRIBUTE
Young cadres, such as Manford Matomela, working under James Kati, were also aware of these possibilities of rural resistance. He came from the troubled Mpeko location, in the Baziya area of Umtata district, and also used local residents in his underground work. ‘People who were illiterate would keep cadres for months and months... I was keeping MK military equipment at my grandmother’s home’. The coffee tins found in her home ‘containing AK47 rounds of ammunition were a work of art and could not easily be detected’, explained an apartheid technical expert called to the scene when the Kati network was uncovered.18 More immediately, in noisy rural areas full of gossip and rumour, at a time when chiefs were directed by the Bantustan government to report their suspicions to the authorities, discretion was a rare commodity. Many chiefs, such as Mvuso Joyi, were feared informants. But some sympathetic to the ANC might ‘make an Imbizo [public gathering]’, hoodwinking local residents by telling them the MK cadres were visitors ‘to advise on issues of [government] administration’. The village would then ‘slaughter a sheep and make a brew to welcome the guests’.