/ 8 May 1998

`Rasheed’ the clean bomber

Wally Mbhele

Despite the succession of adventurous military operations he has been associated with, Aboobaker Ismail is an intensely private person – so private that he is still more commonly known by his nom de guerre, Rasheed.

It was during his tenure as an Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) commander that he became one of the previous regime’s most wanted men.

In the eyes of his enemies, he is a ruthless barbarian not worth any pardon. But to those who worked with him in the African National Congress’s military expeditions, he is an icon of the armed struggle who was never bloodthirsty.

And far from the image of a “ruthless terrorist”, Ismail is a “very good” cook who likes “very nice” food.

He is always “spotlessly” clean which, according to his close associates, explains why he takes such a long time in the shower.

Short-tempered and single-minded at times, he often got into trouble with comrades in exile – sometimes resulting in physical exchanges of blows.

He took over the command of MKordnance – charged with weapon supplies – following his role as chief of a special operations unit in the late 1980s. This was after the assassination of Cassius Maake by apartheid agents in Swaziland.

The present-day ANC leaders he worked with include Mpumalanga Premier Matthews Phosa, to whom he shipped weapons while Phosa was MK commander in Mozambique.

The fear of the military strikes he engineered into South Africa at one stage drove the Sunday Times to describe him as “Carlos the Jackal” – an international terrorist who struck terror into the heart of the Western world.

Some of the operations he masterminded and which led to him taking the witness stand before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s amnesty committee this week include the 1983 Church Street bombing in Pretoria.

The bombing, which has become known as “Bloody Friday”, killed 19 people, including two ANC cadres.

The raid, according to Ismail, was directed at the South African Air Force personnel and was in retaliation for the former South African Defence Force military strike into the ANC bases in Lesotho which wiped out 42 people, including a number of civilians.

Ismail is seeking amnesty for a total of 13 horror incidents which took place during the armed struggle in the 1980s, including the bombing of Magoo’s bar in Durban which resulted in the arrest of Robert McBride.

This week, he took full responsibility for all those bombing campaigns.

Now head of policy and planning in the South African National Defence secretariat, Ismail is married to a former senior journalist, Esther Waugh, who currently occupies a managerial position at the Independent Newspaper Company.

“He was always meticulous. He worked closely with Joe Slovo in special operations. He was a good strategist with incredible attention to detail,” says Muff Andersson, who served under him in exile.

Andersson describes him as “highly talented” and a specialist in the timing of devices. “We were pleased when he took over. He is one of the people who needs to know every inch of detail. Every single thing you planned, he needed to check it.”

Because of his worry about “the small, small detail”, Andersson recalled, “he at one stage developed a stomach ulcer. People who worked with him were rarely arrested because of his meticulous planning.”

As one of the women who worked with him, Andersson heaped praise on Ismail describing him as “a very liberated man. There were many women who worked with him and all were given equal status with their male counterparts.

“He was fairly comfortable throwing women into some dangerous work. A lot of women became involved during his tenure as a commander,” said Andersson.

One such woman was Helene Passtoors – a Belgian citizen who in 1986 was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for her role in the establishment of arms caches in the country.

“I found him to be very inspiring. He had the greatest respect for the struggle. He was always looking for the best results,” says Andersson. “During his term as our commander, standards were absolutely high – whether the operation was big or small. He was a true commander and an outstanding soldier.”

But to others who were at the ANC camps with him, Ismail was known for his “terrible” temper. In the words of one senior South African National Defence Force officer: “Rasheed lacked the management of human relations.”

It was this very same temperamental attitude which often landed him in physical confrontation with some of his comrades in exile.

It is understood that he was at one stage knocked out by one of the soldiers who could no longer tolerate his management style.

Phosa knows him as someone who “doesn’t like crowds. He can be firm and passionate. He did a good job and was very brave. He found sophisticated methods of shipping arms into the country.

“He commanded the best unit which made sterling sacrifices under him. He understood that it was the politics which drove the bullet and not the bullet which drove politics.”

Born: Same day as Jesus Christ, but a different year (1954)

Defining characteristics: Spotlessly clean

Likely to say: “What about this scenario” or “I’ll fire you”

Least likely to say: “Let’s go jolling”