The execution of a camp commander

The TRC has found that torture and executions occurred in ANC camps in exile. Some of those targeted were killed as a result of bad leadership, jealousies and paranoia, writes Charlene Smith

Chris Hani was once sentenced to death by Umkhonto weSizwe’s (MK) high command in Tanzania for putting forward the grievances of MK cadres.

In the mid-1960s, recruits had complained about camp conditions and wanted to fight. MK high command, in the form of Joe Modise and Joe Matthews, sentenced Hani to death for plotting a mutiny.

African National Congress president Oliver Tambo stopped the execution. Minister of Defence Joe Modise today refuses to comment on the issue.

ANC guerrillas later became involved with Zimbabwean freedom fighters, taking part in the Wankie Campaign of 1967.

But after 1980, many guerrillas -the Luthuli, June 16 and Moncada detachments – refused to return to the Angolan camps. Others began protesting at being held in poor conditions, rather than being permitted to fight.

The ANC leadership said this discontent was evidence that a spy ring was intent on replacing the leadership with South African security branch plants. The security arm began a witchhunt during which many were detained and tortured.

At one stage almost half of the people at the organisation’s Quibaxe camp in Angola were suspected of being involved in the plot.

The ANC’s security organ had became far tougher since the post-1976 cadres had returned from training by the notorious East German Stasi. They became known as Mbokodo (the grinding rock) or “The Panelbeaters” by those in exile.

By early 1979, work had begun on a camp 230km east of Luanda that for a decade would be a place where ANC cadres accused of spying would be terrorised. Named the Morris Seabelo Rehabilitation Centre, or Camp 32, it was better known as Quatro.

The camp’s first commander, 19-year- old Mtunzi Gabriel “Sizwe” Mthembu, was a graduate of Stasi training. Today a senior official at the National Intelligence Agency, he was prepared to be interviewed, but his superiors forbade it.

In a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Section 29 hearing, Mthembu said: “It’s difficult to describe the conditions we were exposed to. The conditions were extreme, in a word I would say inhuman, because of deprivation … most of us were affected and are still affected.”

Mthembu admitted: “We had people who committed acts of indiscipline – very serious cases. We had comrades who abused their positions. Others ran away with murder. They were not punished, so we did not have a watertight system of dealing with these people.”

Atrocities at Quatro included pouring boiling water on men’s heads until they burst or dripping burning plastic on their backs. Others were left in their own urine and faeces in tiny cells.

While some detainees were spies, others had committed offences like smoking marijuana, “stealing Angolan peasants’ bananas” or having accidents in vehicles. Some had spoken out of turn, or posed a threat to others’ leadership ambitions. Minister of Transport Mac Maharaj told the truth commission “there were people who were executed without as much as a hearing, let alone a legal one”.

One such victim was Ephraim Nkondo, brother of United Democratic Front activist Curtis Nkondo, who was last seen dragged through Quatro with a rope around his neck in 1984. He had not been afraid to criticise the leadership, particularly Modise and security boss Mzwai Piliso.

It was a flaw that was to see Timothy Kgotsiele Seremane (known as Kenneth Mahamba) executed.

Born in Bekkersdal in 1952, Seremane was the youngest of six brothers. Two sisters followed. His eldest brother Joe – now chief land claims commissioner – joined the ANC at a young age and was arrested in 1962 and sent to Robben Island.

His sister Mabatho recalls: “I was in standard one when they took him. The house was surrounded by police. It was frightening. Because of Joe I don’t think it would occur to Timothy to be a spy. We used to hate cops …”

As a camp commander, Timothy Seremane’s behaviour was often unorthodox. “He didn’t use drivers like other camp commanders, and sometimes wrecked cars,” said Andrew Masondo, the ANC’s national commissar in Angola, whose son served under Seremane at Pango.

A former Quatro inmate, who asked not to be named, said Seremane “was a bit like a hippy, he was unconventional. He was a very strict camp commander, and was not popular with all his men.”

In May last year, the ANC submitted to the truth commission that Seremane had been implicated in beating to death an attempted escapee. Then in its October submission it mentioned only an alleged theft of weapons. But in March and April this year, neither Mthembu nor Masondo mentioned this theft at the Section 29 hearings.

In its October submission the ANC claimed that, before Seremane’s “infiltration” into the ANC, he was told by the security police “to maintain a high level of discipline, secrecy and care when collecting information”.

And remarkably, it said he was instructed “to deny any involvement in political activity at home [and] was to avoid detailing his family background to the ANC”.

Interviewed for this piece, ANC past and present intelligence officers, former South African security branch and a former senior CIA operatives all found it unbelievable that Seremane would have been instructed to avoid mentioning his family’s ANC credentials.

General Herman Stadler, former head of security branch intelligence, claimed no knowledge of Seremane. “A person like that would have been ideal. We would have encouraged him to talk about that sort of background.”

If the ANC had researched Seremane’s past, they would have found that although a brilliant student with leadership qualities, he was expelled from three schools for wild behaviour.

He completed school in Hammanskraal. Here too ANC information was wrong. They said he completed school and was recruited in Mafikeng, 300km away.

In 1976 he went into exile via Botswana. He trained in the former Soviet Union and East Germany and became camp commander of Quibaxe, a transit camp holding around 200 cadres.

One of the fastest-rising stars, he succeeded Thami Zulu as commander of Pango, one of the most important camps, with an average of 400 to 500 cadres.

During the camp protests of 1980 and 1981, the leadership was caught off guard. Having held its last consultative conference in 1969, the new cadres were demanding another conference and open elections.

A paper, A Miscarriage of Democracy: The ANC Security Department, published in the London-based Trotskyist publication Southlight, states the leadership began trumpeting the existence of a spy network. Paranoia and repression set in.

“Most of those arrested were known critics of the ANC leadership and were labelled anti-authority. During the whole period of investigation they were tied to trees and slept there.

“In Camalundi camp in Malanje province, Oupa Moloi, head of the political department, lost his life during the first day of interrogation. Zulu, who was the camp commander, … threatened to kill more of these culprits who, swollen and in excruciating pain, were lined up in front of the detachment.”

As a test for Seremane, Masondo took an ambulance to his camp and forbade him to drive it. Seremane did, and was involved in an accident. He was summoned to Quatro. His weapons were removed by Mthembu, who said he had been implicated as a spy by a cadre whom Seremane had apparently beaten up and himself accused of spying.

Gordon Moshoeu, who was also accused in the 1981 “plot”, and William Mashotana – now a South African National Defence Force major – were taken to Seremane’s cell and confronted with him. This was a technique to force confessions once cadres had seen the condition of their comrades.

Moshoeu said Seremane was unrecognisable. “We could only recognise him by his voice.”

Moshoeu denies the existence of a spy ring. An embittered Mashotana refused to be interviewed without an assurance from either Modise or his deputy Ronnie Kasrils that he would not be victimised. Both declined repeated requests to give this assurance.

The ANC’s official roll of deaths in exile states Seremane was executed in 1981, but Mthembu says 1982. He was taken into a ravine behind Quatro and shot, at the behest of Masondo, on the recommendation of Mthembu. His crimes: driving cars badly, going out drinking, beating up cadres and speaking his mind.

Joe Seremane only found out about the fate of his brother last year, when he asked the ANC two simple questions: “Why was Timothy executed? Will the ANC facilitate the return of my brother’s bones?”

Receiving no response, he approached the truth commission. Commissioners and researchers admit his quest caused anxiety and division. An investigator recalled: “No one wanted to take on the ANC.”

The ANC has initiated four commissions of inquiry into abuses in camps, but has not spoken openly about torture and abuses in its camps. The ANC was a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which specifically excludes the torture and execution of prisoners.

In December, the SABC’s Issues of Faith will screen a documentary on the quest of Joe Seremane. During the making of the film, requests for interviews with Mthembu were turned down by his superior, Joe Nhlanhla – even though Mthembu was willing to speak.

Modise, Kasrils and the Reverend Frank Chikane all turned down interview requests. The offices of President Nelson Mandela and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki failed to respond.

Seremane experienced pressure at work from Cabinet ministers and colleagues. He told the truth commission it would be “blood money” if he put his job before his family.

Mail disappeared from film-maker Kevin Harris’s postbox, telephones were tapped and hackers destroyed files in Harris’s computer.

A former Quatro inmate says: “Even today we live in fear. Since 1980, 57 former Mbokodo have been assassinated and seven former Quatro inmates – who is killing them? We believe they are being killed because of what they know about those who are in power now. Quatro left a dark shadow that has not retreated.


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