Oupa Gqozo: An 'officer and a gentleman'

Ten years ago he was living in a presidential palace, with a gold-braided uniform, a bevy of bodyguards and a country at his command.

In the visitors’ book in the palace’s elegant foyer, there was a warm message from Nelson and Winnie Mandela, praising him as a progressive leader who had brought his people “back into the centre of the struggle”.

But South Africa’s first decade of democracy has not been kind to Oupa Joshua Gqozo, former military ruler of the Ciskei.

Today he lives in a dilapidated farmhouse, too poor to pay his family’s electricity bill, running a bed and breakfast business to put food on the table, and sadly disillusioned with the world in general.

“I am sorry: I must apologise that I am not important any more, and I do not like to say anything because I do not have any more confidence in any human kind,” he says.

The diminutive Gqozo worked for the department of prisons before joining the South African Defence Force (SADF) in 1975 and impressing his superiors enough to win the Pro Patria medal for “suppression of terrorism”.

He moved across to the Ciskei Defence Force when the bantustan took its so-called independence from apartheid South Africa in 1981, rose rapidly through the ranks to brigadier, and in March 1990 he led the bloodless coup that toppled Ciskei’s founding president Lennox Sebe.

Initially the new military ruler was the darling of the then-recently-unbanned African National Congress, freeing Sebe’s political prisoners and speaking at a mass rally under the ANC banner.

But then, fed with disinformation by covert SADF military intelligence operatives, he turned against the organisation—a mistrust that has remained to this day—and soon was claiming in public the ANC wanted him dead. The antipathy climaxed in the 1992 Bisho massacre, where Gqozo’s troops gunned down 29 ANC marchers.

Gqozo vacated the presidential palace ahead of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 to make way for two administrators—one of them Bongani Finca, now the Eastern Cape’s provincial electoral officer—who were to guide the Ciskei towards re-incorporation.

He formed his own political party, the African Democratic Movement (ADM), to contest the polls, predicting that after the elections he would “be back with authority”, and declared Nelson Mandela would probably best serve as minister of information or foreign affairs in his cabinet.

However the ADM failed dismally and disbanded later that year, and Gqozo’s fortunes went downhill from there. In 1996, ahead of his appearance at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing into the Bisho massacre, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital reportedly suffering from depression.

Two years later he was fined R10 000 after being convicted of illegal diamond dealing.
During the trial his attorney handed in a psychiatrist’s note describing him as a suicide risk who believed people wanted to kill him.

In 2001 he was shot in the chest, head and neck while providing protection for a traditional healer in the Middeldrift area. Gqozo lay unconscious for more than a week, and was left with impaired speech.

In June last year he was hospitalised again, this time with serious burns to hands and face after he mistook a container of petrol for one of paraffin when refilling a heater.

Today Gqozo spends much of his time on his 440 hectare farm Blackwoods, just north of King William’s Town, which he has managed to hang onto despite a probe by Judge Willem Heath into Ciskei government land deals and a bid by the bank to repossess it.

Once the residence of South Africa’s ambassador to Ciskei, it is still surrounded by a tall security fence, but the gates stand wide open, and the guardhouse has no roof.

The house desperately needs attention: shrubs grow in the rusted gutters, broken window panes gape; a charred door frame bears witness to the fire that scalded Gqozo’s hands and face.

Despite his speech impediment, he manages to communicate well enough with his devoted wife Corinthian and four children; but when an interviewer struggles to understand his words, in frustration he demands pen and paper.

“I used to be proud of my country,” he writes. “I worked my guts out; I had too solid principles and morality—but the ANC took me to shatters—I am nothing—what good I thought is now shambles—eg. what I knew or thought was good—suddenly it is bad—ANC style—can I say more!

“It is so horrible—better to stay quiet—[about] what I had done for the last ten [years of] so-called freedom. I was so different to their violence—I was a peacekeeper—I was a moderate man—I was a disciplinarian—in short, I was a soldier—an officer and a gentleman. I didn’t kill anybody. Who petrol-bombed people? Who necklaced people?

“They drive around in four-by-fours, they are multi-millionaires. But the people are poor. I’m sick and tired.”

Asked whether South Africa as a whole has got better over the last ten years, Gqozo lays down the pen, determined to say these words: “People don’t want to hear the truth. People hear what they want to hear. I have given up. I don’t want to say anything. They only want to be bullshitted by immoral politicians.”

Lighting a paraffin lamp, Gqozo takes his visitor through the rambling farmhouse and unlocks the door to a room empty but for a wall of cupboards and several tin trunks on the floor.

The trunks are crammed with books and documents. He opens one: lying at the top is what appears to be his annotated copy of the statement he issued in 1991 after the South African military intelligence operatives lured Sebe’s exiled brother Charles back to the Ciskei and Gqozo’s troops shot him in cold blood.

It begins “It is with pleasure that I announce…”

Folded on a shelf in one of the cupboards is a green military-style tunic, with gold braid on the shoulder thick as a man’s thumb. It is the jacket he wore as ruler of the Ciskei.

Gqozo says he is reading the Bible “to understand how God the mighty works”.

He is also writing his autobiography, waking sometimes in the middle of the night to write when the urge takes him. He has accumulated an impressive pile of handwritten sheets, but is reluctant to let his visitor look at it.

However he does permit a glimpse of one sheet—a draft of the table of contents. One chapter is titled “Birth to Bisho”.

At the top of the sheet he has written two proposals for a title. One is: “The Lost Country”. The other is: “The Lost Paradise”. - Sapa

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