During President Jacob Zuma’s visit to Umkhonto weSizwe’s former Pango military camp in Angola recently, he noted “blood ties” between Angola and South Africa that could not be understated.
It was a succinct appraisal of an intertwined story of struggle.
During the 1980s a large section of the ANC’s army was housed in military camps around Angola and its cadres fought alongside the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita).
That the president visited Pango — the site of a mutiny by MK cadres impatient to return to fight the apartheid regime in South Africa rather than continue at Angola’s Cold War coalface — was also poignant.
It was a recognition by an ANC president, who has in the past few years been calling for his machine gun, of soldiers who had refused to give up their machine guns — a stance for which many died when the ANC sought to suppress the uprisings in its various camps in Angola.
Yet the wheel had not come full circle. Zuma acknowledged the suffering of war the Angolan people incurred by allowing MK to operate in the country — thus escalating the Cold War machinations of the United States, the then-USSR and Cuba. And he made reference to “once again, [coming] back to where we were made to be soldiers to be ready to go back and fight against the apartheid regime”.
These are sincere symbolic gestures on Zuma’s part, which have done much to thaw the iceberg that developed between the two countries during former president Thabo Mbeki’s tenure.
Yet, although Zuma insisted that “history has to be told as it is”, these gestures do little to address the complexities of the ANC’s time in Angola — especially the accusations of torture and violence alleged to have been perpetrated by the ANC’s security department.
Writing about Quadro, the ANC’s notorious detention facility in Angola, Paul Trewhela detailed a litany of abuses and murders conducted upon mutinous MK cadres. In Inside Quadro, published in the Marxist journal Searchlight South Africa in 1990, he traced the various mutinies back to the first in Fazenda, north of Pango, in 1979.
Trewhela asserts that the uprisings were as much a protest about the proliferation of anti-democratic practices within the camps — at a time when the leadership was increasingly paranoid about being infiltrated by apartheid forces — as they were about an impatience to return, with a machine gun, to South Africa. Various mutineers who were imprisoned in Quadro until 1989 backed this up with their own testimonies.
The ANC, which had conducted three internal inquiries into these allegations, still maintains the party line put forward to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its submissions — that is, an acknowledgment that “errors took place”, that command structures could have been more vigilant and responded accordingly, and that these were “bizarre incidents of indiscipline by a minority of cadres”.
Monica Bandeira, a senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said “not enough has been exposed or documented” about the ANC’s time in Angola.
She said this lack of will could be attributed to the civil war, which ended in 2002, and noted that the lethargy has continued — to the detriment of those who allegedly suffered at the hands of ANC security and the families still attempting to find closure for the loss of untraceable loved ones.
It is common practice now to construct Zuma as an anti-Mbeki figure — the man with the common touch who bleeds blood, rather than Yeats, when pricked. And as an observer on his state visit to Angola, I could not help but sense his being moved by the historical and contemporary experiences of the Angolan people and by his affinity for them — and theirs for him.
Aides such as Lindiwe Zulu, the presidential adviser on international relations, told the Mail & Guardian that Zuma wanted to connect as much with the ordinary folk as possible and that his personal experience of exile had informed the state visit throughout.
It is in keeping with the construction of the anti-Mbeki figure and his government.
But this needs to be extended to the ANC in Angola, especially when Zulu says this history has to be recorded — hopefully in its entirety. It will help the ANC to understand itself better, as it will the people who have rendered their power to the ANC in trust.
History, even if it is “the sum total of things that could have been avoided”, as former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer noted, must be told — by both lions and hunters.
For as Zuma said in Pango, recording history “helps those who are living to reflect on mistakes of the past. But it also says to us who are in authority to handle it with care.”