Failed promises steal the glitter from MK's golden jubilee
Shaft 17 Road is one of Johannesburg’s many moribund mine access routes, a road beyond the ken of modern GPS navigation systems. An anonymous offshoot of Nasrec Road near Soccer City, it quickly dips into tall, afforested mine dumps, where po-faced signs warn “No Dumping”.
A recently published provincial report describes areas such as this as “badlands on the periphery of the formal economy and mainstream society” and, indeed, winding through the tailings, we are torn between nervousness about our security and a feeling that, if our subjects are indeed nearby, the marginal environment is a perfect fit for their disgruntlement.
Song gives them away, a chorus of “param, param”, and then we see men and women in mufti marching around a cul-de-sac.
It is December 15, the eve of Umkhonto weSizwe’s (MK’s) golden jubilee, and the former combatants, erstwhile spears of the nation, are yet to receive their parade uniforms.
The issue makes Kebby Maphatsoe, chairperson of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA), stand out a little more than he perhaps would like to—he is in a full parade uniform with a black Soviet beret. He has just arrived in a black Range Rover from an emotional opening of the Pretoria Gallows Museum at Pretoria Central Prison, which commemorates MK combatants such as Vuyisile Mini and Wilson Khayingo, who were hanged for treason.
“Comrade Younis,” Maphatsoe says urgently into his phone, “you need to get down here to see the pressure I’m under. We need those uniforms, Comrade Younis.”
The uniforms are only part of the problem. Days before, it emerged that the department of defence and military veterans (the “and military veterans” part was added in April this year) had stumped up R5-million for the MKMVA celebration at Johannesburg’s Orlando Stadium, an issue the Democratic Alliance’s David Maynier complained about in Parliament.
Then there are problems with the veterans themselves—a group of them have been threatening to boycott the celebration, using this to press their demand for permanent jobs with the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa. And in July, an MKMVA member lodged fraud and theft complaints against the group’s leaders, including Maphatsoe. The case has gone quiet because, in the words of a source, “several ANC national executive council members have pushed to have the charges dropped in order to save the organisation and the ANC deep embarrassment”.
Nevertheless, Maphatsoe knows there is a virile breakaway group in the MKMVA, which calls itself the Commissariat, and that they are gunning for him.
Those were the days
Ten minutes is all he can spare to tell us about MK-related matters. But, sitting on 1-m wide concrete drain pipe in the evening light, he falls to a generous hour of storytelling about the exile days, especially about MK’s arrival in Uganda in 1978 after the adoption of United Nation’s Resolution 435, which contained the political agreements that enabled Namibia’s independence but also a condition that MK had to leave its camps in Angola.
“After years of living in the bush, we were told we would be moving to a barracks in Kampala. But instead we drove all night in a cattle truck to even worse bush, which was littered with the skulls and bones of Idi Amin’s political opponents,” he says.
“Anarchy started to happen,” says Maphatsoe, “comrades began talking to skulls, saying ‘this one was very beautiful, this one very ugly’. Others pretended they were inyangas and people would come to them saying ‘Doctor, we are sick’ and the inyangas would throw some human bones and say ‘it is because you are an ill-disciplined comrade’ and everybody would fall over laughing.”
This guerrilla version of the “Alas, poor Yorick” scene in Hamlet is but one of many extraordinary tales of hardship Maphatsoe tells, ignoring his bodyguard’s frantic neck-chopping hand signals. He still has a point to make.
“When I returned from exile in 1992, my family was traumatised because they sent away a son with two hands and he returned with one. Others never returned and many who did had post-traumatic stress disorder. To this day, there are comrades living and dying destitute, so if the David Mayniers of the world are truly serious about reconciliation they should applaud the department for helping us to publicise the role we played rather than complaining.”
It would seem Maphatsoe scores a point here against an at times historically insensitive opposition party, but then “we” has become a risky pronoun to assume in this country, even when coming from the lips of former freedom fighters reared on Marx. This becomes apparent when, returning to the car, we follow the sounds of singing through a hole in a hedge and break in on a world of soldiers sitting at ease under trees, smoking and talking, but not idly, as it turns out.
“We are the Hamas [Palestinian resistance movement] of the South African liberation struggle, the hungry and the angry,” says diminutive Aaron Mithikiku, introducing a group of about 10 veterans seated beneath a large poplar.
‘Train for war’
The former combatants have worked themselves into an anarchic fervour. From every side, they are asserting their readiness to take up arms again and die for the ideals they left the country for in the first place to train for war.
“You want to know what makes a rebel? Poverty makes a rebel,” says a man who calls himself Skukuza.
“Since I returned, I am uncontrollable, I command myself. How can it be different when the only skills I learnt were to shoot and kill?” asks one nicknamed Booysens—because he patronises the Booysens Hotel bar near Gold Reef City, MK’s unofficial clubhouse, so frequently.
The acid outpouring draws the reaction of a former commissar, who begins castigating the group in isiZulu for selling out to the media. But he is furiously received.
“Don’t complain to us without first listening to our problems,” says Skukuza as the commissar retreats. “We are Hamas, we are tired of this shit and have no fear.”
Mithikiku explains that the group was told, unexpectedly, to gather in Kensington the previous afternoon, where the commissars had asked them for their personal details.
“They say it is for a database, without explaining, but we know that our details are like credit-card details—they take them down and go shopping for donations,” he says. He then advises us to move on before the commissars arrive in bigger numbers.
Not long after MK’s first attacks on South African installations on December 16 1961, a strong narrative thread of rebellion began. Researchers have logged details of the minor MK insurrection of 1966 led by the late Chris Hani, the 1967 student rebellion in Moscow and the 1969 political mutiny by the so-called Gang of Eight, under Tennyson Makiwane and others, who found fault with the decision to admit non-black members into MK. But 1984 was the big one—a mutiny in Angola that drew in the bulk of MK’s forces in the country and led to the documented atrocities at the Quatro disciplinary camp, where some suspected mutineers were beaten by internal security men, known as “panelbeaters”, and others were publicly hanged. In almost all cases, the reaction was against poor leadership.
But here is a separate and more pronounced narrative that extols MK’s culture of respect and discipline, currently propagated by men such as Archie Mogodiri, the MKMVA’s deputy provincial secretary for Gauteng.
“In exile, there was none of this culture of making a statement that differed from the line of the parent organisation, because we had all received the same education and it was excellent—you could speak to a comrade stationed in Cuba, East Germany or Moscow and the answer would be exactly the same,” Mogodiri says, adding that it is this culture that accords MK veterans continuing relevance in South Africa.
“As an association, we have been telling the government we need to go back to the basics of political education to solve the lack of discipline you see in the party. MK commissars need to be used as a resource for this,” he says.
The ANC’s 2007 elective conference in Polokwane established a political education unit under national executive committee member Tony Yengeni but there is little evidence to suggest that the initiative has any relevance in 2011. If it did, the communication potential of MK’s 50th anniversary would have been exploited to the full.
Instead, the event at Orlando Stadium on December 16 sinks beneath the waves of the national discourse like a limpet. Many veterans we spoke to before the event said they would stay away, maintaining they were disgusted with the MKMVA’s leadership or claiming that they had other commitments.
Those participating in the parade receive their boots in the VIP parking lot only around midday, after which they march around in a corner of the soccer pitch—one or two exhibiting very rapid push-ups, while others tumble and leopard crawl, before escaping to shaded parts of fairly empty stands, where the keynote speeches are barely audible. If the crowd comes alive briefly it is when some rubber-legged pantsulas race on to the field amid a thundering kwaito beat, bringing the township punks with their Mohican hairdos and day-glo sunglasses down from the stands.
“Our youth is ignorant,” says Tselane Dikole, a South African National Defence Force captain, sitting next to me. She went by the MK name Cecilia Khuzwayo in the Ugandan camp in which she spent the years 1987 to 1991. “They don’t want to know—1990s-born kids are just into booze, jiving and drugs. Fortunately, my own boy can tell the difference between my army uniform and my MK uniform. When he grows up he will know that his mother carried an AK47,” Dikole says.
Her son will learn that her best day in exile was when Oliver Tambo and Cyril Ramaphosa visited her camp in the early 1990s and distributed chicken—the first the soldiers had eaten in four years. The worst days were the weeks of drought during which the wells dried up and the animals left. Asked for her best and worst day picks since 1994, Dikole says, echoing the answers of many other veterans to whom the same question was posed: “There is no best and no worst living under democracy. It is not hell but there are no greener pastures either.”
If the jubilee celebrations have a soul it is alive and kicking for only half an hour or so above the main entrance stands.
A group of veterans spontaneously form a circle and start to sing in multipart harmony, shoes on concrete as much a factor in the stirring sound as the few self-appointed sopranos who sing half a line and then cast the final note out over the rest of it. Faces wax increasingly more rapturous with every chorus until tears start appearing and infecting bystanders.
Asked what the song is about one veteran replies: “They are just singing. It’s just a song, man”—an evasion that stings because its roots lie so evidently in Judge Colin Lamont’s 2011 banning of the struggle song, Dubul’ ibhunu—Shoot the Boer, and the sense of those who count the song as part of their heritage that the media was complicit in this criminalisation of their past.
Former MK soldier and national intelligence director Barry Gilder, now director of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, previously gave some interesting views on the subject. “We’ve created these institutions of democracy that many believe are not very different from apartheid institutions. They may be wrong but the perception that these institutions are there merely for the benefit of an elite is out there.”
Any further muting of the country’s struggle heritage would, in Gilder’s view, put the country in danger of what he reluctantly—“please, God, don’t use it as your headline”—describes as “a kind of bubbling from the ground level up, at worst a complete revolt against those institutions of democracy”.
But he does not believe that MK veterans pose a direct threat to what he calls “the nervous middle classes” or to the ANC. “The media tends to look at the disgruntlements of MK veterans in isolation from the fact that South Africa has reached a point after 17 years of democracy where a much broader base of working-class people are asking why we haven’t effectively addressed the inequities of the past. In order for the analysis of how MK veterans feel to become more founded, there must be that fundamental basis of understanding of where we are as a country.”
The MKMVA is seen by many in the ANC as a natural counterbalance to the combative youth league, given what Gilder calls “a far deeper and broader understanding of the world and of ANC traditions” but exactly to what extent this outlook remains representative of the views of the MK rank and file is increasingly unclear.
“That boy was right to talk about nationalisation,” says Sunnyboy Khumalo from Diepkloof, referring to embattled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.
Khumalo is a former MK physical instructor who went by the nom de guerre Rambo. He feels strongly that “some state-owned things were privatised because the government did not want to be responsible for the people when they became restless about their employment conditions. We are saying this process must be reversed, and it will be reversed.”
Khumalo is one of those who have been demanding jobs with the rail agency and yet he maintains that “even economic freedom will not make me free”.
He was released from Krugersdorp Prison two months ago after spending four years there for assault only to hear that his son had died while he was away. The people he left his son with have vanished into thin air.
“I want to know where my son is. If he is dead, let them show me his grave. The only thing I have left to fear is that I will not find him,” says Khumalo. He adds that in prison rehabilitation programmes he acquired the skills of a peace-broker but, he says: “I can’t go on volunteering myself for the people of South Africa when I have pain like this of my own. Who is going to broker peace for me?”
With that, his platoon leader calls and yells through his phone receiver. Rambo mock salutes, causing nearby SABC technicians to double over. “We’re supposed to keep on marching,” says Rambo, and he jogs away.
Sean Christie is a freelance writer who lives in Cape Town. David Bannister assisted with research for this article
View more highlights of the year that was in our special report.