Soldier of the struggle fought for a decent life for all
NEO POTSANE 1960–2015
Neo Potsane, an Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) soldier who was tortured and sentenced to death by the apartheid regime in the 1980s, died on June 24.
Potsane was born in Dube Village, Soweto, in 1960, and fled to Lesotho in 1977 to join the ANC’s armed struggle, and later to Mozambique. He returned in 1985, but was caught and sentenced to death in 1986.
Released from prison in 1991, he worked at ANC headquarters until 1996 and then for the National Intelligence Agency in information and communication technologies.
Growing up in the heart of Soweto, Potsane was swept up in the collective wave of student mobilisation that led to the youth uprising in 1976 in Soweto and other centres.
His father, Simon Atoyi Potsane, was a soldier in World War II and later a prisoner of war. Potsane senior hoped the war would shift the repressive regime at home. But, as they left the ship that brought them home, white soldiers were segregated from black soldiers; the white soldiers were given bursaries and pension funds, the black soldiers were given bicycles and coats.
Potsane made one attempt to convince his son to step back from the armed struggle. “War,” he said, “is a painful thing.” He did not try too hard; he knew his son. Potsane trained as a soldier, spending long periods in MK camps in Zambia and Angola. His father wouldn’t hear from him for more than 10 years.
In mid-1985, Potsane was recruited into a specialised MK operations unit together with Jabu Masina, Frans Ting Ting Masango, Joseph Makhura and Justice Mbizana. Mbizana disappeared in early 1986, was caught by the security forces and tortured, poisoned and burned to death. The others were finally arrested too and endured months of torture.
Peter Harris, in his book In a Different Time, tells the story of their trial. They were the first soldiers of the liberation movement to choose not to participate in the court process. They were prisoners of war and awaited judgment clad in their military uniforms. Without saying a word, they declared final victory: whatever this court finds, it will be known as a crime against humanity. They were sentenced to death.
Simon Potsane spoke at their appeal. Even under Nazi Germany, he reminded the judge, prisoners of war were not sentenced to death. The court postponed the death sentences, which were converted to life sentences in the early 1990s as a precondition of the early process of the negotiated settlement.
I met Neo Potsane a year later. More than 40 days on hunger strike and he, Masango and Masina were remarkably at ease. Their doctors were worried about kidney failure, but the soldiers were unmoved by the prospect of dying. They were extremely concerned, though, about the problems facing the living.
I remember two things about those days: their kind and loving eyes, and that they were forever joking. I remember their ongoing analysis of the political process, their deep sense of personal responsibility to ensure their actions were not motivated by personal gain, but accountable only to the future of the nation’s children.
The three were released on July 7 1991. All his life, Potsane remained worried about other political prisoners – today, 21 years into our democracy, some liberation soldiers still remain behind bars.
Potsane did not like the word hero. He would explain that people who use the word hero often do not understand. “War,” he echoed his father’s words, “is a painful thing.”
For me, Potsane was not a hero because he was a soldier. He was a hero because of what he quietly stood for throughout his life. He was a man of few words. He did not value self-promotion, but placed value on what he called a “decent life”; a life focused on his own education and the education of others.
A decent life is about thinking carefully about society, beyond one’s personal interests, and using one’s energies to build a world accountable to the wellbeing of children.
Potsane was burdened by the political developments of our time and felt the weight of watching a governance process seemingly increasingly dominated by personal interest and self-promotion.
He leaves behind his beloved life partner, Mmaphefo Mabe, and his brother, Saki Potsane. He was a father to Thakane Potsane, Modiehi Potsane, Pontseng Potsane, Lesego Tibane, Katlego Tibane, Kwena Mokuena, and Neo Mhlayivana.
Tsamaya ka kgotso, Mosia [Go in peace, Mosia]; the world does not feel quite so round without you.