Playwright opens file on OR Tambo the dictator

It will never be easy to take a critical look at the legacy of a historical icon such as Oliver Reginald Tambo but playwright Sello Maseko bravely reflects on the former ANC president’s shortcomings in his musical simply titled Angola. The production, which had a successful run at the State Theatre recently, takes on one of the ANC’s darkest periods — the human rights abuses and abuse of power by the party’s leaders and military commanders during its exile years.

This, coupled with dissatisfaction by Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) cadres about taking part in the Angolan civil war eventually led to a bloody mutiny in the ANC’s military training camps in Angola in January 1984. In its submission before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the ANC said it executed at least 34 of its cadres for mutiny, murder and rape in Angola between 1980 and 1989.

The ANC has refused to take direct responsibility or punish any of its members implicated in the torture and killings in exile. It has washed its hands of any wrongdoing during that period and absolved any of its leaders from any blame regardless of evidence to the contrary.

In his production, Maseko exposes the power drunkenness, treachery and cunning ways of commanders in MK to eliminate their colleagues by falsely implicating them in spying for the apartheid security forces, an offence punishable by death. He also exposes the complicity and indifference of leaders in dealing with the growing dissatisfaction that eventually led to the tragic events of 1984 in which MK cadre turned on MK cadre.

In the dialogue the characters cast doubt on Tambo’s ability to lead, unite and bring those who abused their power to justice. Tambo is a cult hero in liberation politics, he is revered by the ANC and many of its members as a principled, honest, caring and capable leader who helped keep the party’s torch of freedom burning during his presidency, most of it during 23 of the party’s exile years between 1967 and 1990.

The ANC dedicated 2017 to honouring Tambo’s life and contribution to the ANC and liberation of South Africa. In its annual January statement last year, which marked Tambo’s centenary, the ANC lauded its former president “as the glue that held the many facets of the ANC together during the difficult years in exile”.

The party went on to credit Tambo with uniting “the movement by listening and engaging with the concerns of comrades, by staying true to the core values of the ANC and through displaying great integrity and discipline in serving his people”.

But Maseko, whose uncle Vuyisile Maseko was among the mutineers who were brutally tortured and eventually killed at the ANC’s notorious Quatro detention centre in Angola, believes Tambo, as party leader, was responsible for the rot that beset the movement in exile. In the opening of the musical, the director poses deep and critical questions about the treatment, trial and execution of MK cadres with a series of questions illuminated in the 

“I have met many victims of Quatro personally and people who were in exile. Many of them never met Oliver Tambo. You check the history of the ANC [before Tambo’s presidency]. We sang about the cause, we sang about the revolution. It is only when OR became president [that] we began to sing about him and no longer about the cause. And everything was about him. So that’s where this thing of a dictator [originates],” says Maseko after another full house watched his production.

It is almost unheard of for ANC members to express such views about Tambo, who is to many even more revered than his successor Nelson Mandela. Those who have had the guts to do so have been labelled imidlwembe (sell-outs) or counter revolutionaries and even enemy agents.

Yet Maseko, who is literally a child of the ANC, has chosen to tackle this thorny historical issue even though he’s aware of the organisation’s history of intolerance of criticism. Another uncle was also in MK and returned home from exile with a deformed face. His mother was a member of the ANC’s Amandla Cultural Ensemble that took the message of liberation to the world through song and dance during the exile years. Maseko himself leads the ANC Youth League in Soshanguve’s Ward 29.

“He [Tambo] was the longest-serving president [of the ANC] not because there were no other [capable] presidents [but] because he led with a military style and he used people to front for him to say there’s no other leaders,” charges Maseko.

He argues that Tambo used the likes of Andrew Masondo and Mzwai Piliso, MK commanders who have been cited in various incidents of human rights abuses in the military training camps, to continue his hold on power through terror and fear.

“Everywhere in Angola there were these killings. It cannot happen that the president [Tambo] is sitting there under all the glory [and he doesn’t know] … When it comes to OR, that man was not as great as they say he was; he used people. He read letters [from victims of human rights abuses in the camps] and did nothing,” says Maseko.

This same argument is put forward in a paper titled A Miscarriage of Democracy: The ANC security department in the 1984 mutiny in Umkhonto weSizwe. Authors Bandile Ketelo, Amos Maxongo, Zamxolo Tshona, Ronnie Massango and Luvo Mbengo argue that the mutineers staged their protest counting on protection from Tambo.

“An illusory idea still lingered in the minds of the MK combatants that most of the wrong things in our organisation happened without the knowledge of Tambo and, given a clear picture of the situation, he would act to see to their solution,” the paper states. The TRC found that the ANC, particularly its military structures, was guilty of gross violations of human rights in certain circumstances, and that individuals were being charged and convicted by tribunals without proper attention to due process, and sentenced to death and executed. It also found that the ANC’s failure to communicate properly with the families of such victims constituted callous and insensitive conduct.

Maseko says he consulted many ANC comrades who were once in exile during the making of his production. Many were happy that he was telling the story of the ANC in exile — until he mentioned it was on the human rights abuses in Angola. Their reluctance to open this chapter initially gave him cold feet and he shelved the production. But “the voices in my head continued telling me to do the story”.

“It’s very close to my heart, it’s very personal,” he says on why he eventually decided to tell the story and on the timing of its staging.

Maseko says he is waiting for confirmation of dates for Angola at the Soweto Theatre, Mmabana Cultural Centre in Mahikeng and at the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State in Bloemfontein later in the year.

“It is important for our people to come and see what we did to each other, what our revolutionary movement did to all of us … those in special positions [now]. Our people should know what these people did to other people.” — Mukurukuru Media

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Lucas Ledwaba
Lucas Ledwaba
Journalist and author of Broke & Broken - The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa.

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