Still carrying the scars

2011-12-17 13:54

It is December 16 1961 in South Africa. Dr Hendrik Verwoerd is in power, the White Republic is six-and-a-half months old and the newspapers are filled with news of planned Dingaan’s Day celebrations to remind Afrikaners of the Battle of Blood River.

But on that day, news diaries had to be somewhat revised as bomb blasts damaged several state buildings in Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth.

The following day, December 17, the birth of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) was announced by its first commander-in-chief, Nelson Mandela, later to become the first president of a democratic South Africa.

MK veterans’ secretary-general Ayanda Dlodlo, speaking from her seventh floor office at Luthuli House, ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg, recalls: “It was a tough decision for the ANC to turn to the armed struggle. The policy since the movement’s inception in 1912 was to use protest marches, petitions and other peaceful means to convince the South African government of the benefits of non-racialism.

“The Sharpeville Massacre on March 21 1960 proved the brutality of our enemy, and with the banning of the ANC on April 8 1960, the Verwoerd government closed the door on negotiations.”

Dlodlo tells how the ANC leadership scoured the world for members of the international community who were prepared to help with training and arms acquisition. China, Morocco and Algeria were particularly receptive to the idea.As African states gained independence, opportunities for engagement increased and the first camp, at Kongwa in Tanzania, housed the legendary Luthuli Attachment.

“Most of the cadres joining MK were in their teens,” recalls Dlodlo.

“They had no expectation of pay or recognition, only the willingness to fight a brutal system. The decision required great sacrifice from those young people. It was a heroic decision to fight against a well-equipped military power, strongly supported by the West.”

We turn to the potentially sensitive issue of MK’s military successes. Dlodlo insists that MK be credited with much of the international success of the propaganda war against apartheid – war without firearms, the development of political thought and the contribution of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble.

“Many of our operational successes are omitted from history, but the attacks on Voortrekkerhoogte (currently called Thaba Tshwane) to police stations like Protea in Soweto and the Sasol plant in Sasolburg are well-known, not to mention the Wankie incursion into the erstwhile Rhodesia.

”She is referring to the Luthuli Attachment, led by the late Chris Hani, who attempted an armed insurrection into South Africa from Zambia through what is now called Zimbabwe.

After two famous victories, the Luthuli Attachment realised that their supplies were too scarce, their supply lines too long and their enemy too powerful. The attachment decamped to Botswana.

Still, Hani was highly critical of the ANC leadership.On this issue, Dlodlo strikes a philosophical note. “There will always be unhappiness about events on the battlefield.

Hani was at the coalface, and he stated his view from his perspective. He was entitled to his view, but other views were also held. Unhappiness often plagued MK and in the 1980s there was a mutiny.“The unhappiness often stemmed from a feeling of impotence at the slow pace of upping the ante against the regime.

The fighters had skills and wanted to put them to use, but there were challenges.“The biggest challenge was that MK, as opposed to, for instance, PLAN (People’s Liberation Army of Namibia) in Namibia, did not have access to a border across which to launch attacks. We did not have a bordering country willing to house us. There were always two borders between MK and South Africa.”

Conditions in MK camps have over the years become a controversial piece of struggle history. Food and equipment was never plentiful.

In Angola, where Dlodlo was stationed, the presence of a new ship in the harbour was a promising development.“Italian ships caused great excitement, because it could mean decent clothing and powdered eggs were a possibility. Soviet ships often meant sub-standard food, especially tinned pork.

Sometimes we would receive vegetables as camp rations, sometimes meat, bread and on special occasions, two beers. I bartered my beer!”Dlodlo holds strong views on allegations of women abuse in the camps.

“Fighting for the equality of women was always ANC policy.“In the camps I was in, I never heard allegations of rape. The only incidence of which we knew was when an MK cadre raped a peasant. He had to face the firing squad.

“Of course, overtures for sexual favours would be made. But if you said no, that was the end of it.”

She also believes those who were executed in the camps were indeed agents of the apartheid regime, with very few exceptions.

Dlodlo defends the decision to lay landmines on farms in what is now Limpopo in the late 1980s.

“The farms were used as a buffer zone, and farmers were often members of the commandos, which actively collaborated with the (then SA) defence force.

“Mistakes were made. It was not policy to kill civilians. For this, we apologise. Collateral damage is a part of war. This is one of the reasons why war is undesirable and should be avoided.”Dlodlo is critical of the way the demobilisation and the disbanding of MK was handled.

“It was poorly planned, like so much in the non-statutory forces. We were also not sufficiently prepared for the racism inherent in the old South African defence force. We need to be honest and admit that MK was short-changed. Apla struck a better deal.

“Every demobilised MK fighter was paid out R28 000, but no support was given on how to invest it. So much of it just disintegrated in their hands.”

She sighs, and for a moment there is a glimpse of the universal face of the suffering war brings, no matter which side you have to comfort.

“So many of the former fighters struggle to adapt to civil society. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They struggle to keep families, relationships and jobs going. They still carry the scars for the decision to fight for freedom.

“In the end, we stand alone. We have to look after ourselves. And it has been worth it, because we are intensely proud of the contribution we have made to the freedom struggle in South Africa.”

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