The day Maritzburg shook

2013-06-28 00:00

THE explosion was heard as far away as Chase Valley. On March 21, 1983, a six-kilogramme SZ-6 device was detonated at the New Supreme Court, which was still under construction. A large hole was blown in the wall with superficial damage on all floors. Nearby flats had their windows shattered. Then on April 21, 1983, a guard at the Old Supreme Court kicked a wired black box and was injured when what police described as a Soviet TG50 naval demolition mine exploded. Blasts had previously occurred at the old Native High Court in College Road and at the Sobantu offices of the Drakensberg Administration Board in January and February. None of these incidents resulted in fatalities and the damage was largely symbolic. This was armed propaganda in the true tradition of the ANC, four of 55 such attacks over 12 months according to Brigadier H. Stadler of Special Branch.

Just over a year later at the College Road Supreme Court, Sithabiso Ma­hlobo (25) from Estcourt, Ben Dikobe Martins (27), an Edendale youth leader, and Duma Gqubule (19) appeared on charges of high treason, terrorism, ANC activity, causing explosions and possession of arms and ammunition. Gqubule was barely out of his teens, but had been detained twice before. Multiple charges were a tactic designed to emphasise conspiracy. This was an unusual trial in that all the defendants were local: venues were often deliberately chosen far from the support bases of those on trial. With the courtroom packed, singing in the cells and the exchange of salutes, 100 demonstrators outside, and shouts of “Amandla” it turned out to be a classic, highly charged political trial. This was a time of great tension with increasingly bold opposition and a sense that the apartheid state was being pushed to crisis point. The following year, the government embarked on a five-year sequence of States of Emergency.

As Ingrid Oellermann, then as now court reporter for The Witness, remarks: “Covering terrorism trials in the eighties was generally a tense and tricky affair. This was a time of extreme distrust between the security forces and journalists, as well as the public whose mere presence at a terrorism trial would attract intense scrutiny. There was a real risk of violent confrontation between demonstrators and the police as courts were considered to be a legitimate target to vent frustration against apartheid. It was also a period when premeditated murder and high treason still attracted the death penalty, an always chilling and emotional prospect.”

All the defendants and Mvuyo Tom, a 31-year-old doctor at Edendale Hospital, had been held in detention since late 1983 together with another doctor, Faith Matloapane. Duma Gqubule’s father, Simon, recalls how his son was picked up from home at 6 am during the holidays from University of Transkei. Permission was granted to visit Duma, “but the parents of the other two were not allowed to visit. However, when we visited we insisted on seeing the others as well”. Prolonged detention was a standard practice preceding political trials, human rights lawyers describing it as effective abduction into a witness factory. Lengthy detention should have rendered statements inadmissible as they were not freely given.

Tom, from the DCO Matiwane Youth League, refused to testify on the grounds of conscience. He reasoned he had no allegiance to the state and was not prepared to be a traitor to the cause of liberation. His principled stand cost him a jail term of three years of a possible five as a recalcitrant witness.

The state argued that its witnesses were in danger, justifying an in-camera trial. It also tried to exclude the press. The prosecution alleged that arms and explosives had been cached at Georgetown High School and Marawa Flats near Edendale Hospital. A state witness, Mr E. testifying in camera, spoke about training in the use of limpet mines in Angola and Mozambique, and described a reconnaissance mission from Maputo via Swaziland with Mahlobo. Among the alleged targets in Pietermaritzburg, seen as ideal for its communications links and the extent of surrounding townships, were Huletts, Plessislaer, Loop Street and Alexandra Road police stations, the Trust Bank and electricity sub-stations. Objectives in Estcourt were similar together with the Bergville Eskom plant and Ntabamhlophe police station. At some stage, Mahlobo stayed at Fedsem in Imbali.

Another anonymous witness, Mr F., travelled from Maputo with Mahlobo, got drunk on the train and having alighted at Pietermaritzburg managed to lose his gun and grenades. He was arrested the next day. Mr H. described a youth-group visit to Maseru at Easter in 1983 organised by Martins at which tapes recorded by Oliver Tambo were allegedly played and contact made with the ANC.

Mahlobo, who had initially escaped to Lesotho, alleged assault in detention. A document written by him titled “A Year of United Action” was presented to the court. Like Tom, he argued that as a person without political rights, he could not be held liable for supposed offences.

All three defendants were found guilty in a relatively quiet and typically abrupt end to a high-profile trial. Mahlobo received a 20-year sentence for high treason; Martins 10 years for terrorism linked to ANC recruitment and two arms caches in the Edendale area; and Gqubule 30 months suspended for ANC activity, having provided accommodation and transport. Judge Donald Kannemeyer from the Eastern Cape, who believed he was being merciful, accepted that Mahlobo had no intention to kill, but argued he had shown a reckless disregard for life. They were sentenced on May 21 to the accompaniment of a protest outside at which two people were arrested under the Demonstrations In or Near Court Buildings Prohibition Act. Inside the court, Martins was involved in a scuffle with the police after shouting: “We will win”.

While bureaucracy and brutality were cornerstones of apartheid, it was a system firmly grounded in law produced by an illegitimate parliament. Under a system of parliamentary rather than constitutional sovereignty, judges had an essentially political role, although not all were supporters of apartheid. From time to time, the government seized the chance to apply to its repressive ways a public veneer of legality to criminalise anti-apartheid political struggle. From 1956 onwards a series of sometimes spectacularly long treason trials took place and in the seventies and eighties these became a regular feature in Pietermaritzburg’s courts, part of the theatre of repression. In this process, the underground activities of the ANC became fleetingly visible to the general public.

For years, the old College Road Court has lain derelict. Fittingly in view of its role in the liberation struggle, it is now being restored for the Department of Correctional Services.


THOSE convicted in the 1984 trial eventually prospered.

In 2009, Mahlobo became a brigadier-general in the SANDF, although not without controversy. In 2001, during peacekeeping operations in the DRC, his management style required the intervention of a special team and in 2002, he was found guilty of exam fraud and demoted to lieutenant-colonel.

Martins has served in Parliament for many years and in June 2012 was promoted to Minister of Transport.

Gqubule is a journalist and black economic empowerment advocate and Tom is now vice-chancellor of the University of Fort Hare.

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