The F-word: SA was not freed by a Lone Ranger

2013-04-14 14:00

Ask the average South African why the names Monty Motloung or George “Lucky” Mahlangu should matter to them, and you are likely to be met with blank stares.

Let me release you from your suspense, in case you are indeed one of those wondering why the names should mean anything. The two were, along with the now famed Solomon Mahlangu, part of the ANC armed wing Umkhonto weSizwe unit who were accosted by police, leading to a gunfight that resulted in the deaths of two civilians.

Solomon Mahlangu and Motloung were arrested; George Mahlangu escaped. Motloung was beaten so badly he was declared a state patient and therefore not fit to stand trial. Solomon stood trial alone and was predictably convicted and sentenced to death.

He was executed on April 6 1979, the day white South Africa celebrated Founder’s Day to commemorate the day in 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck landed in the Cape of Good Hope and “discovered” what would become South Africa.

The ANC went on to found and name a school after Solomon, the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, or Somafco, as it was popularly known. Motloung and George Mahlangu became just two more young men who died or suffered for their country.

Last weekend, many remembered and commemorated Solomon Mahlangu and the supreme sacrifice he made for freedom.

Very little was said of George Mahlangu and Motloung’s story. Typical.

Solomon Mahlangu is a cult figure in liberation-army folklore. He is perhaps to South Africa what Dedan Kimathi is to Kenya or Joan of Arc is to France.

The sad thing about South Africa’s political and struggle history is the tendency to individualise it and the need to be dead for your sacrifice to be recognised.

If it were not, the sacrifice that Motloung made would not be reduced to a nonevent just because he did not die along with Solomon. In fact, it is quite possible some of Motloung’s family members would have preferred seeing their son, who was once fired up by the desire to fight for the freedom of his people, dead than reduced to a cabbage.

If we did not isolate Solomon Mahlangu from his context, the question about whatever happened to George after fleeing on that day would be as important as the cruel fate the state visited on Solomon.

George Mahlangu escaped and resurfaced in Swaziland (see correction below). He now works in the state security system.

The ANC must take some blame for oversimplifying history to create these “one-hero” narratives. There are many struggle heroes in our midst than in graveyards. This is not to suggest they should all be feted and have streets named after them.

I get that not everybody can and will be honoured. If we did, we might as well declare every day of the year a day of commemoration because people died every day fighting for freedom against apartheid.

The isolation of heroes from their context and movements that produced them is the unintended consequence of the necessity of giving the struggle a face and a name that the international community could recognise and rally around.

Former president Nelson Mandela’s face was necessary to make the world not forget black people’s oppression.

It is a tactic that has worked and continues to do so.

For example, you might not always remember Aung San Suu Kyi’s name, but her face is instantly recognisable and is a reminder that “something” is wrong in Burma.

That said, our love and need to honour heroes must not make us abdicate our historical responsibility of correcting the unfortunate impression that our struggle was waged by various incarnations of the Lone Ranger and Zorro, whose solo efforts delivered a people from a wicked regime.

» Correction: This column first incorrectly stated that George “Lucky” Mahlangu was never seen again after the Johannesburg shooting that led to the arrest of Solomon Mahlangu. This was based on the finding of the TRC in the case by Johannes van Heerden pertaining to the shooting. It has since been brought to our attention that he resurfaced in Swaziland immediately after the shooting. He is well and alive and currently works in the state security apparatus.

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