Kebby Maphatsoe makes light of the fact that his right arm is missing.
“I’m thinking of going to the missing- person’s task team to help me exhume my arm,” he jokes, while sipping a non-alcoholic energy drink.
The chairperson of the Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) Military Veterans Association has been in the news after he accused Public Protector Thuli Madonsela of being a CIA agent, a remark he later apologised for.
The missing persons task team, located within the National Prosecuting Authority, was set up to find the remains of activists who died while on political missions.
The issue of his missing arm has also made news.
Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema mocked him about it recently, telling journalists Maphatsoe was a deserter who lost his arm while on the run from an MK camp.
“One of you must ask Maphatsoe how he lost his hand [sic]?…?he was running away from the MK camps.
He went AWOL. Kebby was running into a dangerous farm of wild animals. The police had to shoot him to save him from wild and dangerous animals,” Malema said two weeks ago.
This is not true, according to Maphatsoe, who is flanked by his trusted adviser and fellow MK veteran Ike Moroe.
He says he lost his arm in the bush in Uganda in 1991 when he and a group that were travelling from an ANC camp – where there was deep unhappiness – were mistaken for rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army.
They had been busy making their way down to South Africa to confront the leadership of the ANC in Joburg about the conditions at the camp.
“When the guy saw us, out of shock he just started shooting at us. He shot me in my right arm and I immediately lost consciousness.
I was taken to hospital and given a choice of either amputation or dying because I had lost too much blood,” he says.
Malema and other Maphatsoe detractors claim he never saw a single day of combat and was just a mere cook at the camp. But Maphatsoe is proud of having worked in the kitchen.
“I’m very proud of that. To work in the kitchen in exile you must have been a trusted person, highly vetted.
Not everyone works in the kitchen because you are taking care of the lives of our people. People don’t understand – they think if you were working in the kitchen youwere useless.”
But he didn’t just work in the kitchen. He was also a firearms instructor.
“I taught people how to shoot, how to kill. I was an officer,” he says.
Maphatsoe is also proud of his time on the front line, especially in Angola where he says they fought Unita rebels whose mission was to cut off supplies to the camp.
“There were convoys that were ambushed where I was involved. We lost four comrades in that ambush.”
He left South Africa in 1984. He first went to Charleston in Lusaka, Zambia, to an ANC camp.
There, they were debriefed and vetted to determine whether they were apartheid agents. They were then given a chance to either join the military wing or to go and study.
“Most of us young lions, when we left the country, we were clear that we just wanted arms.”
A passionate and vocal supporter of President Jacob Zuma, he was finally rewarded when he was appointed deputy minister of defence responsible for military veterans.
Maphatsoe sees his task as bringing back the dignity of military veterans who he says have been neglected over the past 20 years.
“There’s one comrade who used to drive Oliver Tambo in Angola. That person was very brave. In all the convoys, he was the one trusted to drive the leadership. If you can see his situation now, you will cry and ask what has happened to us.”
As the dust settles over the international storm he caused with his accusation against Madonsela, Maphatsoe grudgingly accepts he might have crossed the line.
“You must be thick-skinned when you are a leader. And you must not be a coward if you believe in something you think is correct.
When there’s that outcry all over the whole country you just ask yourself: do people understand where we are coming from with regards to the utterances we made?”
He was pained by DA MP David Maynier calling him an “idiot” in Parliament this week.
He claims that as a former member of the SA Defence Force, which killed activists in and out of the country, Maynier should be apologising to him instead of insulting him.
“The same member of the DA says I’m an idiot when he knows for a fact that he belonged to an army that massacred our people.”
Despite apologising to Madonsela, he still thinks she exaggerates the importance of her office.
“I mean, we have other chapter 9 institutions, the gender commission, the human rights commission.
There have never been problems with their recommendations; they have been implemented. This one cannot be different from the others. She [Madonsela] acts like she’s above the others,” he says.