Joe Modise dies

2001-11-27 01:10

Pretoria - Former defence minister Joe Modise, 72, died at about 9.15 on Monday evening in his Centurion home.

Snuki Zikalala, spokesperson for the family, said Modise had had cancer. President Thabo Mbeki and his wife Zanele were supporting Modise's wife Major General Jackie Sedibe and two daughters Dipuso and Lesedi.

Zikalala said in a press statement that Modise had been devoted to seeing a free and democratic South Africa with a strong and legitimate army in which all races and genders were afforded equal opportunities. Appointed as the first minister of defence in the new South Africa, he could see to that wish himself.

His daunting task was to integrate soldiers of Umkhonto weSizwe, Apla, self defence units, the TBVC countries and the former defence force. The integration was internationally regarded as the first successful merger of its kind, in spite of differences and criticism, the statement says.

Johannes (Joe) Modise was born to a working class family on 23 May 1929 in Doornfontein, Johannesburg. He attended school at the Fred Clark Memorial School in Nancefield.

When Sophiatown was razed in terms of the Group Areas Act in 1953, Modise was moved to militancy. He became one of the 156 ANC activists accused of high treason in 1956.

Modise served in the Umkhonto weSizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, and was involved in some of the unit's first operations.

Underground and abroad

His MK responsibilities included establishing infrastructure cells in the various regions of South Africa and arranging for military training for recruits abroad.

He worked underground for two years before leaving the country in 1963 to undergo military training. Based in Tanzania, he was also involved with MK's weapon procurement from Eastern Bloc countries.

He was instrumental in establishing MK bases in Tanzania, Angola and Uganda, and training programmes in the Eastern Bloc, Cuba, Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and China. In 1965 he became head of the MK army.

A blot on Modise's career in exile, which he later declined to comment about publicly, was the circumstances surrounding late SACP leader Chris Hani's sentencing to death in Tanzania for allegedly plotting a mutiny. The execution was stayed by ANC president Oliver Tambo.

In 1967, Modise was involved in the Wankie-Sipokilo campaign, when MK forces joined briefly with Zapu's armed wing Zipra to engage then Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith's troops in Zimbabwe's liberation war.


After the ANC's unbanning, Modise was among the first group of ANC negotiators to hold talks with the apartheid government at Groote Schuur in March 1990, and was part of the ANC's negotiating team at Kempton Park.

He became defence minister under the democratic government of then president Nelson Mandela, with Ronnie Kasrils, intelligence head of MK, as deputy defence minister.

Modise insisted on equal rights for civilians in the SANDF and in 1996 promoted his wife, Jackie Sedibe, to the position of first female general in the army. She later became chief of equal rights in the defence force.

Public Protector Selby Baqwa investigated claims of nepotism in 1999 and found none, but said Sedibe was appointed on merit.

However, he expressed concern that Modise had considered his wife's appointment, and said that to prevent any perception of favouritism, he should have recused himself.

In March 1999, an ailing Modise buried one of his three children, Capt Ezekiel Modise, 43, who had died after a short illness.

Modise retired from active politics in June 1999 due to ailing health and turned to business.

Low points and high

He was one of the controversial figures in the R66 billion arms deal and it was claimed that he had benefited from counter trade. Modise was actively involved in the arms procurement process during his five-year term as minister. He was accused by arms critics of corruption and he threatened to sue the investigative magazine Noseweek for defamation.

Claims that he used money from a bribe to buy shares in Conlog - a company which benefited from the arms offsets - were found to be false, although investigators said they were still probing other allegations.

In October this year, newspapers reported that he was dying of cancer, had withdrawn from his business interests and was now spending most of his time at his home in Centurion.

Another low point in his career was the SANDF military debacle in Lesotho in September 1998, when South Africa and Botswana were asked by the Maseru government to step in after a failed coup.

A total of 11 South African soldiers were killed and many others injured during three days of action against rebel Lesotho Defence Force troops.

In 1999, Modise along with 36 other senior ANC leaders were denied "collective amnesty" by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for gross human rights violations committed by ordinary ANC members.

Mbeki on Thursday night awarded Modise the Order of the Star of South Africa (Non-Military) Class 1: Grand Cross (Gold) for his service to the country.

The ceremony at Modise's home was witnessed by most members of the cabinet, senior ANC figures and the Modise family.