The man behind ‘83 Maritzburg blasts

2019-06-03 10:04
Sthembiso Mahlobo is enjoying his retirement, trying to reintegrate into normal life after 40 years in the military.

Sthembiso Mahlobo is enjoying his retirement, trying to reintegrate into normal life after 40 years in the military.

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A liberation veteran who helped blow up two courts in Pietermaritzburg in the 1980’s says it was a “symbolic action” in protest of unlawful incarcerations under apartheid law.

Sthembiso Mahlobo, a now-retired South African Defence Force (SANDF) commander and former uMkhonto we Sizwe liberation veteran, also said South Africa’s problems will only be solved through education, hard work and discipline.

In a wide-ranging interview with Weekend Witness, Mahlobo, who made contact with the newspaper this week, reflected on his sentencing 35 years ago, how far the country has come in that time and his history as an activist. He spoke in sober tones, calmly telling his historic story.

Mahlobo was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in 1984 for being part of a group that detonated bombs at two supreme courts in the Pietermaritzburg CBD in 1983. There were no casualties.

The so-called new supreme court on Pietermaritz Street was bombed in March 1983, and the old supreme court, located on Commercial Road (now Chief Albert Luthuli Road) was bombed a month later. He only served nine years of his sentence, however, in Robben Island, before he joined the SANDF, serving in various wings and stationed across the country and even in the UK, where he remained until his retirement last year.

Mahlobo would make the bomb at home, take it to its destination, set a timer on the bomb, and then take public transport back to where he was living, near Edendale.

He said he was never nervous or scared about what could happen in the wake of the explosion. “I was a dedicated soldier. When you are in the struggle as we were, you dedicate the life to your people. That is the breed we were.”

struggle veteran

He had been part of the MK since 1979.

“We made contributions to the liberation struggle for our people to be free. The ANC was a very principled organisation, and the MK was the same. I blew up the supreme courts but there were no casualties because that’s how we were led. It was not a struggle against white people, but rather the system. We were told to avoid casualties at all costs and that’s what we did.”

He said he targeted the courts because people were getting “unjustifiably imprisoned”.

“It was a symbolic operation. I targeted the supreme courts because they were reflections of the unjust system of apartheid.”

He said the fight against apartheid was “20% armed and 80% political”. “Activists at the time were educated and if they were not then freedom talks would have been refused. There was a real maturity in the leadership.”

Mahlobo was trained for combat in Angola and East Germany where he learnt to engineer his bombs.

Born and raised in a rural area near Estcourt, Mahlobo became interested in politics and activism as early as Grade 5. “A guy we knew as Makekeni was jailed because the community was protesting over being forced to move. That planted the seeds of consciousness in us that we are not free.”

He was also in Soweto writing matric in 1976 during the student uprisings. “A lot has been achieved since 1994 and yet there’s still a long way to go. We need to educate the society on priorities, like landlessness, employability and trying to liberate ourselves through industry and not rely on Europe, the U.S. and Asia.” He said, however, that he was optimistic for the future.

Mahlobo is spending his retirement in Estcourt trying to get reacquainted with living in a community. “I’ve been away for 40 years. I don’t know my age-mates as leaders and family men, and the children have grown.”

He said he was proud of his contribution to the struggle and is enjoying the process of reintegrating back into normal life.

Natal Witness article on March 22, 1983

The explosion at the supreme court on Pietermaritz Street was the third bomb blast at a building around that time.

One man who lived in a nearby flat told a reporter that he was not surprised at the bombing because that was such a regular occurrence.

The report said the blast was so loud it was heard as far as Chase Valley and Montrose.

10:07

struggle veteran

Natal Witness article on April 22, 1983

One man was injured in the blast, while several other people narrowly escaped being injured late on the night of April 21. Nearby judges’ chambers were damaged. That was the third blast on Pietermaritzburg supreme courts after the one on Pietermaritz Street, and another blast at a court on College Road. A security guard at the court, who was injured in the blast, said he had noticed the explosive device in a carrier bag before the explosion.

struggle veteran

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