EXTRACT | Robert McBride: The struggle continues

Robert McBride: The struggle continues, by Bryan Rostron, published by NB Publishers.
Robert McBride: The struggle continues, by Bryan Rostron, published by NB Publishers.

The news of Gordon's escape was on all the early Monday morning radio bulletins. One newspaper said the wounded guerrilla had been rescued by seven men in white coats. Greta heard the report on Capital Radio and went to work at the Child Welfare department that morning in a daze.

'Everyone at work was talking about it. They were shocked that anyone could have the audacity to do a thing like that,' said Greta. 'I was in a state of shock. It was terrible because I didn't know if the police had any lead on Robert, and then of course with everyone talking about it I didn't know what to do. I couldn't really join in but it was difficult to distance myself.

'I just listened. I was worried about raising suspicions. If you know that you are part of something, then you feel guilty – you begin to imagine everyone knows that you know something. They talked about it all day. They were amazed at the determination, that someone actually had such courage.'

Robert was also worried. On Monday morning he slipped away from the Factorama workshop, leaving Themba to tend to Gordon while he went to a barber and had his large bushy Afro cut short. Robert spent the rest of the day tenderly nursing Gordon.

'I washed him, massaged his legs and gave him exercises because we wanted him to walk,' said Robert. 'He was very badly wounded. He had a bullet in his stomach and he needed a big operation. Gordon was terribly weak, but on the morning of that first day I got him to stand, although he could not walk. I knew that if he didn't start to walk he would begin to get even weaker.

'He was very co-operative, fighting to start walking. His spirit was strong. He was buoyed up. He kept on saying, "I must exercise again. Massage my legs again." We were talking fighting talk – Gordon insisted that I go on. I was feeling very positive.'

However, Robert realised they would have to move the wounded man as soon as possible. Gordon's picture had been shown on television and everyone at Bechet College knew how close the friendship was between them.

The police were also offering a reward of R2 000 for information concerning Steven Mkhize. On the TV broadcasts it was being said that the injured man was so badly wounded he might die anyway, but a police spokesman added that the gang who had carried out this rescue were more than likely to kill their comrade: it was known ANC policy, the policeman informed viewers, to dispatch people in order to stop them talking. 

On Tuesday night, with the help of Greta and Gordon's two brothers Victor and Trevor, Gordon was driven to the black township of Umlazi, halfway in the direction of Pietermaritzburg. They carried him down an embankment, using an old door as a stretcher, to the home of a black social worker known as Baby. Robert and Gordon were put in a small bare room containing two beds, a table and a wardrobe. For two days Robert remained with Gordon, tending him. For security, Robert remained indoors and they did not turn on the light in the room.

He continued feeding Gordon fruit juices, and at meal-times first a woman and then a ten-year-old girl brought in cooked food without saying a word. Pam Cele continued to visit Gordon every evening to dress his wounds and give him injections.

Gordon had recovered sufficiently to resume giving Robert military instruction. He explained how electrical detonators worked, and how to operate more sophisticated weaponry like RPG rocket launchers. Sometimes, to alleviate the boredom and tension, they played a competitive game of swearing at each other, a contest as to who could curse the most comprehensively.

'Gordon and Robert grew closer than brothers,' said Victor Webster.

'While Gordon was injured and needed looking after, Robert tended him like a little child. He had to do everything for Gordon, even wipe his bum. Robert would have given his life for him. Gordon would have given his life for Robert too. They really loved each other.'

By the third day the reward for information regarding Gordon had risen to R10 000. The news was being broadcast on all the channels with Gordon's picture and a description of him as the commander in Natal and 'highly dangerous'. The township was also crawling with police, so after two days it was decided that Gordon should be moved.

One issue of disagreement had arisen between the two friends, however. At first Gordon had been reluctant to admit he should go into exile for a second time. After they had argued about it, Gordon eventually agreed there was no alternative; he could not possibly stay and continue operations in his present condition. However, he insisted that if he was going to leave the country, he wanted his girlfriend Anne to accompany him. Robert argued that it would be difficult enough to smuggle Gordon himself out; getting two of them over the border simultaneously would double the risk.

'I can bring Anne out later,' Robert kept telling him. Finally, when Robert left Umlazi to go and make the arrangements for this clandestine exit, Gordon agreed he would go alone. While Robert was making the preparations for Gordon's exit from South Africa, it felt safer for him not to know his friend's whereabouts. In fact, the Websters transferred Gordon to another house in Umlazi belonging to a labourer called Majola, but after two days the neighbours became suspicious of the unexpected activity and began to ask questions: they suspected Majola had become involved in selling dagga. The arrangements for Gordon's departure had to be hurried up.

On Friday, Robert instructed Greta to hire a large caravan from a firm in the centre of Durban and at five o'clock he drew up outside Rent-a-Trailer in his black Ford van. They hitched up the caravan and drove back to the Factorama workshop in Wentworth. Greta went home to pack a suitcase for them both and Robert equipped the caravan to look as if they were going on a long camping holiday, stocking it with bedding, groceries and a gas cooker. He also sealed off the compartment under one of the bunks with masonite, effectively creating a secret chamber, so that if the berth top were lifted it would look as if there was no hollow beneath.

Greta had not seen Gordon since before the escape from Edendale Hospital and she was apprehensive. All Robert had told her was that they were going to be taking another trip to Botswana. 'I couldn't imagine how it would be possible to take Gordon Webster because, according to all the newspaper reports, he was so badly injured that he could not survive without medical attention,' said Greta. 'I couldn't imagine him travelling for twelve hours, and under those conditions – some of those country roads are so bad that a vehicle rocks constantly.

'But come half past eight, his brother brought Gordon and Anne round, and we loaded him into the caravan. He was moaning and you could tell he was in extreme pain.'

Robert was surprised to see Anne, but assumed she had simply come to help Victor Webster transport Gordon. After they had settled Gordon into the caravan, Robert began to say goodbye to Anne when Gordon said, 'No, she's coming.'

Robert was annoyed but he did not quibble. He asked Anne if she had a passport and she said no. 'I had already seen there were two bunks in the caravan in which I could hide them, so I decided there was no further use in arguing about the matter and that she could go with us,' said Robert.

'I made a bed on the floor between the two bunks. I had used the mattress from the bunks in making this bed and the idea was threefold, namely that both Gordon and Anne could lie there between the bunks without being seen through the windows from the outside; the bunks would prevent them rolling around inside the caravan; and thirdly, lying where they did, they would not upset the centre of gravity of the caravan.'

Robert drove slowly. He had told Anne that if there was a problem she should shine the torch through the caravan's front window to attract their attention. He stopped several times, and then at midnight he pulled over outside the village of Van Reenen, right on the border of the Transvaal.

Gordon was in pain and it was getting worse. Robert helped Anne change his dressing and then he and Greta managed about two hours sleep in the cab of the truck before setting off again slowly. It took them nearly 24 hours to reach the Botswana border – double their normal time. Greta was finding Robert very strained. 'He was distant, and I did most of the talking,' said Greta. 'He seldom spoke, there was no conversation or anything. I don't know what he was dreaming about.'

Robert wanted to cross the border just before eight in the evening, when it was dark and the border officials were anxious to close down for the night. They had a little time to spare, so Robert stopped a few kilometres from the border post and made a braai. Gordon was in such pain that he could eat almost nothing. Then Robert prepared the caravan for their border crossing by making it as filthy as possible, in the hope that the customs officers would be so disgusted that they would not want to search too closely.

He scattered dirty plates and cutlery from their meal, as well as old beer bottles and crisps and crisp packets, all over the interior. Then he and Greta helped Gordon and Anne into the compartments underneath their bunks; closing the lids, they replaced the mattresses, made up the beds, and then heaped clothes, newspapers and camping equipment on the top of both bunks, as well as more empty beer bottles and crisp packets.

It was completely dark by the time they reached the Ramatlabama border post. Robert and Greta walked over to the office with their passports and filled in all the forms. Just as they were coming out a woman customs official followed them and said, 'I want to search the caravan.'

Robert unlocked the caravan door; inside it was pitch black. Robert explained that he couldn't turn on any lights as he had not yet connected up the battery. The customs officer then asked if he had a torch.

We couldn't believe it,' said Greta. 'Although Robert was shocked, he pretended to be very co-operative and said, "I'll get a torch for you so you can have a good look." I was furious. Robert came to the front and asked me for the torch and she went inside and shone the torch. I tell you, it's the first time I felt genuine fear. My heart was thumping.'

The woman shone the torch over the piles of clothes, cutlery, beer bottles and litter, and then clicked her tongue in disgust. She handed the torch back to Robert and told him he could lock up again and move on. About sixteen kilometres inside the Botswana border Robert stopped and helped Gordon and Anne out of their bunk compartments. Gordon was swearing; he was in considerable distress. He told Robert he had been suffocating and had nearly coughed during the search. Anne was whooping with joy.

'We made it!' yelled Greta.

'It's not over yet,' Robert warned her. 'We have to get Gordon to a doctor quickly.'

They checked into the Morningstar Motel in Gaborone, all four booking into the same double room, Robert and Greta as Douglas and Denise Johnstone and Gordon and Anne under the name of Mr and Mrs Charles Dickens. Then they carried Gordon to Room 101. He was doubled up in pain, feverish and suffering from stomach cramps, and both he and Robert swore softly at each other. Robert immediately dialled his contact number, but a woman told him Chris was not available, so Robert asked her to take a message that Douglas had arrived and they should come quickly. Although Robert called several more times, it was not till early the following afternoon that there was a knock on their door. It was Chris and Georgie.

'When they saw Gordon, their eyes were big,' said Robert. 'All the commanders had been phoning each other because they couldn't work out who had released him – especially when the newspapers had said there were seven involved in the rescue operation!

'Gordon was lying on the bed and he called out to them cockily, "Don't just stand there – come in." Then, patting his bed, he said, "Here."

'They were delighted to see Gordon but at the same time they were anxious about security – they feared a South African retaliatory attack because of Gordon's escape. We got straight down to business, talking over the situation. "Is that the get-away car?" they wanted to know. They decided to move Gordon immediately. They took Gordon into hiding. That was the last time I saw Anne.'

Chris and Georgie returned to the Morningstar Motel that evening and informed Robert and Greta that, for security reasons, they, too, should move immediately. Gordon, they said, was being tended by a doctor. Robert and Greta were transferred to a safe house outside Gaborone and on the second day there Gordon was brought over to visit them. 'He was transformed,' said Greta. 'His face was as bright as ever. You'd never have said he was a sick man who had bullets still in his body. It was the very idea that he was free. He had improved his state of mind to such an extent that he looked as if he was actually glowing with good health.

'I thought it was a miracle that a man who was doomed to die had recovered so fast.'

Although he moved much more freely, Gordon appeared to have difficulty breathing. He told them he thought he had a bullet lodged in his lung. Gordon talked to them about Bheki Ngubane and said he was concerned that the ANC should help provide for Bheki's family.

In the house that night there was a general nervousness about security. That same day another ANC safe house only a few kilometres away had been raided by the Botswana police. Victor and Oupa had got away, but Chris had been caught and was due to be deported to Zambia. Robert and Greta had already been told they should leave Gaborone for a few days and head northward, possibly as far as the lake district near Maun, on the rim of the Okavango Delta. Oupa and Victor were anxious not to stay too long, and after half an hour they said they needed to whisk Gordon away again.

Robert and Gordon bade each other farewell.

'I think he was also worried about supporting Anne,' said Robert. 'Gordon's last words were, "When you come back, bring some things to sell, like tackies."

* This is an extract from Robert McBride: The struggle continues, by Bryan Rostron, published by NB Publishers.

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