EXTRACT | Voices from the Underground: 'No Time to Mourn'

Voices from the Underground, edited by Shirley Gunn and  Shanil Haricharan and published by Penguin Random House.
Voices from the Underground, edited by Shirley Gunn and Shanil Haricharan and published by Penguin Random House.

I mainly used public phones to communicate with Shirley Gunn, Aneez Salie and our units, and from time to time we used coded written messages. Our communication network functioned well. We always had back-up arrangements if we lost contact. After Shirley was framed in January 1989 for the bombing of Khotso House and the security forces were hunting her down, it became more difficult for us to communicate, so our communication was planned with absolute precision. If an arrangement was made, we honoured it. We went to extreme lengths to ensure the safety of detachment members, which was part of our intelligence and communications training. If someone didn't arrive for a routine meeting or call, we would know that there was a problem, as was the case on the tragic night of 23 July 1989.

By then, twenty-year-old Coline Williams was commanding both the Athlone and Bonteheuwel units. Anton Fransch, who'd joined the AKD in April 1989, was Coline's commander. I had recruited Robbie Waterwitch into MK to serve in the Athlone unit. We'd first rubbed shoulders when he and the Belgravia Youth Congress (BEYCO) assisted with the rally to host Senator Edward Kennedy in 1985. As a teenager, Robbie was very active in the political campaigns of the mid to late 1980s, including being central to the Save the Press Campaign. He was always ready to assist, regardless of the task. During our many discussions, I was exposed to his wealth of talent, intelligence and energy. Robbie worked selflessly during a turbulent period that made it very difficult to execute the tasks of the MDM. The apartheid regime was under pressure from all fronts, and in December 1988 Mandela was moved from Pollsmoor to a warder's house at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl, where he consulted with the political leadership.

As a keen reader, Robbie could engage in discussions on any number of aspects of our struggle, and he always had the latest banned literature. He understood the theory of the four pillars of the ANC's struggle – international solidarity, internal mass democratic struggle, the political underground and the military underground – and it was clear he had the qualities needed to serve as an MK cadre.

It took months to cultivate a relationship with him without compromising his role and relationships in the MDM. My connection to comrades in Athlone, ICY and campaign activities made it easier to approach him to become active in the military underground. Robbie had no connections with other underground structures and was excited to be part of MK, so I discussed his profile with Aneez and Shirley and he was recruited into the AKD without hesitation. We hoped that, in time, he would help set up the Athlone unit.

I trained Robbie in all aspects of military combat work, military engineering and firearms such as the AK-47 and Makarov pistol. All of his training was conducted in the greater Cape Town area at various safe venues. After a few months of this, Comrade Coline, his commander, took over. She was the main link to Anton and the AKD command.

The last time I saw Robbie was on Friday 21 July 1989, when he and Coline accompanied me to drop off ordnance at an arms cache in Strandfontein. We'd planned five simultaneous missions for the night of Sunday 23 July, to be executed by five units: Bonteheuwel, Southern Suburbs, Athlone, Mitchells Plain and Macassar. The plan was to target the courts and municipal offices in Athlone, Heideveld, Strand and Bellville, while the Mitchells Plain unit would target a satellite police station. I met up with Coline again that Sunday afternoon in a park on Klipfontein Road, to give her the materials for the Athlone operation. I was supposed to hand over a large SPM limpet mine cached in Mitchells Plain, but there wasn't sufficient time to retrieve it, so Coline was instructed to use two mini MPM limpets, joined together with one detonator. Robbie had temporarily stored these limpets in his house, intact in their silver packaging. After our brief meeting, I left, unaware that she still had to connect with Vanessa November in Mowbray, as per Anton's instruction to them.

I was on the Bellville mission with Sidney Hendricks that night. We had done reconnaissance in the Bellville precinct and initially decided that our target would be the Bellville satellite police station close to Bellville Railway Station. I dropped Sidney off close to the target, but he returned to report that there were too many civilians around, so we aborted that mission and changed the target to the Bellville Magistrate's Court around the corner. Once again, I dropped Sidney near the target and waited for him in the getaway car near Tygerberg Hospital. Just as Sidney had planted the limpet mine, a policeman at the court intercepted him. He ran, and fortunately the policeman didn't give chase. It was a frightening experience, but Sidney's agility saved him.

I dropped Sidney in Bonteheuwel and drove home to Wynberg, via the N2 and Jan Smuts Drive. On the way, I passed the Athlone Police Station, where I saw many red and blue lights flashing. I worried that something might have gone wrong with Coline and Robbie's Athlone operation. Back at home, I waited for the 10 p.m. news, where I learnt that casualties had been reported in a bomb blast in Athlone.

I didn't know what the follow-up to this devastating news should be. At the time, I couldn't believe Robbie or Coline had been killed. I thought it was a ploy to frustrate us, to get us to come out of hiding and reveal ourselves, as the security forces didn't seem to know who was responsible for these blasts. Later that night, news reports confirmed that two people had died, but their names weren't announced. I resolved to take reasonable steps to secure my own safety and that of others: I couldn't sleep at home that night and I had to secure the Makarov pistol and AK-47 I had with me.

I left my partner, Ruth Engel, at home, took the firearms, and drove to Silvermine, where we cached arms for short periods. By the time I was done, it was early morning and I'd still not had any contact with Shirley or Aneez. I started to panic. I drove to our flat in Clifton, knowing Anton was there.

I hadn't seen Anton since the night his image was flashed on SABC TV in the mid-1980s, when he was living in Bonteheuwel. We hadn't had contact since his return to South Africa, and he didn't know my whereabouts, although I knew his. When I arrived, the young comrade was reading They Won't Take Me Alive: Salvadorean Women in Struggle for National Liberation by Claribel Alegria. We hugged and Anton told me that he had arranged a late-night meeting with Coline, but she hadn't arrived. This implied that it must have been Coline and Robbie who had died, but we had to wait for confirmation. No one knew what had happened, but our two comrades were nowhere to be found.

We suspected the worst and made arrangements to share this terrible news with the Williams and Waterwitch families before the police told them. I met up with Vanessa and Sidney and was surprised by Vanessa's strength. I was still unable to internalise the facts and wanted to believe that the police were using this to cause disarray and get us to expose ourselves; they desperately wanted to kill us, not to arrest us. It was a very, very difficult time for me. Except for Aneez and Shirley, no one outside the unit knew that Coline was part of MK, and I was the only person who knew that Robbie had been recruited. We didn't know what had gone wrong.

During the week that followed, Shirley and Aneez confirmed that it was our comrades who had died in the blast. It was a huge blow, but as a soldier I had to recover quickly and make peace with this awful truth, as I had after Ashley's death. There was no time to mourn. We had to consolidate and support each other in order to continue fighting. The detachment wrote a pamphlet for distribution at Coline and Robbie's funeral, typed it up quickly in our traumatised state, and printed it under difficult conditions at CUPC's Community House office.

* This extract was taken from Voices from the Underground, edited by Shirley Gunn and Shanil Haricharan, published by Penguin Radom House South Africa. It is in stores retailing at R320.

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