DISPATCH Dialogues was an emotional affair this week when former Umkhonto weSizwe underground operatives reminisced about the liberation struggle.
The veterans turned out in their numbers at the University of Fort Hare in East London where former SACP provincial secretary and MK underground operative, Mzwakhe Ndlela, launched his book For the Fallen – Honouring the Unsung Heroes and Heroines of the Liberation Struggle.
With him was National Heritage Council CEO Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa. UFH vice-chancellor Mvuyo Tom, who features in the book, chaired the event.
Ndlela touched a chord among his comrades when he talked about the struggles they faced after they left their homes and families and faced hardships in the foreign countries that accommodated them.
Among the difficulties they endured were illnesses like malaria that claimed the lives of some before they could see the dawn of democracy in South Africa.
He also spoke about operating underground in South Africa, about the many close shaves MK members had with the apartheid authorities and the brave individuals who were caught, some going to the gallows singing freedom songs.
Ndlela bemoaned the current state of a once noble liberation movement, saying they had discarded the teachings and values of the ANC’s former president, Oliver Tambo, whom he said had always had the best interest of the people at heart.
“We need to put people first before our needs as Tambo had taught us. If people are not singing in unison, you should ask why.
“If we only remember them [the people] when election time comes, then we have a challenge.
“We have a huge problem in this country because those who were poor, those who were marginalised, still remain so and that needs to change,” Ndlela said.
Among the many fascinating stories that emerged was one about the circumstances surrounding the unceremonious “recall” of ANC and SACP stalwart Raymond “Oom Ray” Mhlaba as the Eastern Cape’s first premier.
Ndlela, who was SACP’s provincial secretary at the time, said he and other ANC and SACP provincial leaders had gone to Cape Town to meet then deputy president Thabo Mbeki to plead for the removal of Mhlaba as premier.
“Oom Ray had a problem understanding things because of his age. As a premier he was not performing as much as we would have liked him to.
“We decided that he be removed,” Ndlela said. “I was part of a delegation that went to Cape Town.
“No one knew that we went there to meet deputy president Mbeki to discuss Oom Ray.
“It was a very difficult moment for me. We told Mbeki that we wanted Oom Ray recalled and he asked us if there was anyone from the Transkei who could take over.
“We told him no one at that moment, but that is when Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile’s name came up.”
However, Ndlela said the final outcome was not all doom and gloom.
“Oom Ray was deployed as ambassador to Uganda. When I met him he said we had helped him – he said he was just sitting there relaxing and doing nothing.”
Another of Ndlela’s stories was about the current ANC provincial deputy chairman Sakhumzi Somyo, who some comrades had mistakenly believed had sold them out after they were all arrested by the security police in the 1980s.
After their arrest Somyo was nowhere to be seen in the cells.
“When we went to court he was to testify against us and he knew a lot, but when he was called to the stand and asked questions, the only thing he would say was ‘I cannot remember anything’ to every question asked.
“He saved us, but his conduct infuriated the judge who later sentenced him to four years in prison. However, we all know now that he was never a sellout,” Ndlela said.
Mancotywa urged other liberation fighters to emulate Ndlela by documenting their experiences.
“We must document these experiences because ours is a battle against forgetting”. — firstname.lastname@example.org