Living in the lie in South Africa

Source: Daily Maverick / / By Paul Trewhela /

What to say, and what not to say, became almost as regular and normal for the returned MK cadres in South Africa as in Havel’s Czechoslovakia. It was this rule of silence that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma endorsed on behalf of the ruling praetorian elite when she visited Sindile’s grieving family, before his burial last Saturday. It’s time to speak…

When ANC presidential contender Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma visited the Moyikwa family in Grahamstown last week before the funeral of Sindile Solomon Moyikwa to express sympathy at his passing at age 59, it expressed the problem of a society “living in the lie”.

It illustrated a dominant South African social and psychological condition — deep-grounded fear and suppression of the truth.

The Cape Times reported that   Dlamini-Zuma “was accompanied by, among others, ANC provincial executive committee member Andile Lungisa, who is a staunch President Jacob Zuma supporter. At the Moyikwa homestead, Dlamini Zuma attended a short prayer with family members and ANC veterans”.

She told them: “Comrade Moyikwa was a freedom fighter, he fought for this country and we are grateful for his contribution to the South Africa we have today.”

That was appropriate, yet what was not said by Dlamini-Zuma was just as important. Whether she knew anything or not about Sindile Moyikwa, her one-dimensional tribute revealed the character of a society “living within the lie”, as Vaclav Havel, the Czech political prisoner and subsequent first president of the post-Soviet Czech Republic, expressed the phrase in his book,  The Power of the Powerless (written in 1978, then banned, but all the more influential in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia).

In a “dictatorship of the ritual”, Havel argued, writing about Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, “power becomes clearly anonymous. Individuals are almost dissolved in the ritual”.The result was a power structure “dehumanised and made anonymous” with a tendency to “disengage itself from reality, to create a world of appearances, to become ritual. …  It becomes reality itself, albeit a reality altogether self-contained, one that on certain levels (chiefly inside the power structure) may have even greater weight than reality as such”.

What Havel meant was the almost universal, unconscious submersion of a people into the rituals of the dominant power structure that controlled them, in order to protect themselves and their families from heavy retribution that would follow if they stepped outside the lie. The task of “living within the truth” was one which required immense courage, but which did in turn restore personal integrity to the individual who made that choice, though at very grim cost.

What Dlamini-Zuma did not acknowledge, and could not acknowledge, was reality – the reality that, yes, Sindile Moyikwa had indeed been a freedom fighter who fought for this country as a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe in Angola, but the reality also that in his opposition to the dictatorial and undemocratic character of the ANC command structure in that war he had been arrested, tortured by the ANC security arm Mbokodo (“the grindstone”) and kept as a prisoner for nearly five years in Quatro concentration camp. This was the harshest period in Sindile’s life, when prisoners were brutalised by warders on a daily basis, yet it was a reality that could not be addressed in truth when Dlamini-Zuma spoke to his family.

It was a reality that could not easily be revealed in Sindile’s public life in his home city, Port Elizabeth.

Born in 1949 – nearly 21 years before Sindile – Dlamini-Zuma’s omission reflected the self-interest of herself and fellow leaders of the ANC and the SACP in exile from her generation, who arrogated all power to themselves. Their ideology and self-interest made it impossible for them to acknowledge the needs and ideas of the great majority of the troops of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in exile: young people from the 1976 generation, whose lives had been transformed in South Africa by the teaching and influence of Steve Biko, Onkgopotse Tiro and other leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement. Despite providing the overwhelming majority of troops of MK, these young people from the 1976 generation were never trusted by their superiors and commanders, and were ruthlessly repressed when they called for democratic representation in the leadership of the ANC and MK. That was Sindile’s fate.

Born in July 1958, he joined the student movement in Port Elizabeth in 1975 and was elected president of the student council in 1977, the year of Biko’s murder.

He left South Africa illegally in 1979 via Lesotho, through the underground network directed by Chris Hani, receiving military training as an MK recruit at Pango camp in Angola and in the former German Democratic Republic under his MK “travelling name”, Simon Botha.

Then, deployed to the eastern front in Angola to fight against the Ovimbundu-based Unita movement led by Jonas Savimbi, which fought in Angola during the Cold War alongside the South African Defence Force, he became a platoon commissar.

Extreme dissatisfaction with the character and conduct of the war – which members of the June 16 and Moncada detachments felt was not the war they had joined ANC to fight – led Sindile to become an active and vocal participant in the ANC’s Mkatashinga in Angola: its greatest crisis in exile. This Mkatashinga – a Kimbundu word suggesting a burden, turmoil, acute pain – led MK cadres across Angola to assemble together at Viana camp outside Luanda in February 1984.

Sindile (MK Simon Botha) was elected by the troops as a member of the Committee of Ten, chosen by the troops to represent their grievances to the MK High Command. It was the most democratic mass gathering ever conducted in MK.

Instead of meeting for discussion with their own troops, as they had previously agreed, the ANC and MK leaders called in the armoured vehicles and elite troops of the Grafanil Presidential Brigade of the ruling MPLA party in Angola, under the command of Colonel Antonio dos Santos Franca (“Ndalu”), later chief of staff of the MPLA armed forces, Fapla, and afterwards Angolan ambassador to the US. The young troops of MK found themselves encircled by massively superior firepower.  One MK soldier, Babsey Mlangeni, was killed and a Fapla armoured vehicle set on fire. Then, threatened with a massacre, the MK troops followed strong advice from the Committee of Ten to  surrender their weapons.

In violation of an agreement made with Colonel Ndalu,  the Committee of Ten – including Sindile – were then arrested among 32 MK troops who were made prisoner in the high security  Nova Instalação  prison outside Luanda, commanded by a Cuban major. There they were interviewed by members of the Stuart Commission, which had been sent by ANC president-in-exile Oliver Tambo to investigate the causes of the mutiny – one of them Aziz Pahad, later deputy minister of foreign affairs in Thabo Mbeki’s government. As soon as the commission had returned to Lusaka, the   prisoners were then  interrogated and in many cases tortured by the ANC security department, Mbokodo.

“The prison became more often than not filled with screams from the interrogation room as the security personnel began beating up mutineers, hitting them with fists and whipping them with electric cables underneath their feet to avoid traces,” reports the earliest first hand account of that terrible experience, the memoir, A miscarriage of Democracy, published in the banned exile magazine Searchlight South Africa (July 1990).

Now available on the official ANC website though kept secret until 1993, the report of the Stuart Commission concluded that as a result of Mkatashinga, MK was “facing one of its most serious challenges since its inception”.

Based on evidence it acquired from the MK prisoners, it stated: “Relations between administration and rank-and-file described as being of ‘master and servant’. Elitism has developed. … The cadres are beginning to feel that there is a growing gap between them and the leadership.”

It concluded  that Mbokodo had become “totally isolated and alienated from the general cadreship. Their power and privileges, their life-styles, their image and methods of work had placed this department apart from, and in appearance, hostile to those living in camps”.

This judgement was later fully endorsed by the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Reflecting on the 25th anniversary of Mkatashinga in an article headed “When the ANC refuses to listen” (Mail & Guardian, 6 November 2009), the late Professor Stephen Ellis, citing a comment by Dr Mamphela Ramphele, wrote how “the culture of authoritarianism the ANC acquired in exile has led it to regard development as something the state or the ANC (the two have become confused) gives to the people”. Author of two fundamental histories of the ANC in exile, Ellis described this as a “top-down process that does nothing to diminish the arrogance of those in power”.

Sindile Moyikwa was then transferred together with other arrested MK troops to Quatro prison in northern Angola (known officially as Camp 32), where he was held for nearly five years under grotesquely brutal conditions.

In his autobiography Mbokodo  (published in 1994), Sindile’s prison cell-mate, the late Mwezi Twala, described him as a “jocular man” who enjoyed acting, and who was “good to have in the cell, because he relieved some of our misery and boredom”. At Quatro, Twala wrote, “all actions were designed to subdue prisoners. …We were prodded and whipped like oxen as we struggled in the heat to pull the stacked trestles (of firewood) up the hill; back to Quatro”.

It is very grim to read Twala’s recollections, published 10 years after the events at Viana. His conclusion was that the policies of the ANC leadership were “based on personal ambition and fear. This would account for the widespread and visible schizophrenia throughout the entire command structure”.

Referring to “the connection between then and now”, Professor Ellis pointed out with great truth that Mkatashinga is “vital for understanding the ANC today”.

The reason for the mutiny, he argued, was the “refusal by the ANC leadership to listen to the views of its members – for which, today, one should add even more “the views of the people of South Africa”.

Following the Crocker Accords which ended the Cold War in Angola – leading to independence of Namibia, and withdrawal of Cuban troops and Soviet military advisers from Angola as well as all ANC personnel – Sindile Moyikwa/Simon Botha was released from Quatro prison along with other prisoners in November 1988, and transferred with them as a freed member of the ANC to Dakawa camp at Morogoro, in Tanzania.

He remained at Dakawa for a year before getting a scholarship to go to the Technical University at Ilmenau   in former East Germany after collapse of the Berlin Wall. He married a German woman there and had two sons, but the relationship did not last.

After returning to South Africa, Sindile worked for the Independent Electoral Commission before the first democratic elections in April 1994. He later integrated to the SANDF and worked as an operations officer at Group Six in Port Elizabeth. He later resigned and joined the local municipality in Port Elizabeth, becoming assistant director of safety and security at Nelson Mandela metro.

He married Pumla Makubalo-Moyikwa, a nurse, and had a daughter, Zipho, who celebrates her father’s good humour on her website, with loving photographs of him on his deathbed.

Yet even in the most recent autobiographical history of MK in exile – If We Must Die, by Stanley Manong, published in 2015 – he is referred to by a name,  “Sindile Velem”,  different from the name under which he was born, and lived and worked, died and was buried.

How much about his life in exile did Sindile’s family know? It’s difficult to know. How easy would it have been for him to explain what had happened to him in Angola? It would have been very difficult, and probably only to very close family. First, there would have been the buried pain which the men of MK – men, especially – learnt as basic military training, with almost zero access to trained and sympathetic counsellors  after their return home.

Far more, though, was their situation back home as damaged goods in a power structure dominated by “living within the lie”. Discrimination against perceived former MK “dissidents” became almost universal in  appointment and promotion in state employment, especially in SANDF, where former Quatro and other “dissident” personnel are still generally confined to the non-commissioned ranks, with lower pay and pensions.

What to say, and what not to say, became almost as regular and normal for the returned MK cadres in South Africa as in Havel’s Czechoslovakia.

It was this rule of silence that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma endorsed on behalf of the ruling praetorian elite when she visited Sindile’s grieving family, before his burial last Saturday.

It’s time to speak…. DM