June 12, 1964 was the day for sentencing in the Rivonia Trial in Pretoria. The prosecution wanted the maximum sentence – and we expected it: death. But in a short statement to the court the judge said he was not imposing the maximum sentence, which would be appropriate in a case involving high treason. We had been charged under the Sabotage Act, not for treason, so he was imposing a sentence of life imprisonment for each of the charges on which we were found guilty. As he spoke I watched the faces of my comrades light up with the most wonderful smiles of joy and relief. We laughed out loud, overjoyed to live, even though it would mean life behind bars for a very long time. My mother was in court and in the commotion could not hear what the judge had said. She called out: “What is it?” I replied: “Life! Life is wonderful!” I was 31 years old. I would spend altogether 22 years in prison.
Let me begin my story at a later date, on 26 February 1990, when a remarkably moving ecumenical service was held in Westminster Abbey in London for those who had sacrificed their lives for freedom in Southern Africa. Candles were lit for those who were being remembered, with representatives of all the main religions taking part, led by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The occasion was especially important for me because it was my privilege to speak for Looksmart Solwandle Ngudle, the Cape Town comrade who had played such an important role in my life and without whom any account of my part in the South African struggle would be meaningless. The religious dignitaries at Westminster Abbey that day spoke first, as the candles were doused. More prayers were followed by beautiful a cappella singing by three South African women whose voices soared to the rafters as the candles were lit again. In the gloom of the Abbey the points of light glowed with the tributes to those who had died. After I had delivered my tribute to Looksmart, one of the exile preachers present told me that I had been much too solemn. But how could it have been otherwise? Looksmart was dead and for the first time in my life, aged 57, I was his “altar boy.” I had never seen such a ceremony before. So inclusively ecumenical and wonderful.
I first met Looksmart Ngudle in the early 1950s. He was a very handsome young man with an engaging personality and a warm smile. He was born in the Eastern Cape Province and like so many young Africans he migrated from the poverty-stricken countryside to the city. He lived in Cape Town in a “native location”. He floated from one job to another, as so many did. There was little formal vocational training, and one unskilled job followed another. At the weekend he was the shoemaker who repaired the shoes of the young men around him. But he had an unusual attribute: he was literate! He read the newspaper to others around him. Though he appeared to have no interest in politics all the young men seemed to listen to his opinions. Archie Sibeko, who came from the same village, slowly won his confidence and drew him into political activity. Archie was deeply involved in the liberation politics of the African National Congress, the South African Congress of Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party. He said it was easy to be a member of all these organisations. He said there was no conflict between them. When he was involved in the politics of national liberation, then the ANC was the place to be. When he wanted to be involved in the improvement of pay and conditions of working people, then the trade union movement was the right place for that activity. But, he said, when he wanted to understand why there was national oppression, and why working people were paid low wages, and why there was mass unemployment, then he turned to the Communist Party.
He said that in the long run the only way to ensure that people of different national groups in South Africa could be free was to follow the programme of the Communist Party. He said that national liberation and working class liberation were all part of “the revolution”. Back in the 1950s we did not talk about the “walls” dividing people of different racial groups in apartheid South Africa. We spoke about “bars” between people because the “colour bar” had many aspects. It barred people from jobs of their choice because of their colour. It barred people from living where they chose because of their colour. It barred people from mixing socially and it barred them from marrying each other because of their colour. It barred people from getting an education because of their colour. It barred Africans from moving to the cities from the countryside without passes to get through the colour bar of the Urban Areas Act. The penalty for breaking these bars was imprisonment.
And breaking the colour bar laws as a way of protesting against the laws was itself a further “crime” punished by imprisonment. The bars imprisoned the whole South African society and breaking down the barriers would set free the political prisoners and the whole society. The jailers and their masters would be free to become human beings. Looksmart Ngudle became a full-time political activist. He was a natural leader and organiser and by the end of 1962 was on the regional command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the Spear of the Nation, the underground people’s army of which Nelson Mandela was the first Commander-in-Chief. But by this time Archie had been forced to leave South Africa, together with Thembisile Martin Hani after they had been convicted of continued involvement in the ANC, which had been declared an illegal organisation in 1960. They went on to the Soviet Union where they underwent military training. Archie returned to trade union activity in exile, taking the name Zola Zembe.
Martin, using the nom de guerre “Chris”, became in time one of the outstanding commanders of MK and a leading member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC and the Communist Party Central Committee. I had joined the Western Cape Province regional command of MK as a technical officer. I organised a training school that met three times a week for some months. It was successful and led us to organise a training camp at Mamre some 50 kilometres from Cape Town during the Christmas and New Year holiday period at the end of 1962. I was the camp commander and the recruits named me “Comrade Commandant”. Looksmart was the Field Commander and was a tower of strength, working well with our nearly 30 recruits. We taught politics because we wanted a military force of committed young comrades who were not simply soldiers but members of a people’s revolutionary army who could act on their own if necessary, explaining to others their own political and military understanding of why and how we should fight. We insisted that we should not lie to our own people about our successes and failures. We had to win support on the basis of trust. Our army would be a people’s army that helped our people. It must not become their oppressor.
We taught practical things too, such as how to write leaflets and type them for reproduction on old stencil copiers. (There were no such things as photocopiers in those days.) The fundamentals of electric circuits were important, so that explosives could be set off from a distance - and we needed to teach about telephones. In addition we taught first aid for looking after wounded comrades. Implicit in that teaching was the understanding that war always results in casualties. Some of us would be wounded and some would die in action. We knew we might face arrest and interrogation - and probably torture. We read aloud for everyone to hear and discuss Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story, The Wall. That story was set in Spain during the Civil War that erupted in the 1930s when the elected democratic government was overthrown by fascist army forces backed by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. We wanted our young soldiers to understand that even if we had to re-invent the ways we worked in our specific conditions, we were part of a long ongoing, world-wide struggle against oppression.
The Wall in Sartre’s story was the place where the Spanish fascists led by General Franco executed loyalist activists by firing squad. A loyalist fighter is captured and his fascist interrogators try to extract from him where his close comrade is hiding. For days he resists their interrogation and torture. He is threatened with execution at the Wall. Exhausted, he loses touch with reality. They offer him his life in exchange for the information: “Tell us where he is! Tell us and there will be no Wall, for you.” He fantasises about tricking his tormentors. Able to hold out no longer, the prisoner gives them the misleading information that would trick his tormentors into leaving him alone. He knows that his comrade intended to leave their last hiding-place, known only to the two of them, in a crypt in a cemetery. But unknown to him, the country people with whom his comrade planned to stay were sick and he could not go there. Desperate for somewhere to hide from the fascists he returns to the cemetery, even though he knows that his captured comrade might be broken under torture and give away their secret place. There he is captured.
Hearing gunshots from the Wall, the first prisoner asks who has been executed. The interrogators turn the last screw when they thank him for delivering up his comrade. The walls of his sanity break down from grief into madness. Sartre, of course, was again creating a situation in which extreme moral choices have to be made. Each of us has to make hard choices in times of crisis. This was a powerfully imaginative “true” story of what we could all be facing when we dreamed of carrying out the heroic armed struggle advocated by Che Guevara. We read from his writings too because the victory of the Cuban revolution inspired us. We also read about and discussed the struggle of the Algerian FLN against the French colonial occupation of Algeria. We wanted our young comrades to be mentally prepared for what we would have to face. We wanted them to understand that, though armed struggle was necessary to defeat the apartheid state, war is not a romantic escapade.
After 50 years of peaceful struggle it was not easy to add the element of armed struggle to the overall strategy for liberation. We now leaned in the opposite direction, stressing the importance of armed struggle. Our movement sent recruits out of the country as fast as it could for military training. Some of our leaders seemed to be in the grip of a vision of a people’s army transforming the struggle with our returning soldiers crossing the border in force to quickly destroy the apartheid state. Our regional command in Cape Town thought that it was important to keep our political structures alive. We kept people back for that reason, but found that they were ordered through other channels to leave. We were not refusing to supply recruits for training; we simply wanted to try to ensure that we could train our own military units and keep our underground army rooted in the mass movement. All the literature we could find stressed the importance of the mass movement. We wanted to encourage the young recruits to want to take up arms, yet we wanted to be realistic about the prospects of victory.
Many of our best people were ordered to leave. But Looksmart in particular led units of five or six men who sabotaged telephone and telegraph lines and cables in simple ways without using explosives. The events were not spectacular but they did lead to communications blackouts over widespread areas. They did draw in many police officers from all the neighbouring towns to patrol a large area around Cape Town. We were beginning to do what guerrilla forces must do: stretch the state’s security forces to the limit. Most important, Looksmart was developing his command skills and his men were becoming adept at working together in military ways. By 1963 the apartheid regime had to respond to sporadic waves of explosions and other forms of sabotage in various parts of South Africa. The 90-Day Detention law was introduced. It gave the police the power to hold prisoners for repeated periods of detention until they had answered questions to the satisfaction of the head of the police. That was clearly a licence to torture prisoners who could be denied all access to lawyers, or family or friends. That law also made sabotage an action for which the courts could impose the death penalty.
My political and military comrades felt strongly that I would be arrested as soon as that law came into force in May 1963. So I left Cape Town to go underground and joined the High Command in Johannesburg. The walls were closing in. Six weeks later we were arrested at our hideout in Rivonia, near Johannesburg. We were no longer just parts of an imprisoned society, we could sense the wall at our backs. We faced the possibility of being executed when we were convicted in a court of law, but we were not even certain that we would be brought before a court. The politics of the time, however, dictated that the regime would hold a show trial that became known as the Rivonia Trial, with Nelson Mandela as the number one accused. Our interrogators were careful to ensure that we could be put on trial in an unmarked condition. Over the following years attitudes changed: many activists were tortured to death; others were maimed beyond recovery.
A contingent of more than 20 recruits had been sent from Cape Town by Looksmart. He understood there was danger because so many people knew where he lived. He planned to move as soon as that group had left. The comrades he had sent out of the country by bus were captured near the Botswana border nearly 2 000 kilometres from Cape Town. They looked like an innocuous funeral party but the police became suspicious. They were interrogated and one comrade thought he could trick his interrogators. He told them where Looksmart had been hiding because he “knew” that he was to move immediately they had left Cape Town. Alas, Looksmart had fallen ill and was too weak to move. He could not go to live with a family in a tiny shelter in a squatter settlement. He was captured. The Wall was there before him - and all around him. My interrogators told me that Looksmart had hanged himself while under interrogation. I accused my tormentors of murdering him. They denied all responsibility. They said other officers had handled him and they were willing to hand me over to them. Floating in the air from their significant nods and tone of voice was the unspoken thought that they would kill me too.
During our trial Looksmart’s death was referred to. One young man, who had been at the training camp in Mamre, was a witness for the prosecution. He told of the stories we had read and the discussions that had taken place. He mentioned The Wall and alleged that the Comrade Commandant (he meant me, Denis Goldberg) had said it was better to commit suicide than to give information to the police. Therefore, said the prosecutor, the Comrade Commandant was responsible for Looksmart Ngudle’s death. Tyrants murder at will and blame those who resist their tyranny. And officials like the prosecutor seek favours in exchange for their fawning services to the oppressors, becoming oppressors themselves. Twenty-two years later in 1985, when I was released from prison, I went to the ANC headquarters in exile in Lusaka, Zambia. I was outside the walls of the prison in Pretoria but South Africa was still an imprisoned society. I was free but not yet free of the mission to tear down those walls. I had to see the ANC President, Oliver Tambo, and members of the National Executive to see how I could fit into the work of our movement after so long away.
In Lusaka I met two young MK soldiers who had been at the Mamre training camp. They greeted me with a military salute and “Comrade Commandant”. Several of the Mamre men had gone into exile and had taken part in the armed struggle. Pallo Jordan, a Cape Town comrade and a member of the National Executive of the ANC, told me that they had a good reputation for loyalty and hard work in MK and in political positions too. I rejoiced, but we did not know how many of them had been killed at “the wall”. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 we could see that the walls of apartheid were coming down. Yet at least another 10 000 to 12 000 were murdered by the old regime before he was elected the first President of the new South Africa.
Chris Hani was murdered by members of a right-wing political party. He had been elected to the National Executive of the ANC with the highest number of votes cast by the delegates to the first free conference in 1991. He was General Secretary of the South African Communist Party and he would surely have been a minister in the first democratically elected government. There can be little doubt that is why he was murdered. His assassins miscalculated. His murder stirred such anger among the mass of the people that it forced the apartheid regime to implement the transfer of power to an interim government. This was in terms of a signed undertaking with the ANC to arrange for elections in which all adult South Africans would be able to vote to elect a new government. Chris Hani’s murder forced them to set the date of the elections in April 1994. The result was a clear-cut victory for the ANC and its allies, the South African Congress of Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party.
Archie Sibeko suffered a stroke before the first free elections. He had worked under very difficult conditions for 27 years in exile. He exhausted himself and his body rebelled. He said the economic barriers still have to come down and the liberation of the working class still has to be achieved. There are still nearly half the people who have neither jobs nor land from which to make a living - and there is still the oppression that comes with such poverty. But now the political conditions exist for those problems to be addressed. Some of the young recruits at the Mamre camp became generals in the new South African National Defence Force. The colour bar in all its aspects is now in the past but the friction and mistrust between white and black officers must be overcome because the walls in their heads have not been completely destroyed.
As a commander I wish to report:
Mission accomplished. We were ordered to “Break down the Walls.”
We report: walls broken down. We report: there are more walls to be broken down.
We report: there will always be walls to be broken down. We report: people will build again, and again, and again ...
Several years after the Westminster Abbey ceremony, in 2007, Looksmart’s remains were traced by a special unit in the National Prosecutions Authority to a cemetery in Mamelodi in Tshwane/Pretoria. The remains were exhumed by international experts at a ceremony attended by ANC leaders including the Executive Mayor of Tshwane, Dr Gwen Ramagopa. Because I had worked so closely with Looksmart, I was asked to speak at the ceremony. I sat with Looksmart’s relatives at the modest meal that was served afterwards. After some months when DNA tests had been done his remains and those of four Western Cape MK soldiers that had also been exhumed were handed to their respective families in beautiful coffins. I spoke again at this moving ceremony in Cape Town where I met Looksmart’s father and his son who was a very little boy at the time of his father’s murder. He had worked very hard to get his father’s remains found so that they could be properly interred and the family achieve closure at last, after 45 years.