Once I knew I was being released I had a problem. I needed to buy clothes. Under guard I was taken shopping in Pretoria by Hillary and that was exciting, disturbing and exhausting. It was lovely sitting in the back of a car looking at the city with her, holding hands. Very new, but as old as the hills! Smelling her perfume was lovely. But after a time in the shop I was so tired. The prison officials were quite happy for me to stay out longer but I was quite exhausted from the noise and the kaleidoscope of colours. I asked to go back to the prison where I had to wait for the paperwork to be done.
My life had been life before prison, four terms of life imprisonment and now I was about to be ejected from the unfriendly womb of the prison. By my calculation it had been a long gestation of 7904 days. I felt some trepidation. It is true that I had been outside the prison walls from time to time when I had been taken to a hospital or to a medical specialist for treatment, but they were fleeting glances and I had been exhausted by the short shopping expedition.
When I was dressed and ready to go the prison guards insisted I sit with my comrades who were remaining behind and the conversation became ever more stilted. We had said our goodbyes. It was unsettling for them and for me. I had experienced the pleasure of those who had been released and the intense sense of longing to be getting out of there. Louis Baker in particular had been very tearful when he left us many years before after a three year sentence. That mixture of pleasure and pain is what seems to give life its special flavour like a rich dish which is saved from being sickly sweet by some countering flavour like sweet and sour, or the bite of strong curry tempered with yoghurt. We had been together for years and now suddenly there was no more to say. I asked the guards to take me out of there.
I was going directly from prison to the airport and on to Israel where my daughter lived on a kibbutz. Even though I had a receipt for myself signed by the authorities saying that I was free again, the Commanding Officer used his own car to take me to the airport, still guarded by prison officers. We were in a convoy with lead and trail cars packed with police officers. A parking place had been kept free at the departures terminal. My car pulled in and was surrounded by plain clothes policemen. There had been a verbal agreement that there would be no press releases until the plane taking me abroad had landed, and they were ensuring that I spoke to no one, and especially not to the press. I was rushed into a VIP lounge where I found Hillary with her husband Denis Kuny and their son Neill. The police dealt with my baggage. Hillary and Denis had brought me some money my Dad had saved up for me and a police officer went off to change it into US Dollars. What a sweet normally abnormal moment that was to be with friends for an hour or so while we waited for boarding time which seemed to me to be inordinately delayed. I still did not have my passport. I had insisted that it should be a South African passport. After all said and done I was and am a South African and my actions had been guided by that reality. In 1963 I had obtained a British passport because the Security Police would never have allowed me to get a South African one. It had lapsed and I needed a new passport.
Eventually I was allowed to go aboard: the very last passenger to go up the steps. I was given my new South African passport which valid was for only six months. The security cop who gave it to me said that if I behaved myself they would renew it! In 1985 it was difficult to travel on a South African passport because many countries had restrictions on allowing people to enter their countries with such passports. Therefore it would be convenient to use a British passport. I did not get a new South African passport until 1994 when our country became free.
The plane journey was exciting. I’m sure that all 220 tonnes of that giant Jumbo jet that I’d only seen in the movies but now had me in its entrails took off on my energy alone. I was really spreading my wings. What a feeling of freedom I had. Because Hilly was on a kibbutz I was flying there to see her and then going on to London. I was caught in a dilemma. Instead of flying direct to London, I would fly to Israel on an El-al plane and Hillary bought my air ticket for me. I wanted to fly on a South African plane but I feared dirty tricks. On a South African plane with a South African Captain, I would still be on South African territory. Who would be on the plane? Would a South African agent re-arrest me? Or worse? Would they set up somebody to do me in and proclaim elements in the ANC had dealt with me? It might all sound crazy now, but those were my fears. I was free and I wanted to stay free. It seemed to me the Israeli’s had more to lose and I was with Herut Lapid who represented the kibbutz movement, so I felt I might be safer on an El Al flight. How one tortures oneself when re-entering our complex world. I felt I had to tread warily every step of the way. I knew there would be criticism that I was going via Israel but it seemed to me at the time a useful way of getting where I wanted to go.
The noise in the plane was incredible after the relative calm and silence of our political prison wing in Pretoria where there were seldom more than 10 people at a time and sometimes as few as four. Israelis even when they are among friends speak harshly and their voices gave me a headache. Maybe it was the shot of cognac that gave me the headache. In prison I once felt tipsy on a little marmalade that I had kept long enough for it to ferment. A real drink was something special.
As the cabin attendants rushed up and down I asked one of them for some headache tablets, “when she had a moment,” I said. In passing she reached into her apron pocket and gave me a little twist of paper with aspirin tablets in it. They were crumpled and powdery. Next time as she flew past getting drinks and settling passengers I asked for some water to take the tablets. “Come!” she said in harsh Israeli English. I meekly followed. Over her shoulder she equally brusquely asked, “Why do you have a headache?” I shrugged and said that it was nothing special, just a headache. “Why? Are you sick?” she demanded. She seemed quite hostile. I suppose she needed to know if I was in need of more serious attention. To allay her fears I answered quite softly that I was not used to crowds and noise. “Why, where have you been?” She asked. By this time we were in a small galley and she was passing me a glass of water as I replied that I had been in prison. “How long for?” she asked. “Twenty-two years,” I replied. She was shocked. Her face froze. She turned her back while grabbing a small black handled kitchen knife and started slicing a lemon for drinks, or just for something to do. Her back was rigid, she moved jerkily and I could sense her thinking, “22 years! Must be something terrible: Rape. Murder. Maybe rape and murder!” Slowly she recovered her composure. She relaxed a bit, turned her head sideways and asked, “What were you in for?” So I wasn’t just imagining her turmoil. “Oh, just conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid government.” She threw down the knife and the lemon, spun round and with outstretched arms cried out, “Welcome aboard our aircraft.” A steward arrived and insisted I was not to smoke and she told him to leave me alone.
Later she was very attentive when she served the evening meal and drinks. I must say that the meal was something special to behold. Everything served so cleanly and neatly in little dishes on a tray with a napkin. Sure as hell better than anything I’d eaten in 22 years! But I had a window seat and I could see the drought ravaged land of Eastern Africa as we flew northwards. I felt ill as I tasted the luxurious foods finding it difficult to eat while thinking of people starving after the ten year long drought while we flew overhead. I am sure most passengers were utterly oblivious to this. To be fair I have to say that with all the air travel I later undertook, I discovered that airline food is not that great. It was just all so new to me.
When everybody had settled down for the night stewardess Eli and I talked for hours. How nice to talk without a prison officer monitoring the conversation about children and schools and normal human things. How nice to talk to a woman. She invited me to visit her family but she was off somewhere else when I phoned and her husband said how sorry he was that we could not meet.
On arrival at the airport in Tel Aviv, I was rushed off the plane by a steward. Esmé and Hilly were at the foot of the steps and before we could properly embrace we were bundled into a Kombi and driven off around a corner into the shadows of a large aircraft hanger. My passport had been taken from me and when I asked what was happening I was told that they were protecting me from the press who were awaiting me in the terminal building. My life was still being controlled by others. No consultation with me. They all knew what was best for me! Had Esmé and Hilly not been there I would have protested very loudly. But they really did mean well, thinking that after all that time in prison I would be incapable of any independent activity. I had been looking forward to telling the world that I was out of prison to continue the struggle against apartheid. That had to wait.
It was quite a long drive to wherever we were going. I wasn’t sure about what would happen between Esmé and me. We had been apart a very long time. We’d been together nine years and then apart for 22 years. Could we get together again? Did she want to? Did I want to? It had become ever more difficult to correspond and we did not write to each other very much in the last few years while I was inside. Esmé was waiting at the bottom of the steps. She smiled at me and that was that. Older, fatter (she said my little country cottage had turned into a stately mansion), greyer, but the smile was the same. Me, I was older, skinnier, balder, unsure of myself and far from the robust young man who had gone away and then been taken away all those years ago. Hilly was with her and she embraced me too, but was quite unsure of me, I thought. I embraced Esmé in the kombi, wanting to feel her response. She too was not sure. Hilly seemed embarrassed by it all.
We were driven through the dark for what seemed like an hour to a house and as I walked up the steps a strong light was shone into my eyes and out of the darkness stepped Arthur Goldreich whom I’d last seen 22 years earlier. He spun me around so that he was in the light. I realised there must have been news cameras and Arthur always knew about the limelight! He said, “Denis, the last house you were in was my house. And now the first house you will be in is also my house.” Knowing a bit about limelight myself, I turned him around so that I was in the light as I replied, “Is it safe this time?”
There was quite a crowd of expatriate South Africans there as Arthur and I chatted away about what had happened in the 22 years since we’d last met. At some point I realised that the furry thing that had been pushed near to us must have been a microphone and everything we were saying was being recorded. Indeed that was the case as the next evening I was pulled away from people I was chatting to and more or less compelled to sit in front of a TV set and, hey, there I was talking to Arthur the previous evening. My first experience of television was to watch myself being interviewed. It must have been the tension I was seeking to control that had made me sit extremely still and yet express myself with all the animation of my excitement at being out of prison. I spoke then, and on many occasions of the need to put an end to apartheid and that it was the people of Israel who could compel their government to break its ties with the apartheid state. I seized the opportunities to raise my battle flag again. I had to show that I and we were not broken by the years of imprisonment.
My new digital watch needed to be adjusted to the time change. The instruction book made no sense and I had never seen such a thing. Arthur’s fifteen year old son took the watch from me and pressed a few buttons and hey! Presto! It was set. We had no clock or watch after the trial for over twenty years and now there was this new thing without hands to indicate if it was early morning, about tea time or lunch time, just rapidly changing numbers that needed interpretation.
At the same time I was excited by being with my wife again. How strange it was to lie in bed next to her again. I know that one has fantasies of how one will celebrate, but in my case I have to say the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. I believe that many men experience erectile problems after long terms of imprisonment. Long term prisoners frequently have prostate problems. The whole thing became a very hit or miss affair and it was disconcerting for Esmé who thought that I had no interest in her. Even though we knew each other so intimately it took a long time to overcome those embarrassments and misunderstandings. Still, it was nice to have company and to be able to cuddle and more especially to have her hold onto me when the nightmares of the prison experience would have me thrashing about in my bed.
After a few days we went off by road to Hilly’s kibbutz Ma’Ayan Baruch where her fellow kibbutz members really pulled out the stops to welcome me. After the emotionally barren years inside it was overwhelming. I was enfolded in an emotional outpouring of love best expressed in “Hilly’s Dad is with us and we helped to get him here.” It was also special to see the affection and high regard they had for my daughter. A welcoming dinner was held and I had to speak to them and tell them that it was good to be out of prison so that I could continue the struggle against apartheid. They were a bit wary of that. I was carefully critical of Israel’s support for apartheid. I was interviewed on Israeli television and said that while I was in Israel I would do all I could to persuade Israelis to demand that their government stop their support for apartheid. Through their arms deals they were killing our people. Some members later were upset by the media attention paid to me and my criticism of Israel’s support for apartheid. It was not an easy time but to be meeting the world’s media and at last being able to strike back at the apartheid regime was great. In no time at all I felt politically comfortable. I had the Freedom Charter as my policy guideline and found it not difficult to answer questions about our policies with great confidence. It amazed me later to find that I used the same language and phrases as leaders like OR Tambo and Alfred Nzo the Secretary General without having had contact with them for over two decades.
Some days later, as we were about to sleep, Esmé said rather diffidently that if I wished to we might try to live together again. I must have shown that was what I wanted but before I could say anything she added, “There are conditions! One, I have my way of living and you can fit in if you want to. Two, I have a circle of friends and you can join in with them or not, as you wish but I will not change my life again. Three, you can be involved in politics and I will not stop you but do not expect me to follow you around like a fifth wheel on a car!” I agreed, of course. I think I would have said yes to anything at that point. It was astonishing, though I should not have been surprised that she was so assertive. Before I disappeared from her daily life Esmé consulted me about everything we did. She was hopeless at managing her and our finances. Her idea of a bank account was that when the bank bounced a cheque then she knew we had no more money. It happened often until the bank refused to give her an account in Cape Town. Now here she was being so firm and assertive. Of course she had to have become so but it was both reassuring and disconcerting. Immediately my firm belief in the full equality of women in relationships was put to the test. I submitted easily, but I was aware of the change in her.
Members of the rightwing US Rabbi Kahane’s Zionist movement camped outside the kibbutz gates demanding my expulsion. Journalists from around the world descended on the kibbutz and I was doing up to seven long interviews every day and that disturbed some of the kibbutzniks who felt I should be quiet about Israel’s support for apartheid. They expressed their displeasure to Hilly.In all the time I have been out of prison, and it is now 24 years, only one journalist has deliberately misrepresented my political attitudes and that was Mr Segev, an Israeli who was reputed to be the intellectual agenda setter in the Israeli media.
My presence and the interviews I was giving gave a boost to the whole idea of ‘Israelis against Apartheid.’ How could Israel, the state of Israel, be involved with Apartheid South Africa? Segev, who wrote for a weekly magazine Koterit Rachit asked to interview me. He came, he said, because he wanted to know about the ethics of the armed struggle. And I gave him a long interview. After all it is a very interesting topic for an intellectual discussion.
At the outset I explained, using the words “off the record,” that I would not speak about the PLO during this interview because I was addressing an Israeli audience about South Africa and apartheid and no one would give me a hearing if I speak about the PLO. Those were the conditions of the interview. Now ‘off the record,’ is off the record. He wrote an article of such blatant dishonesty in which he so blended quotations with his own opinions that his views appeared to be mine. His introduction read, “The ANC is the PLO of South Africa. Oliver Tambo is the Yasser Arafat of South Africa. Israel is the Apartheid nation of the Middle East.” I had said none of these things.
Because the subject of the interview was the ethics of armed struggle I had said as a condition of the interview that the examples I would give would be from South Africa and Southern Africa. For example, General Walls of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, flew in a civilian passenger plane, so that he had civilians covering his military movements. At the last moment the general switched planes. When the plane he had been in was shot down, who was ethically responsible? The General who used unknowing civilians to cover for him, or the people who shot the plane down? You can discuss ‘til the cows come home, but the General is not innocent. Segev simply omitted my examples which were relevant to my discussion and used examples from the Middle East, of Palestine, Lebanon, Israel and so on, to poison the audience against what I was saying. But more than that, he translated every word to do with liberation war, armed struggle, just war, anti-colonial war, all such terms, as one Hebrew word, “terrorism”.
How can you discuss ethics if you don’t distinguish categories? Worse still, by merging all these different ideas into one he was saying there is no such thing as ethics. In the political sense he was saying, “The bullets and the bombs and the napalm, and the brutality that comes from the government of the day is clean, and everything else is terrorism,” whether you are talking about Israel, or Apartheid South Africa or any other conflict. His article caused a media uproar. Many journalists who had been in support of Denis Goldberg of the ANC and of the struggle against Apartheid, now turned around to attack me in the media. I hoped that the controversy would die down, but it mounted day after day. Peter Allan Frost of the BBC, the doyen of Middle East journalists, phoned me after some days. He said that serious journalists were embarrassed by Segev’s article because it was such a blatant misrepresentation of everything I would have said. He said that the editor of the magazine, Nahum Barner, was embarrassed and indicated that if I asked for the right to reply I would get it. I followed his advice.
The editor offered me space for a “letter to the editor”. I insisted that I wanted an article with the same prominence as the original. I wanted a cover story too. He agreed to an article but not to a cover story. We agreed that I would write the article and that he, the editor, would personally translate it to ensure that it was accurate. He did publish it, and friends told me that it was accurate. In the meantime I had a phone call from a progressive Member of the Knesset, Yossi Sarid, who said that he knew that Segev had done a hatchet job. In answer to my question how he knew he said that Segev’s article contradicted everything I had said in articles and radio and TV interviews. He implied that Segev was quite notorious for his style of misrepresenting the views of people he interviewed. I still wonder who sent Segev to interview me, or whether he simply knew what his role had to be. I must say that in all the time from my release to the achievement of liberation and beyond, I know of no other journalist, no matter how hostile, who has so misrepresented me. Others, having reported my analysis and opinions, have then set out to refute them. Their readers have been able to understand me and make an assessment of my views.
A journalist from the London Evening Standard arrived directly from Pretoria to interview me. He presented his credentials as no other journalist had done. He laid down his passport, British press card and other documents. He said he had just had an interview with Pik Botha, the South African Foreign Minister who asked him to deliver a message that though I might be obeying the letter of my undertaking I was not following the spirit of the undertaking because in numerous media interviews I fully justified the armed struggle while demanding the end of apartheid violence against our people throughout Southern Africa. The undertaking was that I would not take part in political violence but I would not repudiate my role in the armed struggle and the justice of seeking to overthrow a tyrannical regime.
That a scheming politician like Pik Botha could see that I had used the situation in my way to fight in another way pleased me greatly. I said that my loyalty was not to the apartheid government but to the people of South Africa and Mr Botha was hardly the person to give me lessons in ethics. Having agreed not to advance north of certain latitude in Angola apartheid soldiers attacked the Cabinda enclave far north of that line on some specious grounds in the hope of strengthening one of the MPLA’s foes, Holden Roberto, who was based there. But the political absurdity was also clear to see. Cabinda was an oil producer supplying one of the big American corporations, Gulf Oil, which had more pull with the US government than South Africa had! I later saw the article in the Evening Standard and it put my views clearly and without distortion.
During all this media frenzy I was also getting to know my family again. My daughter Hilly was proud of me but she also thought she had to control me to protect me. Really, I had enough of being controlled! She meant well but, for example, she opened all the letters that streamed in to me. That was like being in prison. She said there was hate mail because not everybody loved me. Hilly said that I was her hero and she loved me but she also hated me because if grownups want to get involved in politics as I did, then I should not have got married and had children. Children, she said, don’t get consulted; things just happen to them and that is not good enough! She would really have liked everything to be as it was 22 years earlier: Mommy, Daddy, and two children aged 8 years and 6 years together as we were when I disappeared in 1963 into the underground struggle. But she was thirty years old and no longer a child. She would insist that she knew everything about South African politics and when I disagreed she would be very offended. An eight year old gets a pat on the bottom and a ‘yes darling’ and that would be that, but a thirty year old is not a child any more. We did later become fairly good family again though I simply could not fit into the pattern she longed for. It took me too long to understand that she had missed the years of breaking away from her Dad and was going through it at that moment. There were lots of tears.
After about a week I realised that I had to speak to David who was in London. It was difficult for me to phone by direct dialling because I could not remember such long telephone numbers and with my new bifocal glasses I could not look at my notebook and the telephone dial very easily. Hilly put the call through for me. I apologised to David for not coming immediately to London but I needed to gather my strength. He understood and then I spoke to Beverley. She told me they had been on a skiing holiday when news of my release reached them and they had been home for only a few days. Out of the blue I asked if they could come to be with me on the kibbutz. She agreed to come and when I asked about David she insisted I ask him myself. He said they already had tickets and needed merely to make their flight reservations.
David, I found, would never put pressure on me or anyone. He would wait to be asked and then happily agree to do whatever it was if it was something he wanted to do. He did not often show his deepest feelings I discovered. David, a few days after joining us on the kibbutz asked me, “Why did you do what you did that took you away from us for so long?” I answered the underlying thought when I said that I knew that what I was doing could hurt his mother and sister and him too, but millions of children in our country were forced by the race laws, and especially migrant labour laws, to grow up without their fathers. I said I did not know how to make my children more important than all of the other children. I told him I had not run away from him and his sister and his mother and that I had always loved them. I explained I had gone off to do something that was important and what makes us human is that when we see inhumanity we must act to put it right. I looked over at him and saw in my grown up 28 year old son the sad little six year old crying his eyes out. We embraced and wept together until Esmé walked in and then as men stupidly think we must do we sat up, wiped away our tears and our snivels and pretended everything was okay.
Indeed it was. Despite his usual unemotional manner he had needed that question about love and desertion to be answered. That evening he took me aside to ask me my plans. I said I had to take part in putting an end to apartheid. My comrades were still locked up. He said that I had to be involved, otherwise I would be throwing away the 22 years I had been locked away behind bars. He then proceeded to give me financial advice and ended by saying that he and his partner Beverley would love to see me when I would be at home in London, but they would understand if I had to travel a lot.
Later on I heard that when Esmé had telephoned David at his ski resort to tell him I was coming out of prison he had returned to Beverly and their friends and put his head down and wept. They thought that something must have happened to Esmé, and were astonished that David who seldom showed his feelings could feel so deeply. Indeed, while on the kibbutz with me and he needed to go off he would without embarrassment simply get up to give me a kiss and then leave. To experience such additional sweetness is more than one can ask for.
One of the lessons I have drawn is that freedom struggles have their price and it is children who seem to pay it. Is it not sad that we have to carry through that struggle against unfeeling rulers so their children will enjoy the fruits of our work.One of the great pleasures of being free was to see and enjoy the young children on the kibbutz. Most spoke no English but one or two did. Lee in particular was a very bright three year old who while doing a clever monkey like manoeuvre on a climbing frame greeted me with a brilliant smile and, “Do you like it here Denny.” But I also enjoyed making props for a school play as we would have in prison: a sword cut out of cardboard with the blade wrapped in silver paper and the handle wrapped with the brightly coloured wrappers of chocolates made a wonderful jewelled hilt. Sad that some of the mothers thought then that I was a very gentle person for one who had taken up arms, but later when Nelson Mandela greeted Yasser Arafat of the PLO then I suddenly became a brutal terrorist. Hysteria does not solve political problems.
This blindness to reality shocked me in Israel. Many progressive people who were opposed to apartheid would assert that there was no racism in Israel and that all were treated equally. Naturally they all knew I am not a Zionist because I spoke about Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis to counter their bland usage of the word Israeli to mean only Jewish citizens. There are innumerable laws that make Palestinians aliens in their own land. I was asked to speak about apartheid in South Africa and it was striking that some in my audience would be very upset because they said I was describing Israeli life and law and segregation and racist ideology implanted in the minds of young people through daily experience, but also through their school texts, through religious instruction, through the youth movements and so on in their country when I was really describing our South African experience.
I suspect that it was such talk that led Mr Segev to write the article I described above. As in apartheid South Africa, Zionist Israel does not like dissent when General Moshe Dayan said that there was not a Jewish settlement that had not been built on a Palestinian settlement that had been wiped off the face of the earth. General Sharon, an equally brutal General, later admitted that building settlements beyond the internationally agreed borders was in reality military occupation. As a matter of practical politics I accept the idea of the two state solution decided by the UN Security Council way back in 1948. That the secular PLO took so long to accept that basis does not alter the international legitimacy of this approach.
It is in my view not possible to achieve peace in a theocratic or priest driven society. Just as I reject the quasi religious basis of an exclusive Zionist Jewish state so I reject the quasi religious basis of Islamic states. One of the reasons for the ultimate lack of success of the secular PLO is that the feudal oil states of the Middle East prefer to have Zionist Israel as their opponent rather than accept a secular Palestinian state. Palestinians are the administrators and skilled as well as labouring work force of the Middle East. As foreigners, albeit co-religionists, in the lands they find themselves in, they have virtually no political rights. With the backing of a putative secular Palestinian state, the feudal rulers would find themselves under threat of revolution led by civil society with the support of a probably secular state, demanding a social democratic political system.
Journalists from many countries believed, despite my denials, that I was settling in Israel. From the very beginning of my new life outside prison I repeatedly stated that it was my wish to join my family in London and work fulltime to bring apartheid to an end because that way we could ensure that my still imprisoned comrades would also be free, yet reports would appear saying that I intended to live in Israel.
Eighteen days after arriving in Israel Esmé and I left for London. The cabin attendant was very attentive to both of us and when the opportunity arose she asked me if I had said the things that Segev had reported. She was sure, she said, that I had not said them.
About a year later Esmé said that I should have discussed with her what I was going to do instead of just announcing that I had to be full time in the ANC office in London. We had had some talk about me getting a fellowship so that I could spend a year writing but I needed to be fully involved. She and others said that I could be an active member without being a full time activist and things were politically and organisationally very messy. I said that I had to be fully engaged and if things were messy then I had to try to help to make them better. She did concede that she knew I had to be fully engaged in the work of the ANC and if not I would have been miserable and not worth living with anyway.
New Activist: London - Lusaka - Dar es Salaam
Uneventfully we arrived in London in the midst of sleet and rain. When I got to the immigration desk at Heathrow Airport in London with my South African passport valid for 6 months the immigration officer asked me how long I would be staying? I must have been quite disoriented because I was quite vague and said I would be there for perhaps a few years. He looked at me as if I was simple minded or plain stupid. What was his problem? Esmé came through without delay on her British passport and explained the position. “Oh!” Now I understood what the problem was and told him to contact the Foreign Office who had promised to help if there were problems. He gave me a few weeks to sort out my papers.
There were comrades to meet me at the airport and though I had dozens of interviews fully in line with our policies one had been delegated to tell me that I was not to speak to the media. I suppose every movement has such authoritarian arrogant people who make for disunity rather than unity. More offensive was that among the authoritarians were some who had simply fled South Africa without getting permission from their next higher level of organisation, some who had never previously been in the struggle, and some who knew little about it. From the questions shouted by the journalists waiting for me it was clear that in London I would face factions who were critical of me for being released and others who would support my decision. I already knew that the leadership in Lusaka had not acknowledged their role in the negotiations that led to my release and if they felt it necessary to keep silent I would too even though doing so caused me considerable heartache. I was accurately quoted as saying that maybe I was not as brave and courageous as my Robben Island comrades were, for one has to throw something to the wolves.
Minnie Sepel accompanied by Hettie September drove Ez and me to the ANC office because I had been asked to go directly there to meet the Chief Representative, Solly Smith. I was appalled by the harshness of the gossip that was poured into my ears during the hour long journey. Hettie’s former husband, Reg September, had been Chief Representative and I quickly found out that the picture painted by Joseph Conrad in his novel Under Western Eyes about the Russian revolutionary underground in Switzerland after 1905 was true and not at all exaggerated as I had thought. What they told me confirmed what South African exiles and some journalists had already told me that in exile we were indeed cut across and through and through by personal rivalries and likes and dislikes. It made me more determined to work to overcome these divisions.
Ez did not want to deal with our comrades and she went home with Minnie and Hettie. I met the Chief Representative, Solly Smith. There were others in the office with him, Charlie Jassat and Ishmael Coovadia, and perhaps MD Naidoo whose wife Phyllis had sheltered me in Durban all those years ago, and Toine Eggenhuizen a Dutch ex-priest who had been thrown out of South Africa by the authorities. Maybe there were others too, but I am not sure because the impressions crowded in so thick and fast that some details are too blurred for me to be sure of them. After some exchange of greetings and quite a lot of reserve on both sides, Solly Smith remarked that he knew all about the negotiations that led to my release and had been indirectly involved in the process.
I told them I wanted to get down to Lusaka to meet the ANC leadership and they urged me to take my time because there was no hurry. I insisted that I wanted to go as soon as it could be arranged. I needed to know what my future role would be. The next day I got a message that I should be in the office to take a phone call from Thabo Mbeki who said I should spend time recovering and getting used to being out of prison. Again I insisted that there was work to do and I had been resting for too long. It was agreed that I was to fly to Lusaka on the first available plane six days after arriving in Britain.
Looking around the ANC office I was amazed that we had such facilities as a telex machine that enabled us to communicate with Lusaka instantaneously. This was before fax machines and long before email of course. Equally I was amazed that we could operate so openly while being underground. Of course I realised that the British Government allowed us to have our office there and we had to be as open as we needed to be. You cannot win public support unless you are open towards them. I remembered how it was in South Africa in the early nineteen sixties. We were very guarded on the phone and anyway there was no direct dialling even between cities in the same country. You phoned the operator and waited for hours for your long distance call to come through. Now the details of my visit were fixed up within a few days.
Joe Slovo was in London before I went to Lusaka. He took me to a little office and we chatted for quite a long time. He told me what I had already realised, that there were people who were upset about my release. He thought that I should spend a couple of years in London finding my feet, speaking about the struggle and our goals. He would welcome me into the military structures again if I wanted that but perhaps I should work on the political military structures in London, meeting South Africans from inside the country. I was worried about that because I was quite out of touch with detail on the ground. I also said I had a need to talk and I did not want to know too much of a secret nature. I needed to re-establish myself and find my new identity.
After about three quarters of an hour I said, “You know Joe, you’ve changed.” He asked what I meant and I said, “I think you’re a nicer person.” “What do you mean, a nicer person? That sounds like a back-handed compliment.” “No, you’re able to understand the pain and the difficulty of human decisions.” “Oh,” he said, “as a movement we’ve had to learn that. We had to learn that people are not made of steel, or blocks of wood. We asked too much of our activists and when they cracked we rejected them. We had to understand what human limits are and it’s been a very painful lesson for the whole movement.”
To hear that from someone who seldom had any thoughts about individual personal difficulty back home in South Africa was astonishing. In effect he was saying that exile was very hard for people, and there had to be tolerance for human frailty. I found it interesting that he could say you do not simply reject people because they are not as pure as you think they ought to be.
It matched what I found in prison. I think I acquired a humanitywhich I had not had before. I no longer questioned peoples motives as I once would have. It is what they contribute to the movement that matters. And more than that, I learnt not to drive people away from our movement, because they won’t go all the way with us and our faction of the movement. You try to build unity; you try not to create divisions.
Solly Smith insisted I accompany him to a reception at the Commonwealth Secretariat. When I saw how smartly everyone else was dressed at the reception for some country’s freedom day celebration I felt very uncomfortable wearing the maroon jacket and blue jeans that Hillary had bought me. The trouser legs were rolled up two or three turns to shorten the legs. Solly added to my discomfort when he said that every ANC representative should have a ‘diplomatic suit’ for such occasions. That he told me only when I was at the reception did not help, though I did not really mind being taken for the refugee that I was.
During the next days I went shopping for clothes suitable for the tropical climate in Lusaka and quite enjoyed finding my way around Kentish Town and Camden Town in London looking for shirts and trousers made of washable cotton. The more formal clothing had to wait.
Minnie and Ralph Sepel gave a wonderful party a few days after I arrived in London so that I could meet many of our exiled comrades. It was lovely to meet people and getting to know them and the changes in their lives was a great joy. Esmé saw through my politeness when I would ask about their lives as a means of shielding myself from the repeated questions about how I felt when I had yet to find me feet in London. It was disturbing to be hero worshipped by pretty young women who offered themselves to me quite blatantly. Sexual mores had really changed during the youth revolt of the mini skirt and the rock and roll era. The widespread challenge to authority was something very new to me.
I also had to get a British passport to sort out my residence in Britain. It was also essential that I do not use my South African passport when going to Lusaka. My South African passport would lead Zambia to refuse me entry, even if I came as an ANC member. I went off to the passport office in Pettit France near Bond Street following Ez’s detailed instructions about where to change tube trains because such a large city was very complicated for me.
When I got to the right place I showed my documents to an official who insisted that the certified copy of my birth certificate would not be accepted. I explained that I could not return to Cape Town and I was merely asking for the renewal of the passport that had been issued to me in 1963 but had of course lapsed in the twenty two years I had been locked up. He was being quite bureaucratic as I suppose passport officials are supposed to be until I explained that the British Foreign Office had said they would assist me if I had any problems entering Britain. He thought a moment and then scooped up my papers while remarking that I had to be the South African who had just been released from prison. He disappeared for a few minutes and on his return his rubber stamp thumped down on the appropriate forms in a blur of movement and sounds. He carefully explained what I had to do when I said I had to fly at the weekend and still had to get vaccinated for tropical diseases. Having paid the required fee I found myself in a queue that I guessed would take at least three hours before I would reach the next official. My new friend came out from behind his counter, took my documents and said I would get a call on a particular telephone on one of the counters ahead of me. Indeed in just a few minutes I was called to the phone and told to return at three in the afternoon to get my passport. Such friendliness and such solidarity after the treatment in prison was a very welcome change. It also spoke of the kind of sympathy many people had for opponents of apartheid.
Thomas Cook’s travel clinic provided the injections and vaccinations I needed and I was off to see OR Tambo’s wife Adelaide who gave me letters and a cake to take to him in Lusaka together with letters from our office. All the papers were tucked away in a little zipped up leather document case.
When I got back to Esmé’s house, now our house, I felt enormously elated to have navigated my way through this complex city on my own. It was still cold in the early springtime and my cheeks were flushed when I got home. It seems absurd but I felt as I had felt as a boy allowed to go into Cape Town all alone some forty years earlier. Everything was new again and I needed to think ahead every step of the way literally and figuratively if I was to manage on my own. Ez insisted I do everything for myself otherwise I would be a social cripple relying on others to care for me. She was absolutely right: when you fall off your bicycle as a kid you have to get on immediately to conquer the unknown.
London really is big. I found out because the journey from our home to Gatwick airport to the south of London took about two hours. I really wanted to be with Esmé but sorting out my position in the ANC was also very important to me and I was to be away for only ten days. I wandered around the duty free shops and bought chocolates. On boarding the plane I suddenly realised my document case with the correspondence for OR Tambo had disappeared. How unreliable can a courier get? And on my first mission too! I was in a muck sweat when a flamboyant young woman introduced herself as Janet Love of the ANC and hearing of my problem took complete charge of me. She recovered my document case from the Duty Free where I had left it and I settled in to what turned out to be the first of many flights. Janet must have been a young girl when we were arrested and here she was a capable young woman who was quite at ease taking command of me and I am sure others as well.
On arrival at Lusaka airport I showed my new British passport and was allowed through customs but as my ANC comrades had not arranged for me to be allowed in as an ANC member under a special arrangement we had with the Government of Zambia I had to wait hours until everything was arranged. Suddenly the place was filled with soldiers in military greatcoats who had just come off a plane from Angola. In the confusion I was grabbed in a bear hug that stopped me from seeing who it was whose booming voice said, “Denny, so nice to see you” and I said, “Martin (Hani) is it you?” Somebody else leaned down to whisper in my ear that he was now known as Chris. I had not seen him since he had jumped bail together with Archie Sibeko in 1961 after they had appealed a sentence of imprisonment for furthering the aims of the banned ANC. Well over twenty years later his distinctive voice was easy to recognise and it was wonderful to be greeted so warmly by a younger comrade. I did not yet know that he was one of our top military commanders.
After some hours everything was sorted out and I was taken to stay with Reg September and his then wife Gwen Miller, a British Comrade he had married. They made me feel at home in their pleasant flat. She had a small car and drove me to the ANC compound just off Cairo Road, the main street in the city. As I entered a young man leaning against a wall under the veranda straightened up and greeted me with a military salute,”Comrade Kommandant.” I did not recognise him but he had to have been at the Mamre camp. A few steps further and another young man greeted me in the same way. This one insisted that I recognise him and it turned out he was Wilson Nqose the son of a noted activist in the Blauvlei settlement in Cape Town. Meeting them brought back wonderful memories. I was taken in to see President OR Tambo in an office so dark I could hardly see. He embraced me and welcomed me and I handed over the cake and letters from his wife and the letters from the ANC office. He said there were members of the National Executive waiting to meet me and he led me to a room full of sunlight where I met them. Among them were Alfred Nzo, Secretary General, TT Nkobi, Treasurer General, Joe Modise head of MK, Reg September, and others whom I can only guess at.
There were three comfortable easy chairs in the room. Two were taken by the Secretary General and the Treasurer General. I waited for OR to sit in the third chair. To my embarrassment he insisted that I take the third chair. It sounds absurd that at the commencement of an important interview there should be a by-play about seating. He said I was the guest of honour and should take the chair. He sat on a small stool at my knee and yet he clearly dominated the proceedings. He introduced me and asked me to tell them about my release. I did so, saying that the only confusion I had was whether the earlier negotiations which I understood were known about by senior comrades had clashed with PW Botha’s offer of release. By the time of that offer I was sure that I wanted to be released to continue to be part of the struggle against the apartheid regime. They interrogated me very sharply but without hostility, but if I had said something that they were not sure about they would really try to get to the bottom of it. They would say that I had said such and such, and that I had decided this at that time but they wanted to be sure they understood me. They wanted to know exactly when I had decided, and what had given me a particular impression? Did I really know some particular thing? They asked really sharp questions, getting beneath the surface. It seemed to me then that not all were previously aware that there had been negotiations sanctioned at the very highest level for my release. It ended after an hour or more with OR saying that he thought the consensus of the meeting was that I was welcome back as an activist and that I should work full time in the ANC.
Joe Modise asked me to rejoin the army and I said that we would soon be negotiating with the regime and since I had said I would not take up arms I thought that I should not but if they thought I should then of course I would, because my loyalty was to our movement and not to the apartheid regime. It was decided that I would speak on behalf of the ANC wherever I could and that I should be based in London so that I could again be part of my family. To develop solidarity with our movement was one of the keys to our liberation. I was asked if I knew our policies and of course I did because I had been reading newspapers since 1980 and I had read masses of our information materials in our London office in the week that I had been there. I found that using the Freedom Charter as my policy guide I had used the same words and phrases as our movement did in responding to journalists despite having been away for so long. It was reassuring that we were so principled.
In our compound there were always people sitting or standing, waiting for instructions, or for bulk food supplies, or just hanging out. When OR emerged from his office instantly all were on their feet and rigidly at attention, like soldiers. It seemed to me that the military-like response made him uncomfortable for OR would walk up to one or other and greet him or her by name and gossip about parents or uncles and aunts and their home towns or villages. He had a remarkable aptitude for putting people at ease. It was the strength of his personality and the gentleness with which he expressed his stern commitment to freedom that enabled him to hold us together for 30 years of exile. I was told that he disliked laziness and indifference among those who worked with him and he could flay people with his tongue when he felt it necessary. Characteristically he quietly promoted his views as he built a consensus that made him such a great a leader. Bram Fischer had a similar capacity of seldom forcing a confrontation by not strongly disagreeing with another when it was not essential to make a stand on an issue. After meeting OR that day in Lusaka I felt reassured and comfortable about being back and quite sure that there was a job to do to get my comrades out of prison and to break down the walls dividing our people in our society imprisoned by institutionalised racism.
I was not very busy at first and I walked the few kilometres from Reg and Gwen’s flat to our offices but after a time our Deputy Secretary General, Simon Nkokeli forbade me to walk on my own. He said there were enemy agents who looked for opportunities to kill our people. I was always to ask comrades to drive me wherever I had to go, no matter how awkward that might be. I missed wandering about in the city. It was my first time in an independent African country. Zambia achieved its independence from Britain in 1964. The streets were very busy and there was lots of friendly jostling. I felt no fear and saw that liberation, even with poverty, could bring a relaxation of tension. The shops were empty and even a plastic shopping bag had to be bought from young boys selling them outside the shops. On one occasion toilet soap became available in the department store. Each customer was allowed one bar of soap and had an indelible mark put on the back of their hands to show they had one. Gwen took me swimming in the municipal swimming pool and I found that I was very unfit but the feel of the water was marvellous. Albie Sachs arrived in Lusaka and took me to meet international aid workers who stood me rounds of drinks in their hotel garden. It was good meeting him after all the years and finding out that he had been in London for many years. He told me that Esmé with her warm personality had brought many people to our side in Britain, especially in the Woodcraft Folk youth organisation. He was busy at the time working with OR on a code of conduct for our members in exile. With a contingent of thousands there were bound to be those who transgressed commonsense rules and the conduct expected had to be codified.
The days stretched out and I wanted to be home to be with my family. Esmé was waiting for me and I said it would be a ten day trip. There seemed to be some difficulty. There were few planes on the route and school children were flying back to Britain for the opening of a new school term and everything was booked up. For the first time in 22 years I phoned her on 9 April to mark our wedding anniversary. I was excited to be speaking to her but she was quite cold and upset because I was not home. Later she said she had been to a therapist who asked her why she was angry since she had managed alone for so many years and could continue to do so. But she felt cheated after hanging about for so long waiting for me to come home.
I could not get away from Lusaka. The leadership were trying to work out how to integrate me into our work and ten days later a press conference was organised to present me to the world’s media. That event was chaired by Thabo Mbeki, OR’s right hand man. Typed copies of my letter to PW Botha were prepared by our media liaison section and it was well received. In retrospect I was too cautious in stating my position. I was somewhat apologetic about being released. I should have had the courage of my convictions and stated loudly and clearly that the time had come to negotiate a settlement. The apartheid regime could not defeat our people and we could not defeat the military and police forces of the state. The situation was deadlocked and prolonging the struggle would cost unnecessary lives. Yet one does not act alone. The views and attitudes of others had to be taken into account and there was not yet a willingness to accept that a negotiated settlement was the logical end to that phase of our struggle. My letter stated it and it was issued to the world’s media by the ANC and that was sufficient for the time being. In fact the MK Manifesto issued when we started our armed struggle invited the apartheid regime to negotiate a settlement.
The ANC leadership really worked hard to enable me to find my feet in “my” organisation. I found the whole experience of meeting so many comrades in exile very pleasant and interesting. However many people had no conception of what twenty two years in prison really meant. I sometimes illustrated it for them by telling them that my children were eight years and six years old, and now they were thirty years, and twenty eight years old. Or I would say that in my last years in prison we had warders who were not yet born when I was taken to prison. In other words a whole generation had grown up, gone through school and training college and were now working, and then they would get some idea of what that length of time means.
I was also astonished by the insensitivity of some people. They knew my story, they knew I had spent twenty two years in prison and yet they would sigh about “all those years,” that Nelson was inside. In some perverse way I think they felt cheated that I was strong and not bowed by the years inside. I think they might have felt more comfortable if I had emerged frail and broken. That would have enabled them to feel sympathy. I would remark somewhat drily, that many had many years inside and, “We do know about it you know,” and they would be covered in confusion.
I went into the various ANC offices scattered around Lusaka to find out what we were doing so that I would know what I could tell the world about the ANC and the liberation struggle. There were things I learned just by being there that everyone else took for granted. For example, while sitting with Tom Sebina our Media Liaison officer, I heard him speaking French, and others spoke other languages to journalists from around the world. Tom explained to me that we had comrades who had studied in many countries and we could use their languages and had a much wider understanding of the world as a result.
The Zion Christian Church is a black South African initiated church independent of the major international churches. It has four million members. Every Easter there is a gathering at its centre, Moria City, in what is now Limpopo Province. At least one million members attend the gathering. At the time I was in Lusaka the meeting was about to take place. At that time the 1 million strong annual meeting of the Zion Church of Africa at Moria in the then Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo) Province was due to take place during the Easter weekend. The Zion Church was the largest African church independent of the main Christian Churches. President PW Botha had been invited to attend. Nzo asked Tom Sebina and me to write a Press release about it. That gave me great pleasure! I simply sat down and the words flowed out of my finger tips. In discussion we refined it. It was a harsh condemnation of Bishop Legkanyane head of the Church of Zion for issuing the invitation to PW Botha.
Comrade Nzo came in and pointed out that we had to try to detach Bishop Legkanyane, leader of the Zion Church, from his connection with the apartheid regime. We had not been able to have direct contact with him, therefore our open letter to him had to appeal to him to see that change was coming and he and his congregation should contribute to the pace of change. We could not simply condemn him for inviting PW Botha lest we drive him further into the arms of the apartheid regime. Somehow we had to be harsh about apartheid but had to be careful not to alienate him further. After Nelson Mandela was released both he and President FW de Klerk were invited. When Nelson Mandela arrived, he was overwhelmed by the welcome he received. Mr de Klerk, on the other hand was ignored by most of the congregants.
When I arrived in Lusaka the question of opening the ANC to full membership for all South Africans was being hotly debated. Thinking I was still in the early nineteen sixties, I felt the structure of the Congress Alliance should continue. But it was more complicated than that. Inside South Africa in the conditions of underground illegality, membership of the ANC was still for Africans only. Others sort of floated around as ad hoc helpers when asked to assist. Some could travel to neighbouring countries as couriers and activists who took all the risks of membership without being members. In exile, under pressure from exiles of all colours and from our host anti apartheid supporters, the ANC no longer restricted membership to Africans only. But in London there were some who followed what in the fifties and sixties was called an ‘Africanist line’ and they were unhappy about this. They felt that they had lost influence and that the ‘purity’ of the struggle was being contaminated.
There were two small groups who broke away in the 30 years of exile; a group of four and a group of eight and this had happened before I arrived in London in 1985. Exclusivist sentiment ran deep. I discussed this with Mark Shope and his daughter Lyndall in Lusaka and they were all for opening the membership. They insisted that it was a lack of self confidence among older comrades that made them fear that even a small number of non-African members, especially those who were white, would automatically dominate the ANC. I thought that was a strong argument but it was perhaps better to maintain unity when people like me and others would continue our support whether or not the organisation opened its membership to all.
With Reg September whom I had worked with more closely for so long, the discussion cut much deeper than with Mark who was from Johannesburg and whom I had met once over a weekend when he stayed in our house in Cape Town with Dan Tloome when they were attending a trade union conference. When I said to Reg that Africanist sentiment still existed and we should not risk dividing the movement by insisting on white membership, Reg retorted very strongly that White comrades always thought everything revolved around themselves. But what about the place of Coloured and Indian South Africans who were discriminated against as ‘non-whites’ under apartheid and they too were being kept out of the ANC. How did we prepare our countrymen and women for the non-racial society envisaged in our Freedom Charter if we did not act non-racially in the leading organisation of the struggle? That was the issue, and as the ANC at home was on the crest of a wave of popularity and support that was the time to open the membership. He was right because it was true that White comrades took the facile position that we should continue as we had ‘always’ done and not risk facing the future. Reg also pointed out that in elections held among the exile membership in Lusaka for members of the ANC’s Regional Committee, Jack and Ray Simons had received the highest number of votes from an overwhelmingly African membership. That showed their readiness for open membership, he said. A few months later the membership was opened to all inside and outside South Africa.
I was going to fly home to London from Lusaka after a week or ten days and then Nzo said, “Denis, if you’re going to be travelling the world to talk about the ANC, you must go to the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, because it’s an important part of what the ANC in exile has achieved.” So, I flew to Dar es Salaam on a plane with many ANC representatives all going to a fund raising conference at our college at Mazimbu in Tanzania. Among the passengers was a Norwegian aid worker, Kjetil Nielsen posted to the ANC settlement in Tanzania. He told me he had met his wife Eli at the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, our school there, and I remarked that the ANC fulfilled many roles, including that of marriage broker. From time to time we still meet.
On arrival in Dar I found that our ANC comrades had not arranged my clearance to enter the country. There was nothing to do but wait at the airport until the paperwork had been done. I was not alone for Eddie Funde our Chief Representative in Australia and New Zealand (since August 2008 South Africa’s Ambassador to Germany) experienced the same problem. We had arrived in the late afternoon when all offices were closed and all officials, Tanzanian and ANC, were thinking of other things than comrades sitting in an airport. I was becoming more accustomed to things not running so smoothly and settled into one of those red plastic chairs with a seat that is bum shaped and found in many airports around the world. I think some sadist designed them to numb your bottom and the longer you sit the harder they get! We dozed intermittently through the night. At midnight exactly Eddie nudged me and said “Happy Birthday Comrade and I realised it was indeed 11 April 1985 and I had travelled more since I was released on 28 February than I had in my whole previous life and had seen a bit of South Africa, Israel, Britain, Zambia and now Tanzania.
What an exciting time in which to be reborn. But what a nice comrade and friend I found in Eddie Funde who was previously unknown to me. The next day we were at the Palm Beach Hotel having been cleared to enter the country. We had been given a few shillings of pocket money which Eddie demanded we put on the table. He ordered drinks for a whole group of us and my comrades toasted me in warm soapy beer. I am moved all over again by their kindness.
We travelled from Dar es Salaam to the ANC settlement at Mazimbu. As a once upon a time civil engineer I was appalled by the state of the 120 kilometre long road. It was full of potholes and in some places half washed away by tropical rainstorms. Our bus travelled with its hazard blinkers going all the time to make it more visible and this was so necessary because people drove very fast and often on the wrong side of the road to avoid the wash aways and potholes. How the contractors had got away with building a road with such inadequate drainage was a mystery to me. Was it underfunded or was there collusion between officials and contractor to do a shoddy job? I had no time to investigate.
That was my first working conference. But Nzo had also said to me that when I got back from Somafco, I should give him my impressions of the place. My immediate thought was, “What can the problems be?”
While I was there I gathered material for a seventy page report on Mazimbu, the official name of the area allocated to our settlement. I eventually presented the results of my first real assignment since prison to Nzo. I wish they had followed my recommendations to deal with the problems at Mazimbu, the Solomon Mahlungu Freedom College. They could have eased the situation there where the reality and the fear of infiltration resulted in an authoritarian suppression of discussion and the labelling of any and all discontent as enemy agitation when some of it was due to genuine alienation of young people living a narrow life in our settlement in Tanzania. For their safety the Tanzanian Government provided a military guard around our settlement and prohibited our exiles from wandering freely in the region. Paid labour was not permitted and the ANC was in effect mother and father and provider to all in the settlement of all necessities from food to clothing and hygiene products, education and health care in a moneyless society. Many of the young people who had fled apartheid longed for a more glamorous lifestyle. I am convinced that strong political and social leadership with open discussion of problems would have helped. Things were kept secret when there was no necessity to do so. This is not to say that many of the young people were not disturbed and in need of counselling and advice.
Young women who fell pregnant were treated as naughty and subjected to punishment, while the young men who had impregnated them were allowed to continue their normal lives in the settlement. Built on a sisal farming estate, we had achieved wonders with the help of the Scandinavian countries and the Socialist bloc led by the Soviet Union. Solid homes architecturally suited to a tropical climate had been built, and a farm and dairy farm established. Our young people were reluctant to do physical work thinking it was beneath them. The Dutch Anti Apartheid Movement raised the funds for a well equipped small hospital. German Lutheran activists raised money to buy cows to provide milk for the children. The slogan was: Ein Kuh für Mazimbu,(A cow for Mazimbu).
There were both primary and secondary schools and many young people went on to study in other countries. The problems of the community were social rather than political. Malaria was a problem and it was necessary to keep grass cut short because water gathered where leaves sprouted from the stalks and mosquitoes laid their eggs in such tiny drops of water. The coarse grass required slashers, sharpened metal staves, rather than mowers and with regular maintenance the problem could be controlled. Demoralised young people simply ignored the request to look after their own health and that of the whole community. Malaria was really debilitating and it perseveres for years unless well treated. At the time a new strain of cerebral malaria had reached our settlements and it was often fatal there being no medication that would prevent its occurrence, and the readily available prophylaxis was not certain in its effects.
Dr Amo Moroka was marvellous. I arrived there with my feet very sore from sweating so much and shoes that did not fit my feet swollen in the tropical heat. Oh for some well made prison shoes! She treated me and with Rica Hodgson’s help had the resident shoemakers make sandals that were custom made for me. In no time the skin on my feet healed. Amo was even more interesting on health issues and the role of pregnancy in lonely girls and young women who found that having a baby gave then something of their own. The young men she said simply enjoyed the sexual escapade and as I said the girls were removed from school and the boys simply continued as if nothing had happened.
The pregnant girls were sent to the ‘Charlottes’ a term of disparagement that dishonoured the great sociologist Charlotte Maxeke who was one of the first to take up the issue of the oppression of women in male dominated African society. Saddest of all was the demoralisation of the mothers to be who simply sat around with no motivation to do anything for themselves. We who talk easily of a non-sexist society imposed sexist domination over these young women. I raised this with the leadership who could not see any way of dealing with such matters other than an authoritarian, “thou shallt not” which was a useless response to a much deeper problem. Despite all the criticisms of our comrades I have to acknowledge the sacrifices that many made to establish and run the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College and what was a small township of about 5000 people. Doctors, nurses, architects and engineers worked for years for no salary, only for their keep, to see that our refugee children and young activists would be cared for, educated, trained and hopefully become leaders in the new South Africa.
A beautiful crèche had been built for the babies so that the mothers could do whatever jobs they were assigned to. The walls and ceilings were clinically white and clean. The bed clothes equally so and the children in the tropical heat were swaddled tightly in white crocheted blankets. There were no mobiles, no colours, no music and no conversation, no stimulation at all. It was not that it was sleeping time; that was how it was all day long. I discovered what I named the ‘tula-tula (quiet-quiet or hush-hushh)’ syndrome. The nursery nurses insisted that was how they had been trained. How do we develop inquiring interested alert minds?
Talking now to my friend Deidré who is both a mother and a doctor, we speculate that the way of caring in the crèche came from the custom of babies being swaddled on the mothers’ backs while they were working, traditionally, in the fields. Now the mothers were being liberated from the physical burden of the child but the child, lying in its cot, was deprived of companionship, of voices, of movement and human contact. The nursery nurses needed to be actively involved with the babies and infants to compensate for the disjunction from their mothers.
In our equally beautifully built and equipped kindergarten for the three year olds and upwards, things were much better with colours and singing and brightness with children who were well fed and well clothed. In the play area there were no swings or merry-go-rounds, slides or climbing frames. I said I would ask the management committee to have some made in our workshops. The nursery staff said that was not possible because everything had to be supplied by foreign donors so that they could be sure it would be safe. The negativity among so many people was distressing. Somehow we were sapping the initiative of our people and therefore of our children who would be part of the first generation of free South Africans.
With no disrespect I have to say that the ANC’s First Team were taking on the apartheid enemy at home, and our First Reserve Team was taking on the less glamorous but necessary game of looking after our people and winning international support for our movement. After all, our exile liberation movement was able with international aid and aiders to achieve what some governments could not do: create and manage a settlement the size of a small town without having state power at its back. Nevertheless, when asked to stay and work there I felt I needed to be more directly involved in building solidarity by speaking around the world to people and governments and fundraising for the work of our First Team.
While I was at Mazimbu I took part in a workshop with Eddie Funde and most of our Chief Representatives based in many countries. The ANC had more diplomatic representatives than the apartheid government. We discussed fundraising for another settlement to accommodate even more refugees, including our MK soldiers who had to be withdrawn from Swaziland and Mozambique because of the onslaught by the apartheid military on our people and the governments of the region in a massive policy of destabilisation.
The workshop was interesting because it enabled me to meet dozens of comrades working in many countries. But there were also ideological arguments about the nature of the settlement we were developing. The official view was that we were building a Soviet style state farm. That approach may have been adopted to satisfy President Nyerere whose concept of Ujamaa villages were based on a similar approach, and his government had made the land available to us in an extraordinarily generous act of solidarity. Some of us argued for allowing individuals to have small plots of land that they would develop and retain a large share of the product and thus have an incentive to achieve higher levels of production. It would also have laid the basis for intensive farming when we returned home to South Africa. There was a determined attack on such ‘deviant’ ideas which were raised for reasons ranging from determined capitalist roaders to those who wanted to see our people able to be more self sufficient and occupied rather than being idle and disengaged because international solidarity provided for all our needs in the settlements.
I discussed my report with the leadership at Somafco and they said they would study it carefully but I think the stresses were already too great to make any significant change which would have neede large amounts of power to be handed to the youth so that they would have more responsibility.
When I returned to Lusaka I gave my report to the Secretary General Nzo. He asked me to discuss it with Jack Simons and Billy Modise who were on the ANC’s Education Committee. Jack was more interested in my observations than Billy, the Principal of the UN School of Administration, who seemed more involved in training future civil servants for Namibia, than interested in rectifying problems I identified at Mazimbu. I did not follow up on the results of my report, but later I was asked to research the needs of our education for our exiles but organisational changes and being busy with other tasks meant that I did not carry out this task.
Jack was already showing the signs of age and told me that the trouble is that your mind stays alert but your body won’t allow you to do all the things that you know you have still to do.
Jack and Ray and her sister Dora who had known me since I was merely a twinkle in my pregnant mother’s eye, gave a dinner in their home for me to meet people they knew. In response to a question I went through what I thought was a pretty solid piece of analysis of ‘colonialism of a special type’ based on the interrelation of class oppression and national oppression which were inseparable in the South African context. Essentially the argument was based on a paper by Harold Wolpe and Martin Legasick which gave a theoretical basis for Michael Harmel’s 1960s description of colonialism of a special type in which oppressors and oppressed share the same territory. In classical colonialism the imperial power has its own remote land. I talked about the way in which capitalism is subsidised by those not actually employed and who live in the reserves, or bantustans as they came to be known. This is the most difficult part of the argument to substantiate in practice. Typical of Professor Jack who had not changed, for he had listened intently and pounced on this point of the argument. He said I had to be able to show how the transfer of funds takes place.
Of course the answer to Jack’s problem is that it is a theoretical argument because there is no actual transfer of funds and it is legitimate for an analysis to have different levels of abstraction. Here it is postulated that a transfer of economic values from the population of the reserves to the capitalist class is occurring when what is happening is that the capitalist class is able to reduce the cost of reproduction of the working class by the legal and administrative controls that apartheid used to reduce the living standards and cost of living of the oppressed population who provide the bulk of the workers in mining, manufacturing and farming. In this sense capital is subsidised by the additional exploitation of the nationally oppressed population by the reduction of the wages needed to sustain them and their families. Indeed the Chamber of Mines put forward a ‘cost of reproduction of the workers’ argument in their submission to the Commission of Inquiry into Mine Wages instituted after the miners’ strike in 1947. A worker in 1919 involved in the bucket workers strike in Johannesburg had said something similar when he told a Commission of Inquiry that the ‘pass laws make wages small.’ The point is that a menial worker through his lived experience had captured the essence of the relationship of national and class oppression so many years before the theoreticians found an explanation. The discussion and the questions that followed showed that I had some effect on the views of those who were there. The fact is that the ending of apartheid allowed government to intervene by establishing national minimum wages for various industries. Enforcing the laws is more difficult especially in farming and in the rural areas in general.
Before leaving for London Alfred Nzo the Secretary General was very insistent that I had a holiday, a solidarity holiday, and I said, “but I’ve rested all this time.” It was not a rest in prison. It was a devastating physical and emotional experience. But while I was in Tanzania, about six weeks after coming out of prison I woke up one morning free of pain for the first time in years. No stiff back, no stiff and sore joints and feeling very alert. I wondered if I should have had blood tests to determine if we were being doped in prison. But I suspect that it was being out of the daily stress of imprisonment and being actively engaged in dealing with real issues at Somafco that led to my health being so radically improved. As the ICRC doctor had told the authorities, psychosomatic illnesses are real and have to be treated. I can add that freedom is a wonderful treatment for all sorts of aches and pains.
I said, “No, I need to be in the world and of the world and working in the world and making the transition to reality.” I knew the transition back into the world would be very tiring. I said that after six or nine months, or maybe a year, I would then like to get such a holiday to rest and reflect and then consolidate and move on. We had quite an argument about it. I felt I was coping well and there was no way he could make me go on holiday at that time. My ticket to London was eventually booked and instead of being away for the intended ten days I had been away for six weeks.