After the State of Emergency in 1960, when so many of us were locked up for four or five months in detention, there was a widespread feeling that we were moving towards a point where we would have to challenge the armed forces of the apartheid state. We were witnessing an increasing use of armed force – or the threat of it – to suppress resistance to apartheid. Peaceful protests brought increasing use of force by the police. For example, African women in 1953 marched in protest against the pass laws being imposed on them. The government used its training aircraft to fly low over the marchers to terrorise them with the noise and knock them off their feet with the wash from their propellers. Another example was the gathering of 20 000 women in 1955 who went to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of government administration, to hand in a petition against the pass laws to Prime Minister Strijdom. Police dogs were set on the women in their finery and some were thrown to the ground as the dogs ripped their clothing. The women’s response was determinedly defiant, expressed through a song that said in translation: “Strijdom, you have touched the women; you have struck a rock, you will be crushed.” Similarly, when the peasants of Sekhukuniland in the North East and of Pondoland in the Eastern Cape organised peaceful resistance over land and the culling of cattle, more and more force was used against them.
In an ironic twist during the 1960 States of Emergency, most of the Congress Alliance leaders were detained together and many were on trial during the Treason Trial, meaning that they were in virtual continuous plenary session for months on end. Not only was there a growing closeness between them, they were able to discuss politics and the strategies needed in the months and years ahead to overcome the apartheid state. In many parts of the country there were sporadic outbreaks of sabotage and there clearly was a need to control the situation. Should the policy of peaceful protest be maintained or had its usefulness come to an end? Should the Congress Alliance succumb to the popular clamour? There is no doubt that the Ghandian concept of satyagraha was deeply entrenched in our movement and many seasoned leaders, not ready to give up those principles of non-violence, remained wary of taking up arms. We were influenced by Ghandi but we were not necessarily in total agreement. The British could go home from India, but white South Africans would fight to remain in South Africa. This was recognised in the Freedom Charter which stated that all citizens had the right to be there as equals. Others said that we had to lead this tendency to ensure that it did not become mindless terrorism but remained under political guidance against the institutions of apartheid and not against individual white politicians or civilians. Armed struggle was a method of struggle that would be added to political mass action which was fundamental to the politics of the Congress Alliance.
Wherever I could, I argued for armed struggle. I had grown up during the Second World War and had seen how the partisans, operating behind the lines of the Nazi armies, had an enormous impact. There were also now wars of liberation in Cuba and Algeria and though I could not always accept that every means of struggle was legitimate, there was no doubt in my mind that in apartheid South Africa a principled war of liberation was necessary. I was opposed to acts of terrorism against individuals or arbitrary attacks on civilians: war was to be fought against the police and military forces of the state with the intention of showing that the minority white population would not be able to rule for ever in the old way. In 1961 the ANC called a “stay-at-home” – a general strike – against the proposed new republican constitution of the apartheid state. South Africa had been forced out of the British Commonwealth when the heads of government of the newly-independent states demanded that South Africa end its racist policies or be expelled. Dr Verwoerd, the South African prime minister, withdrew from the Commonwealth before being expelled and called a referendum among the white electorate to declare a republic free from British subservience. A “yes” vote would entrench apartheid because the draft constitution stated that there would be no equality between black and white in church and state.
During the preparations for the stay-at-home I had to travel to Worcester, some 130 kilometres from Cape Town, to carry instructions and leaflets to the ANC branch committee. I stopped at Comrade Ayesha Dawood’s father’s shop as I did not know where in the township I would find my ANC comrades. Ayesha’s brother hid me under sacks in the back of a closed van and drove me to the home of the branch secretary, Comrade Busa. He explained to me that the branch committee had decided not to take part in the stay-at-home. During the previous year’s stay-at-home in protest when the police had killed and wounded so many people during the pass law protests at Sharpeville and Langa most of their members had lost their jobs in the textile mills and fruit factories. Coloured people had in general not taken part in the 1960 stay-at-home and were rewarded with the now vacant posts in the factories. African workers were destitute and a call to stay-at-home could not be heeded by the few who had jobs. The division between African and Coloured people was a conscious strategy by government to divide and rule the various population groups.
After the Worcester protest was called off, I had to return to Cape Town with the leaflets. On the way back my car faltered and I was forced to stop at the high point of the Du Toit’s Kloof mountain pass. With the bonnet open I was looking for what was clearly an electrical fault when I became aware of uniformed men around me. I was sure they were after me, but they turned out to be soldiers who were keen to help. They soon found the loose connection and sent me on my way. They would have been shocked to find the illegal strike leaflets in my car and it would not have helped much being a white in that situation. It was a useful reminder to me about how in South Africa you had, almost daily, to overcome the fear of being caught, whatever your colour. Interestingly, Coloured people in the Western Cape who had heeded the Unity Movement’s call to boycott the boycott in 1960 now deserted the Unity Movement. Many joined the Coloured People’s Congress to take part in the stay-away. Now they felt betrayed by the African workers who were not sure what support they would get this time. Divide and rule certainly worked for the apartheid state.
On the first day of the strike a comrade told me that some members of the Coloured People’s Congress and Congress of Democrats intended to set fire to buses in the Golden Arrow Bus Company garage that served mainly Coloured and African areas of the city. That would have ensured that workers could not get to work. But our policy was one of non-violence. What a dilemma that was. I too had long been arguing for the commencement of armed struggle. But undisciplined actions could do enormous harm. Furthermore I believed that political strikes required workers and the general population of the oppressed to stay-at-home out of conviction and not because they were caught between the hammer of militancy and the anvil of oppression. Hegemony comes from understanding and persuasion. Being forced to stay away could have turned even more people against us and towards the apartheid regime. I found where the Coloured People’s Congress leaders were in hiding and asked them to send out people to stop the petrol bombers from burning the buses. After a long discussion they did stop them.
Massive force was used by the regime to suppress the general strike and ultimately, after lengthy deliberation, it was decided that we should take up arms – and thus Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation (MK), was founded by members of the ANC and SACP. Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo, backed by Walter Sisulu, led the process of discussions. Though they committed themselves to follow the political policies of the ANC it was agreed that MK would be a separate organisation. This was to ensure that not every member of the ANC would be deemed to be a member of Umkhonto because the legal consequences could be severe. Politically it was necessary for members of the ANC to choose whether or not they wished also to be members of Umkhonto. In the spring of 1961 – at a time of year when the usual strong winds have died down and the sun shines between rain storms – I met one lunch time with Fred Carneson on a bench in the Gardens near the National Gallery. We met there often, sometimes wandering through the gallery before or after our discussions. That day, probably in September, we sat on a bench enjoying the spring sunshine while we fed peanuts to the squirrels and doves. I don't know if any security police watchers guessed what we were discussing but they would surely have liked to: Fred asked me to consider joining the newly-established Umkhonto we Sizwe as a technical officer on the Western Cape Regional Command. He went through a lengthy explanation while I impatiently said: yes, of course I would join. He insisted that I think about it for a while. I replied that he knew I had been arguing for at least a year for adding armed actions to our struggle.
I was soon meeting with him, Archie Sibeko and Barney Desai to plot future action. Life was certainly getting more complicated: there were the “above-ground” activities in the Congress of Democrats, with support for the Guardian (or whatever the paper was named at the time); “underground” meetings of the Communist Party cell I was in - and now underground MK meetings. In COD I was one of a few older members who could attend branch meetings because I was not banned from political gatherings under the security laws. I would meet secretly with our branch committee members who were banned and convey decisions to the branch members. After a time I began to feel that we were repeating in COD the style of work that I had resented when I first became politically active – that of being told what to do, when we were supposed to be an open democratic organisation. On the one hand, we did not want to give respect to undemocratic laws that banned our comrades from working towards a democracy and, on the other, we wanted to be open and democratic in our functioning. We also suspected that some of the new members who joined our branch were informers and we had to protect our banned activists. But some of the new members were obviously genuine in their commitment to what we believed. They became committee members and I dropped out of the COD branch executive but remained an ordinary member, because I said I was too busy in my professional career. I obviously could not say I was too busy developing our illegal armed struggle to remain on the COD executive.
Then I met Naphtali “Tolly” Bennun, a chemical engineer who ran a leather tanning business in Port Elizabeth and, as an MK member, had devised various simple devices we could use for sabotage attacks on buildings. Two carloads of us drove from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, some 600 kilometres away, to meet with Tolly and Jock Strachan for them to show us how to mix unsuspicious ingredients to make high explosives – and chemical devices that would cut through steel beams and columns to bring down power lines and the like – and especially how to make timing devices. This was at the beginning our activities and we had agreed that we would avoid actions that smacked of terrorism by way of arbitrary attacks on “soft targets.” We aimed to go for “hard targets” only, buildings and installations, especially those that were directly connected with maintaining apartheid. Pass offices and other administration centres dealing with the oppression of Africans, power pylons that hurt the economy without injuring people, and telephone lines that disrupted communications were some of the targets.
Umkhonto was launched with simultaneous explosions in various centres around the country and the distribution of a manifesto pasted on walls everywhere . Essentially the manifesto said that for the oppressed majority there were two choices: submit or fight. We would not submit, therefore we had no choice but to hit back, by all means within our power, in defence of our people, our future and our freedom. The government, said MK, had interpreted the peacefulness of the people as weakness; the people's non-violent policies were taken as a green light for government violence against the people, without fear of reprisals. The manifesto said that the people would show that they could mobilise the force needed to seize power - but were, nevertheless, prepared to negotiate whenever the apartheid government agreed to do so. The statement was issued in the name of the “Command”, whose “Commander in Chief” was Nelson Mandela.
I had hired a tiny flat in Rosebank in Cape Town as our base for our MK operations. To find one we could afford I used the letting agency of my own home, where I insisted, with appropriate nods and suggestive winks, that the agent would not make the mistake of contacting me at home about it. It was, I suggested, our little secret that I was renting the flat for “a friend”. With the help of Alf Wanneburgh we prepared the devices in this flat for the sites that had been chosen for the first explosions on 16 December. We took a bit longer than intended to clean up afterwards and were late in delivering the devices. Our comrades waited. One device was planted at a pass office but my timing device failed and it did not go off. The second device was delivered to George Peake who placed it at the back door of the prison in Roeland Street, where we had been locked up during the state of emergency in 1960. George was arrested as he placed the device. The police were waiting for him and it was clear that he had either been careless or had been betrayed - and we did not think that George was careless. The police would not let George disarm the bomb by removing the detonator but luckily for him the sand filter device which I had devised as a timer had a much longer delay than I had planned. Had it worked properly he would have been blown up. In the event the detonator went off in the hands of a police explosives expert 24 hours later and did no damage. George was sentenced to four years imprisonment but was allowed to appeal against the severity of the sentence and, on the day that judgment was to be given in Cape Town, was being driven to Botswana to escape when he was again arrested. In this case careful security arrangements had been made with a lead car in which a man we can call Orbri was riding with a walkie-talkie radio link to the car George was in.
They drove into a police road-block where the police were waiting for George with no possibility of his evading capture. No warning was given to George’s driver, who was captured with George. I was ill at the time and Orbri came to see me to tell me about their adventures. I was sure he was trying to find out if I had anything to do with the escape. I gave no indication that I had been involved but listened carefully to his explanation, especially what he had to say about the failed walkie-talkie radios. It appeared that he had “forgotten” to extend the aerial on his transmitter. I was convinced Orbri had betrayed George. There were previous incidents where he had been involved – and where Orbri was involved people were arrested. We suspected that Orbri, who was white, had in the course of his new political engagement become involved with a young woman of colour and succumbed to security police threats to expose his dalliance to his wife. He left the country soon after this incident. We did not have the resources to thoroughly investigate this betrayal. Had we acted harshly against the man who might have been innocent not only would we have perpetrated a great injustice, the real betrayer would have been secure in his position. In practice, nevertheless, Orbri was isolated from further activity.
As part of our MK activities we organised training for our MK recruits on two evenings a week. At a trade union hall in Athlone we studied the history of South Africa led by Achmat Osman. He was a brilliant teacher who had come over from the Unity Movement to the Coloured People’s Congress during the stay-at-home in 1961. Addressing young adults who had little formal schooling, Achmat spoke simply, clearly and excitingly about what had made the present South Africa. I taught electrical circuitry. Young people with no scientific training or any experience in their homes of the use of electricity were soon able to build simple circuits from pictorial diagrams. I also taught them how to make copies of pamphlets on a duplicator from writing the leaflet, to cutting the stencil on a typewriter, to making the copies. In addition I taught first aid from the Red Cross handbook. We also did physical training led by Johnny Geduld, a well-known body builder whom we had first met at our first Modern Youth Society Easter weekend camp in 1954. That made for a bit of enjoyment but we could not do too much of it because our recruits were all labourers who were very tired by the end of a working day.
On Sundays we had long marches on Table Mountain where we did some simple rock climbing or to Mamre, a small village about 50km from Cape Town. All these outings were intended to build a team and to find out who were leaders and who cottoned on quickest to what we were about. Of course, a lot of breath was expended on political discussions and examples of guerrilla wars and liberation wars during World War Two behind the German lines; and more recently in Cuba and Algeria. We were a really disciplined and exciting group of young people; honest and meticulous about being on time and not missing out on any of our training sessions. That in itself showed that we were tapping into an attitude that was deeply rooted. To make certain that there was no hindrance to attendance we paid for transport, but if we continued too long of an evening and they had missed the last bus I took them home by car. They accounted for every penny and returned what they had not spent. Our Sunday outings and marches required good boots and money was provided for these too. They were again meticulous telling each other and me where to go for the best and least expensive boots and returning the money they had saved in this way.
To finance the work we held a fund-raising party at Cardiff Marney’s house in Lansdowne on the edge of Claremont. He lived near to me but we were in a white group area and only a few streets away was the start of the Coloured group area where Cardiff was compelled to live. We made organising the party at his house into a disciplined exercise in logistics with meticulous planning of what had to be done, who would do it at what time: to set up lights, unload drinks and catering equipment; who would relieve whom on the door, or serve food; who would be the bouncers, and how they were to deal with problems. Everything was planned down to who would do the washing up and packing away of whatever was left over and who would sweep and clean the house and grounds and who would be the floating reserves so that posts would always be manned. The point was to get our recruits thinking and planning and being involved and disciplined. It was wonderful to watch and quickly raised the money we needed to cover the costs of the training, mainly political but with an eye to an underground military future.
What I enjoyed most was the tremendous self-discipline and enthusiasm of our recruits. Their hunger for knowledge was enormous. Ronnie Peterson, for instance, had a motor-car repair workshop and we took them there to learn about the obvious things one could do to get cars going when they broke down. There were often problems of blocked fuel lines and loose electrical connections, of dirty spark plugs and so on. Looking back I think there were two important elements in this learning process: the young men were enthusiastic and therefore highly motivated, and we pitched what we were teaching at a level that made it interesting with hands-on practical work. This six-weeks-long training programme led to the idea of a training camp held at Mamre at Christmas time in December 1962. I was the camp commander though I was strongly opposed to that. I thought it important that Looksmart Ngudle should be the commander and I would be his technical adviser. He could speak to all our recruits in Xhosa and English and it was important in a struggle for liberation of oppressed national groups for people to have the self-confidence to lead and to have role models from among the oppressed themselves. Our organising committee - consisting of Achmed Osman, Cardiff Marney, Looksmart Ngudle and me – decided that I should be the commander, but as always there is a way around decisions: as camp commander I made Looksmart the field commander. Later, during the Rivonia Trial, a witness spoke of me as the Comrade Commandant and Walter Sisulu was very critical, obviously from an African nationalist point of view.
I explained how it came about but he was not really appeased. I think that what happened was partly a result of the history of divide and rule in the Western Cape so my Coloured comrades on the committee simply resorted to the argument that I was the best technically qualified to be the commander and I could not convince them that they were evading the political issues. While we were at the camp, a Christmas fund-raising party was organised by other comrades at our home, with Ez the hostess. Our comrades stayed on after the party to keep guard, especially as a friend had been at the local police station to report a theft and had heard one of our neighbours complaining to the police: “That man Goldberg in Carbrooke Avenue is away camping and his wife is having a party with ‘kaffirs’.” Therefore they expected trouble. Indeed it came, in the form of whites trying to force their way into the house and our comrades chasing them off. Luckily they did not catch any of the intruders because I later discovered that our guards had made themselves weapons by taking a pair of garden shears apart to form two machetes. Imagine if there had been a serious attack with somebody wounded or killed. I didn’t think we were ready for such things. However, we were also now certain that our neighbours were the eyes and ears of the police.
The camp was an interesting exercise because we had prepared thoroughly for the 30 or so who attended. Menus were made with careful cooking instructions so that any team of four people could cook on open fires for the 30 people there. We made one error. The bread had been bought from a bakery for 30 people for 10 days. That’s a lot of bread! It was still warm when it was put into plastic bags to keep it fresh. We learned a hard lesson: warm bread in plastic packets goes mouldy quite quickly. Cardiff Marney went off to buy more bread at the nearest store. We should have realised that would draw attention to us. Soon an official from the Mamre Mission arrived to tell us that we were camping on trust land without permission. He accepted our apology for the oversight. It was genuine. However he became suspicious and a few hours later the security police arrived. They took down the names of all at the camp and ordered us to pack up or be arrested. They also said that the young people should report to the police at a later date, after the holidays. One or two did. The Sunday Times of Johannesburg carried a short item saying that the police had uncovered a military style bivouac and investigations would be made. A top journalist, Stanley Uys, was instructed by his editor to find out more about the camp. He talked to Brian Bunting, editor of New Age, and Brian, guessing that I had been involved, asked me to meet with Stanley. I went along with Cardiff Marney and convinced Stanley that he should kill the story. He did – and we heard nothing more about it. Nevertheless the camp was one of the things with which we were charged in the Rivonia Trial.
The camp showed that our young people were hungry to learn and devise for themselves ways of becoming a disciplined military force. We insisted that we should claim no easy victories; we should not lie to our people. We tried to tell our youth that armed struggle, though necessary, was no easy thing and some or many would be wounded or perhaps die in action. We did this indirectly by teaching the elements of first aid so that the sense of physical danger would be there. We insisted on discipline that had to be collectively achieved through the self-discipline that comes from commitment. But we also played games and had a lot of fun. Looksmart was a great leader of men and a great example. Hennie Ferrus from Worcester, trade union activist and member of the Coloured People’s Congress, was also a good comrade to have there. He later died in strange circumstances. I heard that he had been killed in a motor accident that some suspected was engineered by government agents though others dispute this.
“Mamre” among MK comrades has entered history as the first training centre inside South Africa. Many of these young men were arrested and charged with offences and afterwards went into exile. I knew nothing of these later developments because I was myself imprisoned. Sometime after the camp, Looksmart and I were waiting for Barney Desai to take us to a meeting. Barney was late and we waited too long in the night-time shadow of a tree. Police officers spotted us and reported to their station, where our description alerted the security police. We went our separate ways home but the security police, knowing that Looksmart had to go home down the highway on his motor scooter, followed him and tried to force him off the road onto the gravel shoulder without actually hitting him with their vehicle. Looksmart told me that it was a very frightening experience. Looksmart himself was eventually killed under 90-day detention in 1963.
When the 90-day law came into effect on 8 May 1963, I was instructed to leave Cape Town. I packed into a large cardboard box all the ingredients we had acquired for making explosive devices and stored it in a Pickfords public storage facility. I gave the papers to Fred Carneson, who said he would find somebody to pay the rental for the storage and, after a time, would take the stuff out to dispose of it safely. As it happened, he was unable to find such a person because the pressures on us grew stronger. He destroyed the storage contract. During the Rivonia trial, we tried with Bram’s help to get the box but ran into the problem that Pickfords refused to release the goods without the original documents as proof of ownership. It did not help that I could not remember how I had signed the contract: was it B Cook, or B Cooke? I fudged the signature on the letter but to no avail. Eventually Fred was arrested and revealed under torture the existence of this material. The police retrieved the box and it was used in the prosecution against him.
He was able to show that he had no knowledge of the contents of the box. He claimed I had said it contained a collection of banned political publications and he had a circumstantial witness, Alan Brooks, to this. His part in Umkhonto we Sizwe could not be proved. Since I was by then already serving four life sentences, there was little they could do to me besides make my life in prison even more uncomfortable. Fred was very fortunate: he was sentenced to five years and nine months for his political activity as a communist, but was found not guilty on charges of being involved in sabotage, when indeed he was a member of the Western Cape Regional Command of MK.
Fred was, I believe, deeply scarred by the torture he had endured under detention. Through sleep deprivation he was forced to give away information that revealed many of the activities we would have wanted to keep secret. None of us ever blamed him. By the time he was arrested he had functioned underground on his own for a number of years and sheer exhaustion makes one even more vulnerable to pressure and torture during solitary confinement. The awfulness of torture is the self-loathing it induces: we all believed we were superhuman and no-one could ever break us, but given enough time torturers can break almost anyone. Underground activists are told – or should be told – that they should try to hold out for a certain minimum length of time so that their comrades have a chance to escape. It is, nevertheless, necessary to refuse to give evidence against one’s comrades in court where, for political reasons, the state cannot pervert reasonable criminal procedures .
In 2009 I presented a paper on ‘Torture and the Future.’ It is presented as an appendix in this book, together with a journalist’s report on my presentation. More than 45 years after the events, I was hoping to remain fairly relaxed about the experience, yet I found it impossible not to break down. It seems that even though you consciously set out to control your response to the experience, the emotional wounds remain lying in wait to leap out at you.