The honour to serve: memories of the June 16 MK Detachment by Lincoln Ngculu (James Makhaya)

Our experiences of exile and armed struggle, however painful, were a source of strength and inspiration during hard times. This story is about the life and activities that took place in the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) camps, in forward areas and on the battlefield in South Africa itself. It is about the dedication and heroic acts of valour of MK fighters. It is about the history of the Luthuli Detachment, the trailblazers of armed struggle, who withstood all the hardships and deprivation of exile and camp life in order for MK to survive. It is about the detachments formed from the June 16 1976 generation and others that followed.

This story tells our parents, relatives and friends that what we did, we did for our country and posterity. Some comrades might not have gained from the struggle for liberation after we obtained our freedom, but they served with honour.

University of the South: Nova Katengue

The ANC faced an influx of new recruits after the June 16 uprising in Soweto and other areas, and needed secure and reliable training bases for the new arrivals. Both the MPLA in Angola and FRELIMO in Mozambique, who had taken power in these countries in the mid-1970s, were strong allies of the ANC. Angola had declared itself as the firm trench of the Southern African revolution. Dr Agostinho Neto had declared that MPLA was ready to suffer for the decolonisation of the whole of Southern Africa. It was therefore to Angola that the ANC looked to accommodate the new generation of recruits.

After a lot of delays and promises the day for us to go for further training arrived. In April 1977, news that we were to go to the ANC military training camp in the south of Angola initially came through the grapevine at Engineering camp. When the buses that were to take us south entered the camp cadres began to whistle and sing. People began preparing themselves for the journey and packed whatever little belongings they had into bags. Those who remained in the camp were the sick ones or those who were earmarked for early missions, like the Solomon Mahlangu group.

The Cuban patrol that was to accompany the buses also came in their transport vehicles. Strict security was required for the journey because UNITA was quite active in the south. The journey to the south was long and arduous. We finally landed at the base for training in a place called Nova Katengue, south of the Benguela province. We later called this camp the 'University of the South' because it was a cradle of a new cadre of the African National Congress. It was here where cadres were educated not only in the art of war but in politics and philosophy.

The camp was about fifty kilometres from the city. It was in the midst of nowhere and there were no people living in the vicinity of the camp. The camp was a former Portuguese farm complete with a workshop. The only link the camp had with the outside world was the Benguela railroad, which was only used occasionally by passenger trains. Whenever we heard a train approaching we would rush to the donga (ditch) beside the railway line and wave at the passengers. Some passengers would throw packets of cigarettes to us, and for days afterwards we would have the pleasure of smoking a brand name.

Otherwise, we were connected to the outside world by radio. The camp had a news team that monitored various radio stations like the Voice of America, BBC, Deutschevelle, and the SABC External Service, which was an unapologetic mouthpiece of the apartheid regime. We would be given news about the outside world at the formation in the mornings when the news would be read to us.

We would listen to commentaries from the SABC about communism and ANC terrorists. Peter Finn and Alexander Stewart, who read the SABC External Service commentaries after the morning news bulletin, were true ideologues of the apartheid regime. Later we were able to link these commentaries to impending raids of the SADF in the forward areas or in Angola. Thus, when the South African Airforce bombarded the Nova Katengue camp in April 1979 the camp was deserted because the cadres had already been withdrawn from the camp.

At the time the South African regime regularly attacked Angolan and SWAPO bases in Angola. This was the period during which the regime's policy of total strategy, whose design was to wipe out the liberation movement in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia, was taking form. Therefore, as we arrived at this camp we were mindful of the dangers and challenges that lay ahead. Yet in our youthfulness and romanticism we zealously looked forward to the danger.

After being welcomed into the camp by Mzwai Piliso we were divided into companies, platoons and sections. The group was divided into four companies with about 120 people in each company. The overall number of the group was 500, excluding the instructors and the camp administrators. Company, platoon and section commanders and commissars were appointed. There was also a Cuban group with their own instructors and administrators.

The camp commander was Julius Mokoena of the Luthuli Detachment. Francis Meli was the camp commissar, but he was soon posted to head the editorial board of Sechaba in London. Mark Shope, former general secretary of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), replaced Francis. The chief of staff was the late Thami Zulu. Chief of security was the Wankie battles veteran, Alfred Wana. Our medical team was made up of the late Drs Peter Mfelang and Nomava, who were later joined by Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Most of us owe our lives to these doctors. Each person was given a few blankets and an airbed. The uniforms allocated to us were from the Cubans and Russians. We used cases or boxes as wardrobes. We cut oil drums to use as our washing basins. We had to share the water for washing because water was so scarce in the camp.

The first group of MK soldiers we met in the camp was the 'Mgwenya' group, the members of the Luthuli Detachment. These comrades constituted the core of Umkhonto we Sizwe during its first decade in exile and held the fort during the most difficult years of our struggle. When the first batch of June 16 fighters arrived in Zambia, Tanzania and Angola, the troops of Mgwenya were the inspiration and proof that, with conviction and political will, it was possible to survive. We would gather around them to listen to stories of how they sustained themselves in the difficult conditions of exile. They would tell us about Oliver Tambo, JB Marks, Moses Mabhida, Moses Kotane, Robert Resha and others as leaders who taught them to be loyal. They told us that Moses Kotane once told them that for one to be a true cadre of the movement it is necessary to be born again, to become a new person.

The instructors in Nova Katengue camp were mainly Cubans, assisted by members of the Mgwenya group and the mid-70s group that had trained before us. After being allocated our respective barracks we were assigned the task of cleaning up the camp. Once this was completed we had to dig the toilets and create a defence system for the camp. Trenches were dug all round the camp.

The morale in the Nova Katengue camp was very high from the outset, and a sense of purpose was visible in the brisk walk and chattering of the comrades. During the formations, when we gathered for classes and news reading, the comrades would sing freedom songs with gusto.

Not long after we had been in the camp we, the group that had recently come from Luanda, were called to the hall by the camp authorities. Francis Meli read a letter from one comrade. The author's name was James Makhulu, known as 'Master' because of his skill in soccer. Master had written the letter and forwarded it to the administration in order to air some discontent. He had made observations that most of the newly appointed commanders and commissars were Tswanas. He pointed out that this confirmed what some people were saying in the transit places in Tanzania and Luanda - that when we arrive at the training base they are going to rule over us. When he saw the appointments in the camp it confirmed his fears and he thought it wise to raise his concerns officially.

Mark Shope stood up and pointed out that the ANC had consistently fought against tribalism and divisions among the African people in particular from its inception. Francis Meli stood up and spoke about the history of the ANC and some of the areas where people tried to use tribalism to pursue their own agenda. They also thanked Master for raising his views in an organised and constructive manner. The floor was opened for comrades to add their points of view. A number of comrades supported Master's views while others came out in defence of the camp authorities. People stood up and pointed out the problems around tribalism that existed in Tanzania and Luanda that supported Masters's fears. The matter was settled amicably and no one was subjected to any disciplinary action.

Though some comrades thought that Master had landed himself in deep trouble, subsequent events proved them wrong - the comrade continued to be held in high esteem and eventually went to Europe for further training.

As time went by there were an increasing number of signs that morale was waning. Exile, in particular camp life, was not easy. The fact that comrades did not know when or if they would ever go home or see their loved ones was at times difficult to bear. There were other problems that were specific to camp life and which had a major impact on morale. One was the way the camp administration was behaving and another was the general rumour that the Cubans were paying special attention to our female comrades.

In September 1977, we had our first experience of infiltration by agents of the South African establishment. This was when the whole camp was poisoned.

The effects of the poison took hold during our evening classes. Comrades would request permission to go to the bush in order to relieve him or herself. More and more would follow. The instructors decided to abandon the classes and all headed back to the main base. We streamed back to the camps and occasionally people would leave the formation to relieve themselves or to vomit. Some were wriggling on the ground with excruciating stomach pains. The pain was beyond description. It was simply unbearable.

As we entered the main base we observed that other platoons were also returning to the camp. We realised then that something was seriously wrong.

Everyone was going to the medical post. Everyone was complaining about the same problem - stomach pain. This problem was affecting about 90 percent of the more than 500 people in the camp. The two doctors at this time - Nomava Ntshangase and Peter Mfelang - were unable to cope and the camp did not have many trained medical orderlies. Some comrades had to go to the Cuban medical post in the camp. Cuban reinforcement from nearby Benguela were also called in to assist. The Cubans provided doctors and other cadres to man the guard posts. Luckily nobody died and after a few days all was back to normal. This day was called the Black September.

This poisoning was to be one of many that our comrades were to face. One of the daring cadres of MK, Reverend Mandla Msibi, died when his drink was poisoned in Swaziland. Another, comrade Mondlane, who was deployed in Radio Mozambique's English service, met a person from South Africa who befriended him. This person gave him some tinned beers that were spiked, leading to his death. Our weapons training in the camp began with the AK47. We were taught how to disassemble and assemble it. After that we were trained in the theory of firing and all the firing mechanisms. After completion of this we were taken to the shooting range to learn firing positions. However, putting this theory into practice was one of the most difficult things to do. You now had to cope with the recoil and jerking of the AK47, and the loud bang that resulted from firing the weapon. Nevertheless, in time we all became proficient and confident that we could use the weapon. We were also trained to use Makarov and Tokarev pistols.

Also exciting was the Engineering course, where we learnt to deal with explosives. The general warning here was that you had no chance to repeat any mistake you make in handling explosives because you would be dead. The other difficulty here was the mathematical training - formulae and calculations - that we had to master in order to complete the course on explosives. Another terrifying aspect of the explosive classes was training to use detonators. However, after training for some we gained confidence in our ability to use explosives.

We completed the general course after six months of training. We were by then competent in firearms, military engineering and clearing of mine fields, topography, military tactics, signals, physical training and overcoming of obstacles, artillery, and politics. Jack Simons and Mark Shope, who were later replaced by Ronnie Kasrils, taught the politics course. The politics course was quite extensive and a bit complicated for some of the cadres who had not had an opportunity to go to school or go far in their studies.

But the question of politics and its supremacy over the military was strongly emphasised by both the ANC leadership and the camp administration.

All commissars were required to inculcate this policy in the cadreship. It was emphasised that our war was an extension of political objectives by military means, particularly in view of the arrogance and violence of the apartheid regime against defenceless people.

The main reasons for the limited interest in the politics course among some comrade were the different levels of education and the use of English as the medium of instruction. Some instructors would translate into the vernacular but this normally took too much time. Translation into Nguni or Sotho was mandatory during news reading and addresses by the leadership. In order to overcome these problems the commissariat decided to establish literacy classes and set up a camp education department.

The course outline for political classes included the history of colonialism, the emergence of the Working Class in South Africa, and the history of the African National Congress. It also dealt with the four pillars of our revolution - underground organisation, mass mobilisation, armed struggle and international support. We then turned to the history of the international communist movement and theories of Historical and Dialectical Materialism. Jack Simons would insist that we situate everything within the context of the South African situation and avoid being pedantic and dogmatic. Finally, meetings would be held to analyse the international and local situation, as well as the analysis of news.

Jack also played a crucial role in developing our understanding of the concept of non-racialism. At the same time he also tried to ensure that we do not just mechanically accept non-racialism by forgetting the realities of South Africa, especially white minority rule and all its effects and ramifications.

Professor Simons was against dogmatism. He caused a stir in the company when he criticised certain aspects of the Soviet Union, especially those arising from Lenin's writings on the national question. Once, when the group was dealing with the basis of Marxism, Jack asked us to list the basic needs of life. The group, relying on the writings of Frederick Engels, replied: "food, shelter and clothing". He then asked the group if sex was not a basic need of life. This was a shocking question and, because of embarrassment, difficult to answer. He then shouted that sex is one of the most basic needs of life because society has to reproduce itself.

Mark Shope was a fatherly figure with a strong trade union background. Every morning he would come to the detachment for a political briefing. His usual greeting was - "Good morning sons and daughters of the working class". Every time he addressed a meeting he would say that we are fighting for every child in South Africa to have a pint of milk a day.

Jack later introduced special classes in the evening for a select group of comrades. This was aimed at preparing a new group of political instructors to replace him and Mark Shope. This was seen as "a way of Jack and Mark reproducing themselves". Some of these comrades were then used as instructors in the camp and would assist in presenting certain classes. These included comrades such as Mkhize (Welile Nhlapo), Peter Ramokoa (Joel Netshitenzhe) Duncan Mahlo and Mavis Twala (Dr Thandi Ndlovu).

In November 1977 we were told that we would soon be completing our course.

We were very excited because we were now going to be recognised as trained cadres, and were now fully prepared for the next mission - going home.

We were a group of 500 people who were highly trained and fully committed to the struggle. This group had come from all over South Africa. We had met as strangers speaking different languages. We came out of the distilling pot of the University of the South and, after breaking the numerous cultural and language barriers, emerged not only as comrades but also as friends.

As part of the final acts for completing the course we were informed that we were to undertake a long march to last three days. We were given a ration of condensed milk, biscuits and tinned meat. We took off for the long march in our various formations. It was an exercise of endurance and fitness. After the long march we began to prepare for the graduation ceremony. The Cubans used the caterpillars of the previous Portuguese farm owners to clear the ground where the march-past was to take place, and built a stage where the salute was to be taken by President Oliver Tambo. This was one of the most memorable days of our lives. Our uniforms were washed and ironed and our boots polished.

The Cubans organised an ox and vegetables from Benguela for the occasion.

They also brought along beer (cerveja) and desserts. There was general excitement. Cultural groups were busy with preparations for the evening session. Security was tight, with both Cubans and members of our contingent manning all the vantage points. The Cuban contingent in Benguela tightened its own security and ensured that the road leading to the camp was routinely patrolled. When Tambo came we marched to the grounds according to our companies. President Tambo took the salute from each company as it goose-stepped passed the stage where he stood throughout the ceremony.

He christened the detachment the June 16 Detachment, in honour of the heroic student uprising of 16 June 1976 and in recognition of the fact that the majority of the graduates participated in those uprisings. The best soldiers of the company and the detachment were announced. The June 16 Detachment was the second such detachment of Umkhonto we Sizwe after the Luthuli Detachment.

After the graduation various members of our detachment were deployed elsewhere. Some were selected for various missions and sent abroad for further training either in military science or specialised political training. However, frustration and uncertainty crept in among those who remained behind. This was made worse by the absolute secrecy surrounding the selection and destination of people. It was also made worse by the secrecy of departures. Normally people would leave early in the morning before the start of the daily routine. Even those who were close to you would not indicate to you about their imminent departure - you would simply find an empty bed in the morning.

Those who remained behind often developed a sense of guilt and uncertainty about their own future. The innuendoes and reckless comments that were made by some officials at the time aggravated this. This situation also presented a great opportunity for gossipmongers and agent provocateurs to wreak havoc on the morale of the detachment.

The naming of each detachment after completing the training course became a tradition. Mostly these would be named after great leaders of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid, or important events in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid. The detachment trained after the June 16 Detachment was called Moncada, after the Cuban struggle against the Batista regime when the July 26 Movement stormed the Moncada barracks. The name of the detachments created a sense of pride and association. It assisted in moulding the new cadre of Umkhonto we Sizwe. The christening of the detachments would be led by the President and if he was unavailable the Secretary General or somebody nominated by them.

It was also in 1979 that the NEC introduced the oath for all MK members.

Oliver Tambo, the President, and Joe Modise, the Army Commander, would visit the camp and people would be called according to detachments. Your name will be called and you will march forward towards the President. The President would present a spear to you. You would accept the spear from the President and say the following words: "With the Spear of the Nation. Till victory or death...". Then about turn and back to your formation.

Oath taking made you proud but those who were not afforded the opportunity were deeply hurt and terribly embarrassed. Those who got the opportunity were filled with elation and would wish for a mission as soon as possible.

However, in many cases you would not get a mission for months, if not years.

Your contact with the outside world would only be trips to fetch water or firewood or trucks passing by the camp. A cause worth serving.

As we build this delicate democracy it should be borne in mind that historians and students of today and tomorrow should not be allowed to ignore the history of MK. Many illustrious fighters, the living and the dead, the celebrated and the unsung contributed to the process that led to our democracy with their blood, limbs and souls. They sacrificed their youth and livelihood for future generations. When monuments of struggle are erected at home and abroad for the heroes and heroines of struggle and resistance, their memory should forever be etched in our hearts. With fond memory when I look back at the quarter of a century I and many of my comrades decided to be part of the glorious army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, one can proudly proclaim that it was the cause worth serving.

This is an extract from a soon to be published book by the author of this article.

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