When I got arrested it was through Winnie. I got arrested in Winnie’s car, and when I got to the island I talked to him about Winnie, very strongly, to say that I didn’t think that she had done the right thing by me, that she exposed me to the police, and by associating with someone whom she ought to have known was an informer, because that’s how I got arrested.
That was Fikile Bam, being interviewed by John Carlin, telling him that on arrival on Robben Island he reported to Nelson Mandela that he was arrested in Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s car. This article is about the circumstances that led to the arrest of Bam and Marcus Solomon. Both were arrested in Winnie’s car driven by Brian Somana with Winnie beside him. Fikile and Marcus had escaped arrest in Cape Town. They came to Johannesburg to hide and wait to be assisted to leave the country for refuge overseas. While they were underground, Arthur Magerman and I were their ears and eyes to the world. At the same time, I continuously liaised with Ismail Mohamed about seeking ways to spirit them out of the country. Mohamed and I belonged to a group that had left the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) and with whose support we acted. I begin this account by introducing these personalities.
Arthur Magerman was brought up in Alexandra by his single mother, a fiercely independent Zulu woman. She saw Arthur through his schooling at Holy Cross, a local Roman Catholic Church primary and secondary school. Her only child, he was the apple of her eye on whom she doted to the exclusion of all else in her life. As a teenager, Arthur was always smartly dressed compared to the overwhelming majority of his ragged peers in the township. In his adulthood, Arthur reciprocated his mother’s devotion in no small measure. He maintained her first when he was employed as a barrier attendant on South African Railways and later when through varied informal means he earned their livelihood. Renting two adjoining rooms in 5th Avenue, one for him and the other for her, he ultimately built a house for her in 2nd Avenue.
Arthur adopted his father’s surname, Joey Magerman; not his mother’s which was Ngobeni. His father was one of four brothers, the other three having acquired some degree of wealth out of operating fah-fee gambling syndicates in the townships of Bloemfontein, Kroonstad and Welkom in the Free State. Fah-fee is a form of illegal betting game based on numbers. In township lingua, It is also known as mo-China because it originated with the South African Chinese community.
As such its operator was always a Chinese person. The operator worked in conjunction with unemployed black women, known as runners, in the townships. Based on numbers, the operator arrives by car in the townships, takes the bets from the chief runner and whispers the winning number to her. She in turn turns around to signal by hand the winning number to the runners who are at some distance away from her. Not being Chinese, the Magerman brothers were very unique in operating fah-fee and to operate it very successfully. The eldest and most successful of the brothers, Eddie was a keen tennis player who philanthropically paid for the maintenance of the tennis courts at Number One Square in Alexandra. He ran his business in Bloemfontein but his family home was at the corner of 4th Avenue and Vasco da Gama Street in Alexandra. The operators of fah-fee were known by the name of the game, as mo-China.
Arthur himself tried his hand at operating fah-fee in Edenvale. Operating the game, he provided much mirth to the runners and his friends. First, although he was not Chinese, the runners nevertheless referred to him as mo-China. And, secondly, unlike the Chinese mo-China who arrived in the township by car to collect the bets and pay out the winnings, he arrived on foot. Clearly, a venture that was unsustainable on so unorthodox a basis.
But it was through means such as that and other informal ways of earning a living that when he went to university and gave up his job as a barrier attendant on the railways, he was able to support his mother and his studies. Not only that. He also to a very large extent supported Dan Mokonyane, a self-proclaimed professional revolutionary who was without his own means of livelihood. Mokonyane and Arthur as members of the Movement for a Democracy of Content (MDC) were among the leaders of the 1957 Alexandra bus boycott.
Only in his mid-twenties did he come to know his father and enjoy a very warm relationship with him. He and I spent many a Friday evening visiting his father Joey at his home in 1st Avenue, Alexandra. Joey would regale us with many amusing stories. He tried to operate fah-fee in Rustenburg. He told us of the abuse and racist epithets that were hurled at him by a teller at the bank – in those days they were all white. Bets in fah-fee were in units of one penny. So his banking consisted of a lot of small change much to the annoyance of the teller because of the time it took to count it. What business do you run, the teller asked him? He could not say it was faa-fee because that was illegal. What came to the top of his head was that he is a tailor in the township and, he said, “you know, the people there pay in small coins”. OK, then make me a suit, the teller said. He did not have a tape measure and could not find one in a small rural town, as Rustenburg was then.
He came to Johannesburg to find a tape measure as well as a tailor. But he did not take proper measurements, the tailor told him. So the tailor instructed him how and what measurements to take. Bending backwards to please the teller not only did he have a suit cut for him, but, as was the fashion with some Afrikaner men at the time, he had the jacket made with two pleats at the back running from each shoulder down to the waist where a strip was sewn in to look like a belt. Thereafter he had no trouble emptying a bag of much ‘small change’ on the bank’s counter and leaving it to the teller to count without being racially abused.
Ismail Mohamed – torn between mathematics and the struggle
Nothing defines Ismail Mohamed more than what he said about himself in one of his letters to me:As always I am torn between mathematics and making a worthwhile contribution in resolving the problems at home.
By home he meant South Africa and by problems he meant the national liberation struggle. Between the two passions was his family, to which he was utterly devoted. He was always striving to balance the demands of the two with the welfare of his family.
Ismail, like Arthur, was brought up by a single mother, Rose Fortuin. And like Arthur in later life, as a teenager he took up odd jobs to help his mother support him through school and university. In 1954 he completed a BSc Honours degree in mathematics at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). He taught himself Group Theory - an area of mathematics which had not been taught before at Wits. As a student, he succeeded in persuading the Department of Mathematics to include it as one of its four specialist offerings at Honours level. It was in this area that he and others on the course, notably Gillbert Baumslag and later his younger brother Benjamin Baumslag went on to do PhD’s.
Ismail completed his PhD at Birkbeck College, University of London. While engaged in research for the doctorate, he worked as an assistant lecturer at the University of Wales in Cardiff and Queen Mary College, University of London. After completing his doctorate he could have stayed on in one of these jobs or easily have found another compatible one in Britain. Torn between mathematics and the struggle at home meant being torn, on the one hand, between staying in London in a university job that would have allowed him to pursue his interest in Group Theory within a peer research group, and, on the other hand, returning to South Africa where at the time there was no research in Group Theory, but where he would actively participate in the freedom struggle. He chose the struggle and on completion of his PhD in 1961 he returned to South Africa.
He was appointed as a mathematics lecturer at his alma mater, Wits. Noteworthy about his appointment is its dual distinction: he was the first black person designated lecturer at Wits, and the first to be appointed to an academic post outside the Department of Bantu Languages. Hitherto, the only black academics were in the latter department and were not called lecturers but language assistants even though in some cases they were better qualified than their white colleagues who were titled lecturers and held more senior posts.
During his stay in the UK he joined and was active within the Labour Party. He met up with several of the small left-wing groups, mainly of Trotskyist inclination, working inside the Labour Party. I recall him likening them to a flea on an elephant’s back. But if that was the way to get involved in a mass movement, he believed that this was a lesson for our equally small and ineffectual left-wing group in South Africa. That was the outlook that from the mid 1970s until his death on 7 July 2013 determined his affiliation to the African National Congress (ANC).
Back in South Africa in the aftermath of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the apartheid government had declared a state of emergency. Leaders of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned under the Suppression of Communism Act or locked up in prison for their political activity or fled the country for exile. The organisations too became proscribed. To a very large extent, political activity was rendered dormant as a result. Apart from the stirrings of attempts at armed struggle by both PAC and ANC, open political activity was completely stifled by draconian laws. And not knowing who amongst one’s acquaintances had turned into an informer, we imposed self-censorship in discussing politics with friends. Under these circumstances, Ismail felt a dual lack of contributions he could make in the sense that there was no open struggle to participate in, nor could he do research because he was isolated from centres of research in his mathematics specialty.
And so about late 1963 or early 1964, he and his family left for the UK. But unhappy at being so remote from the struggle in South Africa, within two years or so they were on the move again. In December 1965, they went to Lusaka, hopefully to be near the nerve centre of the liberation movements. Here he made contact with all the movements, including the leaders of the NEUM: Isaac Tabata, Jane Gool, Wycliff Tsotsi, Livingstone Mqotsi and others who were in Lusaka. He met them even though by this time he had left NEUM.
In Lusaka he took up a post at the University of Zambia. Ever wanting to be closer to the struggle in South Africa, in 1968 he left Lusaka for Roma University in Lesotho. In Lesotho he took solace in the fact that some of the students at the university were from South Africa and through them he could keep in closer touch with political developments inside South Africa. This was about the time that black consciousness was beginning to assert itself leading to the formation of the South African Students Organisation in 1969.
Ultimately, in 1975, he returned to South Africa, taking a position as Professor of Mathematics at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Determined at all costs to be back where the struggle was, he was not deterred from assuming a lecturing post in what many of us regarded as a ‘bush college’ established under the Universities Apartheid Act of 1959. But he was joining others who had begun – in opposition to the government - the task of transforming the university into a non-racial and left-wing bastion against apartheid. He immediately flung himself into political activity making contacts with activists like Cheryl Carolus and Johnny Issel. Together with them, in 1976 he was detained under the Internal Security Act and sacked from his job at UWC. To sum up on his activism and dedication to the national liberation struggle:
Following the June 16, 1976 uprisings in Soweto, Professor Mohamed urged the Black staff (at UWC) to join the students in protest against the State’s war on children. He delivered an address at a South African Students Organisation (SASO) conference, sharing the platform with Winnie Mandela. He was arrested and jailed with many others in the Western Cape under the Preventative Section of the Internal Security Act. He spent three and half months in detention without charge or trial in 1976.
He threw himself into community work in the townships of Newclare and Coronationville and became immersed in the schools’ boycott, organising Parents’ Support Committees . . . . . . . . . . .
Professor Mohamed gave himself unstintingly, speaking at student rallies at the University and in Soweto and other townships . . . . . . The dismissal of workers plunged him into workers’ support committees and renewed his commitment to trade unionism.
That was the character of Ismail – always on the move to be as close to and a part of the action to liberate South Africa. Behind his back and in jest we, his closest comrades, would say: he has itchy feet. In truth he was, not only a leader but, literally a foot soldier. The struggle at home beckoned him back incessantly to participate actively in it. Never failing to respond to that call from within himself, he was by our side, Arthur and I, trying to find a way for Fikile and Marcus to escape arrest by leaving the country.
A third person whom I need to mention is Martin Mabiletsa. Like Arthur, in the 1950’s, he and his wife Deborah had been members of the MDC. By 1963 when the MDC was defunct, Martin’s sympathies lay with the PAC. He completed BA and LLB degrees at Wits and practised as an advocate. In the late 1970s, he left for exile, first in Swaziland and then in Britain. In Swaziland he joined the PAC. During 1978, together with the poet and sculptor Pitika Ntuli and other members of the PAC in Swaziland, they were arrested, presumably on the apartheid government’s instructions, and detained in jail without trial by King Sobhuzo’s regime. Upon intervention by Amnesty International, they were released and made to leave Swaziland, and Britain provided them with asylum. In Britain he joined the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania but afterwards joined the ANC. He found employment in the legal department of the British Commission for Racial Equality. He returned to South Africa in 1993 and after 1994 served for a few years as advisor to Popo Molefe, the North West’s first premier under a democratic South Africa.
Our small group
Our group in Johannesburg, at least eight in size, had broken with the NEUM, some as a result of NEUM’s refusal to be a part of the 1957 Alexandra Bus Boycott. Others left in the years following, being disillusioned with NEUM on a number of issues. While still others had never been members of NEUM. The most important of the issues was NEUM’s habitually sinking its head in the sand whenever attempts were made to raise the social question. Under conditions imposed by the apartheid government, which in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 defined communism so broadly that it included liberalism, the social question was a necessary euphemism for socialism.
In the group that had left NEUM were Ismail, Isaiah Lepolesa, Mthutuzeli Mpehle, Claude Noble, Derrick de Jager, Peter Matlhare, Toughey Markham and me. Outside this group were several other people. In particular, “Raths” Rathminsamy in whose home in Bree Street, Newtown, we met on Saturday afternoons. He was a teacher at William Hills High School in Benoni – its teachers as a whole prided themselves in being the most politically conscious and progressive staff of any school in the Transvaal. Its head teacher, George Carr, was a former member of the Communist Party of South Africa, and on the staff it had Maurice Hommel, a regular newspaper columnist who spent his exile years in Canada and wrote Conversations and Soliloques: A Window on South Africa. It was at this school that Rathminsamy and some of the teachers, including de Jager, Noble and Markham formed the nucleus of the Transvaal Indian and Coloured Teaches Association (TICTA). They formed TICTA, with Rathminsamy as its president, after Benny Kies, WP van Schoor and Dr Murrison from Cape Town had come up to Johannesburg primarily to meet with those of us who had left the NEUM. During their visit we arranged for them to meet with the William Hill School teachers. It was hoped that TICTA would in time link up with the western Cape based Teachers’ League of South Africa and also the Cape African Teachers Association. Both these teacher organisations were affiliated to NEUM. However, TICTA did not exist for long.
Some members of the group established links beyond the teachers. De Jager after leaving teaching to practise as an attorney became vocally active in community organisations in the Coloured townships of Johannesburg and Benoni. Together with Reggie Feldman, he was involved in activity to extend the influence of the South African Council on Sport (SACOS) to the Transvaal. Lepolesa joined the ANC Youth League and, on at least one occasion, he was a speechwriter to its Transvaal president. Mpehle, together with another dissident group within NEUM – a group around Sefton Vutela - had since the late 1950s been actively promoting the boycott of Advisory Boards in Soweto by regularly attending their public meetings and questioning their existence. Certainly, ours was a group in which members were not only talking but also activists in various ways.
Apart from Mpehle, all members of our group were Wits graduates. Lepolesa, an economics graduate, was the group’s authority on Marx’s Capital. Unfortunately, the group lost him to an early death.
Altogether, for the members of the group, the period from 1957 onwards was one in which the group was in search of a political home or a guiding ideology. To that end, de Jager and I travelled to Cape Town during December 1958 to look for and talk to Kenny Jordaan. I followed this visit with another in December 1959 when I met others around Kenny, all of whom were once members of by then the defunct Forum Club. Notable among them were the Marney brothers, Enver and Cardiff. Thereafter, we maintained a relationship with Kenny. He would make annual visits to us in Johannesburg. During the visits we would arrange meetings in which he addressed the contacts we had beyond our group. In 1962, he brought with him Neville Alexander, Cardiff Marney and someone whose name I cannot recall but who emigrated to Canada not long after. I accommodated all of them at my parents’ home in Alexandra.
Visiting again in 1963
The following year, Kenny called me to let me know they were coming to Johannesburg. The group included Neville Alexander and Fikile Bam. The Christmas before, in 1962, Martin Mabiletsa and his wife, Deborah, went to Cape Town on a holiday. They booked into the Athlone Hotel. Knowing no one in Cape Town, I gave them Kenny’s telephone number. After a few days in Cape Town they called Kenny. He came over to the hotel and persuaded them to give up their hotel booking and instead spend the rest of their holiday staying with him and his wife, Erna. The Mabiletsa’s returned to Johannesburg enthusing about the good time they were given by the Jordaan’s and their friends. Martin said to me “the next time they come to Johannesburg, they are not staying with you, they are staying with us. We want to reciprocate their warm hospitality to us.”
And so when, during June 1963, the party from Cape Town arrived in Johannesburg and did not find me home, they asked my mother where Martin and Deborah lived. By this time, they had actually moved to become our neighbours. Leaving their luggage at my home, Kenny and company went over to the Mabiletsa’s to see them and wait for me there. But, Martin true to his word, went over to my home to collect their luggage, insisting that they stay with them. I relate this story because, as I will explain later, it is one of two coincidences that saved me being arrested and jailed to Robben Island. Fikile, a law student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), was originally from Johannesburg and thus staying with his family in Soweto, and not with the others at Martin’s home in Alexandra.
Apart from Fikile and Cardiff Marney, all the visitors were school teachers. The only time they could come to Johannesburg was during their school holidays. They came over at a time of year when schools were on vacation. My then girlfriend, Shiela Cingo, also a school teacher but in Thaba Nchu in the Free State. She, too, in order to be with me, could only come up during the school vacations. With the Cape Town party and her all being in Johannesburg, it meant my time outside my work hours was to be split between them. I explained to the party that the only time I would have with them would be late at night after I had been with Shiela at her aunt’s place in Crown Mines. By then, they would have met with various individuals and groups – meetings at which I was not present. I also relate this story because it is the second of the coincidences that spared me ending up on Robben Island.
Why were they in Johannesburg? This time the visit was not simply to maintain contact and exchange views about the political situation in the country. Neville and Fikile, in particular, had come up to Johannesburg to organise underground cells for the National Liberation Front (NLF). Both had contacts in Johannesburg. For the five days they were in Johannesburg, they spent each day and each evening pursuing their contacts and holding meetings with them. As mentioned before, I missed out on all these meetings because of my working hours and Shiela being around.
They brought with them roneo-ed documents they had originally produced under the name of Yu Chi Chan Club (YCCC) – an organisation they had formed sometime between May and July 1962. However, thre YCCC was disbanded at the end of 1962 to give birth to the NLF in January 1963. These were documents in which they discussed the feasibility of guerilla warfare in South Africa. They looked at the success of guerrilla warfare in China, Cuba and Algeria and the writings of Mao Zedong – who had used the name Yu Chi Chan for guerrilla warfare - and Che Guevara. An example of one of the documents is included in Allison Drew’s book.
Kenny Jordaan was a dissident amongst them. He argued that, unlike the other countries in which guerrilla warfare had been successful, South Africa lacked a suitable terrain. Additionally, the neighbouring countries - still under colonial rule - were hostile to our struggle for national liberation. They would thus not provide us with bases from which to launch guerrilla warfare and to which fighters could retreat if they needed to. Despite disagreement along these lines, Kenny remained a valued member of the NLF. He was a fountain of knowledge in terms of Marxist theory and, together with Nozipho Majeke (alias Dora Taylor) and W.P. van Schoor was among the first in South Africa to research and write history from an anti-establishment view.
Due to my long-standing relationship with Kenny, I was their key contact in Johannesburg, so a stack of the documents was left in my custody when they returned to Cape Town. It was during this visit that they made the acquaintance of Arthur, and some of them met Martin and Deborah Mabiletsa for the first time. While they were in Johannesburg, other NLF members went on similar missions around the country - Dulcie September and Marcus Solomon, for instance, went to the eastern Cape.
Arrests under the 90-day detention law
In my recollection, they were barely a week or two away from Johannesburg when very early on a Sunday morning during July 1963 I received a call from Cape Town: NLF members were being arrested and detained and their homes searched for documents. I was told by the caller that the special branch – as the security police were known then – used possession of these documents as a sign of NLF membership. I was therefore warned to hide those that had been left with me.
They were not all arrested at the same time. In the case of Dulcie September, her home was raided on 12 July but she was taken into detention on 7 October. But the first police searches and arrests gave a good cue to some who were most actively involved in the NLF to go into hiding or flee from Cape Town.
For the media, the arrests and detentions were a huge sensation. Not since the 90-day detention law was enacted had a group been taken into detention of mostly professionally qualified people: six teachers, a librarian, a Pentecostal minister, and one with a university degree studying to be a lawyer; and all of them black to boot, nogal – it was the intellectual and youthful composition of the group that drew much media attention. A leading member of the group, Neville, was a PhD in German literature. Even more sensational, Kenneth Abrahams, a medical doctor who had fled from Namibia (then South West Africa), was kidnapped in Botswana (then a British protectorate of Bechuanaland) and flown to Cape Town to join the other detainees. An NLF co-founder, he was married to the Namibian activist Ottillie Abrahams (nee Schimming); they had established an NLF cell in Namibia. His kidnap from a British protectorate raised a huge international outcry and made newspaper headlines. The South African government came under immense pressure from Britain and was forced to free and return him to Botswana.
Fikile managed to escape the net of arrests in Cape Town. He fled to Johannesburg and made contact with me. I reported his presence to the two people who were foremost in looking after the Cape Town group during their visit to Johannesburg: Arthur and Martin. Apart from knowing that Fikile was in Soweto, none of us had any knowledge of exactly where in Soweto he was hiding.
Arthur and I, both serving articles of legal clerkship at this time, were working in offices that were a very short distance apart at the western end of the city, near the Magistrate’s Courts. We often met to have lunch together. The two of us became, so to speak, Fikile’s ears and eyes. Saying anyone was underground is only metaphoric. As long as he deemed it safe and his address was not known by acquaintances, he needed to break his solitude by coming out into the open now and again. So Arthur and I arranged to meet him every Friday at lunch time. We would then take him to a restaurant and exchange reports about what each had heard from Cape Town. But Fikile had not only come to Johannesburg to hide and escape arrest. He was in Johannesburg seeking to be spirited out of the country.
We were kept informed of developments in Cape Town by Edmund Troshe, an immigrant speaking English with a very heavy foreign accent. We thought he was of Dutch descent. Being white, it was safe for Cape Town activists to send him up to Johannesburg now and again to update us on the situation regarding themselves and those detained. We passed this information to Fikile. A more security conscious person we could not imagine. He would arrange with me where to meet him – usually on the grounds of Wits, a multi-racial campus where a meeting between blacks and whites did not raise suspicions. But on seeing us at a distance walking towards him, he would start walking ahead of us in the opposite direction. He would turn this corner and that corner, always looking behind and around him, until he found a point he thought was safe for meeting and talking. Later, we learnt he had committed suicide in Cape Town.
In the 1960s political climate, Troshe’s behaviour was understandable. The aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre saw government impose an overtly totalitarian and fascist state in which fear of being spied on and detained without trial reigned everywhere. As the Cape Town’s first point of call, I decided that information to others in Johannesburg would be shared strictly on need-to-know basis. My only confidantes were Arthur, in all matters, and Ismail, if need be.
As a result of the arrests, the NLF, which was barely a year in existence, practically ceased to exist. In Johannesburg, it was nipped in the bud even before it could claim an existence.
Extension of police investigation to Johannesburg
It was a Saturday morning on 2 September 1963, the start of a long weekend with Monday a public holiday, so-called Settlers’ Day commemorating the dawn of colonialism in Southern Africa. I normally went to work on Saturdays but did not do so on this occasion. I was off to Kroonstad to spend the weekend with my girlfriend, Shiela. Teaching in a school in Thaba Nchu, she too would take advantage of the long weekend to spend it at her parents’ home in Kroonstad.
As I left my parents’ home through the back door, Deborah Mabiletsa saw me through the window of their kitchen which was at the back of their house. As indicated earlier, they were now our neighbours. She made signs to me with her hands and fingers, pointing to the front of their home, obviously the lounge, possibly meaning that Martin was under police arrest or interrogation.
As I pulled out of our driveway into the street, I noticed a stationary car in front of the Mabiletsa’s home. CA was the registration code on the car’s number plate. That meant the car was from Cape Town. Standing by the car upright like a soldier at attention was a ‘coloured’ man – that confirmed to me that the car was indeed from Cape Town. Only now did I fully understand what Deborah had been signalling to me. It was the Cape Town police, no doubt the special branch interrogating Martin inside his home.
I thought that when they finished with him they will come over to me next door. I went back into my home. I did not want my parents to be taken by surprise when they come. I told them that the special branch were interrogating Martin and that when they were done with him they would most likely come looking for me. I told my parents to stay calm when they come, not to give an impression that I had run away and to tell them exactly where I have gone and that I would be back on Monday evening. Shiela’s father was an Inspector of Bantu Education and had chaired a Bantustan appointed commission of enquiry into mother tongue instruction which found in favour of the government’s policy opposed by black parents. He was thus not seen by government as an opponent. I thought that knowing what family I was visiting in Kroonstad would convey to them that I had not been off on a subversive mission!
However, the special branch did not know that I was home that Saturday morning. Whoever informed them about me must have told them I would be at work as usual and gave them my work address. When they left Martin, they went straight to my office in central Johannesburg. There they were told I am not at work. They drove back to Alexandra to look for me at my home. They told my parents that they could not wait for me to return on Monday evening – they were returning to Cape Town that same day. Instead, they would ask the local special branch to see me.
Arthur was also interrogated by the police during that Saturday. He gave a statement to them and told me what he had said. Smart township lad he was, he was quick to think on his feet and spin a lie to them. He admitted meeting with the group from Cape Town. The group talked to him about a need to set up a bursary fund, he said. He wholeheartedly supported the idea because, he told them, there were bursary funds for Africans and Indians but none for Coloureds. Ah, the police thought, here is someone who was duped into believing the fund was to provide bursaries, whereas it was really intended to support a guerrilla war! He would make a good state witness on that account and be used to show the court the ‘false pretences’ under which funds were raised. He was thus subpoenaed to give evidence along those lines against Neville and company when they were charged and brought to trial.
Under duress, torture or indefinite detention, some people were made to give statements incriminating their comrades. On release from detention, they would decide what to do: allow themselves to be subpoenaed to give evidence against their comrades or, make a decision taken on their own and based on conscience, to avoid that by going underground until such time as they could flee the country. Either way, a very traumatic decision to make. It was very good of Arthur to let me know what statement he had made to the police because that saved him the pain of making the decision to skip or not to skip the country. Through our courier, Edmund Troshe, we let Cape Town know of the statement. Word came back that he must be encouraged to give evidence. His evidence would support that of Neville and his co-accused that the fund they were setting up was indeed a bursary fund.
After the police got back to Cape Town, there was something in Arthur’s statement they wanted clarification about, or perhaps they simply wanted to go over his statement again with him in preparation for the trial. The Johannesburg special branch were asked to attend to this and so they called Arthur in to see them. Again, he was good to report to me what happened. At the end of the interrogation, he was asked about me. He told them that I was never, never at any of the meetings the Cape Town group held in Johannesburg – that was true because my girlfriend had been around. As a result, the Johannesburg special branch did not immediately follow up with me.
Fikile Bam returns to Cape Town and flees back to Johannesburg
Fikile received word from Cape Town that the special branch were not looking for him. They had not been to where he had been boarding. He decided it was safe for him to go back to Cape Town and continue with his studies at the UCT. He bought a ticket to take an evening train from Johannesburg Park Station. On the day he was leaving, in late July, he spent the afternoon with Arthur and me, at Arthur’s home in Alexandra. The plan was that we would drive him to Park Station to see him off.
While at Arthur’s home, we were unexpectedly joined by someone who rightly or wrongly we did not trust. He will remain unnamed because sometimes suspicion that someone was an informer turns out to be baseless. He was one of those the Cape Town group had met during their visit to Johannesburg. He had also faced interrogation by the special branch but did not disclose to us what he was questioned about or told the police. Between the time of the first arrests in Cape Town and his interrogation, he kept away from us. Trying to meet with him for purely social reasons as we usually did, he would make excuses why he could not join us. Or, if we happened to run into him, he would walk away in a hurry claiming to be on an urgent family errand. Clearly, he was opting out of political engagement and keeping aloof from us in case we were being watched by the special branch. But all this behaviour changed after his interrogation. From then on, he sought us all the time, complaining that he was being kept out of the loop about our support for Cape Town. He behaved as if his police handler, if there was one, was pressing him for information about what we were doing. At this time, Arthur and I operated strictly on a ‘need to know’ basis.
This person found us with Fikile – on the very day Fikile was to secretly leave by evening train to Cape Town. And this time, he was not in a hurry to leave us and had no urgent errand to run. He simply stayed put leaving us in a serious quandary: do we let Fikile miss the train and so forfeit his booking? It got too late to leave in good time for Fikile to catch the train at Park Station. But he was intent on leaving that evening, believing it was safe for him to return to Cape Town. Without saying to where we were heading, Arthur got all of us into his car, including the suspect, who now felt like he was hijacked, and speedily drove to Klerksdorp to catch the train when it arrived there. He believed that the time it took to go to and back from Klerksdorp and especially since it was evening would not give the suspect time to inform on Fikile if in fact he was an informer.
Within days, Fikile was back in Johannesburg. He told us that on arrival at the Cape Town home where he was a boarder, the landlady told him the special branch had been there earlier that day looking for him. He took off his jacket and hung it on a chair. He had hardly sat down when the landlady shouted ‘there they are, they are coming again’. Fikile fled through the back door, with no time to take his jacket with him. This confirmed to the police that he had been there. In his jacket they found his ‘dom pas’ – the pass book black men were forced to carry on them.
Clearly, the police had received information that Fikile left Johannesburg for Cape Town the previous evening. Could the informer have been our suspect? He was forced once again to flee Cape Town and return to Johannesburg.
Another Cape Town comrade flees to Johannesburg
Shortly after Fikile got back to Johannesburg, another member of the NLF arrived in Johannesburg from Cape Town. He also was escaping arrest and had come to Johannesburg to hide pending an arrangement to take him out of the country. He was Marcus Solomon.
I received a message from Cape Town to expect someone whose name was not mentioned to arrive by train on the Sunday. Our (ex-NEUM) group decided that Claude Noble should be at Johannesburg Park Station to meet Marcus – his name still unknown to us. We asked Claude because he lived in Troyeville near central Johannesburg so getting to Park Station would be easy and quick in his case.
Late afternoon that Sunday, I went to Claude’s home expecting to either meet the comrade from Cape Town or get a report of his arrival and whereabouts. To my sheer disbelief, Claude had not gone to the station to meet the comrade. His reason: under a tree on the pavement outside his home, a number of suspicious people seemed to be watching his home. What utter nonsense for copping out, I said to him? The fact was that on any day of the week there were people sitting under the tree on the pavement outside his home. They would be domestic servants or gardeners working in the area, or passers-by simply seeking a shade to rest and sit under.
The person he failed to meet was Marcus. Only in 2019, fifty-six years later, did I learn that it was Marcus. In all that time I worried about what the fate of that person could have been – did he have an address in Johannesburg to go to? I mentioned the story to Allison Drew. When she in turn mentioned it to Marcus, he told her that he was the person. Thanks to Fikile, through him we did connect with Marcus without knowing that he was the person we failed to meet at Park Station.
An arrangement to skip the country
Arthur and I now had two people underground in Johannesburg, Fikile and Marcus, whose ears and eyes we were. We had taken it upon ourselves to help them leave the country illegally in order to avoid prosecution for their political activity. But we did not have anything resembling an organisation that could assist. We were just individuals with no resources or experience whatsoever to help them skip the border into Botswana. Nevertheless, in terms of our political ethics we were committed to help them find a way.
By this time, I had moved from Alexandra to live in Phefeni, Soweto. I rented a room behind Martha Matlhaku’s garage. She was under a banning order and house arrest between the hours of 6pm and 8am. She had been employed by the Garment Workers’ Union. Her banning order prohibited her from working for any union and setting foot in any factory – her husband Ishmael had gone into exile and so with her loss of employment and husband’s support, I became not only her tenant but also her family’s bread winner. Besides being a unionist, she was also a very active member of the ANC before the ANC was banned. She was a close friend of Winnie and Nelson Mandala. Among the letters Mandela wrote from prison there is one to her and Ishmael.
Finding it impossible for us to see how we could get Fikile and Marcus out of the country, I decided to take Martha into my confidence and talk to her about our problem. I could not have chosen a more appropriate person. She told me that it could easily be done. She and Ishmael originally came from Zeerust and they had lots of family living in the Zeerust area on the border with Botswana. Because of their location, she told me, her family was involved in helping the ANC see its cadres flee South Africa across the border into Botswana. That they performed this task is confirmed in a footnote in the prison letters of Mandela. All that was done by fleeing cadres was to take a train from Johannesburg Park Station which arrived at Zeerust station around midnight. There they would be met by a Matlhaku relative who would escort them to a home in a village on the border. The border was patrolled by the South African Defence Force (SADF). The relatives kept an eye on the border. When the SADF was not in sight and it was deemed safe to leave, the relatives shepherded the cadres across the border into Botswana..
Ishmael Matlhaku was a well-known Soweto socialite. He earned his living through bootlegging – procuring liquor for some shebeens during the time of prohibition to black people. Such a business usually involved collusion with the police. He incurred a banning order under the Suppression of Communism Act. Because he was not involved in politics, this came as much surprise to everyone who knew him, including the white commander of Meadowlands police station - most likely his partner in bootlegging - where his banning order required him to report once a week. Martha told me that it was her husband Ishmael who had driven OR Tambo by car to Zeerust to escape from South Africa into Botswana. Somehow the special branch got to know that it was Ishmael who helped Tambo flee the country, and this was thought to explain the banning order on him.
At last, I thought we had found a way to take Fikile and Marcus out of the country. I presented the plan to Fikile. But he did not think the plan was watertight in terms of safety. He did not feel safe being left to board a train from Park Station to Zeerust. I understood why, given his previous experience of arriving by train in Cape Town to find the special branch were waiting for him. He suggested that a car be found to drive them to Zeerust.
In the meantime, I had mentioned the plan to Ismail Mohamed. To allay Fikile’s fears, he offered to go to Zeerust and the border with Botswana to test crossing the border without being detected. He said he had a valid South African passport so he would be able to criss cross the border without fear of breaching border controls. He came back very enthusiastic about this way of helping Fikile and Marcus out of the country. Not only was the border not under surveillance by the SADF all the time. But, also, he had made the acquaintance of a family that would accommodate them and which had accommodated him, telling neighbours they were relatives from Johannesburg, until such time as it was safe to walk them across the border into Botswana.
Only one problem remained: finding a safe car.
Very early one Sunday morning during September 1963, Fikile came to see me. He told me that they were now going to be taken out of the country. He had met with Winnie Mandela. She was making the arrangements. But first, she wanted proof that they were politically involved. Do they possess any documents to prove their involvement, she asked? Fikile had come to me to get the documents – documents that had been left with me after the Cape Town’s group’s visit to Johannesburg. These were the documents that the caller informing me of the Cape Town arrests had advised me to hide and which the police were looking for. To the police, their possession was proof enough of involvement in the NLF’s ‘terrorist’ activities.
I refused to give Fikile the documents. I told him that Winnie does not need any proof that he was politically involved and on the run. He and his family were well known to Winnie. His sister, Brigalia Bam, had been a student with Winnie at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work, and was a good friend of hers. Besides, because of the sensationalism with which the media had treated the arrests in Cape Town, the arrests received much prominence in the press. Adding to the sensationalism, it was about just before this time when news of Kenneth Abraham’s kidnapping from Botswana by apartheid agents had hit the newspaper headlines, not only in South Africa but internationally as well, in a very big way. Just what more proof, I argued with Fikile, did Winnie want?
I stood firm in my refusal to give Fikile the documents.
Arrest of Fikile Bam and Marcus Solomon
With Fikile back in Johannesburg, we kept up our Friday lunch-time appointments. Now we were joined by Marcus who was staying in Riverlea. As with Fikile, we did not know nor want to know where exactly in Soweto or Riverlea they were staying. In that way they remained figuratively underground. If we were detained, we would not under interrogation be able to tell where they were hiding.
Marcus’s host in Riverlea was a bus driver in the employ of PUTCO (Public Utility Transport Corporation). He drove a bus that ran between Noordgesig in Soweto and West Street in central Johannesburg. Riverlea, just off Main Reef Road, was along this route. On occasions when Marcus felt bored and wanted an outing, he would join his host and get a free ride on the bus to and fro between Noordgesig and the city.
It was a Friday again, during October 1963. At 1 o’clock our time for lunch, Arthur and I went to the Azaad or Kapitan, Indian restaurants in Kort Street, where we met Fikile and Marcus every Friday for lunch. By 2 o’clock, when our lunch break from work was over, they still had not arrived. Worried, instead of going back to our offices, we went to the bus terminus in West Street, not far from the restaurants and our offices. There we waited for the bus driven by Marcus’s host to arrive. We did not wait long before he pulled in. That morning, he told us, Fikile arrived at his home being driven in a two-toned Fiat car, silver at the bottom and black on the roof – this is the description he gave us. The driver had a goatee beard and a woman was sitting next to him. Fikile rushed into the house and said to Marcus: ‘We are being taken away right now. All you need to take are a few belongings, a shirt or two.’
People in Soweto knew Winnie’s car by its make and its colours. The woman in the car was Winnie and the man known to be driving her much of the time was Brian Somana. He had been a press photographer to New Age, the newspaper run as the mouthpiece of the ANC and Communist Party – both organisations, off course, banned at this time. He also owned a business that was marketing sweets that had the famous cartoon Mickey Mouse drawn and written on the wrappings. Also, on the body of the car he used for the business there was a painting and name of Mickey Mouse.
About 15 minutes after the car had driven away, Fikile and Marcus were back to the house, this time in a police car and under arrest. The police searched the house for anything belonging to and likely to incriminate Marcus. The documents, perhaps? That is the report we got from Marcus’s host.
The Soweto ANC Women’s Leaque shows concern
My friend at the time was the journalist, Nat Nakasa. On most nights, after work, and most certainly every Friday night, we met for a drink. On the Friday Fikile and Marcus were arrested I went looking for him at his home, also in Phefeni, not far from my rented room at Martha Matlhaku’s. Not finding him at his home, I drove to my place. I found him inside Martha’s lounge. He was in a meeting with a number of women belonging to the ANC Women’s League. As I walked in, an embarrassed silence fell on the room. They clearly were not going to carry on talking in my presence as I was well known for not being an ANC member. After a little while, one of them started to round off their discussion. All she said, without mentioning the name, was something like this: ‘Well, let’s bring our meeting to an end. We agree that we need to talk to her. We should tell her that we don’t believe what’s being said about her by people in the township. But we are asking her to be careful in her choice of friends. Some are not good for her reputation and that of the ANC. Let us meet with her and talk to her along those lines.’
Nat and I left. As soon as we got into the car, he asked me: do you know who they were talking about. My guess was spot on: Winnie. He then told me that that morning Winne called him from her office. She said she was worried about Fikile. She had been expecting to meet with him but he had not turned up. Could Nat please find out what had happened to him? That is what Nat told me. It was very strange because she knew that Fikile and Marcus had been arrested from her car before she got to her office. It could be that Nat misinterpreted what she said. Perhaps all she wanted Nat to do, as a journalist, was to investigate Fikile’s fate. I myself later made use of Nat’s assistance in that way. I was raided by two special branch policemen in the middle of the night. After searching my room, finding nothing in the room but an incriminating letter in the cubby hole of my car, they asked me to report in the morning to their offices at The Gray’s. That was when I asked Nat to check on me if he did not hear from me by later in the day.Despite finding a letter, written to Ismail in London, that showed evidence of my connection with the NLF accused, nothing happened to me by way of detaining or charging me. It is this, together with other experiences I had with these two special branch policemen who raided me that made me work out much later – when I was in exile and too late - that they were corrupt and after a bribe. (I elaborate on this in the addendum to this article.) If only I had been quick witted at the time to realise that they wanted a bribe, I would have given it to them so they could procure a passport for me and so save me from leaving South Africa on exit permit, which caused me 12 years of statelessness that ensued during my exile!
I must add that I also lent myself to be used by Walter Sisulu in the same way to ascertain for him the fate of ANC cadres he had reason to believe were intercepted by the police as they were on their way fleeing from the country. Taking advantage that I could call a police station from my position in a legal office, Sisulu asked me on a few occasions to call a police station to enquire about their whereabouts. I mentioned this in a letter I wrote as a tribute to Sisulu at the time of his death (21 May 2003, The Star).
Nat told me that the women from the Soweto ANC Women’s League asked him to come and tell them about Winnie’s call. Confirming that ANC women were concerned about Winnie’s relationship with Somana, Helen Scanlon observed that before Mandela was jailed for life that:
Even before the Rivonia Trialists had been sent to Robben Island Winnie was embroiled in controversy over her friendship with an ANC member Brian Somana. As a result Winnie’s first visit to Robben Island in August 1964 caused a split within the remnants of the Federation of South African Women. Some women from the Transvaal felt this indiscretion should not be overlooked and Winnie should not be given be hospitality awarded to other Rivonia ‘widows’.
How the news of the arrests from Winnie’s car spread through Soweto during the day, I do not know. But we learnt that Soweto businesswoman Constance Ntshona on hearing the news, got into her car and went to Winnie’s home to tell her that they had sold Fikile. And, of course, the Women’s League had heard of the arrest and of Winnie’s call to Nat that same day.
It was very hard to believe that Winnie, the fiery activist, would shop any one to the special branch. But for some time it had been said that whenever Somana was in police detention along with ANC leaders, he was able to conduct his Mickey Mouse sweets business from prison. This was being said in legal circles – to which I belonged as an articled clerk - by lawyers who got to know as, in the course of their work, they interacted with the police station in Langlaagte where Somana and others had been detained. So our conjecture was that the police had made an arrangement with Somana to lay a trap for the arrest of Fikile and Marcus. As a result of his connections with his special branch handler, only he, not Winnie, would have been told of the documents. He tried to use Winnie to get the documents – tell Fikile that in order to help them we need proof by means of documents that they were politically involved, he must have said to her! More about this below when I connect the dots.
Winnie was a very dear friend of mine. But I refrained from making her aware of my association with Fikile lest Somana got to know.
I told the circumstances of the arrests to Mark Weinberg. A very good friend of Arthur’s and mine, Mark was the son of the legendary press New Age photographer Eli Weinberg. Although deaf due to a hearing disability, he always stunned us by his ability to lip read us under the dimly candle-lit Alexandra shebeens where he socialised with us on some Saturday evenings. A few days later he told me that he had reported what I told him to his parents. They did not believe the story and warned that it is the sort of story spread about by agent-provocateurs.
Raising funds for legal defence
After the arrest of Fikile and Marcus, we worried about the cost of procuring lawyers for their defence in court. Neville and Kenneth Abrahams had been suspended – as good as expelled – from NEUM for seeking a discussion on guerrilla warfare. But some NLF members were still active in NEUM affiliates. Yet no help from NEUM was forthcoming. Indeed, reports reached us that the NEUM was having absolutely nothing to do with the NLF members awaiting trial on charges of sabotage and plotting to overthrow the state by means of guerrilla warfare.
Arthur and I approached the International Defence Aid (IDAF) in Johannesburg. We were told that it could not come to their assistance if they were not members of the ANC – an attitude which certainly would not have been supported by Canon John Collins, the IDAF’s British founder if he had known. Nor, at the time, did we ourselves know of Canon Collins and the non-sectarian basis on which he established IDAF.
However, Arthur and I decided to go back to IDAF. This time it was to ask for an estimate of what the legal costs are likely to amount to, since it would know from funding other political trials. We were advised not less than R50 000 – the costs in those days.
We started to organise weekend fund-raising parties. Our friend, Mark Weinberg, allowed us to hold the parties in the house he had access to in Orange Grove (not his parents’ in Norwood). One problem we faced was that, for security reasons, we could not tell people at large – apart from Mark - what the funds were raised for. The parties drew not more than ten people, the same people each time who became more enthusiastic once they learnt why we held them. Ironically, all of them, physically looking white, were what were called ‘play whites’ in order to access better paying jobs reserved for whites. But by night and over weekends, they revelled in the township culture of Alexandra where they lived as who they really felt they were, that is, black people. From the few parties we held, we did not raise more than R300 – a far cry to reaching R50 000!
I approached Dave Soggot, an advocate practising law in the Supreme Courts. In the 1950s he had also become disillusioned with and left NEUM. I explained to him our problem with funding. Without a moment’s reflection, he immediately offered to provide legal representation pro bono, that is without charging a fee. All he asked was that we periodically pay his air fare between Johannesburg and Cape Town as he needed to keep in touch with his chambers in Johannesburg. In the end, the people in Cape Town did not need to take advantage of Soggot’s offer. In West Germany, were Neville had studied for his PhD and built relationships with Trotskyist and other socialist groups, and in other western countries, Neville Alexander Defence Committees were established to raise funds for their legal defence.
Later, after the conviction of Neville and his comrades, Isaac Tabata – a leading member of NEUM – undertook international tours raising funds in the name of the Alexander Defence Committee for his office in exile, this despite having suspended Neville from NEUM and not having supported him and his comrades during the trial.
Yet another comrade flees Cape Town to Johannesburg
Kenny Jordaan was a pole to which many of us who grew disillusioned with the NEUM gravitated. His critique of WP van Schoor’s Origins and Development of Segregation in South Africa marked him as a pioneer of a historiography from the perspective of the oppressed. It was to him that Neville and the others disenchanted with the NEUM turned. But he did not agree with them on the appropriateness of guerrilla warfare as a form of struggle for South Africa. Detained alongside the NLF members, he made a statement to the special branch saying he disagreed with them regarding guerrilla warfare. He said he had argued against the feasibility of guerrilla warfare in South Africa for the reasons mentioned earlier, namely the absence of friendly neighbouring states and the lack of a suitable terrain. Enver Marney made a similar statement. The special branch could not have better witnesses for the prosecution: if this is what they argued, it was proof enough for them that the others were embarking on guerrilla warfare. Both were then subpoenaed to give evidence for the state against the accused.
Rather than give evidence against his comrades, Kenny chose to go underground and flee to Johannesburg. Unlike Fikile and Marcus, he was fortunate that all his arrangements, including his accommodation in Kliptown, Johannesburg, were in the hands of an organisation that had the resources and knowledge of helping activists leave the country illegally. We in Johannesburg had nothing to do with the arrangements. They were all made in Cape Town by persons unknown to us. What we knew is that he was receiving assistance from some members of the Transvaal Indian Congress. They successfully saw him out of the country. Marney declined to join Kenny citing that he had a large family to support and that he could not abandon them by leaving the country illegally – and thus he gave evidence for the prosecution at the trial.
Connecting the dots
How did it come about that Fikile turned to Winnie for help, and that he and Marcus were arrested in Winnie’s car? Had the timing and point of arrest along Main Reef Road been by appointment with the special branch police? Who was the informer with whom the arrangement was made? These are questions to which I found answers at various times: while they were in prison awaiting trial, a few months after they were sentenced to prison terms and, in one instance, thirty-six years afterwards. These are questions that I now answer.
Fikile and Marcus were in prison in Cape Town awaiting trial when I received a call from a woman saying she is Ann-Marie Louw and a friend of Fikile’s. She knew Fikile from her student days at the University of Cape Town. Though politically a Liberal herself, she was the niece of Eric Louw, who was then the apartheid Minister of Foreign Affairs. She qualified as a social worker, and she and Winnie were both employed by the Johannesburg City Council’s Department of Child Welfare.
She came to see me at my parents’ home in Alexandra to convey a message from Fikile. The message was in a letter written from prison by Fikile to her. Every page of the letter had the official prison stamp on it. Written while awaiting trial, that the letter had passed through prison censorship indicated to me that Fikile and his comrades had won sympathy from some prison warder. Otherwise, the letter would not have reached her and its message would have drawn the attention of the special branch on her.
The message to me – and to Arthur – was: stop trying to raise funds for their defence, the special branch knew about it and it would get us into trouble. She said that Fikile told her about needing a car to take them to the Zeerust border with Botswana. She offered her car if Fikile could find someone to drive them to the border.
She told me that she then took it upon herself to approach Winnie, knowing Winne was involved in the struggle. She told Winnie of a friend who wants help to skip the border. Winnie, realising that the friend was someone known to her, agreed to help. This must be how through Winnie her constant companion Brian Somana came to know of Fikile and play a treacherous part in his fate.
Earlier I mentioned a rumour circulating among black articled clerks that during his detention together with other ANC leaders he was allowed to carry on his business from prison. If true, it raised suspicion that he was a special branch agent. The suspicion grew stronger after an incident that occurred in Winnie’s house.
Towards the end of 1964, after the conclusion of the NLF trial, well-known Drum photographer, Peter Magubane, asked me to look after his house in Diepkloof, Soweto, by staying in it while he was abroad for his first international photographic exhibition. On his return, he was one of a number of people who gathered at Winnie’s house every evening in Orlando West Extension, Soweto. The others included Winnie’s brother-in-law, Sefton Vutela married to her sister, Drum journalist Ronnie Manyosi who had been my class mate at Madibane High School and, of course, Somana. One evening Manyosi noticed that Somana was carrying a gun under his shoulder beneath his arm pit – the gun looked like a police issue. He pointed this out to Somana and the others in the house. He asked Somana to show it but he refused.
Two of these people who frequented Winnie’s house told me that Somana was growing jealous of what he perceived as Winnie’s growing affection for Magubane. This went on for some days. Then, just before New Year’s Day 1964, he snapped and pulled out the gun. He aimed the gun at Magubane but missed him. The bullet grazed across Vutela’s forehead. As a consequence, either Vutela or Magubane laid a charge against Somana at Orlando police station. He was arrested and spent New Year’s Day, which fell on a Friday, in prison. We wondered why he did not seek bail but chose to stay in jail during a weekend celebrating the new year.
Immediately following the weekend, on the morning just before the court proceedings started, a police orderly came running into court to the prosecutor. He told the prosecutor to immediately come to the phone where he was urgently wanted. Afterwards, when the matter of Somana was called in court, the prosecutor rose to ask the magistrate to release Somana on his own recognizances – that is without paying bail - till the next court appearance.
Before that next court appearance, a group of men descended on Magubane’s house. Armed with sticks and bricks, they smashed and set alight his car, a VW beetle. They were said to be a gang organised by Somana and were his so-called ‘homeboys’ from the Transkei. One of them was his brother, Oscar Somana, who was thereafter charged with arson reported in the World of 30 April 1965.
Magubane reported the incident to the Orlando police station. When next Somana appeared in court, the prosecutor asked the magistrate to order that Somana’s free bail be revoked and he be kept in prison to await trial. I was told that the magistrate, angered by this request, rebuked the prosecutor, saying he did not understand why, in the first instance, it had been requested that Somana, facing very serious charges, should be released on his own recognizances. All the prosecutor could say in reply was ‘Your worship, orders are orders’.
The assumption, then, was that when the prosecutor was told he was urgently wanted on the phone, the call must have been the one ordering him to release Somana on his own recognizances. Who could have ordered that? None other than the special branch now that there was even stronger suspicion, on account of Somana’s gun, that he was in their employ. To the charges he initially faced, attempted murder and possession of an unlicensed fire arm, a charge of tempering with witnesses was added.
In his defence in court, according to a report in the World (30 April 1965), Somana alleged that on Christmas eve Vutela came to ‘(his) house with a knobkerrie to demand groceries which Winnie had given (him) as a Christmas present.’ They argued over the groceries. The feud continued on Boxing Day, but this time over drinks. That was Somana’s story in court. According to the newspaper, a witness, Ernest Madiba Ralamabuso, said to be a cousin of Nelson Mandela, described to the court ‘how he saw Somana whipping the two men - Press photographer Peter Magubane and Mr Vutela.’
Some twenty-six years later after his arrest, possibly in 1990 or just before, Marcus came to London. We were meeting for the first time since the arrest. Naturally, our conversation touched on what happened when he and Fikile were arrested. In the company of Don Noels, Margaret Shakespeare and Vukile Mdingi - co-editors of the publications we produced from London - he told us a side of the story I had not heard before. His host in Riverlea was having a stokvel on the Sunday. Before dawn on the preceding Friday, he went to the fresh produce market to buy vegetables in bulk for his stokvel. As Marcus usually did, to keep occupied, he accompanied his host to the market. On the way back, driving along Main Reef Road, Marcus told his host that he is seeing a police road block ahead of them. His host said he too can see what appeared like a police road block. But, don’t worry, he told Marcus, they were not stopping any cars. Indeed, they drove past without being stopped.
Later that same morning, Fikile arrived at Marcus’ host’s house in Winnie’s car driven by Somana and told him they were now about to be taken out of the country. This confirmed what his host had told us – the description of the car and its occupants - on the day of their arrest. When they got onto Main Reef Road, their car was hailed to stop by none other than police in private clothing standing at what he and his host had earlier noticed as a road block. No other cars were stopped except theirs. Clearly, an appointment with the special branch had been made to hand Fikile and Marcus over.
Around the same time as the shooting incident in Winnie’s home, Somana’s wife sued him for divorce citing Winnie as a respondent. Winnie denied having an affair with Somana. Anthony Sampson says of Winnie and Somana:
She was especially friendly with Brian Somana, a journalist whose wife soon afterwards divorced him, naming Winnie as an adulterous, which she denied. Somana had earlier been close to ANC leaders, but after detention he had been turned by the police, giving away his ex-colleagues, and was suspected by some of revealing the hideout at Rivonia.
Winnie told the divorce court that Somana’s role was that of a father figure to her family – that according to custom when a father is away from his home, a relative steps in to play the father figure. In her family’s case, Mandela was in prison, and Somana became the surrogate father. But when she learnt that Somana was an agent for the special branch, she terminated this relationship. That is what she told the court: Somana was an agent. It was alleged that he sold Fikile and Marcus to the police.
On 15th April 1964, Fikile and Marcus, together with their nine comrades including four women – all accused in the NLF trial - were found guilty of:
having conspired to overthrow the government by means of a violent revolution; of having committed sabotage by encouraging others to commit wrongful acts; of having advocated the effecting of political, social, or economic change in South Africa by means of disturbance; and of having belonged to a proscribed organisation, the National Liberation Front.
Except for one of them, they were all in their twenties. The court passed ten-year prison sentences on Fikile, Marcus, Neville, Don Davis and Elizabeth van den Heyden; seven-year sentences on Lionel Davis and Gordon Hendricks; and five-year sentences on Dorothy Alexander (Neville’s sister), Dulcie September (later, as ANC Chief Representative in France, assassinated in Paris), Leslie and Doris van den Heyden (Elizabeth’s brother and sister). In passing sentence the judge described them as intellectuals in the same way the media had done when they were arrested. All the men served their prison sentences on Robben Island and the women were moved from one prison to another for fear of politically ‘contaminating’ other prisoners if kept too long in one prison. Upon their release from prison, each was served with a banning order under the Suppression of Communism Act. In terms of the order, they were confined to the areas in which they were ordinarily resident and prohibited from attending gatherings and being members of specified organisations.
Of the two people this article has been about, Fikile Bam (1937-2011) qualified as a barrister after his release from prison and, in 1995 after the attainment of democracy, was appointed the first Judge President of the Land Claims Court; and Marcus Solomon (1939 - ), on being released from prison, founded the Children’s Resource Centre, became an activist in several civic organisations and in the United Democratic Front. In 1964, Brian Somana re-located to the Transkei Bantustan where, it was alleged, he was appointed Chief of the Security Police.
When the special branch police who came specially from Cape Town looked for me at my home and did not find me, they told my parents that they will leave it to the Johannesburg section to interrogate me. But only much later – after the NLF trial - did the police follow up with me and, even so, it was not clear whether they were investigating me in connection with the NLF or NEUM (of which I had not been a member for six years but I was articled to one of its leading members, Andrew Lukele). I was interrogated by two sections of the special branch in Johannesburg working independently of each other. One section was represented by two policemen - Grobbelaar and I think the other’s name was Laubscher - out to solicit a bribe and so not seriously investigating me. I alluded to the bribe in the article above and now elaborate on this.
The raid by the two special branch policemen – Laubscher, the dominant one of the two - took place in the middle of the night at the room I rented from Martha Matlhaku. I was woken from my sleep and was thus dressed in my pyjamas throughout the raid. When I took up the tenancy of this room, I made sure that I do not move in with anything, my writings or banned literature, that would - in their view - incriminate me should I ever be raided by them. My bookshelf was filled with law books as I was studying to qualify as an attorney – I hoped that they would be intimidated by my thick volumes of law books! In search of anything that would incriminate me, they turned my room upside down. When they found nothing, they asked to see the car I was driving. They were fascinated by the car, a top of the range Mercedes Benz that was new to South Africa – it belonged to Andrew, who left it with me when he decided to leave for Swaziland in order to escape the restrictions of a banning order. So curious they were about the car that they asked to see the engine. Then they opened the cubby-hole and in there found the letter I mentioned in the article above. I was going to post the letter to Ismail the next day. Its content was sufficient to prove that I had some involvement with the NLF. I had deliberately left the letter in the car because I did not expect any raid by the special branch would be extended to a search of the car.
They jumped with excitement: at last they had found something to incriminate me. They said they were now taking me into custody and asked me to get dressed. With his one hand, Laubscher kept flipping the letter on to the palm of his other hand and saying: ‘At last we have got you’. But after I was fully dressed, he said to me ‘get back into bed and see us on the 7th floor of The Gray’s at 8 in the morning’ – The Gray’s was the headquarters of the Special Branch Police in Johannesburg. They took the letter and my travel document away with them. I thought that the game was now up for me, which is why I called on Nat Nakasa on my way to The Gray’s. I asked him to check on me if he did not hear from me by midday. In case I was detained, as a journalist, he would make it publicly known.
When I walked into their office, Laubscher threw the letter and my travel document at me. In the manner of his oft-repeated boorish jokes, in Afrikaans he said to me ‘stop creeping into another man’s bed with his wife when he has fled the country’. He was referring to Ishmael Matlhaku, Martha’s husband, who had gone into exile in Botswana. It was not true that I was sleeping with his wife. I was renting from her a room at the back of her garage that was detached from the house.
I picked up the letter and my travel document. I could not believe it when he said that ‘that’s it’ and that I could go! How could they let me go after finding a letter that showed I was connected to the NLF? Expecting diligence on their part in serving the apartheid regime, I did not trust that they were really letting me off: they must have something up their sleeve. Surely, I thought, they must have made a copy of the letter.
On previous occasions, they had come to see me at my office. Laubscher would proclaim that they are there to take me into custody. And then, he would say: ‘Ag, man, I’m only joking.’ On another occasion, he walked into my office waving an envelope at me and saying ‘here’s a banning order we have come to serve on you.’ ‘Ag, man’, he would immediately again say, ‘it’s only a joke’. Before leaving, he would talk to me, living in Alexandra, about the Alexandra football league – there were at that time a number of soccer teams in Alexandra that played against each other on Sundays. For a white person in those days, he had an incredible knowledge of the football teams of Alexandra.
Black people applying for passports or travel documents were required to get a clearance from the Special Branch. When Andrew Lukele applied for a passport to travel to Zambia, he was interviewed by Laubscher. I recalled what Lukele told me of the interview. He was kept a whole morning at The Gray’s. Laubscher repeatedly told him that there was no way the government would grant him a passport given his political activity and leading role in NEUM. But he would say ‘I’m going to try for you’ and walk out of the room. Coming back to the room, shrugging his shoulders and throwing his hands up in the air in despair, he would tell Andrew the government is saying no, no to granting him a passport. ‘But let me try again. It’s not easy because of your politics.’ He would walk out of the room again and come back saying there was no chance of Lukele getting a passport. He carried on and on like this until he walked back into the room excitedly shouting ‘guess what? I have got you the passport. You owe me something for that!’ He thus ultimately in that way made a direct request for a bribe. Lukele left him money enough to buy himself a bottle of brandy.
It is such antics as I have described above and not acting on incriminating evidence found in my possession that set me thinking in hindsight that Laubscher and Grobbelaar were seducing me to ultimately extract bribes out of me on a regular basis - not a single one-off bribe but they would come for more bribes on a regular basis as was the custom of corrupt police. Driving my boss’s car and virtually in charge of his office in his absence due to exile, I looked like a rich man!
In those days it did not take much to pay a bribe to a white policeman. When much later I was in exile and I thought about the behaviour of Laubscher and Grobbelaar, their antics and not arresting me on account of the letter they found in the car and the bottle of brandy from Andrew, I concluded that they definitely were corrupt. At a mere cost of a bottle of brandy, it would not be a one-off bribe but a series of periodic small bribes like that.
The other section of the special branch investigating me was represented by a single policeman - van Wyk – who appeared to be zealous in serving the apartheid regime. A few days after the night raid by Laubscher and Grobbelaar, he summoned me to The Gray’s. I thought it must be in connection with the letter. But, no, he asked no questions about the letter. In answer to a question by him, I told him I knew of the NLF – they were in the news, after all. He did not probe me further about the NLF. What he really wanted to know was my reasons for travelling to Swaziland. As mentioned earlier, my principal Lukele was in exile in Swaziland and I made several trips to consult with him. He demanded to see my travel document. Trying to save myself another trip to The Gray’s, I told him that Laubscher and Grobbelaar had seen my travel document a few days earlier. He insisted that he must see my travel document and that I must bring it to him the next day.
Walking back to my office, I figured out that Laubscher and Grobbelaar had not told him about me. What a fool I was to mention them to him. Believing the special branch to be an efficient and well-integrated monolith, I presumed he would now go to them to ask questions about me. They would tell him about the letter and that would thus indicate to him that I lied when I said ‘I know of the NLF’. I found it very hard to believe that van Wyk did not bother to ask Laubscher and Grobbelaar about me and, if he did, had clearly not been told about the letter. That is when I again looked back at my previous encounters with Laubscher and Grobbelaar and worked out that they were working towards seeking a bribe from me.
The letter would be proof that, in fact, I had a connection with the NLF. Found out lying by the special branch could lead to being tortured under detention. To escape detention, torture and imprisonment on Robben Island, it was time for me to leave the country.
When on the next day I brought my travel document to show van Wyk, he did not ask me any questions. All he did was to make a note of the trips I had used the document to travel to Swaziland. I was left feeling confident that he had no evidence to connect me with persons in the NLF or the meetings they held in Johannesburg. But what if he or they were to subsequently come up with whatever ‘evidence’, concocted or based on false information? Or, they came to know that indeed via Jordaan I had become the key contact in Johannesburg?
Talking by chance to a friend, Bolus Smith, I learnt that their home was raided by van Wyk. I also learnt then that his wife, Elizabeth de Kock who trained as a nurse in Cape Town, was contacted by Neville’s party when they visited Johannesburg. Could van Wyk’s interrogation of me and his raid on the home of Bolus and Elizabeth be onto some trail that would lead to connecting us with the NLF?
All this attention on me by the special branch put much fear in me: it confirmed my decision to leave the country before they could find a reason to detain me.
My application for a passport had previously been denied. I was in possession of a travel document which was not the same as a passport – conditions of travel with a travel document were severely restricted. I could only use it for travel to the so-called British Protectorates in Southern Africa. Even so, trips undertaken using the document had to be endorsed and their duration entered into the document. My only option was to apply for an exit permit to leave the country for good.
Upon application for an exit permit, it was required that all passports and any other travel documents be handed in with the application. I accordingly handed in my travel document when I applied for an exit permit. Thereafter, van Wyk called at my office. He was bearing a letter addressed to me by the Minister of Interior. The letter was notifying me of the withdrawal of my travel document and required me to hand it to van Wyk. It was then that he learnt that I had applied for an exit permit and was no longer in possession of the travel document. He now set out to stop the exit permit being granted to me. Just what investigation about me was he pursuing to want to stop me from leaving the country? The only thing I knew for certain was that I must leave the country before I am detained.
Fortunately for me, I picked up the exit permit the next day. Fearing that van Wyk would seek to retrieve the exit permit, I went underground. It took me a week to wind up my affairs in Johannesburg. Thereafter, I left for Botswana by train. Fearing further that van Wyk may order all patrols at border gates to detain me, I asked a friend, Theo Moatshe, to accompany me on the train journey. In the event I was detained, I wanted it to be witnessed by Theo who would come back to Johannesburg and inform the press. However, I went through emigration control without any problem and into exile in Botswana.
So much pressure by van Wyk was gathering on me that he also had my new girlfriend’s travel document withdrawn. Veronica Smith was not involved in any politics, her only ‘crime’ being in a relationship with me and, possibly, working for Andrew Lukele a banned person, who had a office in Swaziland. Or, was she suspected of being a courier for the NEUM of which Andrew was a leading member? She was frequently travelling between her home in Johannesburg and her job in Swaziland. She then applied for an exit permit and joined me in Botswana where we got married.
John Carlin (n.d.): Interview with Fikile Bam. PBS Frontline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/mandela/interview/bam.html. ↵
Roseinne Phahle: Notes on Letters from a Kindred Spirit – Ismail Mohamed on
www.sahistory.org.za/archives, August 2019.. ↵
Elaine Mohamed, Professor Ismail Jacob (Josef) Mohamed, https://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/professor-ismael-jacob-josef-mohamed-elaine -mohamed. This article (posted 14 August 2013) by his daughter Elaine Mohamed correctly says that he was disillusioned with NEUM. He and I together with five others, had in fact left NEUM in 1957. However, the article incorrectly goes on to say that when he was back in South Africa during 1961-64, he ‘worked with’ the African People’s Democratic Union of South Africa (APDUSA). But APDUSA was a part of NEUM. In the original article (https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/ismail-jacob-mohamed, posted 10 July 2013) it is said he ‘joined’ APDUSA in that period. He did not re-join or work with a movement he was disillusioned with and had left. ↵
Vutela had been expelled from Fort Hare University because of his political activism. The people around him were sacked as teachers also because of their political activism as members of the Cape African Teachers Association (CATA). They were among a large number of members of CATA who were dismissed from teaching for fear that they would subvert Bantu Education from within the classroom. Having lost their jobs, some of them came up to Johannesburg in search of work. Vutela and one or two of them, Lawrence Nota and Madikizela (I can’t recall his first name) or both found employment with Vanguards Bookshop which used to secretly stock and sell books banned by the government. CATA had decided not to boycott schools following the introduction of Bantu Education but that they would continue to teach a liberation perspective alongside the official curriculum. A book they used was Nozipho Majeke’s The Role of the Missionaries in Conquest published by the NEUM-affiliated Society of Young Africa. ↵
Allison Drew: South Africa’s Radical Tradition – A documentary history, Volume 2 1943-1964, pp377-386, UCT Press. ↵
Nozipho Majeke [Dora Taylor]: The Role of the Missionaries in Conquest, Cape Town, Society of Young Africa, 1952. ↵
KA Jordaan: A Critique of WP van Schoor’s “The Origin and Development of Segregation in South Africa” in Allison Drew’s South Africa’s Radical Tradition – A documentary history, Volume 2 1943-1964, UCT Press, pp249-262. ↵
Sahm Venter (Editor): The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018, pp220-23 and pp305-6. ↵
Ibid, fn(ii), p220. ↵
)I recounted this to Ryan Brown: A Native of Nowhere – The Life of Nat Nakasa, Jacana, 2013, pp114-15. ↵
Helen Scanlon: www.genderjusticememory.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Fallen-Mother-of-the-Nation-obituary-of-Winnie-madikizela-mandela.pdf ↵
)Allison Drew: Azania Support Liberation Committee and its Publications, June 2019, https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/azania-liberation-support-committee-and-its-publications-allison-drew ↵
Anthony Sampson: Mandela – the Authorised Biography, Harper Collins Publishers, 1999, p248.a href="#endnote-14-ref"> ↵
Oscar van Heerden: Remembering the YCCC – and the Women who made Sacrifices for Liberation, www.dailymaverick.co.za, 6 August 2019. ↵
Alexander Defence Committee Records, 1962-1971, Wisconsin Historical Society, Library-Archives Division, Madison, Wisconsin, p386. Cited on http://books.google.co.za>books: Reflection on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements, edited by Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally. ↵
The New York Times, 16 April 1964. ↵