On the 15 July 2022, for the first time it crossed my mind that this was the date that I left my home in Umtata to swell the ranks of the African National Congress in Maseru, Lesotho 40 years ago. The schools then, had just been reopened after the midterm vacation. I had thought that, this would buy me time for disappearing from home since I was at a boarding school at Ndamase High School (BV), in Ngqeleni.

This, however, is not what this narration is about, rather, it is about the events of 5 years later, on the date of 27 July 1987 when Mfanelo Matshaya (Ronnie) and I were arrested at Makgobistad Border Post in Bophuthatswana. I had forgotten about this, only to receive a telephone call on the morning of 27 July 2022 from Ronnie, reminding me that today it is 35 years since that fateful day. We continued our conversation…

To say we were arrested is to belittle what actually occurred that day. Imagine spending the whole five (5) years in training (everything in exile for us, soldiers, was in preparation for such a day, when we would be infiltrated back in the country, to fight), only to be handed over like a parcel to your enemy by sellouts whom you trusted and shared the trenches with!

We were a unit of 5, known as the Zola Dubeni Icing Unit. The other three (3) members of our unit; the late Lindile Nxiweni from Cala, Sakhiwo Mehlo from Tabase and Thanduxolo Nokhele from Grahamstown were trained by us in Angola during the years that we had spent deployed as Tactics Instructors, they were however infiltrated inside the country together, separately from us.

During our years of preparation, we had been trained in Angola, East Germany and Yugoslavia. We were senior military officers in our own right. We had tasted battle against the Angolan insurgents of the late Jonas Savimbi, UNITA, and survived.

We never had time to stay in the townships and open spaza shops or trade in these foreign countries, our life was strictly spent in Military Camps. We were accounted for 24/7 without failure. We were never remunerated with stipends or salaries, all we received was food offloaded from ships and delivered by trucks to our camps. Those were donations from friendly forces.

Even while still in Lesotho under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) we stayed in a refugee camp (arrival centre). It is just that the ANC took a long time to send their refugees away from Lesotho hence we found ourselves staying and renting houses belonging to Lesotho nationals, some of these houses belonged to the ANC. The UNHCR gave us an allowance of twenty rands (R20) a month if one stayed at the camp and forty rands (R40) for those staying outside. The longer periods that the ANC kept refugees in Lesotho is one of the reasons that caused the loss of lives of so many of its refugees in Lesotho, especially during the Maseru Massacre of 9 December 1982, which I also survived. No one can explain why the ANC did this but clearly now we know that the movement was highly infiltrated.

Even in Lesotho, we never ran businesses. I think this is important to mention because of all the seemingly cruel treatment that South Africans are accused of meting out to foreign nationals. If you look at the situation from this perspective, you will see that most of the foreign nationals in our country are not political refugees, they just came because they saw an opportunity and are now battling it out with the citizens for the scarce resources that they could not get in their own countries. The culprit is the South African government led by the ANC. It is the lack of implementation of a National Security Strategy, which I doubt it exists.

I have drifted from the day but let me go back to the ultimate betrayal of our unit. Our mission was clear, we were assassins. We were poised to eliminate targets that were to be pointed to us by the Military Headquarters and most of all, we were to eliminate Askaris (sellouts) like the ones who sold us out!

It is probably the reason why they had to make sure that we do not survive even a single day once we cross the border. I have narrated this story some time ago but worth mentioning is that, when we were finally arrested at the border, we noticed that there was one SADF sentry with binoculars, manning an observation post on a tree. This meant that he had followed our movements from the time we crossed the fence.

You can imagine how traumatic it was, being with your comrades the evening before and suddenly getting arrested without a fight as we were not carrying firearms. Being handcuffed, leg-ironed, getting our whole faces masked with balaclavas and thrown inside a helicopter and getting people sitting on top of you.

Within minutes of take-off, we had arrived at Mmabatho Intelligence HQ of the Bophuthatswana Bantustan and down to the ground we were thrown like potato bags. Ronnie and I were separated, rigorous interrogation and torture began, beatings, suffocations, and whatever you can think of. They called it lion taming! There was neither night nor day during the first week. That day marked the beginning of our long stay in solitary confinement and incommunicado. Inside a cell, we were always on a leg iron leach which is fastened to an iron ring cemented to the floor. No blankets, no water (we drank by flushing the toilet), no food! All we had next to us as we stayed on top of a thin mattress, was a Terrorist Photo Album for identifying anybody we have met during our years in the ANC. This was their usual practice for anyone arrested for terrorism, these albums had activists who were either in exile or inside the country, both deceased and alive.

Our refusal to betray the revolution cost us our freedom, we were incarcerated under horrific conditions. We were moved from Bophuthatswana and served time in different prisons of the current Eastern Cape until we were granted indemnity and released by Major General Bantu Holomisa of the Transkei Defense Force, this after he had staged a successful coup against the late Princess Stella Sigcau of Pondoland. (Holomisa was aligned to the ANC and was later to train some of the MK detachments in Uganda). It was to be the same Stella Sigcau who would lead to General’s dismissal by the ANC when he accused her of corruption during her period in service of the Transkei Bantustan.

Learning from the enemy during interrogation that they had been waiting for us the day before was a shock. We were indeed supposed to have infiltrated the country the day before our arrest but got delayed by unknown circumstances, at least from our perspective. This shocker opened our eyes to the reality that we had been betrayed by our own comrades.

It was to become the longest and hardest period in our journey from home to exile and back. We had seen, or experienced and survived what we had thought was the worst in exile; massacres, ambushes, firing squads, mutiny, malaria, yet this seemed to be the worst.  It is probably because in this case, the hand was from our own. It drained the energy out of us just by imagining those responsible for our arrest. The worst was when we heard from a comrade who got arrested after us, the late Comrade “Maximum” Matutu that they were warned when they were sent inside the country to be beware of us because we had sold out! Only to be sold out himself by the very same people who warned him against us. And now, finding himself in a cell next to the cells of the people (Ronnie and I) who he thought had sold out drove him to a nervous breakdown and only got healed when we met again in Umtata Prison as we shared a communal cell with other MK and APLA cadres. He knew that the same narrative would be spread about him. Despite all the torture and humiliation, the whole unit stood its ground and never betrayed the movement.

The other three (3) having been arrested on their way back home despite our agreement that if we do not make it back to Botswana, they must not come back. They were forced to come back or face deportation by the Botswana frontal commanders back to the camps. Who would have wanted to be sent back to Angola after surviving all the terrible conditions there?

As Comrade Stoffel who was also in Botswana at the time, confirmed two years ago when I met him in Pretoria that, he had been overruled when he told those frontal commanders that we were going to be killed or arrested if we used the route we were instructed to use when entering the country. He narrated that he knew it when he took us across the Botswana Border Fence but could not have risked telling us anything then. He had just hoped we would be arrested, not shot and killed, which was a highly likely scenario.

The ANC was highly infiltrated hence we are where we are today because it still is. There is no mistake here, this was and still is the continuation of the same project and it has succeeded. The loyalties of some members are questionable when you look at the manner in which they conduct themselves, the manner in which they treat the people we fought for. Only a few cares about the future generations, it is all about them. They are still wined and dined the same way they did during those years when we sweated it out in the bushes of Africa and languished in prisons.

Moses took the Israelites out of Egypt but never reached the promised land because he disobeyed God, it was Joshua who finally took them across the river Jordan. Who will take us across?

Anyway, I was just talking on the phone with Comrade Ronnie, recalling this day in 1987 and it looks like you have been listening on. Now that you have been eavesdropping on our conversation, I’m certain that you have formed your own picture about where we seem to be going through as a nation. We are stuck and we need to be rescued. Can we really say that this is what we fought for? Can we still be entrusted to provide a solution? Changing Presidents has only proven to be a delaying tactic, we probably need to take the ultimate leap of faith! Is it of any use to shut the stable when the horse has already bolted? The solution lies in all of you, we have done our part and this is where it has led us. Are the elderly currently leading us or wrestling for power still capable of taking us out of this mess or do we need fresh blood? What is to be done?  I have heard this question posed so many times before, perhaps we need the people of South Africa to answer it for us! During our time, our slogan was, “freedom in our youth!” What is yours?

Hope to hear from u soon! Take care! Telephone goes off!

Penned by:

Pumlani Ntsimbi Kubukeli


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