Will the real MK stand up
As the ANC’s former military wing marks 55 years since its formation, Marion Sparg says the real MK cadres must rise up and lead from the front
More than 18 months ago, I wrote an open letter to President Jacob Zuma, calling upon him to resign because of the Nkandla saga. In that letter, which was published here in City Press in March 2014, I pointed out to him that I had been in touch with many former members of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the army he served in exile for 16 years. They were heartbroken; they could not believe what was happening to their organisation and their country.
Last Sunday, November 27 2016, I joined many of those same former combatants at a meeting at Museum Africa in Johannesburg. These were not high-flyers, just ordinary, courageous individuals who had had enough.
This was a rank-and-file initiative of former MK members taking charge of their situation and destiny. There were no sponsors from big business or dubious benefactors. This event was organised and funded by those who attended, who gave what they could, determined to make it succeed. They came from Gauteng, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal.
They had trained in Angola, Tanzania, the German Democratic Republic, Cuba, the Soviet Union and in South Africa itself. One cadre remarked quite seriously that she was relieved to see that people of more or less her own age were present. Referring to some of the ridiculously young people who appear on TV in camouflage, claiming to be MK veterans, she said: “I can see and hear that we all actually are MK. I was hoping I would not find 20- or 30-year-olds here. I mean, how can you be that age now in 2016 and claim to be an MK veteran? MK was demobilised in 1993.”
The cadres I joined on Sunday operated across borders; they commanded in frontline states; fought in townships like Duduza, which was one of several known as Beirut in the 1980s; spent time in prison and detention; and remain fiercely loyal to the ANC and its ideals of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa. Sadly however, many of these individuals are unemployed, sickly, ageing and homeless. They feel like they have been left behind.
The incident that stands out in my mind is of a former combatant who came to the meeting in shabby clothes, with a small backpack on his back and a beaming smile, and who was greeted with outstretched arms by one of the organisers who immediately turned to me and said: “Comrade Marion! Do you know this cadre? I’ve been looking for him for a year! He sleeps on the streets, this comrade. It’s amazing, somehow he’s heard about this roll call and he’s here.”
As I left the meeting, the same cadre, who trained in Angola alongside many others, rushed to give me his contact details, begging for help. A job, he said, any job. What about the MK Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA), I hear you ask? The department of military veterans (DMV)? He’s been there; gave up on them a long time ago. It was a poignant moment that explained why so many MK veterans feel they have been reduced to the status of professional beggars in the new South Africa.
But Sunday’s meeting was not just a gathering of comradesin-arms to bemoan their fate.
As convener Mpumelelo Cindi put it, the intention was to give former MK combatants a voice. To tell the ANC and South Africa we have our own voice. Kebby Maphatsoe, the current chairperson of MKMVA and deputy minister of defence and military veterans, does not speak for us. #NotInOurName.
Anyone who attended Sunday’s meeting would have been interested to find that there was no posturing in fake camouflage uniform. Well, okay – there was one cadre in combat who could not resist the allure of military regalia. Everyone else, though, was quite happy in their civvies, recognising that MK is no more. Their militance is carried in their hearts.
The meeting was honoured with the presence of Comrade Ahmed Kathrada – Rivonia Trialist, Isithwalandwe Seaparankwe (the highest honour awarded by the people of South Africa, through the ANC, to those who made an outstanding contribution and sacrifice to the liberation struggle), a founding father of Umkhonto weSizwe, and part of the original high command. This is one of the veterans who Maphatsoe has had the gall to describe as an “empty tin”.
The former combatants were out in full support of Comrade Kathrada, who they refer to as “a walking history book”, and all the stalwarts and veterans who have been engaging with the ANC national working committee out of their concern for the state of the organisation and the country.
Many MK veterans live and die in abject poverty while the DMV under Maphatsoe’s watch ran up a bill of more than R900 million in irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure during the 2015/16 financial year. They wonder too how they will benefit from the R250 million worth of shares that MKMVA got from the Shiva Uranium Mine linked to the Gupta family. Or will they be dead and buried before any dividends come their way?
These veterans do not regard themselves as special or privileged in any way, shape or form. They are aware that they live in a sea of inequality with millions of other South Africans. All they are asking for are the benefits due to them from the DMV and the MKMVA. The latter has notched up one business deal after another with little, if anything, to show for cadres like the old man who guards sheep for a pittance on the hills of Mpumalanga, dreaming of his days in MK; the former combatant who committed suicide two years ago by drinking acid; or the cadres who still cannot sleep at night, 23 years into our democracy, troubled with mental illness.
Maphatsoe has in effect rendered the MKMVA useless, dismantling structures, purging individuals and groups that refuse to toe his line, emboldened and protected through his association with the person he calls “Number One”.
Like so many in South Africa today, Maphatsoe has built what someone has described as a “vicious circle of untouchableness”, relying on patronage and intimidation, using his position in the MKMVA and government to further his own narrow political ends. Sunday’s meeting drew a line in the sand. “We did not desert MK because of food shortages or unbearable camp conditions and we are not going to be intimidated by anybody,” one cadre said.
Maphatsoe’s followers attempted to destabilise Sunday’s gathering by hijacking the first venue that had been booked in Ekurhuleni. But these cadres had been organising for a long time and would not be deterred. Their voices were going to be heard and an alternative venue was found at the last minute.
It is shameful that Maphatsoe and his followers have been the face and voice of former MK combatants until now. But let us be real. Maphatsoe is nothing in the bigger scheme of things.
We have reached the current state of affairs under the leadership of a president who himself joined MK at a very young age and who spent 12 years on Robben Island, along with the same veterans Maphatsoe now ridicules with impunity.
Sunday’s meeting has not been the first of concerned MK veterans. Letters have been sent to Luthuli House over the past two years, to the Office of the Secretary-General and to President Zuma himself calling for urgent intervention but to no avail.
Can one fix something that is as broken as MKMVA? Or does one simply begin again? These are some of the questions that must be discussed. And issues of MK cannot be discussed under the guidance of individuals such as Maphatsoe.
More voices like those who gathered last weekend must be heard as we move towards the 55th anniversary of Umkhonto weSizwe on December 16. It is time to reclaim the MKMVA and the rich history of MK and the ANC. Never again must we allow our history and our name to be misused and abused.
MK was a political army. It was the armed wing of the ANC. The June 16 detachment was schooled in politics by giants like Jack Simons. MK produced cadres of the calibre of Joel Netshitenzhe, Thenjiwe Mtintso, Welile Nhlapho, General Siphiwe ‘Guebuza’ Nyanda – our last Chief of Staff, and many more.
We were trained and taught in a proud tradition in the ranks of Umkhonto weSizwe. This tradition did not include blind loyalty and patronage but, rather, a sober mind and critical outlook.
We carry a great political responsibility as former MK members and will not abdicate that responsibility at a time when our country approaches crisis point and when veterans are insulted for taking the lead. #NotInOurName Sparg is a former MK cadre and received the Vuyisili Mini
Award for Bravery by MKMVA last year
VETERANS OR TWENTYSOMETHINGS? MKMVA members guard the entrance to Luthuli House in Johannesburg in September against a protest group, mostly ANC members, calling for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma and the national executive committee