The ‘naughty’ boss of cruel Qu­a­tro

CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

There are places the men­tion of whose very names evokes mem­o­ries. For former Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) mem­bers who were ex­iled in An­gola, one such name is Qu­a­tro, an ANC prison to which com­bat­ants were sent if they were sus­pected to have com­mit­ted the worst crime against the move­ment – snitch­ing for the apartheid regime.

Many were kept in the prison for years while be­ing tor­tured daily by their cap­tors. Some were not lucky enough to sur­vive the tor­ture and died at the hands of those they called com­rades.

The pass­ing of Gabriel Mthunzi Mthembu, whose alias was Sizwe Mkhonto, this month has brought up strong emo­tions from those who spent time at Qu­a­tro.

A me­mo­rial note this week de­scribed Mthembu as “a mem­ber of the June 16 de­tach­ment. He trained at Novo Katengue in 1977. He was in com­pany 2.

“He had one of the tough­est as­sign­ments in ex­ile as be­ing the first Camp Com­man­der of Camp 32 known as Qu­a­tro.”

Mthembu over­saw the camp where com­rades – some much more se­nior than him – were de­tained.

The Or­lando-born Mthembu was among the youngest when he left the country in 1976 aged 16. His first stop was Swazi­land, from where he moved on to Mozam­bique, end­ing up in An­gola a year later. There, he un­der­went mil­i­tary train­ing with the rest of the re­cruits. Mthembu was among those who were cho­sen to un­dergo fur­ther train­ing in in­tel­li­gence in the then Ger­man Demo­cratic Repub­lic, also known as East Ger­many, in 1978.

Af­ter a year in train­ing, his peers went back to camp in An­gola but Mthembu was sent to fur­ther his ed­u­ca­tion on a course in counter in­tel­li­gence in 1979.

Upon his re­turn a year later, Mthembu be­came the com­man­der of the camp, an of­fice which he had to es­tab­lish from scratch, says his friend and former MK mem­ber Bob Mh­langa.

“He was the most dis­tin­guished fel­low. Peo­ple will re­mem­ber his com­pany, sense of hu­mour. I thought of him as be­ing a lit­tle naughty at times,” Mh­langa re­calls.

He says the el­e­ment of naugh­ti­ness in Mthembu came in “handy in the camp as it light­ened a rather se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion”.

“There was a sense of mad­ness to­wards the at­trac­tion that he had for ev­ery­one at the camp, es­pe­cially the older com­rades who were al­ways se­ri­ous but would cen­tre around Sizwe [when they needed to laugh]. That’s what was so unique about him,” adds Mh­langa.

Obbey Mabena, who was held at Qu­a­tro for seven years, re­mem­bers Mthembu as a young man who be­came a vic­tim of cir­cum­stance which saw him be­ing made the first com­man­der of the prison.

“He was young, in­no­cent and given the task to deal with those sus­pected of be­ing mpimpis. His likes, just like us pris­on­ers who were sent to Qu­a­tro, were taken ad­van­tage of by the lead­er­ship,” Mabena says. Mabena says some of the ex­pe­ri­ences that they went through at Qu­a­tro make him break down wher­ever he nar­rates them.

Fol­low­ing the un­ban­ning of the party, Mthembu re­turned home and was tasked with or­gan­is­ing the then PWV (Pre­to­ria, Wit­wa­ter­srand and Vaal) re­gion for the ANC in its prepa­ra­tion for the party’s first con­fer­ence in South Africa. Af­ter the Codesa talks, ANC in­tel­li­gence chief Joe Nh­lanhla picked Mthembu to lead a strong team which would es­tab­lish the country’s in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, the Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Agency and SA Se­cu­rity Ser­vices (Sass). He headed the in­ter­nal se­cu­rity de­part­ment, within which he had to tread care­fully, since the new body merged all in­tel­li­gence bod­ies from the former home­lands. From 1999 until 2006, he headed the sur­veil­lance sec­tion.

In 2007, he be­came head of the Sass for­eign branch in charge of east Africa, a po­si­tion he held for four years until his re­turn home be­cause of ill health.

Mh­langa also re­mem­bers a “very strong” Mthembu who could stand up to the lead­er­ship when­ever things were not done ap­pro­pri­ately. He re­mem­bers a time when, dur­ing the Codesa talks, Mthembu led a group of com­rades to speak with the lead­er­ship, which in­cluded Nel­son Man­dela, Oliver Tambo and Wal­ter Sisulu, about what they viewed as fac­tional ten­den­cies. “In the end, there was much bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion at the talks.”

Mthembu’s health had been de­te­ri­o­rat­ing since 2012. He took his last breath on Au­gust 2.

– Du­misane Lu­bisi

Gabriel Mthunzi Mthembu

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