The ‘naughty’ boss of cruel Quatro
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