Mavuso Msimang tells the story of a real MK veteran
Ahapless South African public is constantly accosted by the spectacle of a misguided group of men in camouflage combat fatigues who parade the streets in the name of something called the uMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association, or MKMVA. They interfere with commerce and disrupt traffic at will. Their leaders rail against the constitutional order and wage ANC factional wars. Consumed by conflicts that bear little, if any, relevance to the interests of the people, the ANC leadership turns a blind eye to a menace that is ultimately of its own creation.
In the midst of this disturbing horror movie I came upon a biography of Tlou Theophilus Cholo, a distinguished uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) veteran, authored by Dr Tlou Setumu, titled Heeding the Call to Fight for the Fatherland. It is a chronicle of an indestructible commitment to the freedom cause; of discipline and courage in the face of imminent danger. What kind of physical, mental or spiritual conditioning enables a mortal being to spurn death, as Cholo did? No simple answer there, but this book has been a therapeutic antidote to the affronts committed in the name of MK.
In the foreword to Cholo’s biography, professor Shadrack Gutto of the Unisa Institute for African Renaissance Studies observes that it is only “the partial histories of leaders constituting the tip of the iceberg that are recorded. The mass of the millions who participate in historic revolutions rarely get their stories written.”
Setumu’s work should thus be welcomed for contributing to filling this gap. In his elegy, Thomas Gray observes: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness in the desert air.” Surely, Cholo’s accomplishments must not be buried in the pit of unsung heroes?
Tempering the steel
Cholo was born into the Bakone ba Ga Matlala clan in Limpopo on October 20 1925. The tempering of his steel for the struggles that lay ahead began when, having started school at age 12, for grades 5 and 6, he had to walk 30km daily to and from school. Primary education finished, he went to find a job in the City of Gold. A black man, he had to have a special permit to be allowed into the Witwatersrand. His expired before he could land a job, resulting in him spending a weekend in detention in the Yeoville police station. He took up a succession of demeaning jobs in white households that offered low pay and entailed long working hours, all done in an oppressively racist human environment.
Employment at the Union Building Corporation in 1949 enabled him to join a trade union, which brought him into contact with ANC members John Nkadimeng, Mark Shope, Alfred Nzo and others, who later became prominent struggle stalwarts. Cholo started organising workers in earnest and for his troubles lost his job.
A man of the moment, he participated in the 1952 Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws; he also campaigned for the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1995. He was in the Commissioner Street, Johannesburg, crowd that burnt their dompases* as directed by ANC president Chief AJ Luthuli in 1960.
When the ANC was banned the same year, Cholo was among the first people to be instructed to continue its work covertly. In 1962 he left the country for trade union and political and military training in Moscow. He took pride in having had the privilege of meeting Cuban president Fidel Castro and Soviet prime minister Nikita Khrushchev.
Training completed, Cholo was back in Tanzania in 1966, ready to return home to prepare people for the armed struggle. Next, he and Uria Maleka cross the Zambezi River stowed in a special compartment covered by a pile of frozen fish at the back of a fisherman’s bakkie. The “fisherman”, Benjamin Ramotse, is a Soviet-trained ANC guerrilla. He steers them safely to shore past a South African checkpoint mounted on the bridge in the middle of the mighty river. They reach the southern bank freezing but greatly relieved that they managed to fool the security people despite the prolonged vehicle search.**
Disaster strikes when the person who is supposed to meet them on the Botswana side fails to pitch. Up and down they pace in the bush alongside the road, to no avail. A Maswara (San) man approaches them and offers to help them find transport to Francistown, their destination. On the appointed day, he leads them straight into a police ambush. They are promptly driven to Kasane police station, where the station commander, called Martin, a relic of the departed British colonial administration, oversees their dreadful treatment.
They are subsequently charged with being in the country illegally, carrying false passports and bearing weapons of war. Sentenced to three years and nine months’ imprisonment, they appeal against the sentence, but lose. They are transferred to Gaborone prison to serve their sentence and are well treated. Botswana rejects the apartheid government’s request for Cholo and Maleka to be deported to SA and instead sends them to Zambia.
After a refresher course in Russia in 1971, Cholo joins a select group of ANC guerrillas on a year-long naval training programme in Baku, Azerbaijan. It includes learning how to pilot a submarine. ANC president Oliver Tambo, Moses Mabhida, Joe Slovo and Chris Hani travel to Baku to discuss the mission. A Greek vessel, the Aventura, has been chartered for the passage to SA. They’ll be dropped off at several selected spots along the Indian Ocean coast between Durban and the former Transkei.
Upon completing their programme, group members travel clandestinely to Mogadishu in Somalia to start their journey home. No sooner has the Aventura set sail than it develops engine problems, forcing it to return to Mogadishu for repairs. The vessel leaves again but starts floundering due to the same mechanical problems. The mission is aborted. Suspecting sabotage, the ANC and Somalian authorities have the captain and the crew detained for questioning.
Undaunted by these setbacks, Cholo and his colleagues are ready to explore other ways and means of getting to SA. In July 1971, Cholo, Sandi Sijake and Joe Guma fly to Matsapha airport, in Eswatini, on their way to Polokwane for Cholo, and the Eastern Cape for Sijake and Guma. Alex Moumbaris, a French national who is part of the ANC infiltration machinery, drives them out of Eswatini and drops them a few kilometres from the border post. They enter the country through the border fence. An emotional
Cholo kneels down to kiss the ground, delighted to be back home. For the second time in his experience, the person assigned to meet them does not show up. They spend the night in the bush and resume their trek at the crack of dawn. On the road a truck driver gives them a lift. Sitting on its load of tar-coated poles, they arrive in Ermelo looking quite a sight.
Observing strict security protocols, they board the evening train to Johannesburg. Sijake and Guma change trains along the way and head for the Eastern Cape. Cholo arrives at the Park Station terminal sporting a beard and sunglasses. He strolls down the street and waits for dusk before entraining to Molapo in Soweto. There lives the Sekwele family, which has a close relationship with Ntsana Samuel Chokwe, a traditional healer.
“Seanne”, as Cholo introduces himself to the Sekwele family on whose door he knocks that evening, claims that he lived in Randburg and is looking for a traditional doctor called Chokwe, originally from Matjitjileng village in the MokopaneMogalakwena area of Limpopo. His story is convincing and the Sekweles welcome him and offer him accommodation pending his meeting with Chokwe. In fact, Chokwe and Cholo used to be close friends and members of the ANC in years gone by. After gaining the confidence of the Sekweles, Cholo decides to change his story and discloses his true identity. It works sublimely.
Chokwe eventually comes back from his travels in the Free State and meets Cholo at the Sekweles. It is agreed that it will be too risky for Cholo to return to his village. Chokwe, therefore, recommends that Cholo go to Burgwal and stay at the home of Vendah Pheme, Chokwe’s sister. Pheme will be told that Cholo is Chokwe’s patient and be asked to accommodate him while awaiting Chokwe’s arrival from Johannesburg.
On the train from Pretoria to Polokwane, Cholo suspects that he is being shadowed by a young man. He proceeds, anyway, and after alighting from the train he takes a bus to Burgwal, bound for the Pheme home. He is warmly welcomed after explaining the circumstances of his sojourn.
Days of torture
All is well until one morning, some two months later, two policemen enter the Pheme homestead and arrest Cholo. A scuffle breaks out and he is overpowered, handcuffed and placed in leg irons. The suspicious young man is in one of the cars. Ten police vehicles are parked nearby, ready to escort the captured “terrorist” to Polokwane police station, thence to a Pretoria prison. Verbally abused by his captors along the way, on his arrival Cholo is thrown into a basement cell where he is interrogated and subjected to torture for days on end. Stripped naked and his hands and feet tied together, he spends most of the time suspended from the roof of the cell. They pull out his toenails. Bleeding, he is splashed with cold water from a high-pressure hosepipe.
For days he isn’t given food. His tormentors continue trying to extract information from him. Nicolaas Jacobus Arlow, the brute who masterminds the persecution, is reputed to have taken a number black lives.
At one point, fearing that he might be killed, Cholo signals to the black guards that he is ready to talk. The message is conveyed to jubilant white officers who give instructions that he should be taken down from the ceiling and given his clothes. A press conference is arranged for him to tell all, but Cholo somehow can’t bring himself to say anything that might compromise his comrades. He is promptly sent back to his cell for more assaults.
Finally, Cholo is charged and makes his first court appearance in December 1972. He is joined by Peter Mthembu, Justice Mpanza and Sandi Sijake. The other co-accused are Alex Moumbaris and John Hosey. The trial starts in March 1973. Cholo, Sijake, Mpanza and Mthembu have pro deo representation. They are found guilty and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. Moumbaris and Hosey, both of whom are represented by George Bizos, get five years for what is considered a lesser crime.
Significantly, the state does not charge Jackson Mlenze and Joe Guma, who are part of this group. Cholo and his colleagues will eventually serve the bulk of their sentences on Robben Island.
For 10 years while in exile and underground,
Cholo did not contact Mmaphuti, his wife. In her own right, she was persecuted for being the wife of a “terrorist”. Cholo only learnt about the death of his second son, Kgabane, long after the sad event had taken place.
Ninety-five years old today, Cholo is elated that the apartheid government is no more and very happy that the ANC is in government. He is, however, gravely disappointed that many people who took up arms for liberation live in poverty. He is distressed by the high levels of corruption and crime and believes that the law is too lenient on criminals.
In 2018 the Tshwane University of Technology conferred an honorary doctorate in public administration on Tlou Theophilus Cholo. He is an exceptional man and lives in Soshanguve.
* The dompas was a hated apartheid-era identity document issued to Africans who were 16 years and older to track and control their movements.
** The borders of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe converge at a common point on the Zambezi River. At the time of the crossing, SA was administering South West Africa/Namibia.