When good men take up arms
by Thula Simpson is the first indepth study of the armed struggle in South African history. It recreates the drama, heroism and tragedy of their experiences in their bid to free the country from apartheid. This is an extract from the book
ALBERT Luthuli delivers the Nobel Laureate Lecture in Oslo on December 11. He says in South Africa, one finds “a constant drive for more policemen, more soldiers, more armaments, banishments without trial and penal whippings”.
Yet “through all this cruel treatment in the name of law and order, our people, with few exceptions, have remained non-violent”. This is remarkable, he says, given “how easy it would have been in South Africa for the natural feelings of resentment at white domination to have been turned into feelings of hatred and a desire for revenge”. He says: “That it has not done so is no accident. It is because, deliberately and advisedly, African leadership for the past 50 years, with the inspiration of the ANC, which I had the honour to lead for the last decade or so until it was banned, had set itself steadfastly against racial vaingloriousness.”
At Cyril Jones’s home at 11 Cooper Street, Cyrildene, in Johannesburg, Bob Hepple chairs a meeting of the SACP’s Johannesburg District Committee on December 14, 1961. Joe Slovo addresses the gathering on behalf of the SACP Central Committee.
He talks about a new organisation, Umkhonto we Sizwe, whose function will be sabotage.
Its members will be trained inside and outside South Africa. All those at the meeting will need to pass the message on to people beneath them so others know this organisation exists. Slovo says Umkhonto we Sizwe’s first operations will take place in two days’ time. Pamphlets will be printed to publicise the launch.
At 5.30pm on December 15, Ronnie Kasrils arrives at Bruno Mtolo’s apartment holding a carrier bag. From it he takes out what look like Christmas presents in wrapping paper.
Later that night, Bruno Mtolo, Ronnie Kasrils and a young Indian colleague, Subbiah Moodley, depart from a car which has been parked outside 132 Ordnance Road in Durban. Mtolo is carrying two five-litre jerry cans. The three men approach a gate. They see a number of policemen sitting there. They go to the rear of the building, where they find a wooden door. Once in position, they wait, watching the clock. It is before 9pm. Moodley and Kasrils then return to the car. From it they each collect two sandbags. When they get back to the wooden door they place two sandbags on each of the five-litre containers.
Mtolo has by now opened the container lids. The sandbags are placed against the door but behind the containers, so as to direct the explosive charges inward. When Mtolo sees that it is only a few minutes to nine he places glycerine into the containers and puts the lids back on.
The three then depart the scene. At around 9.30pm (by his timekeeping), an African watchman on duty hears a dull thud from the rear of the building. When he investigates he finds a fuse amid some sandbags. Next to the fuse he notices an inflammable substance. When the police arrive they find a plastic jerry can three-quarters full of thermite. A fragment of the screw-top lid is found nearby, as is a fuse.
Saturday, December 16, 1961. Bruno Mtolo leaves his apartment in the morning and sees some sea sand spilt outside the door. He travels to Billy Nair’s home and finds Ronnie Kasrils has beaten him there. Nair asks, “Why didn’t you put the detonator in that other bomb?” Nair explains that the other bomb, intended for the Coloured Affairs Department building, did not go off. The third explosion also didn’t detonate, according to Nair.
Later on the 16th, Ben Turok meets Rusty Bernstein and Jack Hodgson at a restaurant in central Johannesburg. Turok has a parcel in his possession. His hands are clammy. Bernstein’s hands are shaking uncontrollably. Turok and Hodgson depart together. Hodgson leads them to his green car and says to Turok, “You drive. I’ve got something to do.”
As Turok pulls off, Hodgson takes objects out of the parcel Turok brought from the restaurant. The parcel contains four canisters usually used for tennis balls and four glass phials. Hodgson begins inserting the glass phials into the canisters. At the intersection of Market and Eloff Streets, a burst of smoke fills the car, upon which Turok draws the vehicle to a halt, gets out and moves about ten paces away. He sees Hodg- son has remained in the car, so he returns. Hodgson has by now opened the door and kicked the canister emitting the smoke into the street. When it has stopped smoking he bends down and retrieves it. He closes the door and says: “Get moving!” By now, however, a traffic officer is at the window. Hodgson winds it open. “What’s going on?” the policeman asks.
“Oh, some fireworks have gone off,” Hodgson replies. The policeman does not pursue the matter. Turok manages to start the car and drive off down Market Street. Hodgson continues placing the remaining phials into the empty canisters. “Listen, chum. This probably sounds very bad, but I don’t care,” Turok says. “It’s the truth – we must abort. We can’t go on like this.” Hodgson insists they continue. They stop at a parking lot in Market Street. There they meet a colleague who takes two phials, puts them in a suitcase and heads off. Turok then walks up Market Street in the direction of Rissik Street Post Office. He walks in and places the bomb on top of a telephone kiosk.
It is just past 5pm on the 16th when Joe Slovo enters the Johannesburg Drill Hall and makes his way to the administrative office, which seems not to have any staff on duty. He goes inside one of the offices. It has large wooden cupboards. He turns a small bottle whose outlet is sealed by cardboard upside down and is about to place the carrier bag behind one of the cupboards, when he hears a voice behind him: “Can I do anything for you?”
The man is a sergeant major in the SA Defence Force. Slovo says his brother has received call-up papers but is about to take an important exam. He asks who he can see about arranging an exemption. The sergeant major says: Follow me. Slovo does so, carrying the bottle behind him. When they get to the exemption officer’s room, they find it empty. The sergeant major tells
Slovo to return another day.
A call is received at the Sunday Times offices in Johannesburg at 8pm that evening. The speaker tells the reporter: “There is a poster that you will find interesting on the corner of Anderson and Polly Streets.”
At the said place, the reporter finds a poster headed “Umkonto we Sizwe” pasted to a wall. The poster is printed in Zulu and English and declares that “Umkonto we Sizwe will carry on the struggle for freedom and democracy by new methods, which are necessary to complement the actions of the established national liberation organisations”.
In the document the organisation is described as “a new independent body, formed by Africans”. Reference is made to virtual martial law having been imposed twice in the past eighteen months to crush peaceful strike action.
The new organisation identifies itself as the “fighting arm of the people against the government and its policy of race oppression”. The poster emphasises that the organisation’s actions are as yet warning shots: “We of Umkonto we Sizwe have always sought – as the liberation movement has sought – to achieve liberation without bloodshed and civil clash. We do so still. We hope – even at this late hour – that our first actions will awaken everyone to the realisation of the disastrous situation to which Nationalist policy is leading. We believe our actions to be a blow against the Nationalist preparations for civil war and military rule.”
This is an extract from Umkhonto we Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle by Thula Simpson, published by Penguin Books at a recommended retail price of R350.
Thula Simpson is a senior lecturer in the department of historical and heritage studies at the University of Pretoria. He has spent a decade researching and writing on the history of the ANC’s liberation struggle. His writing has been published in a number of scholarly journals as well as in edited book collections published by Wits University Press, and UCT Press.
Albert Luthuli, above, won a Nobel Peace Prize for promoting non-violent change in South Africa. Later Joe Slovo, top right, and Ronnie Kasrils took up arms as part of Umkhonto we Sizwe, a group whose function was ‘to sabotage’ the apartheid government.