When good men take up arms

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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.

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