The Road to Tanganyika: Part 3
In the final instalment from the book Lest we Forget, the late freedom fighter Philip Kgosana details his dramatic escape into exile after leading the anti-pass campaign in 1960.
Another half an hour saw us entering the small town of Welkom, and this time I thought the end had come. As we entered the town, we found a major roadblock. All cars were being stopped and thoroughly searched. A short distance ahead of us was a police vehicle with a rotating search light. As our car drew closer to the roadblock, the search light was focused on us. Torches were flashed on our number plates and about 10 policemen converged on us.
‘Nee jong, dit is ‘n Maseru kar, ons soek nie ‘n Maseru kar nie,’ shouted one of the Boer officers in Afrikaans, saying ours was a Maseru car, that they were not looking for a Maseru car. The police officer beckoned us to get off the way and go.
We stopped at a petrol station inside Welkom to fill up. As we slipped out of town, Ntshasa checked his watch. The time was about 5.20am. He told us that we needed to speed up so that we could reach Klerksdorp between 7 and 8am. The distance to be covered was long, and Ntshasa asked us to leave the job to him after advising us to sleep.
When I woke up some 30 minutes later, I found that the car was virtually flying. Ntshasa was doing about 120km per hour, a speed which did not seem to worry him. He was relaxed, whistling a Sesotho traditional song.
By 7.25am we were winding our way through Klerksdorp across the railway line to Johannesburg. On one side of the road was a waiting group of African men, handcuffed one to another and guarded by the police. The men were obviously waiting for the kwela-kwela (police truck) to carry them to court. It dawned very sharply on me at that moment that I was deep in enemy territory, and could only survive by the grace of God.
Within minutes, we were out of town on the way to Lichtenburg. At mid-day, we stopped at Ventersdorp to fill up. We then proceeded to the small town of Coligny where we had another brief stop for few minutes to stretch our legs.
At about 3pm, we reached Lichtenburg, a small farming town and stopped by the traffic robots at the Mafikeng/Zeerust road junction. We noticed that, leaning against one of the traffic lights on the opposite side was a young man in a grey suit. He looked at our car and quickly jotted down our number plates. He then dashed off as fast as he could, before the robots had opened up. Ntshasa told us that we were in for another run. He quickly drove along the Zeerust road for a few yards, turned into a side street behind a house and switched off the engine.
Within minutes, two police vans came from the direction taken by the man who had noted our car numbers, and at full speed, one van headed for Zeerust while the other headed for Mafikeng.
We sat and waited restlessly, but Ntshasa was not a bit worried. He actually went to the road junction to monitor the movements of the police vans.
After about 30 minutes the van which had headed for Zeerust returned, followed by the one which had gone towards Mafeking. Ntshasa, who had been watching the developments from the main road, came back and started the car engine. He told us that it was all clear, and we could proceed.
We took the Zeerust road. After about 30km, we crossed the Mafikeng/Zeerust railway line. The road then turned right passed the Ottoshoop Police Station. The sight of a police station was disturbing, and I was only too keen to pass it quickly. But just then our rear left wheel burst. Ntshasa brought the car to a halt and asked us to get out I asked whether I could go into hiding while they changed the wheel, but Ntshasa said it was unnecessary. Just then a policeman, who was obviously off-duty, emerged from the police station and approached the car.
Ntshasa, in his sophisticated way, greeted him and asked him for direction to way to Bechuanaland. He told the policeman that we were rushing for a funeral ceremony in Gaborone and had lost our way. The policeman directed us through a certain farm which was a short-cut to the border post of Ramatlabama.
The next hurdle was crossing the border into Bechuanaland. According to the map we were using, we were nearing Ramatlabama, and a decision had to be taken soon since I did not have travel documents. After a while, we saw a Motswana lad herding his goats. Ntshasa asked him about the situation at the border post.The herdboy told us that on the South African side, the border was always guarded by at least three people, one white and two African. Ntshasa wanted to know whether the South Africans were armed, and was told that the white man always carried a pistol in a holster, while the Africans were unarmed. On the Bechuanaland side was a check-post manned by the local police. Ntshasa seemed happy with the information and the car pulled off.
As we neared the border, I suggested that I jump out of the car and walk across the border while the car crossed through the check-post. Ntshasa said we could not be defeated by a single armed white man and his two assistants. We would fight them if the need arose.
As the car neared the gates, we could see nobody on the South African side of the border. The Bechuanaland police, recognising the Maseru registration on our car, opened their side of the gates and we entered Bechuanaland without incident.
We were directed to the immigration desk for the necessary entry formalities. The officer in charge of the Bechuana side was an African sergeant, a hefty man who told us that he had been in the service for many years and had also served in Basutoland. He was delighted to meet people from Lesotho and welcomed us most heartily.
In the course of his conversation with Ntshasa, it transpired that they were distant relatives. Meanwhile, we were trying to fill in the immigration forms. As I fiddled with the papers, I noticed the latest edition of the World newspaper on one of the immigration desks. The paper carried a front-page story of the attempted kidnap in Maseru. The story was accompanied by a large close-up photograph of me.
The sergeant, who was still talking to Ntshasa, asked for the paper, saying he had just read a story about a young man who was nearly kidnapped in Maseru, and wanted to know whether Ntshasa knew anything about the incident. Ntshasa replied that he had heard something of the sort a few days earlier, but did not know exactly what had happened.
For me, it was a trying moment. I did not know how I could fill in the forms without exposing myself. I filled in other details without putting down my name. I saw Ntshasa pull the sergeant aside. Whatever he said to the sergeant, I do not know, but the sergeant suddenly came rushing, grabbed the papers from my hands and destroyed them.
He told us to leave immediately as the South Africans were about to return from a tea break. We dashed for the car and in minutes, we were speeding down the dusty road to Lobatsi.
We reached Lobatsi at about 5pm, and pulled into a garage to repair our Ottoshoop tyre puncture. Then, Lobatsi was a small trading centre with a line of small shops facing the main road. As we pulled into the garage, I saw an African man watching us from the verandah of one of the shops. I thought I saw him check for something in his note book. The man then approached us.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said rather timidly, ‘you are travelling in a wanted car.’ Nobody seemed to worry about him. In fact, I was busy explaining to the garage attendant the type of repairs our tube needed. The man repeated his statement to us and Ntshasa told him to take the car if he was looking for it. He hastened to say that what he meant was that he was looking for us. The man, realising that he was making very little progress, left us and hurried across the shops and disappeared into the buildings.
In the meantime, we went into the small post office to send a message to the pilot, who was in Serowe.
We took off for Gaborone, but before we had gone far enough, we ran into a roadblock. Two cars were parked across the road. We pulled in close enough and stopped. This time, I was driving. After a short while, we saw two Englishmen in shorts emerging from the tall grass. They approached our car and without saying a word, looked at our faces to identify us.
After a couple of minutes, one of the men pointed at Francis Mbelu and shouted: ‘You are Kgosana, you!’ Francis pulled out his Swazi passport and handed it to the man.
The man looked at the picture for a while, paged through it and then and returned back to Francis. ‘Yes, but the man we want is in this car,’ he said.
At that moment, Ntshasa got out of the car and did the unexpected. He grabbed one of the British officials by the scruff of the neck, threw him to the ground and throttled him. The other man rushed and pulled away Ntshasa as we all joined in.
‘You guys have no respect for people,’ Ntshasa said. ‘You don’t greet us and arrogantly, you simply start off by talking nonsense. Can you see the registration of the car? It is from Basutoland, another British Protectorate just like Becuanaland’.
The ruffled man collected himself and after gathering enough courage, apologised but insisted that the wanted man was in the car. After much wrangling, Ntshasa agreed that we go to the police station as requested by the officers.
At the police station, we found a large number of African policemen who apparently already knew what was going on. As we entered the charge office, I saw one police officer bringing along a bulky file containing my photographs and press cuttings of the anti-pass campaign. He paged quickly through them and after a double check, smiled a bit and then pointed at me, saying: ‘You are the man who has given us sleepless nights.’ I told him that he could go and rest if he wished to. Within minutes, senior police officers emerged from their offices, and one ordered for drinks to celebrate the occasion. We were treated to soft drinks while the officer in charge explained the numerous radio messages received from South Afri ca since about midday that day. He told us of a message received from the South AfricanPolice , in which they requested the Gaborone police to smuggle me over the border so that they could claim that I had been arrested by South Africa before crossing into Bechuanaland.
I told the officer that ours was a political case, and that even if we had killed the Prime Minister of South Africa, they had no right to hand us over to the South African authorities. I warned that if he succumbed to South African pressure, he would one day have to explain his actions to the House of Commons in Britain. He understood. He then suggested that we fill in immigration forms, but we declined, telling him that we had filled them in at the border. I informed him that our aircraft was waiting for us in Serowe, and we were leaving Bechuanaland the following day. Outside the police station, the African policemen were excited to see us. They had filled our petrol tank and put two jerri-cans in our boot.
We took off for Serowe after the officer in charge had agreed to send a radio message to the pilot, informing him of our arrival. The time was about 2am when we finally arrived in Serowe. It was all excitement as we related our harrowing experiences along the dramatic escape route to the pilot.
In the morning, we called on Sir Seretse Khama, who had invited us, at his home. He welcomed us and wished us a happy stay. Later, we were invited to the offices of the Serowe chief, who asked us to stay longer in the country. Unfortunately, time and security considerations could not allow us to any longer.
At about 10am, we took off by air to Tanganyika while the Plymouth made the return journey to Maseru. We were later informed that Ntshasa had returned safely home.
When our aircraft was flying over Salisbury, airport control asked our pilot why he had entered Southern Rhodesian air space without permission. The pilot explained that he had called them for repeatedly for about an hour without any success. Silence fell as we waited for the next order. The pilot told us that we would not land if ordered to. Luckily, we got no such order.
Apart from the fierce storm we nearly ran into north of Lusaka in Northern Rhodesia, we had a fine long flight and landed at Mbeya (Tanganyika) at about 5pm the same day. We arrived in Dar-es-Salaam on Wednesday March 29, 1961 and the ordeal of leaving South Africa ended.
Oscar Kambona, a Cabinet Minister and Secretary General of TANU met Mbelu and I at the airport. Later that evening, I met my benefactor, Julius Nyerere, at his residence. He was then Chief Minister and had just concluded independence talks with the British government. Tanganyika was set for independence on December 9, 1961. I reached Tanganyika on an auspicious occasion, when the country was about to reap the real fruits of the liberation struggle lead by Nyerere and the dynamic TANU party.
*Lest We Forget is a self-published autobiography of the struggle veteran. To order a copy of the book contact Bani Kgosana at Bani.Kgosana@gmail.com