From Marabastad to Mogadishu: The Journey of an ANC Soldier
In this book extract former Umkhonto we Sizwe operative Hassen Ebrahim looks back on his life in the ANC underground in exile and inside SA.
By: Hassen Ebrahim
Sometime in 1981, I was asked by our Military Command to see if I could assist in establishing contact with Rocky. This came as a surprise to me because I assumed that our military and or intelligence structures were already working with him. Evidently, Rocky’s contact with Marius broke when the family left Botswana.
I was also anxious for a different reason. Rocky’s detention had led to my exile, and no one knew what information was disclosed during his detention and whether I was compromised at all. This naturally raised many concerns. These anxieties were only perked when I re-established contact and he so eagerly responded by coming out so quickly. I was very nervous. For this reason, I made sure that he was accommodated at the Oasis Hotel, which consisted of a number of chalets which made it easy to monitor and observe.
As a general rule, I never travelled around Gaborone armed unless I had to. This meeting was an exception and I was sure to bring along my trusty Makarov. Rocky was most excited about our reunion. I was keen to extract as much information as I could. It was immediately evident that Rocky was just his usual effervescent self, showing no anxiety or concern and was extremely well composed. His calm demeanour put an end to my concerns.
The first thing Rocky reported was the unfortunate demise of Gary who was also his closest friend and first recruit. I had helped with this recruitment not long before my departure from home. While the official explanation given was that Gary committed suicide, Rocky believed that Gary was murdered while at his base in the Northern Transvaal by members of the South African Defence Force and was quite bitter about it. Rocky was also quite excited to see me because he wanted to hand over two sets of documents that yet again reconfirmed the value of his recruitment. The first was a set of manuals and operational plans for the South African Defence Force deployment in Namibia (South West Africa). The second was a detailed map of the layout of Voortrekkerhoogte Military Base, which he had painstakingly recorded in quite a bit of detail.
This map was hand-drawn, almost to scale, on individual A4 pages, which when assembled measured several metres in length and width. Rocky was very excited about this map and spent some time laying it out on my lounge floor. The map recorded details like the layout of the most critical SADF sites at the base. This was an exceptionally valuable piece of intelligence about the headquarters of the apartheid military force, parts of which I could verify from my knowledge of the area because I visited it on several occasions.
This intelligence, I was later informed, was critical to one of MK’s most daring military operations carried out on 9 August 1981. On this evening, the White Blocks Residents Association of Laudium was holding a candle-lit march protesting against the appalling conditions that the community was forced to endure. At roughly the same time, and quite coincidentally, a couple of hundred metres away, an elite unit from the ANC’s Special Operations Unit under the command of the legendary Barney Molokoane successfully managed to fire five 122mm high-explosive fragmentation rocket missiles using a Grad-P Light portable rocket system on the SADF Military Headquarters. The launch of the attack from Laudium was most convenient as it was located so close by.
The attack was both audacious and historic. The timing could not have been more perfect. It was the first time ever that a sophisticated missile of this nature was launched as part of MK’s offensive. Equally noteworthy was the fact that it was launched against the military headquarters of the apartheid army. The attack had such a devastating effect on the morale of the apartheid rulers that they felt compelled to retaliate and attack the ANC’s London office on 14 March 1982. After 1990, when I met Rocky again, he told me that the South African government had understated the impact of the damage caused.
He had seen it as a major success and was proud to have had a part in it. Rocky later joined the new defence force and played an extremely important role in developing its policy and strategies. Rocky also wrote extensively for the South African National Defence Force in their military journal. With this in mind, it brought a chuckle to me to read what he wrote about the attack:-
The year 1981 saw MK operations interfacing with the nationwide anti-Republic Day demonstrations and focussing on the sabotage of specific strategic installations. Targets sabotaged included major Eskom power plants in the Transvaal, attacks on military bases in the rural areas, the sabotage of certain government buildings, and further attacks on the police. On the 9 August 1981, MK Special Operations personnel launched a dramatic attack on the Voortrekkerhoogte military complex outside Pretoria. Five projectiles were fired from a 122 mm rocket launcher (the first time artillery was used within South Africa by MK units) and a number of targets within the complex were struck, including a near-miss on the fuel depot within the complex. What made the attack particularly audacious was the fact that it was launched from military property on the western perimeters of the base.
Sadly, Rocky passed on after a brief illness in 2005.
In September 1981, I had started class at the University of Botswana for my law degree. This was a very different experience and a more pleasant one than my stint at Wits. There was less pressure, good lecturers and the classes were small enough to enjoy great debate.
Our class was the first batch of the new law faculty at the University of Botswana. It was also an important class that produced, in later years, several cabinet ministers, judges and leaders in Botswana’s politics. My best academic performance took place in the next two years. The five-year course incorporated a moot court programme which was designed to provide practical court experience, and so did not require any internship or articles. To encourage students along, the chief justice sponsored a medal for the top student who won at the moot court competition.
In 1982, I was awarded the first medal by the chief justice of Botswana in advocacy. Between 1983 and 1985, I continued part of my degree programme at the University of Edinburgh. In 1985, I obtained a second award for advocacy in Botswana and represented the country in Zimbabwe in the African Moot Court competition. My grades were also excellent. I remember thinking that perhaps I did have a future at law after all.
The year 1983 also proved to be a momentous year in our family. My only sister, Hajira, got married. I had the good fortune of meeting with her husband-to-be, Razaak, a few months before the wedding. This was a bitter-sweet gathering of the family. While I was really excited about the wedding, the reality of exile was that my only sister would be getting married without me being present to take a part in the ceremony and to help give her hand in marriage.
Razaak and Hajira were married in August 1983 at the same time as the launch of the UDF and just a month before I left for Edinburgh. Unknown to me, just shortly before the marriage, my father suffered a massive heart attack. The family decided not only to keep this a secret from me, but to also continue with the wedding despite my father’s grave medical condition. Unfortunately, my father’s ill health continued into a rather protracted history that he would eventually lose.
In September 1983, after having successfully completed my two years at the University of Botswana, I was to start the second two years of my study, this time at the University of Edinburgh. I had very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I was very excited to have the opportunity to leave the shores of Africa for the first time in my life to the UK and to continue with my studies. On the other hand, tremendous political changes were taking place and I did not want to be away. After consulting the comrades in our structures, it was felt that it was necessary that I leave. This would be yet another new beginning in my life.
The University of Edinburgh was founded in 1582 and is the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world. The university is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city of Edinburgh. I will always remember Edinburgh as being grey and drab. I arrived in the city quite reluctantly and had the misfortune of doing so at a time of the year when it was really cold and miserable. While this image remained, there were many redeeming features.
Old College is also one of the most prestigious law colleges in the world, and my two years there were a great learning experience and opportunity. Old College is also opposite the medical school where Yusuf Dadoo studied. The student residence, Pollock Halls, was located in a most beautiful place at the foot of Arthur’s Hill and within walking distance from campus.
My trip to Edinburgh was my first visit outside the African continent. I arrived one Friday in late September 1983 just at the beginning of winter. It was bitterly cold and stranger still were the short days with the sun rising late and setting early. My registration was processed on the morning of my arrival and with little fuss. After this, I was sent off to my student accommodation to get settled. I was surprised how smoothly it all went.
Edinburgh was very different. It was a cold, modern and organised place full of concrete and very few black people. Most of the black people I knew were my classmates from Botswana. One of the things I got to learn very early on was that even if people were polite, they were not entirely free of racism. Fortunately, most of the British students I got to know were welcoming and friendly and I discovered that the racists were just a minority.
Once I settled in, I began to realise that there was much to learn, gain and be happy about. For one, I became immediately conscious of the fact that I was free of the tension of threats to our security. This was a great relief and it was reflected in my academic performance. We were blessed with the incredible quality of lecturers. The standards were really high and we were encouraged to perform well and rewarded for it.
As a member of the ANC, I was required to report my presence in the UK to the ANC office in London. I did this as soon as I had the opportunity, which came during the vacations of December 1983. I took an overnight bus, which cost all of £12, and reported my presence to Aziz Pahad. After this, I returned to London whenever I could because I enjoyed my trips there so much. It still is one of my favourite cities.
London had a huge ANC community and a vibrant anti-apartheid movement. I was fortunate enough to experience the support of British people for our struggle. It was truly an incredible feeling to see so many people who were not South African work so extremely hard and be truly committed to the freedom of our people. Ironically, my first experience of mass-based anti-apartheid struggle took place in the UK and not South Africa. In general, London also offered a great political life and learning opportunities.
I was offered part-time work at the International Defence Aid Fund (IDAF) offices in London during the holidays, and the pay was great for a student. One of the perks of having a UN scholarship was the generous stipend. The extra money coming in from working meant that I could buy all the books I wanted. Needless to say, my experience in London was memorable.
At university, jurisprudence very quickly became my favourite subject. The study of legal philosophy allowed one to explore a number of concepts, which I found most challenging. We had the good fortune to be lectured by Professor MacCormick, who was a staunch Scottish nationalist and wrote prolifically on the subject. I did a critique of one of his books for an assignment and took issue with the arguments he made on Scottish independence using a Marxist-Leninist analysis. I was pleasantly surprised by the calm manner and grace with which he evaluated my paper. Without being patronising, he engaged with me and we had a most useful conversation. I did not quite expect it, but he was impressed by my audacity to challenge his ideas. At the end of our chat, he offered me a scholarship to study further at Edinburgh, which did much to boost my self-confidence. However, I was determined to return to the front in Botswana and had to decline the offer.
I enjoyed student life and my spirits were not dampened too much by the cold weather. Working with progressive students, we established a very successful structure supporting the Anti-Apartheid Movement on campus and used the nomination of Mandela for the position of University Chancellor to mobilise students. We ran a great campaign and managed to recruit a large number of supporters. It was a real blessing to know that so many people, despite being so far removed from South Africa, really cared for us and were prepared to do something about it. This was not only comforting but a great motivator too. It made me work that much harder.
It was during my anti-apartheid campaign work that I met Barbara, an arts student who also lived in Pollock Halls. Barbara was bright, knowledgeable and well read. Along with a number of other student activists, we spent a lot of time at the local student watering hole planning our anti-apartheid campaigns and fundraisers. These were memorable times. Barbara and I spent a lot of time together. We had the same political views on the situation both in the UK and South Africa. We shared a common commitment to justice and the struggle for freedom. We were drawn to each other and I enjoyed her company and quickly fell in love with her.
By the end of my two-year stint in Edinburgh our relationship had developed to a level where I felt ready to make a commitment and proposed to her. Each of us had still one more year at university before we qualified for our degrees – she at Edinburgh and me back in Botswana. I guess we figured that if our love could survive the additional year apart, she would then join me in Botswana and we would settle down. I was 28 years old and felt that I was old enough to settle down.
The two years I spent in Edinburgh leading a normal life made me think about many things differently. What became very clear was the fact that apartheid affected us well beyond the borders of South Africa. We were forced into leading abnormal lives. Our lives in the Forward Areas was abnormal. Having to continuously watch over our shoulders was not the way to live. It became clear that with struggle came great sacrifices. I found the imposition on us by our circumstances cruel and unbecoming.
The decision to get married was therefore an important statement to make. I was declaring myself to be a normal person. It was a refusal to succumb to the abnormality that apartheid imposed on us. Getting married would be a form of protest and making a statement. It was part of my struggle. This, however, was easier said than done. It was also selfish. What I obviously did not fully understand, and could not comprehend, was the impact that such a decision would have on Barbara and the children that we would later have. I had no idea of what was to come.
On 14 June 1985, a mere ten days before I returned to Botswana, the South African Defence Force troops, under the order of General Constand Viljoen, launched an attack in Gaborone called Operation Plecksy. The raid, the fifth attack by apartheid South Africa on a neighbouring country since 1981, killed 12 people including women and children. Only five of the victims were members of the African National Congress. This attack made me more eager to return to Gaborone and served to strengthen my resolve to continue my political work there with greater vigour.
I returned to a totally different Botswana. The tension was palpable. Everything had changed, even our command structures. I immediately set about orientating myself and catching up with developments. The expatriate community I used to know was no more. Paranoia had set in. The mood was sombre and attitude serious. Even our underground command structures were being reorganised.
Little did I know that this was the setting in which my life was about to change so dramatically. The shift would be seismic. Life was never going to be the same. Suddenly, and without knowing it, I boarded a rollercoaster ride that was to continue for the next 20 years. It was going to be a life that was to become extremely intense, fast, dangerous and continuously changing. For the moment, however, I needed to get my head around what happened during my absence and make sense of the new challenges we were facing.
My family came to visit as soon as I returned. What a pillar of strength they were. Aside from helping me once again furnish my new accommodation, they bought me the latest computer – a IBM with a stunning 200 MB hard drive, floppy disk reader and dot-matrix printer. I also came back with a new attitude to my studies. I enjoyed the past four years of academic life and managed to do well at it. I was now into my last year of studies, eager to excel and quite excited by this. I was, however, more excited by the prospect of getting back to my political work in building the underground. I contacted Wally Serote, who was now responsible for the political structures, and got a briefing on developments.
*From Marabastad to Mogadishu: The Journey of an ANC Soldier is written by Hassen Ebrahim. It is published by Jacana Media. The RRP is R250