This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
Conducted by Howard Barrell,
Johannesburg, November 27 1990
As I point out in that letter, I am trying to write a serious work of history. So, if there is something that you can't answer, my request is that you just say "no" rather than mislead me.
And it is quite important to explore the question of whether or not you had an association [with the ANC] and in what form. And I appreciate that you have gone under oath in various situations. I am now asking for the truth that you are able to tell me. If you feel you can answer the question, just say so. Or just say you won't answer.
How do you explain that I went on record as saying that I didn't have any association with the ANC and that books are going to be written about that...
Well, perhaps it is not the truth. I don't know.
But then you write another book with a direct interview with me which contradicts what I have said under oath. What does that do to one's credibility.
I can't answer that question. All I can say is that I think the situation now exists to tell history as it is. And, in my experience of political trials, as soon as somebody gets up in the witness box and promises to tell the truth, they start lying.
So perhaps anyway we could find a way of dealing with this.
How are you going to - are you going to report it in quotations.
It could be in quotations, but it will certainly be referenced. In other words, this is the fact, footnote to X reference. Now, if at any stage you would like to go off the tape, we could do that - in the sense that I would then be informed off the record will inform my general knowledge but again not be referenced.
OK? Now Popo, I would like to start. The first time one comes across you in the media sense is in the late 1970s, early 1980s, when you are a member of Azapo, as I understand. What was your position in Azapo? I understand you were involved in Soweto.
Ja. I was amongst the people who were involved in the discussions leading to the formation of Azapo in 1978, April of that year. I subsequently became the chairperson of the Johannesburg district - that is how the Soweto branch [telephone rings] - do you want to stop for a while? How can I stop this sound?
I don't mind the sound.
Oh, it doesn't affect you.
No, no, it won't affect it.
Oh. Now I was saying I subsequently became the chairperson of the Johannesburg district of Azapo. Well, I held that position until December of 1980, when I had a fall [out] with Azapo because, now, you know, ideological differences began to manifest themselves within the organisation. Of course, at the time when we formed Azapo in 1978, my leanings towards the African National Congress and my acceptance of the Freedom Charter was no secret - it was known to the chaps - just as much as it was known that a number of the key people in Azapo were supporters of the PAC. We agreed to form Azapo on the understanding that what was required was to unite the masses of our people regardless of ideological inclination and harness them in the struggle for national democracy and freedom. That was the basis upon which we came together to form Azapo. And this explains also why Curtis Nkondo became the first president of Azapo. At that stage, he was known to be an ardent supporter of the African National Congress but he was seen as having the capacity of uniting various strands of the oppressed people, of anti-apartheid groupings into one movement; he could draw in the support of high school students, university students, and other people, the teachers and so on. That is the reason why he became president.
When do you start becoming receptive to the Freedom Charter? Or ANC perspectives?
That occurs around 1977. It occurs after, you know, 1976. You would recall that the events of 1976, 1977 - you know, the massacre of students around the country by the police - had politicised a lot of people. I am not suggesting that I learned my politics at that time - I had long been involved with the Black People's Convention [BPC] before that. But it - by 1977, it was becoming quite clear that the only instrument through which our freedom could be attained was the African National Congress, and in particular through its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe [MK]. It was clear to all of us at that stage that the African National Congress was the only organisation which had the facilities to train us, to prepare us to fight for our freedom.
Now, before 1976, was there any reason to believe that? What made you believe that before 1976? There hadn't been, from the ANC's side, a single shot fired or bomb going off in anger since about 1964.
Well, I am saying, this shift occurred in 1977. So one can't say that before 1976. As far as 1976 is concerned, I can tell you a story. There was a time when we were so much ignorant of MK that, as youngsters, we were thinking of setting up our own underground organisation which would go out and look for arms somewhere.
What year was that?
That would have been around 1974. Yes.
This would have been your BPC days?
Yes. We used to sit there, discussing this, and talking of how we could get arms and so on. At that stage, while we were members of the BPC, we actually saw no active role for ourselves in the BPC apart from just going to commemoration services, attending, you know, general members' meetings. There were no specific tasks, you know, given to individual members. And that made us feel really despondent and we felt that we needed something, you know, that could be done.
So, as soon as the ANC armed propaganda campaign starts in about 1976, late 1976 - the first attack is in October 1976, that's by Naledi Tsiki and those people - as soon as that starts happening you guys think, sit up. And, if I formulate it this way: if I said that you identify the ANC as having a seriousness which the other movements don't have - would that be a correct...?
Yes, that's correct. Also because, you see, that was happening just a few years after we had seen developments in Angola, in Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. You know, we had seen the collapse of the Portuguese colonialism there. And you would recall that around 1974, the young people in South Africa - especially under the leadership of Saso and BPC - got involved in, you know, the whole question of publicising the, what was happening in Mozambique, and attempts to celebrate the victory of Frelimo. Now, once the armed propaganda of the ANC started, or replayed itself - because I think it started in about 1961, we were not aware of it, we youngsters at that time - but when it became quite clear in 1976, 1977, it gave us more hope. We saw ourselves being part of the unfolding drama giving rise to the collapse of colonialism. We saw apartheid, now, also being in the throes also of its collapse.
Now when do you first meet the ANC? Come into contact in any form with the ANC - the underground or individuals you believe, or have subsequently found out, were in the underground at that time?
You see, I had known many people who had been in the ANC for many, many years, but had been in the country. But due to the repression of the 1960s, they were very reluctant to discuss the ANC. I mean I had known people like Stephen Sigale, who had at one stage been the president of the [ANC] Youth League in the Transvaal. I had known people like Magopo [spelling??], David Magopo, who had been one of the best organisers of the movement, especially in the Northern Transvaal. I had known Frank Modiba, who was one of the Treason Trialists of 1956. And quite a number of others. I had also known the daughter of one of the presidents of the ANC, Makgatu [spelling??], who was my neighbour as I grew up. Well, she used to talk to me about the ANC but she was a bit reserved. So, I knew about the ANC. I don't know if those people were involved in underground work - they would not like to talk to me about it. Really they started talking to me about it once they had discovered that I myself now knew about the ANC and I supported its programme. But the actual, I think the actual contact with the underground of the ANC would have occurred around 1978 whilst I was in Azapo.
Now, can you give me any indication as to what form that contact took and, in the new legal situation that we are in now, can you indicate who your contact might have been?
I don't think - would you like to talk about names? - I don't think we should do so...
Names become important...
The difficulty you have is that some people may not like their names to be used. But I am going to try to use some names of people who I think might not mind. I came into contact with a person, a person such as Roller Masinga, Joe Gqabi, to a limited extent Chris Hani...
Was that on one of Chris' visits into the country?
No, I went there. Tenjiwe Mtintso.
Who was also in Lesotho in those days?
Were you at all involved with Martin Ramokgadi?
No, I was not involved with him. I was not involved with him.
And old man Nchabaleng?
No. No. I used to go to their trial in 1977, but I was no involved with him.
And with Nkadimeng?
No. Those are the only names I am prepared to mention so far.
I would like to ask you one other name. If you don't want to answer the question, then you just say so. But a man who does appear to have been very important around about that time, or certainly in subsequent years, and who is now clearly identified with the ANC, is Samson Ndou.
Yes, I worked closely with Samson Ndou. Sydney Mufamadi at that stage.
And Solomon Pholoto? Can I mention that name.
Yes. Elliot Tshabangu.
Who is now dead.
Ja. He's now passed away. Ja.
OK, so there was this - I know there was this group in Soweto...
Well, they would have been others like, for instance, Curtis Nkondo. Well, I will not mention others. That should be OK [Laughter].
No, that's fine. I thought as much.
Ja. Ja, I won't mention others.
Now, if we could jump a while. In May 1981, you address an SACC [South African Council of Churches] conference, and you call for a united front. Now, I am interested in the origin of this thinking which are then expressing at this meeting in, SACC meeting in 1981, when you call for a united front.
Off the record...
[Tape turned off]
[Molefe gives clearance to turn tape on again]
Ja, within our ranks as underground operatives of the movement, there had been ongoing debate on the need for a broad front against apartheid. And this was as a result of the repeated calls made by the president of the movement, both in his addresses, in his interviews, and also of course carried in the publications of the movement such as Sechaba. We found that call to be one with a lot of attraction and addressing the specific needs of our situation, and quite in line with the perspectives of the ANC as to how our strategic objective of the seizure of power could be attained. You know, at that time we were talking about the seizure of power. And we said that, in order for us to attain that strategic goal, it was necessary to harness in the broad anti-apartheid struggle all those forces opposed to apartheid, unite them in a common assault...
We are now still talking of 1981?
Yes. Uniting them in a common assault against that edifice of apartheid. That whereas the ANC was seeing itself as the vanguard of that struggle, it did not lead its members only; it had it's ideas, the superiority of its ideas and the correctness of its strategies must be of such a nature that it draws a wide range of people into that struggle.
Can I interrupt you at this point? Do you want to continue?
No, let's leave it.
I'd like to ask you a question. What you have said is wonderful [stuff]. I need to know whether, by 1981, by the time you make this talk, you have seen or heard of a document produced in the external mission which is referred to by two names: the one name is "The Report of the Politico-Military Strategy Commission" of 1979; it is also known as the "Green Book". Have you, at this stage in 1981, had access to, or been briefed on, or heard reference to the document?
No I had not heard reference to that document. I have no recollection of being briefed about it. It may well be that in the discussions that we had had, people might have used the contents of that document without expressly stating so. So I don't know. I have heard of the Green Book, but loosely, you know.
When do you first hear of the Green Book in this loose way?
I can't remember very well, but it could probably have been around the early 1980s - maybe 1982.
Before the formation of the UDF?
Maybe 1982, 1983 - I am not quite sure.
But can we say that you had - is it correct that you had heard about this Green Book before the formation of the UDF?
No, I don't like that. I don't know. I don't know if it is before the formation of the UDF [Laughter].
OK, now this perspective you were developing with other comrades inside the country in about 1981 and thereafter on the desirability of forming a united front. Was there any input to this idea, in the way you people were discussing it, that was coming from the external mission? Apart from - you have mentioned interviews with Tambo, statements in Sechaba - but in any contacts that you, or other members or other people that you were in contact with - were you aware of any external mission, ANC external mission, input into this idea?
I will tell you what. You see, once we - yes, in the discussions that I had had with some key people, operating that side at that time...
That side meaning outside?
Ja. We did discuss the need and urgency of a broad front, not necessarily the UDF. You see, a broad anti-apartheid front. That recurred many times in our discussions. To that extent, one could say there was that input. Somehow in the discussions that I used to have with the comrades, it was not a sort of a situation where, you know, I was given orders: You go and do this. I think in many respects people respected my own independent thinking and my ability to initiate things if conditions were appropriate for that.
So what we are talking about is a kind of a confluence of thinking?
Between an independent thinker like Popo Molefe and other people who are perhaps organisationally bound?
Ja. Because you see, by around 1980 in Soweto, for instance, I had already started encouraging discussion around the need to create some sort of a mini-front, you see. We were looking at the situation in Soweto, how we could draw in organisations in common campaigns and a common programme. We were thinking of Fosatu at the time, thinking of Azapo, the civic associations, women's groups and so on, the students organisations - you see that discussion was taking place, including the then Black Municipality Workers' Union, you know the Joe Mabi, Martin Seri [spelling??] and Dlamini. Is it Dlamini?
Dlamini is the PAC guy, ja.
What is his name? Phillip Dlamini.
So already we had started debating this thing, you see.
Now, I'd like to go back to something you said earlier. Can we go on until a quarter to? Will that suit you?
Will that give you enough time?
Ja, that would be all right.
OK, can we go back to something? It's a very important point. You said earlier that, OK, people were talking about the seizure of state power, the involvement of the broad mass of people under the form of a front was seen as a key stage or let's say a key element in being able to move towards the seizure of state power. What I would like to ask you is: in these discussions in 180, 1981, 1982, when you were talking in this way, how do you, what's your vision of how a broad front would articulate with an underground, would articulate with an armed capacity like MK? What sort of thinking are you developing on how these different forces can be brought together in a sustained assault on state power? What ideas are being thrown around about this?
I have never been involved at the level of the military. And I have not been involved in any discussion on how these different elements could coordinate. But one would imagine, if you allow me to speculate [Laughter]...
I would like you to speculate...
One would imagine that, given that the African National Congress is an underground organisation, it sought to have presence in all legal formations, that through its cadreship that operates in these legal formations it would be able to give its own input and seek to guide such formations, including that broad front. Now the continual communication between, constant communication between the cadreship of the movement that is in legal formations and the structures, higher structures, would facilitate the flow of information which will proliferate into I think the politico-military formations, thus enabling them to develop appropriate plans of action, operations which would accord with what would be taking place at a mass level. Let us imagine this: that, if, for instance, at a broad front level, major mass activities are taken up, with massive propaganda, an attendant massive propaganda campaign, that simultaneously there could take place military operations which could give a backing to that mass action that would be taking place. And you have some sort of coordinated action at all these levels, thus raising the awareness of the masses to the fact that the armed wing is a component of this very unfolding broad political struggle taking place. That is my speculation.
Now, you say that you were never involved at a military level. Now, you were in touch with people who were clearly part of formal ANC underground structures...
Now, if you have two more questions, you can ask them.
Then I'd like to move on. I'd like to leave that question alone and move up to early 1983. At the Transvaal Anti-SAIC conference: were you at the conference?
No, I was not there. I was not present.
But, at that conference, a commission reported on the desirability of a united front. You and others are - well, others are certainly involved in taking this decision - my understanding certainly is that there is a line in from Natal to that decision-making process which clearly implies that the ANC would look with favour on the formation of such a front. What I am interested in asking you now, if we can leave aside what was told about Natal, why were you so clear in 1983 up until the formation of the national UDF in August 1983 that there was absolutely no chance of any opposition to the formation of that front from the ANC external mission? Because clearly you were. Or am I wrong? Were there questions about it?
No. I don't know. There might have been questions, but I don't think - Look, the point is, firstly, I have already indicated that the question of a front had been a subject of debate among the cadreship of the movement. So basically what was happening was a fruition of what existed at the conceptual level for some time. But, apart from that, participating in that sort of a front at the initial stages were all formations which were seen as allied to the movement - you think of the Gawus, think of Saawu, you think of the youth congresses, the students congresses, the Indian congresses, you know, well the Natal Indian Congress [NIC] - this one [Transvaal] was just being formed, of course...
The TIC was formed in May. But basically what was happening was that it was the Charterist forces coalescing into one...
[End of Side A]
The movement to have any difficulty. But I should also indicate that during the early stages of the discussion on the formation of the front, there was continual exchange of views between ourselves and the outside; and it was quite clear that the outside was supportive of that view.
When were these discussions taking place?
Well I indicated to you that I had been in touch since 1978. And that continued, I mean. Even if I was not doing it myself. But other people were doing it and I was quite aware of that, you see. So that was continuing right up to 1983.
Can you indicate who in the external mission those discussions took place with?
I said earlier that some of the names I don't want to mention and, unfortunately this person is one of those.
I am thinking particularly of the external mission. Is it not possible to mention names?
I am aware, although I did not directly take part in that, that a person like Mac Maharaj would have been involved. Yes. Ja.
OK, can I ask you one final question? Did you want to add anything to that. When the UDF is formed, there is a suggestion by some people that the Freedom Charter became the basis for the unity. It is decided in the initial period that this will not be the case. What is the reason for deciding that the Freedom Charter should not initially be the programme around which the UDF coheres?
First, our perspective around the issue of a front was that it should be capable of drawing in forces which had previously not been part of the Freedom Charter camp. It should have been able to draw in the churches, even the Azapos and other black consciousness organisations like Cusa at the time, which we succeeded to draw in at the beginning. And a number of civic associations which were apolitical or had no definite political orientation. Now, any move towards the adoption of the Freedom Charter would have been a contradiction in terms - it would have defeated that purpose. It was precisely for that reason that we argued that the Freedom Charter should not be adopted. And I suppose you know I am one of those who argued continually against the adoption of the Freedom Charter.
OK, Popo, if you've got to rush now...
Yes, unless you have a very important question...
No, I'd like to leave it there...
I know you are not happy...
[End of Interview]