This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
05 Sep 2001: Ebrahim, Hassen
POM Hassen, I'm going to go over some of the corrections that you made in our original interview which you revised last December, I think, and which I worked on in June 2000. Where I have referred to pages I will be referring to pages in the document that I have which is called Until Death Do us Part, a very cheery title for a chapter. Some of them are small, I have down here at the bottom of the paragraph: - "Our community has thrived. It is only of late that Indians are beginning to break into medium sized business." I had inserted the word 'Indians', that hadn't been clear.
You said that when you were living in Marabastad that it was easy to get involved in politics. Why was it easy to get involved?
HE There are definitely a whole host of different types of explanations for that. Historically Marabastad was like a melting pot similar to Sophiatown where you had all the different communities living in close proximity to each other, literally across the street. It was also an area of some poverty so you found that the working class elements and all the struggles of daily life, as it was affected by apartheid, manifesting itself in the community. It was very easy, you understood race relations, you understood the full impact of apartheid, and it hit you quite hard as it did to people in Sophiatown, Pageview, Mayfair, those sort of areas, District Six, a similar sort of environment.
POM Now you were moved, you were forcibly moved?
HE Yes, in terms of the Group Areas Act, yes.
POM Can you remember the day, the age you were when that happened?
HE Well forcibly removed was not as terrible a thing as in the African communities where they were literally put on the back of a truck and they were moved to empty grounds in an area which they did not know. Laudium started off something like, I would think, about 40 years ago, 35 years ago, mid-sixties, and people steadily moved there.
POM Were you given notice that you had to be out of your house by a certain date?
HE Yes, not really, we did have to move out of the area because there were going to be no residential people allowed to live there, it was just business. In our community you had basically the house at the back of the shop, that's how we lived. That's how we got by, we were the last remaining people in Marabastad, which is sad because what happened is as they started breaking down the houses, because the moment people moved out of the house they broke them down, and when they broke them down half the rats and mice came across and they came to the very big houses, the places were literally infested with all these damn things.
POM When you moved did they move you to a house that was already built?
HE No, no. Look, Laudium was an area that was opened up for us in terms of the Group Areas Act, plots and council houses and so on were made available. We then moved into a council flat in 1973 and then whilst we were in the flat we then bought a piece of land from the Council for the princely sum of R3600, and that's where my father built our first house and we moved in December 16th 1976. That's when we moved in.
POM And there were other houses being built on other plots of land around you?
HE That's right.
POM For the African community that would have been moved to?
HE Atteridgeville, Mamelodi, yes.
POM Now would they have received a similar treatment or would they have been dumped more or less?
HE They would have been dumped, yes. They left a long time before we did. The removals of African people from Marabastad took place, I think we were dealt with much more gently than the African people. The coloured community went over to Eersterus, we went over to Laudium, the African community went much earlier than that.
POM This is just a clarification on the spelling of APIES?
HE Yes, same river that Winston Churchill swam in to freedom.
POM You talk about your language of Gujarati. That's obviously Indian. Where does it come from in India?
HE The province of Gujarat.
POM How many, you many not even know, languages are there?
HE There are 100 major languages.
POM Not 100 official languages I hope!
HE 100 major languages, not dialects, and several thousand dialects.
POM Gujarati would be a language, not a dialect?
HE It's a language as in Sotho coming from Lesotho, Tswana the same.
POM You're talking in the last paragraph on page 2, you're saying: "1976 was also a time when the ANC started picking up and stepping up its own military activities. Some of the mistakes made and the arrests and killings of ANC people became of grave concern to us." The two questions I have are (i) what kind of mistakes, and (ii) who were making the mistakes?
HE If you look at the name of Solomon Mahlangu, he was hung. In fact that case was central from a legal point of view, the conspiracy fear, common cause, the common cause concept where he was hung. Anyhow, he and his unit members were in central Johannesburg and they got out of a taxi and out of one of the plastic bags I think a limpet mine or something fell out so they were immediately detected and ran and they were obliged to use transport, public transport sometimes making their clothing very difficult. I felt, you know we came from the Indian community, we were better well off.
POM When you're talking about 'us' you're talking about the people in the movement who were Indian?
HE Yes, yes.
POM Came, in a way, from better, more affluent families.
HE Yes, so we had things like cars, we could borrow cars or had access to it so we could move people, so the immediate thought that occurred to us in 1976 was how might this ANC approach us so that we can actually remove their cadres, it would be easier for us to do that. We could move through with less suspicion.
POM You talked about the year you went to university, 1976, as being a seminal year. That's the year you went to Durban Westville?
HE That's right, yes.
POM Seminal in what sense? Who did you come in contact with there?
HE No individual really made an impact on me, it was the environment.
POM This is, again, an Indian-only university?
HE A bush college, what we call a bush college, it was the only Indian college for the university.
POM Let me just add an addendum to that question and ask you: why do you think that the Indian community, given its relative affluence, I think in fact that the per capita income of Indians is higher than the per capita income of the whites.
HE Not necessarily whites, no.
POM But it's up there.
HE One has to be a little cautious. The community I came from, I come from the Transvaal Indian community, primarily traders. On the whole at that point in time we were the better-off Indians as opposed to Natal where you would find the poverty stricken, the majority of the Indian community. And then even in the old Transvaal Johannesburg lands and those areas had the majority of the working class whereas Laudium had more the merchant class. We were a merchant community in Laudium so when I say 'us' I am referring to Pretoria Indians, the more affluent ones which it's not necessarily generic, it wasn't true of KwaZulu, the Indian community of KwaZulu-Natal.
POM Why do you think, being in such a relatively affluent position, did so many of you become so passionately involved in the struggle?
HE I think that's a curious and a very important question which we today in terms of looking at the national question sort of ignored and I think it is quite right to question it. The Indian community was born out of, in SA because the first group of Indians came as migrant labourers, they were the coolies, the people who dealt with your cheap labour, whether in Durban the sugar cane cutters and then your street hawkers, your vendors, your cleaners and that sort of thing. It was only in the later immigration of Indians that came through of a small, not quite merchant group, no merchants came from Indian, but people with some business savvy and background, informal sort of business, came through basically to tend to the other Indians who were workers really. Some Indians actually prospered over time, not immediately, over 50, 60 years prospered but that's a minority, you can't make a general comment. But out of the dire situation came out a very awkward situation. You must remember that the Indians came with a passionate sort of anti-British, anti-colonial attitude from India so when the Anglo-Boer War came about some Indians were proud to side with the Boers even though Mahatma Gandhi supported the British Ambulance sort of thing.
POM As did the Irish revolutionaries at the turn of the century, the Irish Brigade, the Transvaal Irish Brigade.
HE That's exactly it.
POM The same thing.
HE I remember once my father saying with some pride that one of the only horses in the broad family was taken up by the Boers in the Boer War. Not very interestingly Marabastad was leased to the Indian community, they weren't given title but it was given to the Indian community by Paul Kruger in response to the positive response by the Indian community during the Boer War. My grandfather supplied bananas to Paul Kruger. They were quite proud of that. We sold to the Boers and so on and that's where he came up in life. He was totally illiterate, he died illiterate but he died a wealthy man by his terms in those days. They came from India with nothing other than a bag and he worked his way and walked his way from the harbour in Natal all the way through Transvaal and came here and got by by salvaging rotten bananas and taking the good ones from the bad ones and putting together bunches and selling them a penny a time and working his way up he became quite a wealthy man in his terms. They were confronted by the full impact of apartheid. They were also educated people.
POM In 1948, so in a way you had been treated differently until 1948?
HE It was terrible until 1948, even after 1948 it didn't change. It didn't really change. It was only in the sixties and the seventies. The seventies was the first real change that took place, it was with PW Botha's reforms. We saw some improvement. Indians in the Transvaal or Pretoria started becoming also a little bit more wealthy, and wealth is relative, I'm not talking of big industrialists or anything like that, but wealthy in our terms. They were merchants. So they did well but on the whole there was a strong sense of this anti-colonial attitude that came from India, a very strong culture I think was significant. Their interaction with the African community was also very important, it's significantly changed now. It made them part we were primed really, our socio-economic conditions were perfect for us to join hands with the African people in the resistance. The Congress in African National Congress comes from the Indian Congress and it comes from the early Indian interaction and Mahatma Gandhi's involvement. Our relationship with the African community was perfect for that mutual growth and development within a resistance mode. Very strong ties and it was natural for us to get involved.
POM Do you think that the anti-colonialism streak that was in the culture was because of British oppression?
POM They just moved sideways and the Afrikaners took over and became the new oppressor, that sentiment was already in the culture, it didn't have to be built.
HE Absolutely. I think that that resistance to British colonialism was embedded in our culture and borne through various generations that didn't know anything about British colonialism and saw it's way through and was a strong influencing factor.
POM You said, at the end of page two: "I couldn't find the ANC locally so I left the country to find the ANC." You just took a train, drove off?
HE No. I made cautious enquiries amongst people and then came across somebody who had studied in Botswana and who knew of Marius and Jeanette Schoon.
POM You mentioned them, yes.
HE I managed to get a letter of introduction from this friend of mine who had studied in Botswana.
POM Were the Schoons members of the ANC?
HE Yes, yes. They were in exile based in Botswana and so I went over to Botswana armed with my letter of recommendation and went up to them.
POM In joining the ANC in Botswana was there at that point a vetting process?
POM So here you came in, you had a letter.
HE Oh yes there's always a vetting process. It wasn't that good in the seventies but became very good later, so your normal vetting process would be
POM In the seventies would be?
HE You'd do a biography and so in the eighties it carried on so if you wanted to join the ANC you'd do a biography and you'd detail your life history and whatever it is and where possible they would do background checks on you.
POM That would be almost impossible in most cases. If you were a good story teller you could have
HE In the mid-eighties it really wasn't impossible. We were pretty good at that. In the mid-seventies it wasn't that good. You must remember 1976 Jimmy Kruger boasted that of every ten people that went out into exile at least one was an enemy agent so a lot of them filtered through. A lot of young provocateurs came through so they filtered in the process and the ANC wasn't that good. With us it was a standard sort of formula. They would do a complete biography, that was standard and where possible those biographical chats would be done.
POM You said you'd left to join the ANC and you were charged with the task of organising the Indian community within SA. So you weren't at that point in any military structure?
HE OK. At that point in time, until 1985 your political and the military and the intelligence structures were totally distinct and separate. It was closer to 1985 that we joined. In 1976 also the ANC with the massive upsurge of resistance established what in fact was a revolutionary council headed by Oliver Tambo and Yusuf Dado, that was a revolutionary council and you had political structures, military structures and so on, separate. I went into one of the political structures much to my dismay because I wanted to be involved in the military structures.
POM But at the same time you say that when you had been at Wits and Tony Leon's style turned off all these disgruntled whites that you used to pick them up and recruit them and send them into the military.
HE Useful pickings. Not necessarily. You must remember that at that time conscription was a problem especially in a liberal university where reasonably affluent whites came to, so they would come with some sort of liberal background.
POM Mostly English speaking?
HE English speaking, coming to Wits which was a highly political student environment. A number of them would come to university to escape conscription but couldn't escape conscription and they had to be conscripted so there was tension and resistance and so there was a lot of anger as well. The PFP at that time, Progressive Federal Party which Tony Leon was Youth Leader of, was in effect but not that effective. In my view Tony Leon's leadership style is what put off a number of people and put them off white traditional mainstream liberalism which is what the remnants of the PFP were during that time. Some of these people had to go to the military. A couple of them, which I'd recruited, moved into the military in fairly important positions and they became very valuable for the ANC in terms of information, also from an intelligence point of view I scored.
POM So did they stay after they had been conscripted? Did they make a career out of staying in the military?
HE They were in the military on assignment.
POM So they stayed in the military and as the years went by they moved up in seniority and were in a position to supply more important information? I'll put that in the context of you saying that
HE One of them died in a military camp, it was in 1978. Some of us believe that he was killed because he started becoming reckless. He was based in the Phalaborwa military camp in the Northern Province. Some intelligence reports suggested that he was getting a little reckless with his interaction with his fellow soldiers. At that point in the Northern Province, 1978, a number of Rhodesians were coming over and were also based there so Selous Scouts characters and so on were based there. There was some suggestion that Paul became a little reckless, he was discovered and he was then killed. All the same the facts that we know of are that he was found having shot himself with his rifle. It's a little difficult with a rifle to shoot yourself but that's what happened. The other stayed on in the army for a considerable period of time and got to even recruit other people there. Useful.
POM So you felt you were able at least one person to initiate a network within the military, one man who remained in the military and would come over as time went by?
HE Two of them. One became a commander who went off to South West Africa/Namibia and the other was in a very prime position in the signals room, so it meant that Constand Viljoen, who was head of the army at that point in time, he used to get one copy and I used to get the other of all the intelligence reports. Wonderful telex machines.
POM Have you ever told him that?
HE No I didn't. I think he would have laughed.
POM The structures you were setting up in the country here, you were setting them up under the 'ANC proper'?
HE Oh absolutely, yes.
POM Not the MK?
HE They were ANC cells, political cells.
POM Political cells. OK. Their purpose was?
HE To be more blunt and direct I think it was political cells and most of our work was propaganda work, it was getting the propaganda out.
POM And propaganda would consist of?
HE ANC materials, getting leaflets out, materials out. It was a full fledged political unit and we did a lot of political work.
POM So would you go into townships and distribute literature and things like that?
HE No, no, remember that we focused on the Indian community, not necessarily on the African townships. So we looked at different methods of disseminating our information whether it was leaflets or other material and generally started recruiting.
POM You were really dealing with the Indian community in the broad PWV region?
HE Primarily Pretoria, Johannesburg sort of axis.
POM You said: "A large number of people infiltrated the ANC. As we saw in the early eighties those people who were lying low began to surface in sometimes fairly key positions." Can you give an example of someone who was discovered who was in a fairly key position? What would happen to somebody if they were discovered?
HE I think the debates and the stories relating to the people who were arrested by the ANC and placed in Quatro Camp was that grouping of people that the ANC found. We were in an awkward position because we were in frontline states where we were in a hostile environment, where the governments there did not necessarily accept or tolerate our presence. We were essentially working as much under cover there as we would have worked inside the country so it was hostile. All of a sudden you would come up on somebody who you had a very strong suspicion or evidence that was working for the enemy. What would you do if they had been exposed to your whereabouts, where you lived and whatever else? The ANC were in an extremely awkward position. I think Quatro Camp was that attempt to try and find a prison of sorts, to imprison those agents provocateur. And so that's generally what took place. Round about 1982 1985 was a massive sort of rise up of all these dormant agents provocateur who had risen in the ranks and during that period, I don't remember what it was called but something of the sort of 'Operation Clean-up', we had to clean our ranks. Naturally intelligence became very strong within the ANC because of the levels of infiltration and so on. Security was tightened up and it had it's impact, yes. It was not an easy environment.
POM I always find there's an irony to being agent provocateur or an informant, that to be a successful one you must be really good at what you do within the organisation that you're infiltrating so that you get some (recognition) and people see you're working hard and late hours. So on the one hand you're really thought of very highly and the idea is
HE That's exactly the story, the image we had. They did very well.
POM This is page 6 where you talk about the debate about making the country ungovernable. Was that a debate that took place within the ANC first before it was issued as an edict?
HE Yes. I don't know how one would put it. My own understanding of it all was that it was a debate amongst or within the ANC both inside and outside the country, it was an organic sort of debate arising from tensions, levels of resistance and so on. Basically the concept was that we could make the country ungovernable because of apartheid, black people who provided labour were in the townships and we could galvanise our communities to oppose these dummy councils.
POM This would be after the tricameral parliament came into existence?
HE That's right. Well even before then, that we could galvanise them into action resisting local forms of manifestations of apartheid and so on whether it was through student uprisings or student organisation work or organisation and it was a birth of this civil society movement that we currently see. So that was very important for us.
POM I want to put that kind of on one hand, and then you have on the other the numerous stories one has picked up over the years and have been written about and that is the comrades who took over townships, 15-year olds who imposed their rule and held people's courts and in effect they liberated themselves by oppressing the oppressed even more.
HE I think that's an image some people have, I'm not sure if it's an entirely accurate image. What happened was that with this ungovernability that you met local forms of apartheid being resisted in all its forms whether through your local government or whatever it is, so the rent boycotts, lights and water, refuse removal, and what you find is that it became very difficult to manage and govern the townships and with the inability of the apartheid state to manage the townships local forms of control came up, the communities started organising themselves around cleaning the townships, around basic things. What was also very difficult was that law and order wasn't quite as firm because the police focus was on security matters, not on your basic facts and your basic problems that took place. It became an issue for people to find some normal societal process. You don't have the formalistic order, you have the informal order. You can't leave a community of people together without rules being established between them and sometimes when those rules are not formalised and established as in organised societies you tend to see some levels of excesses and what happens is that we hear about the excesses, what we don't hear about is the normal sort of circumstances.
So the image people have is because the stories people told were of what went wrong; people don't tell the stories of what went right. So when you refer to things such as the comrades taking over and lawlessness and the kangaroo courts, it upsets people like me, we get very defensive about it. Aside from being defensive about it but I think what wasn't recognised, I'm not disputing that there was an element where that took place and that was improper but those were excesses where no formal rules were established, when your street committees and what we refer to as organs of people's power arose, there was an attempt to actually assert some level of authority in an organised, disciplined way. By and large that's what took place but that's not ignoring the fact that there were excesses in some instances. What we referred to, what a lot of commentators unfortunately referred to in that period, is as a period of lawlessness and they refer to that period by referring to these instances of excesses. I think that's wrong because I think that's a caricature, that's a distortion. There's a lot of good that came out of it but a lot went wrong and understandably so. You don't need to be a great sociologist to understand that.
POM I want to give you an analogy to see whether you think it's approximate or not. It's that in Belfast during the hunger strikes whenever one of the men on hunger strike would die there would be rioting all over West Belfast or North Belfast or whatever and what the police did they essentially cordoned off the area and contained the rioting to the areas in which these people lived so they trashed each other's houses and they burnt cars. So you're a man and you're sympathetic and you're on board and all that and you look outside and you see a gang of kids burning your car. Did the police here adopt any kind of a similar strategy, a strategy of saying if they want to make themselves ungovernable they'd be doing it in their own township and they'd be screwing up themselves, they'd be inflicting a lot of damage on themselves? Keep it in their areas?
HE In some respects yes, in some respects no. I don't think it was a strategy but naturally the way in which the security forces deployed themselves would be in the entrance and exits to these townships so they would control movement, and the curfews and so on. So that in a sense contained that element but it's really the discussion that takes place today where we say that the crime you see today and talk about today is not new crime, it's crime that existed before and it existed only in the townships. The trouble back then was crime had a racial colour and it didn't have any statistics. The crime used to take place in the townships and not in the urban areas. What's happened is that crime doesn't know any borders any more and because it affects people in urban areas outside of the black townships it's now getting to be known and of course people write about it before it affects people and becomes top of mind issues and so it does become serious or it's seen as serious. People in the townships, who grew up in the townships and so on, knew of crime.
POM It simply was never reported or no-one paid any attention to it?
HE So in the same way this whole issue of ungovernability reflected itself. I don't think there was a deliberate strategy to contain the issues, as in the Irish situation, in the black townships but de facto that's what happened.
POM Just quickly, generally in the eighties I would know more about what was happening in a community in SA than people within the community.
HE Political - what happened was that the people used to report to us.
POM Now you're still talking about the Indian community?
HE Not just the Indian community. It was anybody and everybody because from exile we were managing people within the PWV area initially. So it didn't matter which community it came from. We generally knew, we were very, very well tuned and keyed into what was happening because regular reporting took place and we were able to verify the reports. We knew who was who in them.
POM Reporting through what channels?
HE Physical reports, written reports, debriefing.
POM Somebody would put a letter in the post?
HE We used to have different methods of communication. A dead letter box was one of them, some postal system would take place. Your dead letter box, your DLBs where somebody would drop a report somewhere, anywhere, and a courier would then pick it up and the two didn't know each other. So you'd have couriers who would carry messages. A stream of people would come in and debrief, whom we would debrief as to the situation. So we were very, very finely tuned. We were so finely tuned we used to write a lot of speeches for the people at the different rallies. We used to plan it and write it and we were often consulted when meetings to elect SRCs and different bodies took place so we were very integrated. Physically we were separated in exile but in real terms we were very much part of the body fabric.
POM You say politics were shaped by very, very sharp contradictions. Are you talking about the contradictions within SA itself?
HE Yes, compared to now. The conflict
POM Contradictions among the ANC?
HE No, no.
POM You have on page 8, you said : "In terms of sharpness the nature of apartheid was so distinct, was so clear and so sharp in its effect and impact on society that it was easy to identify the enemy. Today it's much more to identify, as it were, who the enemy is." What were the problems, what are the contradictions in society? What are the contradictions?
HE Today the contradictions are totally different to what it was then. Essentially today the contradictions are the contradictions that exist in most developing nations with a slight historical tinge of course, being that the impact of globalisation and capitalism doesn't just create a divide between your rich and your poor, by and large your poor are still black people and your rich are still the white people with a very thin nouveau riche sort of new elite coming into being. So there's a great divide poverty is a major issue. The impact of globalisation and capitalism, despite the fact that the economy is doing better than most analysts could ever imagine, there's still a lot of poverty and a lot of backwardness in terms of service delivery and there's a lot of ground to cover. So in a sense liberation did not mean everything will be hunky dory in 1994 and everything will be great. To build a new society and to develop that society working against the stream of globalisation where capital moves as freely as it does makes things much more difficult. I think the contradictions are now mainstream sort of contradictions related to the flight of capital and movement of capital, the impact of it. So it's really capitalism essentially and its ravages affect South African people and are impacting on us in quite a serious way.
POM Yes, I wrote some place that the problem in SA was that it achieved true sovereignty just at the time when the concept of sovereignty, national sovereignty was going out of date.
HE Absolutely. Today the movement of capital and labour skills moves at the speed of light.
POM You said: - "Unlike in a number of other countries where you had guerrilla warfare we operated with our structures, being an integral part of the community rather than hidden somewhere in some forest and entering the community and interacting." Are you talking now about the military structures?
HE Call it military, political, it wasn't Vietnam, it wasn't Algeria, it wasn't Angola, it wasn't Zimbabwe, it wasn't Mozambique. We didn't operate from outside of the community. We didn't go and hide in areas and then make forays into the area.
POM You were already in the area?
HE We were already in the area.
POM But nobody knew who your next door neighbour didn't know that at night you donned a balaclava?
HE Or whatever.
POM I want to relate that to because Mac talks about Operation Vula operating in much the same way but Operation Vula was kept secret from the rest of the ANC so you could have in a particular township a political, military unit 'proper' and in the same township you could have part of Operation Vula doing its own thing and one would never be aware of the other?
HE Yes, and it was the case. You'd pick up that there was another movement or another activity but you wouldn't know what it was.
POM Did that not create problems?
HE No. Vula came fairly late.
HE Vula came in late. Whilst it was extremely effective it wasn't that widespread.
POM It was concentrated in?
HE It was concentrated in a number of areas, Durban, Johannesburg primarily, and with an ability to move out. I think Vula let me say this, that, yes, Mac is really the person to talk about Vula. I don't think the issue that you're raising became a problem. It was not.
POM But was Vula there as a fall-back operation?
POM Why was there this need for parallelism?
HE No it's not parallelism. Vula was an attempt to actually take the leadership home, which was why senior people like Mac, Siphiwe Nyanda, Ronnie Kasrils were sent into the country. It was senior ANC officials and it had never been done before.
POM They were developing their own structures?
HE I don't know if you would say their own structures. I'm saying that Vula was an attempt to clear the path, to actually take the ANC leadership home so that they would be able to lead from within the country rather than rely on a leadership outside. It was an attempt to take back the leadership much more firmly within the country.
POM But if the leadership was embedded within the country and the other ANC structures didn't know that the leadership was in the country?
HE I'm not sure if that's accurate. It's not accurate because, remember what I said, the ANC was never quite outside of SA, it operated within the country so it's not exactly as if there were two ANC's. It was never. You were aware that there were other activities within the area and you'd respect that. This was an attempt in not just the rank and file of the ANC, which was already embedded in the country, it was to bring the leadership of the ANC home. You'd obviously need still a support base and so on but it was important to drive the struggle through Vula.
POM Would I be incorrect in saying that you maybe had three types of operations going: one where you would infiltrate cadres and they would carry out an operation and they would withdraw and go back?
HE Special operations.
POM That would be an MK operation?
HE No, special operations. Those were special ops., units that were going on specific forays and specific missions, so they would go in for an action and come out, highly mobile, elite units.
POM Now when you moved from strictly political operations in one box and military operations in a second box and the structures became integrated, did that mean an integration of the MK and the ANC, that they would work together?
HE I wouldn't say MK and the ANC, I would say the political and the military sections of the ANC. That's the way in which I would look at it. I don't see that the MK is something outside the ANC.
POM I mentioned three, so you had the special operations, the elite operations, then you had MK operations, the MK acting as the MK, and then you would have these third operations that would be the political/military unit. When you said you established units, these three military units, they were trained units but they weren't part of the MK, right?
HE They were.
POM They were part of the MK?
HE That's what I'm trying to grapple with in a sense, how do I explain this to you, because you see them as such segments, you see MK as something distinct, separate and ANC's political activities as distinct and separate and I'm just having difficulties with that perception. I'm trying to find a way in which to explain that it wasn't placed in neat boxes as you are doing. Don't place them in neat boxes.
POM But if you gave, let's say, a unit under your control, it might consist of members who were trained in the MK plus others?
HE No. It's a different process. Let me take you through a couple of my units. There were people from the community recruited into a cell, given an assignment to work in an area, some of which were trained militarily. So they were trained. Now of course they were MK but they weren't formally registered in some sort of place and given any particular uniform to say this is MK and that's political work. No. So in my unit, you had a unit, that unit grew, you drew an element, you gave them training and you graduated them through different levels of training and you gave them assignments.
POM So you provided your own training? What I'm trying to get at is the MK was a military structure, therefore it would have a military command structure.
HE Yes. I would take my people out of the country, give them training outside the country. I would give my people training inside the country.
POM But under whose authority would they be ultimately? Under MK?
HE That's where you're coming short in the way in which you see it in your head. We saw it in a totally different way. MK did not have an authority as in 'these are our members, this is our flock'. I was militarily trained. I commanded units but I didn't report to any specific MK unit. I reported through the normal ANC structures, political and military training.
POM Did you receive your first military training in - I know you mentioned Angola?
HE In Angola, yes.
POM That was in 1985?
HE No, no, in 1980/81.
POM But you weren't officially part of the MK as such were you or was that distinction becoming relevant? You were trained and sent back?
HE I was trained and sent back so I was a member of the ANC. I had military training. Whether it was a military task I had to carry out or a propaganda task or whatever task I did it, not as something or the other. I wasn't wearing a hat and reporting separately on different things. So I carried out intelligence work but I didn't work for intelligence people.
POM OK, so you said you reported to ANC structures. Leadership would be whom?
HE Regional command for our political/military sort of responsibilities for the region, so we were organised within each of the frontline areas and that reported, that regional sort of command, call it command or call it leadership because I don't want to give it a militaristic sort of thing, that regional leadership reported to the Political Military Council, the PMC, in Lusaka.
POM So you would carry out activities, report them, or receive instructions from the regional command, carry them out, report back and they would report to Lusaka?
POM Moving to a very different thing, a small question. You said you were in Botswana in 1981, what did you do for a living? They didn't accept you at university, you didn't have a work permit and this was before they sent you to the camp.
HE I worked for a friend illegally but I was supported by my family as well.
POM In 1981 you left Botswana and went to Angola to receive military training and then you returned to ?
HE Came back and went to university and so on.
POM You talk about - I'm just going back, querying a response. "At that time, (this is 1985), the infiltrators had begun to surface." And you said, "We started almost from scratch. We had two contacts in the country." Is that in SA?
HE In SA.
POM You were left with two, all the rest just - ?
HE Things collapsed quite badly. You weren't sure about most of your contacts. Communication lines were broken up.
POM So as you weren't sure you just took the safe route?
HE Not to be sure, yes.
POM You said : - "It's truly incredible how fast things developed, political and military lines were reopened and political operations and military operations were running and we became very effective very quickly." This is page 15. How do you account for that, things developing? One day you're almost out of business with two contacts and the next day you're almost like a growth industry.
HE It was an incredible growth industry. I think the mid-eighties saw a massive upsurge in political activity, resistance was raised to very high levels.
POM Do you attribute that to the tricameral parliament?
HE No, no, I think it's a whole host of factors in the country just about in every area whether it was a security environment, a political environment, the economic environment, civil society struggles, religious struggles from the religious front, workers. It took place at every level. SA was also getting affected internationally quite seriously as well, there was incredible pressure. Resistance internally was heightened, awareness of the ANC and a presence, the ANC had made a real presence in the country and it was a force to be reckoned with.
POM When you were recruiting now, setting up units, were you using far more sophisticated vetting procedures?
HE Yes, yes, we started off small but it grew rapidly because the environment was just conducive to that. The environment inside the country made it very easy to recruit and develop and put together structures because this was an era of heightened struggle in the country. The mid-eighties was very, very exciting, that thrust.
POM It coincided more or less with the time of - the international anti-apartheid movement took off.
HE That's right.
POM That's always an associated date, and that was Mandela's 70th birthday when they had this concert at Wimbledon as being one of those turning points in terms of awareness and Mandela moved from being like 'Who was Mandela?' to being 'My God He's been in jail for how long?' He became a world figure.
This is just again a little thing, on page 15 you're talking about your relationships with the Botswanans. "We always treated ourselves as a little bit more sophisticated and a little bit more organised and more cultured." And I had added the words "than the locals".
HE Yes. A bit of arrogance.
POM You said that the Botswanan government treated the movement very badly for a period, very harshly.
HE It was generally bad and from time to time quite harsh. My experience was sometimes humiliating, I've still a very negative attitude towards Botswana.
POM Why do you think they worked like that?
HE It's long and varied. Botswana was not a very conservative country. It's a country that, as we used to say, a country that got its freedom and independence in a briefcase. They never fought for anything. They were relatively affluent.
HE And have become even more affluent, diamonds and cattle and so on. A small population. We found them very arrogant. We found them very unhelpful. We found them unsympathetic to struggle because we felt that they had no history and understanding of what a struggle was all about so they were never very unsympathetic to us.
POM The man, the President, the former President of Botswana?
HE Seretse Khama was the man who led Botswana to freedom. Following on from Seretse Khama was Masire.
POM But the former President who is now brokering the peace talks in the DRC?
POM Was he hostile?
HE No he wasn't hostile. At a political level they were all fairly decent and so on but at a localised level your interaction with the community, your interaction with the police and so on was very hostile.
POM This is on page 17: - "We were based in Botswana. We would have military units and we had a command structure in Botswana. We would carry out various operations." Operations obviously in SA? So you would send a team of people in to ?
HE Or people from SA would come in and we would provide them with training and resources to at least equip them and they would carry out their operations.
POM Some of these operations would include sending people from Botswana into SA to carry out sabotage operations and then return to Botswana? Or stay in SA?
HE That was only in special operations.
POM OK. You would have units within SA that you would instruct to carry out certain operations.
HE We generally didn't instruct our units. Units that carried out operations under instructions generally were special operations units. Units that were armed and trained in the country were generally provided with a fairly broad mandate and ambit and would carry out their operations based on their local requirements.
POM "When in SA we were part of a very special structure as we understood later. We were part of a special group of people that came in a particular period of time." Into the movement, that acted in a particular way?
HE When I referred to us as being a special group of people. Oh I see, OK. I think it was just the time period, my age group, my generation were a special group because we came as youth who matured in ANC, in the struggle, and we'd seen freedom in our youth but we were the people with the propellers, the energy, that generation of people with the energy.
POM You say: - "We got involved in particular activities and got out." You're talking about yourself?
HE I would want to edit that too. I'm not sure if it says what was intended. I was referring to our generation, the generation of people, it's our generation of people, this 1976 generation.
POM You have here: - "I understand the violence for what it was and what it is and what impact it has on society." Could you just elaborate a little on that?
HE We were obliged to utilise violence in the cause of our resistance. We were able to become quite masterly in the art of war so you'd see it in near romantic terms how kids grow up and enjoy their war movies and police moves and want to get involved in that sort of thing. So we had a fairly romantic notion but also a very realistic notion, our understanding of what violence was all about. We've seen violence in its worst manifestations when most of the people that you knew, most of your friends were killed and you never knew who would be next. You understood the full impact of violence. It was nothing that you could escape. Violence was a reality of life in SA and you saw it in different forms. So we understood violence which is why I think today we understand violence but also have an attitude when it comes to a gun free SA for instance. The point I was trying to make is that whilst I love weapons, I loved my weapons, but today I think as a sport it may be an interesting thing to go on a shooting range and to fire off a weapon, I would still enjoy that, I see no place for it in society.
POM Do you think that the level of violence in SA today, like the President's statement that more people are killed from violence, that violence is the leading cause of death, is related to the culture of violence that grew up in the eighties or post-1976?
HE I think the culture of violence was there, the culture of violence became quite serious in the eighties.
POM The culture of violence was in there?
HE Sure. Why would people when they, I think rightfully or wrongfully as you pointed out on the question of the kangaroo courts and asserting of authority and so on, there was a level of violence. That's violence and it didn't have to result in blood but it was violence on society, it was violence on people. I think violence became a fairly serious aspect and character or part of life in the eighties. There's a long history and tradition behind it. I don't think you can say it's from 1976, definitely long before that but a culture of violence became very prominent and very sharp.
POM And that culture has perpetuated itself?
HE In a different way. I don't think it's the same thing but that violence still remains with us. We're not free of violence in this country, especially criminal violence as we are seeing now with the robberies and thefts and so on.
POM I suppose my question would be if you took a country like Zimbabwe, after 1980 you didn't have this massive rise in crime levels.
HE No you didn't. It was a totally different environment. Neither in Mozambique, nor in Angola if you ignore the civil war that took place with Savimbi. SA was a different environment and you can't relate it to the struggle. The culture of violence that exists now, the criminal component of it cannot be attributed to the resistance times then.
POM But what can it be attributed to? Is it unique? I won't say unique, but particular to SA?
HE The effects of apartheid have not totally been dealt with. Black and white people are free and vote free but the real effect and impact of apartheid is not something that has been addressed and the effect of apartheid is a very violent effect. Apartheid is premised on violence, not necessarily in the brutality only of the security forces and so on but it was a violent society in a whole host of ways, the way in which culture was treated, the way in which women were treated, the way in which black people were treated, not necessary in that physical form of a warlike situation but the violence was endemic. The impact and effect of apartheid is something we still feel today.
POM What I have got in terms of that is that one of the impacts or effects of apartheid was that a very low value was put on human life and that there is still in this country a very low value on human life.
HE I am tempted to say yes. I am tempted to say yes, I'm not sure if I would entirely agree with you because I think it's too neat and too easy an analysis to merely explain what I think is a fairly deeply embedded issue in our psyche as well as our society, in our economy, in our relations.
POM I remember a year ago I asked Bulelani this kind of question, particularly the issue of group rape, it's not about sex it's about something completely different, or gang rape, and he mentioned that he had commissioned some study. I haven't yet got back to him but have there been studies commissioned or done that tried to address why SA in particular, vis-à-vis its neighbours, is such a violence-ridden society?
HE I think if you speak to the people at the Centre for Violence & Reconciliation they would be able to explain that, to them as well as to Accord.
POM Accord yes. I've spoken to Hamber(?).
HE They may have some work on that.
POM Do you want to call a stop to it here?
HE Ten minutes more if you can take it.
POM I can take it. Another ten hours. The Harare Declaration, how did you learn of it?
HE I think through the structures.
POM Did people know it was in the works, that a document was being worked on?
HE I don't think it was an open issue. It wasn't. I don't think I knew about it before. I suspected or people have muttered something about it but I am not sure.
POM Now you have this interesting remark here, you said:- "The ANC issued the Harare Declaration and we were generally engaged in a cease-fire." You were told to?
HE In the structures that was what we agreed upon, that was a decision.
POM "We didn't really like it. I was poised to mount an enormous sort of offensive and we were really positioning ourselves for major military operations. We had started moving large numbers of units and material and we were really, really poised." Not to overthrow the government. Not to seize power. What were you poised to do?
HE To escalate the struggle really.
POM There would be a lot more violence?
HE Violence and political activity, yes.
POM You were in a position to make the country far more unstable than it already was?
POM In retrospect if you had that leeway of a year to make the country more unstable, mount operations, move in equipment, men and whatever, would it have made any difference to the outcome?
HE Yes and no. Since the Vietnam war all major resistances and struggles ended up at the negotiating table. Nobody marched into freedom and in modern history, especially recent modern history it never experienced that. The physical takeover, the storming of the palace never took place, a coup sort of thing. We were aware that it was sooner or later but the politics of power and the politics of negotiation are embedded in We just launched a book on Sunday; in that article, called Post-Apartheid Constitutions, I referred to the power of persuasion and the persuasion of power. Power is not necessarily only force but force is a part of it.
POM I have the book.
HE So a year extra of activity would have strengthened the ANC's hand at the negotiating table.
POM When was it launched the book? Where was the launch? I would have gone to it.
HE Arthur Chaskalson's house.
POM I was looking at all the people I'd interviewed and said, "Damn, damn, damn". When you came back you said: - "Today we live in a different society. It's a different country, a truly different country." You'd never have known how different it was unless you had seen it from your own eyes. "It's not the same country which is why I think psychologically I feel a bit lost in most of our areas." What do you mean by areas?
HE Pretoria, Johannesburg. Driving around I still get lost. I don't know the road systems any more, it's totally a different place.
POM So is it a geographically different? One difference? Is it psychologically different?
HE Alistair Sparks book called Another Country, have you read that book? I think it's the gist of what he's saying, that's what it is. The song by Mango Groove, same culture, it's a new country, it's a different country, radically different from what we had in the past.
POM Is it a country you think you know?
HE Yes because it is me. We are one. We are part of that fabric that makes up this tapestry of this new country. We're very much part of it as it is part of us.
POM The chemistry that makes up the - ? I'm a little bit deaf.
HE The tapestry, we're very much part of it, we're part of those threads.
POM You talked about: - "The passion cannot be allowed to die and part of the reason is our commitment to those people who fell." Do you think that passion is still there?
HE Yes, for people like us.
POM When you say people like you, whom are you talking about?
HE I speak for myself. I speak for my generation of ANC activists.
POM Maybe you could put it in the general context of you have legislation being considered by the Speaker to fine MPs for not attending, attendance is low, so when you fought to get a parliament and having got the parliament, God damn it, the people won't shut up.
HE I don't think I'm really going to fool myself with believing that it is a perfect society. It's not and people have different ideas. For those of us that came from an ANC culture it's strongly embedded, or for many of us, I'm not saying everybody. We still have that passion, we have a project to complete. Part of that project was 1994, that was a milestone. We now need to implement things. I think it's still the same passion. It's a passion that's matured a great deal. It still hasn't died and I hope it never does.
POM But since the ANC is now in a post-apartheid mould you have a new generation of ANC leaders emerging who are not exposed to the kinds of experiences and never had to make the same kind of commitments that you made, so it is far more difficult to kindle this spirit of passion.
HE I don't know. I think it's, I'm going to be cautious of calling it nationalism, but I think it's just basic pride, being part of SA and part of being proud of SA. I am really pleased to know and be assured that there is a generation of people that will grow up who didn't know what we knew, and yet I may be a little sad.
POM Gladwyn is a good example.
HE A little sad and very pleased. These are the 'born frees' as the Zimbabweans will call them, people born in a free Zimbabwe and a free SA.
POM You say: - "I get disgusted by a number of things that happened." Like?
HE Currently? No, I don't think that's an issue.
POM A health joke, OK!
HE Of course. There's a lot to disgust one but a lot to please one as well.
POM What pleases, what disgusts?
HE I think some of our people have proven themselves astounding and made astounding successes in terms of service delivery and trying to really put it together and so on, and yet others have abused it. I think to say that there is corruption, right? I don't think it's as rampant as people make it out to be but whether it's small or large corruption is an awful and an evil thing. It's very tempting for people like us who have come from a background of struggle and not seen any wealth and now have access to it, whether through lawful or unlawful means, proper or improper, moral or immoral, and see when people fall prey or victim to that sort of easy way out. I think that's a disgusting thing. Corruption is disgusting. I think bad performance by our new management in a democratic society is a disgusting thing. I think the way in which our bureaucracy operates in response to people is disgusting. When public servants think that they're still doing a favour to the taxpayer I think that's disgusting. So I am disgusted by quite a bit but it doesn't mean it's something that's overwhelming. So there's a lot that's wrong, there's a lot that's right and it's that drive and that passion to make it better. That's why we got involved in the struggle and it's a continuum. We just need to make it better. I owe it to my children. At least I need to leave behind a legacy so that I can feel proud that it's a country they can feel proud of.
POM I was going to ask you this and it will probably take up the rest of the ten minutes. It's something you never talked about. At some stage in your life you got married and you have a wife and children. Where did you get married? How did it happen?
HE Good God yes, a very interesting story. I got married in Botswana, two children.
POM To a South African?
HE No a British woman. Her father was Scottish, mother was English. I met her in Edinburgh when I studied there in the Anti-Apartheid Society.
POM Was she at the University of Edinburgh?
HE Yes, she was at the University of Edinburgh and we fell in love. I completed my studies in Botswana, so we were apart for a year. She completed her year in Edinburgh and came down in 1986. In 1986 we got married. In 1987 July our first child was born and Yusuf was born in 1990. Wonderful children. Exile was a very difficult life, resistance politics was difficult. Barbara couldn't adjust, accommodate. Besides I don't think I did enough to maintain the family either.
POM Did she come back to SA with you?
HE Yes she came back to SA. We separated and divorced in 1999, October 1999. She's gone back to the UK with the children. I had the kids over here for a couple of weeks just a few weeks ago, end of July, beginning August. Most wonderful time I had this year.
POM Did she find it difficult to adjust to the momentous changes that were occurring in SA in the nineties, the enormous demands on your time?
HE I think that's part of it. Yes. I'd love to blame it on that, yes. In part that was it. I wasn't a terribly great partner. I was too busy doing what I was doing, so I wasn't a very good father. I love my kids, always loved my kids, tended to them, but I don't think I was a great father. So, yes, so my family broke up.
POM So your children are of South African/Botswanan/Scottish and what else? Those three strains?
HE They don't know what they are any more. Yusuf is very proud to be African. He met with very strange responses because of this strange surname.
POM If SA was playing Scotland in a test, a rugby game, who would he be cheering for?
HE Oh there's no doubt about it, it would be SA. Oh absolutely! Without a doubt.
POM That's where I'll leave it. Thanks. I will pick it up again. I'll arrange something again, when you've a couple of hours. It's funny, I'll tell you why I asked that question, it's that although I was born in Dublin both my parents came from the west, from Mayo, a county called Mayo, so I never quite knew since my parents always said they were country people and they looked down on native Dubliners as being if you're a real Dubliner you're lower class, the country people had more standing. When it would come to a football match between Dublin and Mayo I wouldn't know who to cheer for. Either way I was going to get a kick over the head.
HE Yusuf is very clear about his allegiances.
POM Well thanks again for taking the time.
HE Thank you very much. I'm sorry we couldn't make it through. Do I have the copy that you're talking from? This one?
POM You should have.
HE Do you have questions or something that I could possible work on?
POM I thought I sent that on to you with everything that had question marks.