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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
25 Feb 2002: Tshabalala, Vuso
POM Vuso, perhaps first you could give me a little bit of detail about your own background, where you were born, family, your schooling, your upbringing, your relationship with your brother and how you first became involved in the liberation movement, at what age?
VT My name is Vuso Tshabalala. I was born in 1956, April, in Cato Manor which we called Umkhumbane. That was in 1956. My family was then moved to KwaMashu in 1963.
POM Was that a forcible removable?
VT That was a forced removed from Umkhumbane which was within the white areas of Durban to one of the new townships that had been established, one of two at that time, Umlazi and KwaMashu.
POM Do you remember that very vividly?
VT I have no real recollection of the actual removals because my father anticipated the removals once they had been known, that the plans for the removal had been made known and the townships already been built, and he established an alternative place for himself in KwaZulu across the Tugela under the district of Eshowe, his thinking being that if his home can be removed at any time when he lives in the white areas it's better for him to have a place outside of the white areas. In that sense he then kept two homes for us. There was a home in KwaMashu which meant that he and all his family remained – had that privilege of being able to live in a white area but at the same time he had an alternative in case the government of the time decided to remove us again. He was talking about the fact with the white government all they simply told you if you said you had a house in this area is, "Take it wherever you want to take it, the land is ours." As a result of that he even was one of those who didn't particularly care about improving the house in the township because he felt he could only live there as long as the government of the day allowed him to.
So most of my young age, our family really, my mother, my three brothers and I, we spent most of our young years in those two worlds, both in the rural areas where we actually started schooling and in the city of Durban where we would visit only during the school holidays. I have three brothers, as I've just indicated, an elder brother who was born in 1950, a younger brother who was born in 1958 and the last one was born in 1960. As we grew up we lived in a home where our parents were not politically active. Of course, indeed during that time, there wasn't much of that political work happening, that is the period between 1963 and 1970. When politics were spoken about during that time it was spoken about in whispers.
POM What did your father do?
VT My father was a driver and therefore worked as a messenger.
POM Truck driver?
VT No, a small vehicle driver. He worked as a messenger at one time using a motorbike and then using a motor vehicle. He worked for one company, that I remember very well, for something like 15 years that I knew about which was an auto electrical and engine tuning company. I particularly remember about it because it was one of the places where I had one of my first experiences of racism. I used to work there during the school holidays and obviously for very little but it didn't really matter because it was just pocket money which my father really just left with me and I could do with as I pleased.
What was striking was that the boss had two sons who worked at the firm and one of them was still attending school, I think professional training school or university, at the time I didn't really know, but he was referred to by my father as "Baas Two" and he called my father by his first name. Now here was another student, as far as I was concerned, calling my father by his first name, which I couldn't do, and my father actually saying "Baas" or "Master" to this young man.
In the family as well my mother liked singing so we would sing songs of liberation, although at the time I didn't know, we didn't know that these were songs of liberation. We would sing songs, for instance a popular song in the women's liberation movement which was directed against the then Prime Minister of the country, Strydom, in the fifties when the passes were being introduced to women.
My father too would talk about, not politics in general, but would refer in discussions that we would have with him to Albert Luthuli as having been a hero of the people in the area. He also referred to, talked about I think it's Rory Arenstein, a white lawyer who used to be quite close to the liberation movement and defended a number of political activists at the time.
Really I was a very young man, born in 1956. I went to secondary school in 1969/70.
POM The secondary school you went to was where?
VT Was in Ndulinde, in Konkwese(?), still in the district of Eshowe in Zululand. There I did what was called then form one, form two and form three which basically is standard seven and standard eight. I got my standard eight certificate in 1972. I had then become more aware of what was happening around us. I had started reading newspapers, which wasn't a common thing amongst students in the rural areas but was fairly common in the urban areas, so my living in kind of two worlds, both in the urban areas and the rural areas, meant that I picked up more about what was happening around us than people in the rural areas did although this is not to say that the people in the rural areas were actually not aware.
One of the things that I thought about long after I became active was that some of the songs that the people in the rural areas actually sang were about the liberation struggle. One in particular that I remember very well is – goes something like this - which literally translated says, 'H F Verwoerd, what are you doing in Natal? Boers, what are you doing in Natal?' And we used to dance to this song and at the time it was just a dance for me as a young boy, not really taking in the meaning. I got to realise that much later.
I personally became more involved in the early seventies, as I've said, 1972/73. Now in 1973 there were the strikes that broke out in Durban and there was also, I think the following year 1974, the pro-Frelimo rallies (Frelimo being the front for the liberation of Mozambique). But in 1973 also I went to a boarding school in the interior of Zululand near Empangeni, it was called Dlangezwa High School. There I did what was form four which was standard nine in other words. My schooling there was disrupted because in the middle of the year around June there was a student strike. There had been a growing frustration among students because of the attitude of the acting principal then. The original principal of that school was Sibusiso Bengu who was the first Minister of Education in the liberated SA.
Now Sibusiso Bengu had been a fairly progressive person politically but his vice-principal was not as progressive and would make us listen, for instance, to a programme called Current Affairs on Radio South Africa, which at the time was presented by Cliff Saunders, a propagandist of the then regime. Although the principal liked to say that he wasn't trying to reinforce Cliff Saunders' message to us, or Cliff Saunders' propaganda to us, it was quite clear, at least to us as young people, we saw him simply as one of the stooges of the government and as one of their agents basically. Therefore we did not like him. There were other things that irritated us there, the quality of the food, the quality of the treatment generally by the administration which we saw as treating us like kids and the fact that there were suspicions that some of the teachers were actually agents of the then Security Branch. That led to a strike. One of the reasons for that strike was that it was a practice of the school to open letters that the students were receiving from outside, whether from their homes or from their friends, all the letters would come open and we resented that. I was one of the people – two of my letters were opened and I resented that very much. Then there were rather silly things like we had to cut our hair short. At that time there was a strong Black Consciousness Movement spirit in the country and BC people liked to keep their hair long. It was a kind of symbol of defiance in itself that we like our hair, we are black and we are proud. After the strike, partly because of the role that I played in that strike, the principal found a reason to expel me from the school.
POM Expel you?
VT Yes. When I was called into the administration offices to see the principal I was then told that I was inciting the students in my class against the teachers. I was one of the students who questioned things, not necessarily political but if I didn't agree with anything or something didn't make sense to me I would stand up and say so and in some cases end up arguing with teachers. One of the reasons then used for expelling me was that I had been told to cut my hair short and I had not cut my hair short and therefore I was expelled. So I left school then.
POM What age were you then?
VT This is 1973 so I was about 15, 16, doing standard nine. That was like for me a kind of turning point in that as part of the organising of the strike itself one had had an experience of how to resist in an organised manner. I had had tiffs before in school, even at secondary school, with teachers but in those it had been perhaps one or two of us but in this instance the whole student body virtually was behind the leaders of the strike. Amongst the people who were leading that strike was one Nobleman Mxumalo who later became one of the commissars in the military wing of the ANC in exile and unfortunately passed away.
POM In Angola.
VT Yes. Unfortunately passed away before we came back into the country. The other schoolmates that I had then were one Vusi Mvumbela who is now the head of the National Intelligence Agency in the country, having been a political to then Deputy President Mbeki.
POM So you all came from the same school?
VT We met at that school. We were not even particularly close to each other at that school but we then again met in exile and got to know each other much better. So then in the seventies I started linking up with other student activists in the Durban area and we would have political discussions, we would exchange political literature which generally would be banned books, works by Kwame Nkrumah, some of the newsletters of the then SA Students' Organisation and the Black People's Convention.
POM Were you then more kind of Black Consciousness oriented than ANC?
VT Yes, at that time I was very much Black Consciousness. I knew very little about the ANC except that it was in exile and had a military wing but I had had very little dealings with it inside the country. This was at the time also when Buthelezi was becoming kind of, if you like, even popular in Natal and he was an issue that I and my father used to discuss quite passionately sometimes because my father tended to want to use it as an argument against my active involvement in political activities and saying that what does it pay to do the things that you people do in the BCM. At least Buthelezi has a platform that is recognised by the government and he is getting somewhere. The way that you are following is going to lead you straight into Robben Island.
POM Your father was anti-apartheid?
VT He was anti-apartheid but was not happy with his son getting involved in a path that leads to Robben Island, only that simply quickened my thinking, my leaning towards actually saying OK, if one gets arrested and tortured and even killed for writing poems and singing songs, then perhaps the people who make signs in the liberation movement are those who are saying that we have to respond in kind. In other words we have to go beyond just singing and saying I'm black and I'm proud and shouting slogans but actually engage the regime using the same weapons that it is using. That was obviously not what my father intended but the logic pushed me in that direction.
After being expelled from school at Dlangezwa I then tried to find a school because I was expelled during the year and try as I might schools in KZN and around Durban in particular were not too keen to accept people who had been expelled from another school in the same region. I remember very well that when I went to Umhlanga and there they told me straight that they would need to get the permission of Ulundi which was the kind of capital of the KwaZulu Bantustan at the time before they could admit me. I only therefore got admitted to school in December, a school in Lamontville, Lamontville Secondary School also in Durban, which at the time Lamontville was not under the Bantustan directly because it was not part of the area that was selected into the ten pieces or so that were the KwaZulu Bantustan.
POM So you were actually in 'white' South Africa?
VT Yes, kind of. So they allowed me to write some aptitude test and then allowed me to go into the next class which was standard ten and I therefore did my standard ten in 1974 and passed it, fortunately.
I then didn't have money to go back to school so I had to look for a job and finally I found a job in the KwaZulu Government Service. So there was I in government service. There was the political activist now working for the Bantustan. I worked for the Bantustan for something like nine months, had enough – had some money, applied for bursaries, got one bursary from the SA Sugar Association, so I had saved just about enough to pay for my first year at varsity and I went to the University of Zululand, Ngoye University, where I enrolled for a B.Proc degree (that's a legal degree at bachelor's level).
Again there I met up with people like Nobleman Mxumalo that I have talked about and Vusi Mvumbela, the current Director General of the National Intelligence Service. Mvumbela was already our senior there, I think he was doing a second year BA degree, but Nobleman Mxumalo whom we later referred to as Msala in exile, was in the same class with me doing the law degree.
Again, there, it was just like resistance all the time. Amongst our subjects, for instance, was one called Zulu Law. Now Zulu Law was a law subject developed specifically for Zulus who would thereby be prepared for playing a role in the KwaZulu Government Service. Now Zulu Law was taught by an Afrikaner lecturer who was as reactionary as they come, who was very patronising in the way he actually explained that we were being prepared for service in the KwaZulu Government Service.
POM So you were in a black university where the lecturers and professors were Afrikaners?
VT Were mainly white Afrikaners. There was another one who taught Constitutional Law. He also would just tell us straight and say, "There are about forty of you in this class but if seven of you can go through that will be a miracle." And you could see that they had no respect for us. One of the things that we would then discuss in the Constitutional Law class was the constitution of SA and their perspective of that constitution was that it was OK. We would have some pretty heated and passionate discussions between ourselves and him wherein the points that we would be making was that one fundamentally wrong thing about the constitution was the fact that it was a constitution only for the minority. It afforded rights only to a minority of the citizens of the country. He would argue on the other hand that that was not a legal argument, that was a political argument. His understanding of what was political and legal and ours obviously was different.
This was 1976 so we had our internal struggles led mainly by the Student Representative Council which had most of its members being at the same time members of the SA Students' Organisation, a leading BCM formation.
POM Again, BC was the driving force behind resistance and defiance?
VT I wouldn't say it was the driving force but I would say it was the avenue through which resistance to the regime was expressed. It was the only avenue that was existing outside of the structures that had been set up by the regime itself. One of our struggles during that year at the varsity was resistance to the appointment of Buthelezi, the current Minister of Home Affairs, as the Chancellor of the University of Zululand who would then award the degrees to graduating students. We resisted this very strongly from our BC position because one of the slogans of BC was 'No compromise with the regime and no collaboration with the government'. We saw participation in Bantustan structures as collaboration with the oppressor, as we put it then, and we did not want then to have as Chancellor of our university a leading collaborator such as we thought of Buthelezi as at the time.
Then my own schooling was disrupted again in that year because when Soweto 1976 erupted on June 16th we immediately convened a meeting ourselves in which we resolved to support and act in solidarity with the students in Soweto who had been fired at for resisting the introduction of Afrikaans into the schools. On, I think, 18 June the University of Zululand was itself then closed and we were forced out physically by the police who had been called in to eject us from the premises of the university.
I then went back home and again had to look for a job in the middle of the year because I couldn't go to any other school then.
POM How many students were forced out?
VT All the students, the university was closed, actually closed down. It was only opened later in the year by which time I had already found a job with – then I think it was still called the SA Railways & Harbours, that is the government parastatal that was responsible for the rail system and the harbours. I got a job there as a barrier attendant, or a ticket examiner. Now that's another interesting little titbit. The job of ticket examiner had been reserved for whites and when it was opened –
POM That ticket examiner was somebody who checks the ticket of passengers?
VT Whether they have tickets to ride a train. When it was then opened to blacks, blacks were called 'barrier attendants' and the whites were called 'ticket examiners'. They would do the same job, they just had different titles and therefore would have different benefits. I worked there for about three months.
At that time I got linked up with the ANC underground, 1976, firstly in the form of one Themba Kubheka who had just been recently released from, I think, some eleven months detention without trial. Now during his detention he had been in an adjacent cell with an old trade union activist and member of uMkhonto weSizwe, Comrade Khanyile, I forget his first name now. Now Khanyile had been a Robben Island prisoner who had been released in the mid seventies and then immediately joined the ANC underground and also worked in the trade union movement, both illegal formations as well as the SA Congress of Trade Unions which at the time had been forced into exile.
Now this Comrade Khanyile had been able to give or teach Comrade Kubheka part of it about the background of the ANC and the formation of MK, and about socialist ideology by communicating through the walls. The same Kubheka had received a book from the warders in the detention cell, it was a book against communism, but what the warders hadn't realised was that in that book was the whole communist manifesto as written by Marx and Engels and translated, so he had got to learn more about communism thanks to the warders of his cell.
POM But the warder didn't mean to teach him more, the warder meant to teach him less.
VT They had meant to show him how bad communism was. They just managed to do the opposite. So he then told me more about the ANC, the differences between the ANC and the PAC at the time, because at the time some of us were attracted – from the BCM we were attracted more to the idiom of the Pan Africanist Congress, it was talking about Africa for Africans, it had a different name for SA, it was calling it Azania and even had songs that sang about Azania and not about South Africa. So it seemed to be a more militant organisation and a lot of the people who were leaving the country at the time, the young people in particular, would have been really quite eager to join the PAC. In my case had I not had this contact with Themba Kubheka and then later with other comrades at the University of Natal, especially Medical School amongst whom was one Zweli Nyanda - Zweli Nyanda was a younger brother to the current head of the SA Defence Force, General Siphiwe Nyanda. They already had contact with the ANC and were operating as an ANC cell at the university.
We also linked up with one Mduduzi Guma then a student lawyer serving his articles. I'm not sure now but I think it was with the Mxenge company of Attorneys in Durban. He too had already had contacts with the ANC at the time and was later then to help us to leave the country when it started getting too hot for us.
How it started getting hot for us was that whilst the struggle, especially of the young people in Gauteng, Soweto in particular, was continuing after June 1976, the student movement was much stronger there. In Natal and especially in Durban, which is the biggest town in Natal, the level of organisation was not that much, the level of consciousness was not that much but there were then these pockets of activists like ourselves who wanted to do something. Being the young militants that we were we wanted quick solutions and we decided that one of the things that we would do is that in support of the students in Gauteng, particularly in Soweto, we would carry out our own what the regime would have called arson attacks. We directed those specifically to schools because we wanted to mobilise the students against the regime in following the example of Soweto. Then the other leg of that was to start recruiting for MK. So we embarked on these actions.
POM At this point were you under anybody's control? Was there somebody like a head, was everybody in a structure or was everybody just acting together?
VT We were acting together but there was no talk about whether we were a cell of the ANC or a cell of anything. We were just doing things, a group of people – there were people that we looked up to. In my particular group we looked up to Themba Kubheka as a kind of leader who would advise us and then he was linked to, and therefore some of us in the group, were linked to the comrades in the University of Natal. So we would have our own meetings in KwaMashu and then some of us would go to the University of Natal and hold meetings with people there. Like I've said, one of them was Zweli Nyanda.
The police then obviously after us committing acts of arson as it were on some of the schools started looking for the people who were doing these things and of course the liberation movement was infiltrated.
POM So you were burning down the schools?
VT Yes. We did not burn down any. We tried. There were small fires, we didn't even know how to make a petrol bomb then. I remember in our first instance somebody was asked to get petrol. I was supposed to come with bottles. All of us were supposed to come with bottles but I had a whole stack of bottles in my house that I had nothing to do with. My father liked to collect bottles so there was a whole stack of them and I knew where they were so I came home and I took the bottles without clearing it with my father. When we first tried to do the petrol bombs we didn't know that you actually had to have a thing that will light – we thought that if you put petrol in a petrol bomb and throw it, it would explode and then cause a fire. We learnt later that it doesn't work quite like that. Somebody had told us that if you put glycerine in the petrol and you throw it it will explode and cause a fire.
So after a few trial and error things, I think two of the schools burned a little bit, but then because of that the police started looking for people who were involved in this but this was not what led to us having to leave sooner rather than later. Of the people that we had recruited to go into exile and go and join MK I think four of them were betrayed.
VT Somehow between ourselves and the comrades in Swaziland.
POM You were saying it wasn't the harassment by the police surveillance, that a group had been selected to go and then they were either betrayed or caught at the border.
VT Yes they were betrayed and then they were caught. They had been part of our group before we tried to send them out. When they were caught they were badly tortured and the police were able to gather information, enough to be able to identify a number of us so we then started having visits from the Security Branch and that forced us to go underground. They visited my home and when they didn't find me there they went to my place of work but by then I was already aware that they were looking for me so I didn't turn up at work. They came, they didn't find me and they left messages for me to contact them.
POM Do you recall who was the head of security at that time?
VT I don't remember who was their head at the time. At the time they were operating from Fisher Street and not from C R Swart. I don't quite remember who their head was.
POM I'll find that out.
VT So that meant that I could no longer live at my place and three of us were together on this, that was myself, Themba Kubheka and one of his sisters, Thulile Kubheka. She had also been involved with us. Unfortunately she also passed away just after we came back into the country. She was from the same family, a sister to Themba about whom we have already spoken. At the time that she died she was working as one of the secretaries to then President Oliver Tambo in the country.
We found a safe house, a safe house was provided for us by way of the home of Mduduzi Guma that I spoke about earlier as having been a lawyer serving articles. He then conducted Swaziland and arranged for us to leave the country. He organised transport through one of the activists at the University of Natal at the time who would then drive us out.
POM Was that difficult to do?
VT It was difficult, it was perhaps easier for me in the sense that I had not been an activist for too long, I had not been involved in large mass organisations, but Themba Kubheka who we were travelling with was recently from detention. He had been involved in the KwaMashu Youth League earlier on and therefore was relatively fairly well known to the police. For this reason he had to disguise himself for the trip to Swaziland and he disguised himself as a woman so he dressed up as a lady and the three of us then were driven to the Swaziland border.
POM You had passports?
VT We had no passports. So these two students drove us all the way to Piet Retief. Mduduzi had gathered from Themba that he had some relatives there so we were going to be left with those relatives and then at night they would lead us across the fence into Swaziland and that was actually what happened except for one slight thing. We realised after we passed Pongola going towards Piet Retief that there was a police car that seemed to be following us. We drove for some distance and then decided to stop and see if they would stop too. They stopped and they were in fact police and they were wearing uniform although they were using a private car but it had a police light. They came to us, greeted us and asked where we were going. We told them that we were visiting relatives and Themba had used his hat just to cover some of his face, he was supposed to be sick, and they let us go. They said, "OK." It was a close shave and being relatively new to the thing I remember that when they stopped and came to us I said, "Well, this seems to be it." And Themba was very angry with me and said, "Don't talk like that. We have not been caught yet." I learnt something from that.
At any rate we continued our journey to the relatives. They then organised for transport to take us closer to the fences and early the following morning we crossed into Swaziland. The thing is it's a general thing at the border area that people generally cross the border illegally, so it's not necessarily terrorists who cross the border illegally. A lot of people who live nearby who don't have passports and want to cross the border will just jump the fence. So when you ask somebody who has a car to take you close to the border and you will jump the fence and he meets you the other side to take you wherever you want to go to in Swaziland it's not a strange thing to happen as long as you know who the people there are and you don't go to the wrong one who may already be working for the Security Branch.
So we got into Swaziland and one interesting thing is that when we got into Swaziland there had been some kind of miscommunication. We were taken to a house that was used to house new recruits from SA who were joining the ANC. We stayed with them, I think, for about two or three days and then we were taken away from them, the three of us, Themba Kubheka, his sister Thulile and I. We didn't understand what was going on because nobody told us why we were being taken from the one place to the other. We only learnt later that we were being taken away because the movement, the ANC, suspected that we were enemy agents because they confused the name Kubheka with one other Kubheka who had been identified as working for the enemy. So we had to live in some motel, the three of us, all in one room, for some time which wasn't comfortable and we didn't know quite what was happening but it was clear that in a few days we then rejoined the others and later on were taken across to Mozambique.
POM Were you interrogated in any way?
VT No, we were asked questions, not interrogated. We were just asked questions about who we were and it was a general thing as we came to know later on that almost wherever you came into the ANC you would be asked to write your biography and then somebody would ask questions to clarify whatever was not clear in your biography. Now that was I think one of the security measures that was being taken. So when you got into Swaziland you'd be asked to write a biography and asked some questions about it if you hadn't given names of people who knew you from where you came from you'd be asked to give the names, and when you are taken like us, taken from Swaziland to Mozambique you would again be asked to write your biography and give names of people. Now I never worked in the ANC's intelligence system, at least not for that section, but I would surmise that at some stage they would try and compare these biographies to see whether your story was consistent all along because again when we got to Tanzania we were again asked to tell our story about where we come from.
POM You'd put it in writing. You crossed the border, you'd gone through and know exactly where you'd stopped so you'll know exactly where to begin again.