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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
02 Mar 2002: Tshabalala, Vuso
POM Vuso, we had stopped the last time, you had just crossed into Mozambique. When you crossed into Mozambique were you at that time a member of the MK?
VT At the time that we crossed into Mozambique we had actually joined the ANC in Swaziland almost more formally and we were being crossed into Mozambique by members of MK including some of our people who were working from Swaziland and being there as refugees but working for the ANC on a full time basis. I remember that the person who crossed us into Mozambique was an old comrade by the name of Dhlomo, clearly a working class person, and he then crossed us into Mozambique where we were welcomed by members of the ANC who were based in Mozambique at the time. What I remember is we were expecting anything. We realised that we were not going to be living in nice houses with good food. We were expecting to be going into the bush to get trained and get back into the country and fight.
One of my experiences of Mozambique was that we were put up into a nice house near the border but when it came time for me I had the first experience of what in Johannesburg is called 'pap' which is porridge made of mealie meal to be mixed only with fresh milk and eaten as meal. So for me it was my first experience of something strange about exile.
From there we were then taken on to near the city of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, at a suburb called Matola. Again we were put up in a nice big house and we began to realise that the ANC was putting us up in houses that used to be owned in the past by the Portuguese colonialists in Mozambique. It was a big house with a very big yard, something that few of us had become used to in SA. We had been living either in rural areas or else in black townships.
POM So you were living in better conditions in Mozambique for a while than you had been in SA?
VT Much better. Only there were many more of us in the house than there would have been in a normal family. I remember our numbers would go from anything from 30 to 50 in the house.
POM 30 to 50?
VT Yes, because it was at a time when a lot of young people were coming out of the country and going into exile. There again we went through the rituals of writing our biographies and at that point we also were given new names so that we stopped using our old names and started using what were then called MK names. I became Paul Goitsemang. Now that's the name that was given to me by Comrade Jacob Zuma who was one of the leaders of the ANC based in Maputo at the time. He interviewed the other comrades that had come with and he explained to us that we had a choice, those of us who would want to go to school were free to choose that path and those of us who would want to go to the army we were also free to choose that path. It was up to each individual to decide whether they want to go to school and further their studies or they want to go into the army, get trained and go back into the country to fight.
Now I remember I was in two minds about this. I wanted both and put it to him that was there a possibility of doing both at the same time. He then explained to me that the arrangements at the time would not allow for that. Those who went to school would go to school. After they had finished whatever their studies they were doing they could then go into the army at that time, but those who went into the army would just get military training. There might be some assistance given to people who couldn't read and write but that would be all the studying that would be done there other than military related training.
I then had to choose to go to military training because I couldn't see myself going into school for a year or two years and be cut off from the struggle as I understood it at the time.
A group of us after being in Mozambique for a month or two were then taken to Tanzania to a place called Temeke that was both people who would go to school and people who wanted to go into the army, we were all flown into Tanzania. That incidentally was the first time that I had got onto a plane and travelled in the air and this was the same for most of us in the group. In Tanzania we were then to split into the group that would go to school and the group that would go into the army. Of course again even those who at this point chose to go into the army still had a choice to move out and go to school of they wanted to. It was, however, explained that it becomes a lot more problematic to go into the army and then go to school because it was preferred that people who went to school should not know which people were going into the army, which didn't, to my knowledge, stop people from going to school although from the army but the explanation was clear to everybody, it would be better if those who went to school did not know who was going into the army.
In Tanzania again we were put up in a transit place like in Mozambique where the living conditions were not bad. In Tanzania however it wasn't the same nice buildings of the Portuguese but a place that did not look much different from houses used by the locals in Tanzania. It was pretty neat and we kept it clean. We had enough food, perhaps a little more than enough. I remember it was in Tanzania where for the first time leaders of the ANC had to come and explain to us that when we cooked and when we got rid of things like bones and leftover foods we needed to be sensitive to the fact that the locals actually had less than we were having because the ANC was getting support from all over the world, certainly in the way of food and other humanitarian assistance including medical supplies. From Mozambique, and this went through into Tanzania, we were supplied with vitamin tablets that were actually given to us on a daily basis by our medical officers and anti-malaria tablets that were also given on a daily or weekly basis by the medical officers. From Tanzania there was no military training that went on there.
POM So you were just kind of sitting?
VT We were sitting waiting to be taken to Angola.
POM What did you do on a day to day basis?
VT On a day to day basis what happened was the same as had happened in Mozambique. Political classes were conducted in which we would be taught about the history of SA and the history of our struggle from before the formation of the ANC till where we were in terms of time, that is 1976 and 1977. Also there was lots of reading material mainly from the eastern bloc countries so those of us who liked to buried themselves in books reading about Marxism/Leninism and also about the struggles of other peoples like the Vietnamese struggle, the French Resistance, Algerian Liberation Movement and the Cuban revolution and other struggles. So there were both formal classes in which we were all grouped together and people who knew more about this thing, mainly people drawn from the older comrades who had been in exile already for some time conducted those classes. Then there would be informal groups that would read certain tracts of, say, Marxism and discuss it amongst themselves, discuss various aspects of our own struggle including such important policy documents as the Freedom Charter that was adopted in 1955.
POM Did you play soccer?
VT We would play soccer and other games, we were provided with chess sets and table tennis equipment so that we could keep ourselves busy, there were cards, all sorts of games. But obviously a lot of us were pretty impatient to see some movement. Also one of the things that struck us when we got into exile was almost a relative peace in relation to what we were coming from. We were coming from a country where people were involved in demonstrations and protests and we were now in a place like Mozambique or in Tanzania it was all quiet. The leadership seemed to be just taking things easy and we were giving them serious questions about what are you guys doing here? What have you been doing for the last 10 15 years? We've been struggling at home and you are not there to give us arms and stuff like that. So we were very impatient and they had to explain to us that it wasn't all that easy, it wasn't going to be easy.
POM What kind of explanations would they give you?
VT Well they would give the explanations about what the conditions had been like when they left the country in the early sixties. At the time when they left the country Mozambique was unfree, Rhodesia was unfree, Angola was unfree, the British Protectorates, Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho were not really free, and getting through these countries going out of the country or coming back was a very difficult thing. They had sent small missions into the country and some of them strictly political missions of people who were infiltrated to come and try and revive the political or the liberation organisation in the country and the level of suppression in the sixties, especially after the Rivonia trial in 1963, had been quite severe. In fact I remember that one of the older comrades in discussing that period liked to refer to it as 'the big freeze', that was Comrade Ruth Slovo, Ruth First, Slovo's wife.
POM Big freeze?
VT The big freeze, that is referring to the period from 1963 to about the early seventies because protest organisation or resistance organisations started coming up again in the late sixties with the Black Consciousness Movement which was founded in 1968/69 by, amongst others, the late Steve Biko and people like Barney Pityana, the person who is now currently the Vice Chancellor of the University of South Africa.
So those are the sorts of explanations they gave us. They gave us explanations about the attempts that they made on the so-called 'Wankie Operation' where members of MK linked up with the military wing of the Zimbabwe African People's Union, ZAPU, in order that the South Africans, that is members of MK, and they were put into what was called the Luthuli Detachment after Chief Luthuli, the head of the ANC then. The MK combatants were supposed to go through the then Rhodesia together with their Zimbabwean comrades but their mission was to go past into SA and engage the regime in battle there.
We came to understand all of these things. One of the things that they explained to us was the nature of the liberation struggle itself and some of the weaknesses that they could identify, for instance, in the BCM. When we got outside the country we used to sing about Azania because that was kind of a nice name which sounded more African than South Africa and they would tell us about the histories of the PAC, the BCM and the role that some of the older comrades from the Congress Movement had played in the formation and in the work of the BCM itself.
POM Did any of the leaders from Lusaka ever come down to visit you, like members of the NEC?
VT There were members of the NEC who were actually based in Tanzania at the time. That included people like Mzwayi Piliso, the late Mzwayi Piliso who was a member of the NEC at the time. The other comrade who used to visit us there was Comrade Eric Mtshali. I remember in particular Comrade Mtshali because we asked him to get us a copy of Volume one of Kapital by Karl Marx and had discussions with him on an informal basis about communism and about capital. All of them when they came they would address the whole group of us as well as then have discussions and sometimes even join us in playing games like chess and other games.
POM Were you assuming at that time that when you got back to SA to fight that you would be fighting to establish a socialist regime?
VT Not exactly. At the time our position was that when we came back into the country to fight and liberate the country we would establish a regime as defined in the Freedom Charter. There were always big debates about whether the Freedom Charter was a socialist document or not, that issue was in fact a subject of debate even during the treason trial in 1958/9 where the leadership of the ANC, following the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955, was arrested, virtually all of them. That was before the banning of the ANC. And the issue of whether the Freedom Charter was a socialist document was actually debated in court, the subject of legal arguments.
Now amongst ourselves, obviously, a lot of the young people, including myself, were quite attracted to the socialist ideology and already saw ourselves as socialist inclined and amongst the discussions that we would be having, also again with the assistance and direction from the older comrades, was on questions like what was African socialism and how it differed from scientific socialism, and of course discuss the Freedom Charter itself. The Freedom Charter was always thoroughly discussed amongst our people because some of us, coming from the BCM, would question some of the things that were in the Freedom Charter. The Freedom Charter, for instance, was saying that SA belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and some of us were inclined towards accepting the arguments of BC and the PAC that to a degree the Freedom Charter seemed to put both oppressor and oppressed at an equal level, something that we were not very happy about. I remember that I myself even in Mozambique had pretty passionate discussions in which I argued against the clause in the Freedom Charter which says that our country shall never be prosperous or free until all our people live in harmony and brotherhood. My argument was that all the whites could go away if they wanted to and SA will still be prosperous and free. If they wanted to stay they would have then to live with us in harmony and brotherhood but if they didn't they could go back to Europe for all I cared. I argued that against some of the more experienced comrades who had been in contact with the ANC for a longer while and had sat in discussions with ex-Robben Islanders inside the country before leaving for exile.
POM You were in Tanzania for how long before you were moved out to do military training?
VT I think we were in Tanzania for about two months and then we were joined by some comrades from MK who had been in the group that left the country in the early sixties and we were then briefed that these would be amongst our instructors and commanders in the army when we go into Angola where we would receive military training. Amongst those comrades was one Comrade Sithole, and that was his MK name, I don't remember his first name now. Although he was called Sithole he wasn't actually from the Nguni, he was I think a Sotho person, Sithole was his MK name. The other was a Comrade Pasha and the other was Comrade Phama. All of them were trained veterans of MK but I think only one of them had seen combat in Rhodesia during the Wankie operation. So those were the people who again would tell us more about the Wankie operation. They then started dividing us into groups and teaching us marching, training and explaining how an army is organised. We were then taken to Angola.
POM How did you get to Angola?
VT We were flown to Angola, to Luanda, and then taken into a camp called Engineering.
POM Was it close to Luanda?
VT It was close to Luanda and it had been a military installation of the MPLA army, FAPLA. It was a big place. We occupied part of it and the other part was occupied by Cuban soldiers who were helping the MPLA but before being taken to Angola a small group of us had been told, I think four of us actually, had been told that we would be taken for training in the German Democratic Republic as East Germany was called then. That would be Comrade Bobby Pillay, his real name is Sonny Singh, an Indian comrade, Comrade Teddy (his MK name) his real name is Sikhakhane, a lady comrade called Seanokeng and myself, Paul Goitsemang.
POM If nothing else I'm going to learn spelling!
VT Then we were all flown, as I've just said, to Angola and I think we spent a month or so there before the four of us were then flown to the GDR.
POM While you were in Engineering did you mix with the Cuban soldiers?
VT Yes we mixed with Cuban soldiers.
POM But they were speaking Spanish.
VT Yes, obviously there were language problems. The congregation wasn't so good. I can say about Angola that one thing about it was the prevalence of mosquitoes in Engineering. It was also hot like Tanzania and Mozambique had been. And the conditions there were not the best although the buildings themselves were good buildings. Things like sewage systems were usually not working and so the life there was not very easy.
POM Not quite on the same par as Tanzania or Mozambique. Your standard of living was falling.
VT Yes the standard of living was falling. We also had for quite a while some problems. Some of us were smokers and we were not getting any cigarettes. I remember that some of the smokers then used to pick up the bits that the Cuban soldiers were throwing away after smoking. We were given like three sticks of cigarettes in a day and you'd then have to try and make it last you the whole day.
POM Just three cigarettes.
VT Just three sticks of cigarette and you'd have to try and make it last the whole day until you get your supply.
POM That's tough if you're a heavy smoker.
VT And you might not get your supply the following day because the supplies had run out. I think the cigarettes were being sent to us in Angola from Zambia and getting the supplies wasn't always very smooth. We would then talk about the fact that, no, we must be tough, we shouldn't be seen now picking up the Cuban leftover cigarettes, we must just depend on what we can get. If a Cuban gives you a cigarette to smoke, fine, but going behind them and picking up pieces from them was not the kind of behaviour expected of an MK cadre.
Now this is one of the things that all through was always stressed, that an MK cadre was a people's soldier, he was a social reformer and his standards of behaviour had to indicate that he was the best amongst his people. He had responded to the cry of the people for liberation and he had to be exemplary in his behaviour in every respect. We were taught that there is a big difference between what was called a people's army and a bourgeois army and the bourgeois army would then be the armies of the oppressors and the armies of western countries in general and we kind of took our direction more from socialist countries in terms of the quality of the person we are building. Whether this of course could be backed up in fact was something else but this was the theory and the belief that a lot of us had, so much so that another thing that I can remember is that when we then mixed with some of the comrades who had been to the Soviet Union when we got to Engineering we found a group that had just returned from the Soviet Union, amongst them the late Paul Dikeledi. Paul became one of the senior commanders of MK and died in Swaziland.
I was saying that most of our comrades, the young comrades, most of us who were leaving the country at the time were pretty young, I'm sure our ages would have ranged from 18 30/35. Most of the people who came from training in the Soviet Union had only seen good things about the Soviet Union. They had a lot of good memories from what they had seen there, good in terms of their relationships with the instructors who had been training them, providing military training to them as well as political training which included Marxist/Leninist classes. They spoke very highly of the Soviet Union. Of course they had been exposed to literature including books about the war, the resistance of the Soviet Union against the onslaught of Hitler during the second world war.
POM Had they been allowed, as far as you can remember, to mix with ordinary people or were they confined to barracks or training camps?
VT People who had gone there for military training spent most of their time obviously in military accommodation and were not mixing freely with the ordinary people but they were taken on guided tours to co-operative farms, collective farms, to see how people were living there. Now obviously with the benefit of hindsight one can say that they were not seeing the real Soviet Union. You could meet one or two who would say that actually some of the Soviet people seemed racist or made comments like that and generally those of us who did not want to hear anything bad about the Soviet Union would take those as suspect in terms of their commitment to the struggle, maybe even possible enemy agents who had infiltrated amongst us.
Anyway, we generally had a good time. We would wake up every morning, do our physical exercises and each person did his best to become as fit as possible because we were preparing ourselves for going back into the country and fighting.
POM This was when you were in the GDR? Or still in Angola?
VT In Angola just before we went to the GDR. Then the small group, four of us, were flown into the GDR. There we were taken into just a suburb and lived in a normal house with an old couple who were very nice to us. They prepared all the food for us and our rooms were cleaned and kept very neat by them.
POM There was no language barrier?
VT There was some language barrier but they could speak a little bit of English, especially the grandmother, they could speak a very little bit of English but otherwise we had to speak in sign language and just try to understand one another.
POM This is a suburban - ?
VT This is in the GDR now, not far from Berlin but not in the city of Berlin. The Germans also put in the idea of working underground, drummed it in very well. In our transport from leaving the airport and going to the place where we were going to live we were driven in a van without any windows, with windows all painted so we wouldn't be able to say where we had been or how we had travelled there. We just drove to wherever, whether it was near or far from the airport we don't know even if we wanted to. So we lived there and received theoretical training in military science and in political science from German comrades.
POM Was this done through translators?
VT Often through translators.
POM Was this done in the house?
VT The theoretical training was given in the house. We would then be taken for practical training again in a van without windows where we would be taken to a shooting range, we would do our tactical training there and we generally enjoyed ourselves. The group was being trained in urban guerrilla warfare so we were being prepared not to fight in the rural areas but more as saboteurs. We would be using explosives more of the time although we were training also in firearms and in the use of bazookas but most of the training was in firearms and in the use of explosives for urban guerrilla operations.
The Germans were pretty tough when it comes to training so we were taken through the steps, jumping obstacles, crossing rivers on ropes and all of that and the tactics, although we were a small group, would be made to seem as real as possible, grenades being thrown about and us having to take cover and crawl and all of that. We felt that the level of training was quite good.
So we finished that, that was about a six-month training programme. When we finished that we then came back again to Angola and from there the group then split. I myself after we were back in Angola for about two weeks or so was one of a group that was taken to open a new camp for MK in what was called Quibaxe which was to the north of Luanda. This was just a farmstead, there were some buildings there and it was surrounded an orchard with bananas and other fruits. We had to clean it up and make it habitable and we did that. I also didn't stay there very long, I stayed there for another four weeks or so and then I was called in to go on a mission back to SA.
I had already been talked to before we went to Quibaxe but because the arrangements for my living had not been finalised or the decisions had not been taken about whether I should or should not be the one to go on that particular mission I had then gone to Quibaxe with the rest. But an invitation had been given to me that I might possibly work with what was then called the Transvaal National, Transvaal being what today is called Gauteng.
POM Who was in charge of the - ?
VT The person who had spoke to me in Engineering in Angola was Paul Dikeledi who then was beginning to work with our Revolutionary Council, what we called the HQ which was based in Zambia.
POM It was based in Zambia?
VT Yes. So I was then driven down back to Luanda and then lived in another suburb. I didn't go back to the Engineering camp and was then flown to Mozambique via Zambia and in Mozambique again I was taken to another house in a suburb.
POM Nice colonial house?
VT A nice colonial house.
POM You were back to the good living.
VT Yes, back to the good living. I there met with Comrade Gebhuza, his MK name was Tebogo Kgope. His real name is Siphiwe Nyanda, the head of the SANDF today. He was the one who was to brief me about what was going to become of me or the mission that I was to go on to. I stayed in Mozambique for a while and then was taken through to Swaziland where again I lived in an MK safe house.
POM How would you be taken through the route from Mozambique?
VT From Mozambique through to Swaziland you would have to cross the fence and make sure that the Swazi soldiers or policemen did not find you because the then Swazi government didn't approve of what we were doing. It was a little better on the Mozambican side at the time. Initially the Frelimo soldiers regarded us truly as comrades and would rather turn a blind eye and not see that we were crossing or else we were just crossing where their patrols were not tight enough. But on the Swaziland side we had to be extra careful not to be caught because if you were caught in Swaziland you would be put in jail and then deported.
POM Deported back to?
VT Either to Mozambique or to wherever you chose to go to. Generally we were deported back into Mozambique which meant in some cases that you would be deported in the morning to Mozambique and in the evening you would come back again. Obviously the Swazi soldiers and police could not block the whole border so it wasn't a difficult thing for us to cross through into Swaziland. Then from Swaziland again we would either cross the fence into SA or if we could organise false documents we would then cross normally like other tourists, either as Swazi's or as South Africans depending on what documents we had been able to get.
My first mission which was to do some reconnaissance in the Gauteng area, especially around Johannesburg, I crossed into the country as a Swazi national, using a Swazi travel document that had been prepared for me and given to me, I don't know how the MK was able to do that but they did. So I came into the country on that mission and I spent about ten months in the country. I was reporting via our own communication lines, via couriers, secret couriers and what we called DLBs, dead letter boxes, where stuff would be dropped for us whether it was arms or money or messages, in a place that had been arranged and agreed on in the country.
POM So you would just prepare a report and drop it into a dead letter box and that was that?
VT Yes, and hoping it would be sent with a courier. It would be secretly encoded.
POM It would written in secret in - ?
VT In secret ink or invisible ink, also coded so that it would not be easy for the enemy to decode. It might be on a page of a book or it might be
POM Did you learn this decoding?
VT We were taught this by the Germans in the GDR and then we also taught each other what other people had learnt in other countries, some chemicals would be provided for some of the inks that we used and the things to develop that. I was then in the country, I would sometimes also go into Swaziland to make further reports and have discussions with my commanders.
POM What were you actually doing?
VT I would reconnoitre my base, draw up sketches of the possible targets that could be hit and send that through to them.
POM Were you living in a - ?
VT I lived in Soweto. Initially I lived as a Swazi who was student attending some school in town, in that case because the owner of the house didn't know that I was actually working for the ANC or for MK. At the time in the mid-seventies I would come back into the country, in November 1977, every time it was still pretty dangerous in fact to be known by people generally as working for the ANC, let alone as working for MK. Then people would get excited and talk about it and that would spread and get into the wrong hands.
POM You couldn't let anybody know that you were working for either the ANC or the MK.
VT So it was much better that as few people as possible actually know who you are and that you are working for MK. The other people would just meet you as just one of the citizens. In a place like Soweto perhaps, at that time life was fairly easy because Soweto is a mix of people from all over SA, people talk different languages, so the fact that your language is not Sotho or Zulu or Swazi or whatever doesn't make you too different from what people would expect to see. It would only become difficult if your, what we called legends, your cover story said you were coming from one place but you couldn't speak the language. So in my case, for instance, I was supposed to be coming from Swaziland, I was supposed to then speak Swazi and I had to attempt speaking Swazi but the trick that I then had to play was, I don't want to speak Swazi because I want to learn Sotho. I would try and speak more Sotho than Swazi or else speak in English. But Swazi being pretty close to Zulu it's not very difficult to pretend to be speaking Swazi even though the real Swazi people would be able to tell that you are not really speaking Swazi, you are speaking a language that is spoken in the border areas between Swaziland and Zululand because people on the other side would speak more or less the same language and it's not pure Swazi or pure Zulu.
POM As part of your legend here what were you supposed to be doing? You were living in the house in Soweto and coming and going.
VT I was supposed to wake up in the morning and go to school and then come back in the evening. Or else on some evenings then I would not come back because I had gone visiting friends.
POM Would you go to school?
VT I had no school to go to. I wasn't actually enrolled in any school. There was a two-week period where I actually enrolled in a school, it was a two-week course in motor mechanics where I actually enrolled in a school and attended for that two weeks and after that I actually tried to look for a job as a mechanic but there were very few employers who were looking for people with two weeks training although this was a programme that was designed by the government supposedly to prepare people to become employed and the government was recognising and I think subsidising these institutions to do this. But it was just a big hoax because in two weeks you wouldn't know much about a car. In fact the interesting thing about it was I knew least about cars at the time but I was the best student because I understood English better than all the other students and the examination was a multiple choice question where if you understood English you got the answer right.
POM So you got a certificate after two weeks?
VT Yes I got a certificate after two weeks which said that I could do anything with a car.
In the fourth month I was then joined by another comrade, I think she is called Thandi Modise today. I think she is a Vice President of the Women's League and an MP. She joined me to do the same thing but we were now beginning to move towards actually preparing to carry out some operations ourselves and we started receiving some arms and explosives. We were with Thandi for about two months and then she disappeared, she just disappeared.
POM Was she living in Soweto too?
VT She was also living in Soweto. She was living in Diepkloof, and again the people she was living with didn't know who she actually was or what she was doing. I don't quite remember what her cover story was. So when she disappeared of course they didn't know where she had gone to and nobody knew where she had gone to and because of her disappearance the commanders in Swaziland decided to withdraw me because they didn't know whether she had been arrested and they didn't know whether we had betrayed her, because she had just disappeared and we didn't know whether she was in detention or what had happened to her.
I was then withdrawn and after a while taken to Mozambique where I was to wait until a decision could be taken about whether I was to go back into the country or remain outside. So a good part of 1978 I spent in Mozambique again in a suburb called Liderdade, that was a safe house that was under the command, again, of Siphiwe Nyanda. There were other comrades who had come from training who were waiting for missions to go into the country to carry out operations and they would be moving at different times on different missions and obviously the only person who would know about what the mission was that was going on was the person who was going on the mission and the rest of us would just know that he has left and we would not know whether he had left to go to another safe house in Mozambique or gone into the country because we were all operating on the need-to-know.
Then early 1979 as part of the commemoration of the battle of Isandlwana, the 100th anniversary of the battle of Isandlwana, that's the battle where the Zulus defeated the British army in Zululand, 1979 was declared the year of uMkhonto weSizwe and it was as part of that campaign during that year which was linking up with the commemoration of the battle of Isandlwana and building to establish the reputation of MK in the country as the people's army.
I was then sent on a mission, I think the beginning of 1979, to carry out an explosive by blowing up the railway line leading to Soweto, that is between Soweto and town, in Johannesburg. There had also been support of a call for a strike, a national strike on that day. Now the railway was not just to prevent people from being able to go to work but to make it easier for them to explain why they were not able to go to work. I then came into the country alone, I was to carry out that mission all by myself. The explosives I was to dig up from explosives that were hidden before I had left the country. We had buried them in one of the cemeteries in Soweto, the one near Nancefield, that's near the railway station in Soweto. So I had gone and I went and dug those up and then went on to place the explosives on the rail between Soweto and Johannesburg near a station called New Canada. I had carried the detonators in my bag when I crossed into the country from Swaziland. When I crossed into the country from Swaziland again I think I was using a Swazi travel document, Swazi passport, so I went through the border gate and was searched.
POM You were searched and you had a detonator with you?
VT Yes I had a detonator with me, but it was actually quite poorly hidden, just an ordinary carrier bag, a gym bag, and I had put the detonators under the bottom of the bag and because people are travelling through the border all the time they couldn't tell that this one now was a terrorist and to search him more thoroughly. But of course you would be very tense when going through there although you would pretend you were in fact OK. I remember on that particular day I was actually stopped by the police after we had come into SA, we were stopped by the army and police and they came into the bus and they checked who was there. They even checked some of the bags of the people there but they didn't search me.
So I used those detonators, there were not enough of them because the rail at the place where I was supposed to cut into it, there are many rails and I couldn't put explosive in each of the lines. So I blew up what I could blow up and hoped for the best. In the end there was a small article in the newspaper saying an explosion occurred in this place. I read it and I was proud of myself.
POM That was your first?
VT My first real operation. When I went back to Swaziland I felt good, but unfortunately it has never been a very good operation. It didn't cut all the rails and so the trains were able to move on the other rails. Anyway I then went back into Mozambique and stayed there.
But at this time when I got back to Mozambique my relationship had clearly changed with my co-members. I could sense this although I didn't know exactly what was going on. First they hadn't got the paper that had reported my operation so they said I was lying.
POM You were supposed to have sent a paper?
VT No I wasn't supposed to have sent anything to them. I was supposed to simply report that I went into the country and what I did, so I came back and I reported what I had done. Now they had no independent verification of this and initially they just didn't believe me although they didn't say they don't believe me, they just said, "Did it come out in the big papers?" I said, "Yes it came out in the papers," "Do you have the paper it came out in?" No I didn't. It came out in The Star as a matter of fact, the one I had seen. It was, I think, a long time afterwards that we then got the news briefings that were done by our comrades in London who went through all the papers and there was my operation and I was a proud man again. Oh, so it was in fact the report in the news briefing was not even from The Star it was from The Citizen newspaper.
My relationship didn't seem to change and not long after that I was then taken by I don't know whether I should be going into these sorts of details actually - I was then taken into a house that was occupied by our counter-intelligence group so I then had to rewrite my biography again and I was questioned very closely about my operation, who knew me or who didn't know me, where I grew up, etc., etc. At that point I then realised that I was now being investigated and obviously it's a very uncomfortable feeling to feel that people who are supposed to be your comrades now think you are on the other side. Anyway, the people who were asking me the questions seemed very satisfied with my answers and in fact they indicated that they didn't quite understand why I had been brought there which was kind of nice but I still then had this thing that people are not quite sure. One of the things that I was being questioned pretty closely about was how Thandi Modise disappeared. There was not much I could say about it. I didn't know and unfortunately until that time, and it was months after her disappearance, I am sure it was almost six months after her disappearance, I was being questioned about her so closely. Up till that point nobody knew where she was. Certainly the ANC didn't know, the regime knew by then, we just didn't know that the regime knew.
So I stayed in that house for a short while and then the head of the house was an old comrade called Peter Boroko, I think he died after coming back into the country two years ago or so. He was quite nice with me actually. He seemed to be one of the people who didn't quite believe that I could be an enemy agent but obviously I was there now in this house of the counter-intelligence people. Strangely, at least to me at the time, I was drafted onto the group that was guarding the house and given a pistol to guard and I couldn't understand it. I'm obviously being suspected of being an enemy agent but also I'm being given a gun to guard these people. I remember asking Comrade Peter and saying, "I don't understand what's going on here. I'm being interrogated as if I'm an enemy agent but I'm also being given a gun to guard you people." And he said, "No, no, we just wanted to get some information, it's not that we think you are an enemy agent."
A few weeks later I was then taken again to join a group that was guarding our house at the border in Mamaacha, that's what it's called on the Mozambican side and on the Swaziland side it's called Lomasha, so the same area is called differently by the Shangaans on the one side and the Swazis on the other side. That was not long after our house there had been bombed by the regime and I think one or two of our comrades died in that bombing, a few others were injured. I can remember one of those who was injured, he was also one of those comrades. We used to call them umgwenya, that just meant deterrents of MK.
POM But you continued to use the house even though it had been bombed by the regime?
VT We just got another house in the same area where we operated from. The role of the comrades in that house was to assist our people in crossing the fence from Mozambique into Swaziland and vice versa so when people were coming from Swaziland they would be told and we would then check the border line and check where we could take them in. So sometimes we would cross over to the other side and get them in and we would take people from the Mozambique side and go and cross them into the Swaziland side where they would be met by comrades on that side. So I worked there for quite a while, in most of 1979 I was there.
Then I was recalled and taken to this place called Madola where we used to have people who were coming straight from the country or from Swaziland. It was used as a transit house, from there they would then be taken either to Tanzania to schools there or to Angola or wherever the organisation sent them. In Madola I was then, because I was one of the people who would be acting in political discussions, kind of became almost by popular choice what we used to call commissars, that's a person who runs the political discussions and guides them and facilitates them.
POM This would be a political a commissar would be parallel to would each MK structure have a political commissar as well as a military commander?
VT Each unit would have a commander and for smaller units you would have a commander and a commissar.
POM For smaller units?
VT For smaller units and the commissar would then be like the assistant commander, he would be second in command. For larger units you would then have a commander, you would have a commissar, you would have a chief of staff. This was just a house, it wasn't really a military installation. Most of the people who were there were unarmed, were fresh recruits in the country. The only people there who would have arms would be the trained comrades. There would be anything between ten and fifteen trained people who would then actually guard the house at night. I was one of the people who was guarding the house at night and some of the people who were there, who were just waiting for missions to go and fight, so the numbers of the trained comrades and the faces would change now and again. I am one of those who spent quite some time there. At the time the commander or the head of the place was again an old comrade, I forget his name now, maybe I'll remember it another time.
POM When I give you the transcript you can go through it.
VT I'll remember it. He didn't at the time have a commissar. There were a number of trained people who were living in the place but not necessarily part of the administration and I was just one of those who was not part of that administration but living in the place. We were then the people who would take the initiative of organising classes and making sure that people were kept busy and were getting the politics of the ANC. We were always quite passionate about people must understand the politics of the ANC and must know about the struggle, they must know what the people's army is and all of that. So we would take the initiative there and after a while some of the trained comrades said, no, I should actually act like a commissar and I started doing that.
I did that until the end of 1979, beginning of 1980 when our relations with Mozambique started changing. Then the leadership told us that the Mozambicans were saying we should move now towards the north of the country.
POM The treaty that was passed? Nkomati?
VT Yes, that's before the treaty was actually signed. The ANC was now supposed to move, it wasn't supposed to have a lot of people in Maputo and the areas around there, it was supposed to go far to the north to the Nampula Province which is to the north towards the Tanzanian border. Now I was one of those who was not part of the group that was to go to Nampula. I was to remain because at that time Comrade Jacob Zuma, now Deputy President of the ANC and the country, wanted me to join a new structure that they were forming which was they were restructuring the leadership of operations into the country and a new structure was being formed called the Senior Organ and under the Senior Organ there will be a military committee and a political committee and the political committee was to be headed initially by Comrade John Nkadimeng, he was also a member of the NEC of the SA Congress of Trade Unions, a communist, I think he is still around. Comrade Jacob Zuma was to be the secretary of both the Senior Organ - I think I'm mixing it up, you had the Senior Organ and under the Senior Organ was a military committee. The Senior Organ was headed by Nkadimeng, then the political committee was headed by Zuma and the military committee was headed, I think, by Comrade Lennox I don't remember what his last name was now. He was then the Chief Representative of the ANC in Mozambique. I think he is now in the army, must be one of the Generals in the army.
The political committee was going to set up what they called a political service unit which was going to do the day to day work of the political structure like doing research and drawing up draft discussion papers on how to do political working in the country.
I then joined the Political Service Unit and moved to live in the city of Maputo in a house that we used to call 'internal house'. It was called Internal House because it housed comrades who then were working for what used to be called Internal Reconstruction which was formed by the Revolutionary Council when it was joined by Comrade Mac Maharaj and he and Comrade John Motsabi
POM So was Mac in Mozambique at this time?
VT Mac, both Comrade Mac Maharaj and Comrade John Motsabi were based in Zambia at the time, in Lusaka, but they were in charge of what was called Internal Reconstruction. Now Internal Reconstruction's role was to re-establish the organisation on the ground, in other words to form cells of the ANC that would be based in SA and build the organisation, the underground. Before the Internal Reconstruction was actually established much of the work that MK was doing was what later got to be called just armed propaganda work. MK soldiers would go armed into the country and just carry out an operation and withdraw. Whether they were withdrawing, going out of the country totally or just having a base inside the country but they were not establishing any structure so they would just go. If they were attacking a police station they would attack that police station and withdraw and then go and attack something else and go and take something else but ANC underground cells were not being established in the country so Internal Reconstruction's mission was to establish this, the ANC underground in the country and the people in Mozambique who were the comrades doing that were operating from this particular house that I then joined in 1980 and the house was called Internal because of that.
The people I joined there who had already been working with Mac Maharaj and John Motsabi at the time were Sue Rabkin, she is the current Special Advisor to the Minister of Defence, and there was also Bobby Pillay, the comrade that I had gone to the GDR with, he's an Indian comrade from Durban, his real name is Sonny Singh, and Comrade Indres Naidoo. Comrade Indres has been an MP I think since 1994, he wrote a book about Robben Island. So those are the comrades that we then joined. Indres at the time was moving out of that committee so the unit was then formed by Sue Rabkin who was the secretary, Bobby Pillay who was the treasurer and myself as chairman of the Political Service Unit. We then had the comrades who were either coming from what we called the west, which was Luanda or Angola rather who would then orientate for political work inside the country and also deal with comrades who were already activists or had been recruited into the ANC underground inside the country who were coming to us for briefings and for reporting and for training. We gave some rudimentary training in the handling of firearms but mainly the training would be in political work, both in terms of the history of the struggle, political science generally, but particularly how to mobilise and how to organise people for mass struggles.
I then did that work from 1980 to 1982 but in that house in 1980 that's where I met the woman who was later to become my wife. She was called Florence Mashego, her real name was Pumla Williams but I didn't know her real name until much later and she didn't know my real name until much later. In 1982 I was then redeployed to go and join our comrades who were working in Swaziland with the particular task of working to establish the organisation in the area of Mgwavuma, that's to the north of Natal. Our interest in the area was firstly because it was near the border area, it borders with Swaziland so getting into that area from Swaziland was pretty easy.
Secondly, the apartheid regime in its offensive against the liberation movement was trying to create a buffer between the countries that were assisting the ANC and SA so they were talking about giving the area of Mgwavuma to Swaziland as well as parts of what is today Mpumalanga Province to Swaziland: the view as we saw it being mainly to (i) buy favour with the Swaziland government but also (ii) to improve the ability of the SADF then to police the border area. We were clear that this would cause not only problems for us then but it was throwing up a problem that has been with Africa for decades after liberation which was redrawing the borders or the boundaries of the colonies. Now if they were to be redrawn in the eighties there was no saying where that process would end up. As a matter of fact Lesotho has areas in the Orange Free State that the Lesotho people say belong to the Basotho. On the borders with Botswana similar claims would be made by people that areas that are part of SA actually belong to Botswana. Now that sort of thing is something that has been dealt with by the Organisation of African Unity and decisions have been taken about not trying to redraw these borders.
So we were then quite concerned about making sure that the people in these areas would resist this and I was then despatched to go and work on the Mgwavuma project. Our comrades had already linked up and were beginning to establish contacts with people in Mgwavuma who were ready to work with the ANC and that included an old man called Jameson Mngomezulu. Comrade Mngomezulu was an elderly person, over 60 years of age, he had known the ANC when he used to work in Johannesburg in the late fifties, early sixties and was committed to the objectives of the ANC. Although he was not an educated person at all he could just barely read and write, he then was the person I was accommodated by when I went to work in the Mgwavuma area. We were based on the Swaziland side in an area called Mtsoko which was walking distance from the mountains and the border line. With Mngomezulu's assistance we then established cells in the area of Mgwavuma and even distributed ANC leaflets, propaganda material, in the area and started checking out the area.
POM How would you go about just setting up a cell?
VT Basically you talked to the people that you had already made contact with, in my case Mngomezulu was a key person. Mngomezulu also knew people now in the area of Mgwavuma one of the features of that area was that the people I was living among in Swaziland belonged to or fell under a Chief Mtunja Mngomezulu. He belonged to the same family as Jameson Mngomezulu who was my main contact in the area. Now Chief Mtunja had been deposed because the regime didn't like his politics and it had then replaced him with a Chief who was more docile and amenable to what they wanted. The Mngomezulu people, even though those who were now based on the Swaziland side still wanted to go back to their homes in Mgwavuma, they were living in Swaziland as refugees and the area of Mtsoko is not the most habitable of places, it's hot, it's highveld and their lands on the SA side were much better and they still wanted to go back there but they couldn't because the regime didn't want them back as long as they supported the other Chief.
In organising therefore, I mean Jameson actually organised meetings for me with Chief Mngomezulu and some of his other lieutenants and they would give us names of people that they trusted on the SA side that we would then go to and explain to them who we were, who we were from, and explain to them that we wanted them to work with MK in liberating the country so that their whole families could go back and live in their places as well as establishing a new government that would assist people. They would have a vote and all that goes with that.
So that's how we formed cells and these cells would then establish other cells in a similar way. Now a cell would ordinarily be three people, sometimes four, but we didn't want big cells because then keeping secrecy would become a lot more complicated. We would form a cell structure with one cell maybe of three people, it would be responsible for two or three other cells which in turn would be responsible for two or three other cells. We had established a fairly big network in the area and around the town of Mgwavuma and further north towards a place called Manyiseni which is nearer the town of Manguzi. We would actually distribute leaflets in all of those areas. Some of these leaflets I had to write by hand because in the area where I was operating from I didn't have a roneo machine to do these things quickly and sometimes you would feel that you want to communicate quickly and you can't wait for the rear to assist you, so I would sit down and write them by hand, sometimes as much as 200 leaflets all written by hand and then go in and get them distributed.
I was then later joined, I think in 1983, by a link up with an operation that the military committee was establishing. I remember I was operating under the political committee. Both the political committee and the military committee reported to the Senior Organ in Maputo, but lower down we were separated, people reporting to the military committee reported there and those reporting to the political committee reported to the political committee so on the ground there was no co-ordination.
On the Mgwavuma operation we started talking about how to work together. This was at a time when the ANC was discussing and shortly to adopt what came to be called the People's War Document. That was a strategy where the ANC would establish semi-permanent bases, rear bases inside the country, instead of cadres going in, hitting some few targets and then withdrawing out. We were now discussing about actually basing in the country and then dividing the country into base areas and operational areas. There was a view that Mgwavuma could be a base area for our combatants and at the time the military machinery dealing with the area was trying to establish Mgwavuma as a base area. In other words our cadres would live in Mgwavuma but would then operate further away, further south and retreat and live in Mgwavuma, instead of leaving the country just retreat back to Mgwavuma. The idea was that as long as the regime did not know where these people were operating from the regime would continue to think that the people were running back into Swaziland and back into Mozambique although they were now staying in the country. They would then as they got themselves established maybe split up and form other rear base areas inside the country and then spread out.
POM It would be like establishing a base at point A, doing operations in area B and then maybe from area B set up a base there, go to C and live in B and keep moving.
VT So that was the general idea and we started working together then and by the time I was withdrawn from there of course I must say that there were serious differences of opinion with regard to this strategy. Some of us did not believe that it made sense and when I was in Mgwavuma I was one of these people who just didn't believe it made sense and I argued the position that this was not correct. It made sense theoretically but on the ground it would never make sense. All the same because we were one organisation, we debated it and once the organisation agreed that this was going to be the direction we had to implement this.
POM That decision would have been made in Lusaka would it?
VT All I will say is that decision would have been made higher up. We then started working with the comrades and we even accommodated some of them in the home of Jameson Mngomezulu where I lived. I had kind of been accepted as one of his sons, although a number of people kind of knew that there was something not so open about the 'son'. I was fairly established there and didn't feel at all under any threat. Of course it was known that Jameson Mngomezulu was pretty close to the Chief and therefore Jameson Mngomezulu was one of the people that the regime did not particularly like.
All the same when the MK combatants then came and some of the combatants that joined me had seen combat in Angola in battles against UNITA, some of them were not what one would call very seasoned guerrillas who knew about what was happening in SA. They believed in this new approach of base areas and operational areas and thought that it could work. Some of them were not as disciplined as they should have been and I started raising the issues with their commanders back in the cities of Swaziland. We used to have safe houses in Mbabane and Manzini, those are the two major cities in Swaziland.
Whenever I went to meet my own bosses, my colleagues, amongst them Ivan Pillay who I now work with in the Revenue Service, I would raise these issues and they would then raise them also with our counterparts on the military side, that these people that they had sent down there were not very disciplined. One of the things that I would query for instance is you see most of our people, most of our cadres had come from cities in SA and most of them had never lived really in rural areas and they would behave in the rural area as they behaved in the cities and not be concerned about what the people in the rural area would think. Things that they would do, for instance, is buy lots of beer in the bottle stores there, come and drink them there, so there would be cans of beer scattered all over the show. Now people in the rural areas simply don't have the kind of money to drink beer that much so you immediately became noticeable. What kind of people are these? Now the other obvious thing was not the combatants' fault, it was the fault of their commanders. There is no way that you can get five young men who suddenly appear and live in one house in a rural area because the people in the rural area know who is who in the area. Now you immediately can't explain who these people are and then the young people would start having girl friends and they would be talking and they would seen with arms and all of that so I told them that if this is the way that we are doing it now certainly I'm withdrawing from this house and I'm not going to be part of this. I will give you all the assistance in terms of contacts but you must know that my contacts will be disciplined people who will not let you know where they live, etc., etc.
I had become almost paranoid about security, especially since my experiences at the time when I was regarded as an enemy agent, so wherever I went I made sure that if information had to leak I should be able to say where it leaked. I may have been more paranoid about security than my other comrades. I then discussed with my colleagues and I told them that I would withdraw from the area, I can continue working towards the area but I was certainly withdrawing from that operation.
I think it was either before or just after I withdrew in terms of living in the area, I was then living with Ivan and others, although never in the same house, Ivan would have his own secret houses and I would have my own and the other comrades would have their own. Sometimes we visited some of the places where we could meet, it might be safe houses that we used just for meetings so we would meet in those places but generally Ivan or any of the other comrades would not know exactly where I live or me know exactly where they live. There were comrades who were living in Swaziland as refugees. I think Ivan at one time was actually living there as a refugee, in other words registered with the UN as a refugee.
POM Living in Swaziland?
VT Yes. So some of our comrades we could go to their places because they weren't 'hot' places. So we did then send a unit which was based in Mgwavuma, but I think it didn't last very long and the police knew about it and they raided the place, managed to kill two comrades and arrested one or two and the others managed to retreat.
POM This is the place you left?
VT Not in the place I left. Where I lived was on the Swaziland side.
POM On the Swazi side?
VT Yes. These comrades had established a base, a rear base, inside Mgwavuma on the SA side in the mountains and the forests there. They had a place where they were living and they were starting to reconnoitre the place. Now part of the reason that some of us had argued that this was not going to be practical to establish a rear base, some of us had been, like me, I would go into the country, into that area, I would spend days there, sometimes a week there, walk around, see the place, meet people, talk to people. Now there were army encampments in the area and the army was patrolling the border so the area was regarded by the SADF, as it was called then, as a sensitive security area. So they were patrolling it regularly. In fact at one time Jameson's son worked in one of the SADF encampments there cooking for them and cleaning up for them. Obviously they didn't know that he was in contact with me at the time. But the reality of the situation was that it would be very difficult to live in that area for even a month without it becoming general knowledge that there were unknown people living in the area. The enemy was not stupid, it had its own spies all over the show and even those who were not spies, all that the regime leaders would do was arrest a number of people, question them and people would talk. We wouldn't say we told you so but that basically is what happened and two of our comrades then spent I think some ten years on Robben Island as a result, or less than ten years because they would have been sentenced in the mid-eighties and came out either 1991/92 when people were indemnified and released from jail in preparation or during the talks.
After that there was then also in 1984 the signing of the Nkomati Accord and with the signing of the Nkomati Accord Mozambique became much tougher on us, Swaziland became much, much tougher on us, so it became really messy. I think that's around the time that Ivan in fact was one of the people who left Swaziland and went to Lusaka.
I was then left with two other comrades there and that was Comrade Terence Tryon and Comrade Shadrack Maphumulo. So those were the kind of people who were left and then myself. Then later on Terence Tryon also left Swaziland and Maphumulo also left Swaziland so as part of the political machinery dealing with the Natal area I was for a while left alone at that level although there were still other comrades at lower levels of the organisation.
POM Had you hooked up with your brother at this point?
VT Yes I had hooked up. I hooked up with my brother in 1984. I don't know if I told you this, he was seen by one of our comrades who was a student at the University of Swaziland, Comrade Dolana Msimang. She used to take briefings from ourselves into comrades inside the country either to be delivered by word of mouth and also written messages sometimes and other instructions for comrades inside the country. She could travel legally between the country and SA because she was a student and had not left under any security cloud with the regime. So when she went to meet one of our cadres inside the country, who was also a friend of hers so she could meet her openly, they lived in the same area in KwaMashu township in Durban. She found that other lady, her name was Sibongile Kubheka. Sibongile was a sister, younger sister, to the Themba who I left the country with earlier on. She then saw this young man who as far as she was concerned was me. Now she couldn't quite work it out because she had left me in Swaziland, she knew that I was in Swaziland but now she was seeing me in SA in the township. It did occur to her that maybe I'm a twin brother or something, or that this guy is a twin brother. When she came back to Swaziland she told Terence Tryon, that I've just spoken about, that she had met my look-alike in the country and had then been told that it's my younger brother. Then we organised and I met her and she told me that she had met my brother, blah, blah, blah, and then we organised for me to contact my brother over the phone so I contacted him and we talked. In fact what happened was we sent a phone number to my brother to call a public booth in Swaziland. I then talked to him and could immediately recognise the voice and we talked about things that would only be known to the two of us.
POM He was in the MK right?
VT No he was not in MK at the time, he was just a student activist. He was at the time the President of the KwaMashu Youth League. I think he had just qualified as a teacher a year earlier. I had known that he was politically active but I had never made any attempt to link up with him. Then we linked up. After we linked up he then visited Swaziland and we gave him material to go back into the country with it hidden in the car. I think he came about twice and the last time that he came to see me he came with my mother. Obviously I had not seen her since 1976 and when my brother came he was able to tell me that my father had died in 1982. This was 1984, late 1984. So sometime in 1985 I think my brother visited Swaziland four or five times and we talked mainly about politics and about the struggle but also about how my father died.
Then at the time the leadership decided to send me and other comrades to the Soviet Union for what used to be called military and combat work. It was training that was given to senior cadres who had political structures in the country.
POM It was called military and combat?
VT Military and combat work, MCW is what it used to be called.
POM This would be in 1985?
VT This would be late 1985, early 1986. I think we actually went to I left Swaziland late 1985 and spent some time in Lusaka before we left. In my group there was Vusi Mvumbela, we talked about him earlier on, he is now head of the National Intelligence Agency, and Comrade Welile Nchlapo, he's one of the Deputy Director Generals in the Department of Foreign Affairs now. Of course these are not the names that they were using outside. So the three of us went for the training and we did it in Moscow in the city. There was not much military training involved there, more concentrating on organisation and organising popular revolution, in other words a mass uprising, how you organise the people, you form the cells, how you establish the army, how you lead big detachments and attack big military installations.
POM Were you again in a safe compound in Moscow or were you free to move around?
VT We were pretty free to move around, the language was a big, big battle, a big problem. We were free, we could move around, we could go to the shop and come back either as a group there were only three of us in the group, or as individuals. We could take a walk of course outside of working time which meant that there would be a short time in the evening that you could walk about or then over the weekends. Normally we would go as a group, go to the shops or walk around in Moscow.
POM What was your impression of it at that time?
VT At that time the Soviet Union was already under then Comrade Gorbachev so there were beginnings of open thinking. Even amongst our instructors they were beginning to admit that things had not been done very properly in the past, that there had been less room for opposing opinions. I think we were right, that the people who would be allowed to have these kinds of contacts with us were pretty trusted members of the party in the Soviet Union, although not necessarily senior members of the party, pretty low level, they would have been in the army just as young officers, some of them not so young. They were not against the regime, they were supportive of glasnost but then most of the time that we spent with them we would be talking about how to defeat the regime. We were not really that interested in the politics of the Soviet Union save for the fact that I think we were generally supportive of the changes that were happening but we were also not sure that these changes would be good for us because we relied pretty heavily on the socialist bloc for support especially for the military side. We got no support from the west on the military struggle. We got all our weapons from there. The Soviet Union was our greatest friend, other than Cuba and GDR. Those I think were the top three supporters of our struggle, of our armed struggle. Most of the world, the Nordic countries supported us, gave us humanitarian aid, things like food and clothing but they would never give us money because with the money we could buy weapons. They never gave us weapons. The apartheid movement in London they gave us support too but never on the military side. They made their position clear, they were not in support of the military aspect of our struggle but the Soviet Union would make no bones about it and I think we appreciated that and I am sure we would continue to appreciate it even now. Whatever they did wrong there they still supported our struggle.
We spent five months there and then came back. That was now in 1986. Just before I left for the Soviet Union, either before I left or when I came back, I got the news that my mother had died. She died around the same time that Moses Mabida died because the news came via my wife who met my brother who had come for Mabida's funeral in Mozambique. Mabida at the time was I think the General Secretary of the SA Communist Party and also a member of the NEC.
POM This is who?
VT Moses Mabida. I then came back. When we came back from the Soviet Union
POM You came back to?
VT To Lusaka. I spent some time then waiting for my documents to be fixed so that I could go back. From there I was to come back into the country via Swaziland. The other comrades had different missions. I didn't know what the plans were about them.
POM When you were in Lusaka this time did you meet Mac?
VT When I was in Lusaka this time I don't think I met Mac. I may just have met him in passing and maybe chatted to him but that would have been all. I had more serious discussions there with Comrade Chris Hani.
POM You were going back to the integration of the military structures and the political structures when that began in Swaziland.
VT Perhaps going back from where we were, we were already in Lusaka where I was saying that I met Chris Hani because I sought him out, I wanted to discuss certain things with him before I went into the country.
POM Had you met him before that?
VT Yes I had met him a number of times before that, both as an underground organiser and leader himself who had been based and been head of the organisation operating from Lesotho into the country in the early eighties as well as a member of the NEC. He had visited us a number of times in Mozambique and had had discussions with us there.
The reason I say I sought him out was because one of the things I wanted to talk to him about was the structures in Swaziland that would be dealing with me when I went into the country. Now we had established new structures in Swaziland, integrated political and military structures. We then had a political/military committee or command in Swaziland that was dealing with the whole of the Transvaal and Natal. These structures were established I think in 1983/84 on the kind of regional command. The people there included Ivan Pillay, Ibrahim Ibrahim, Siphiwe Nyanda and one Thami Zulu and Paul Dikeledi. Then under them there were again integrated political military structures, one dealing with Transvaal urban, the other with Transvaal rural, Natal urban and Natal rural. I had been put into the Natal rural structure and was with other comrades in that structure. We were now going to operate not as separate military and political machineries that were just co-ordinating for their work but we would look at each area in an integrated way and decide on the priorities in that way so there would be better organisation of the work that we were doing and a more balanced allocation of resources.
Now one of the first missions that I was given as a member of this Natal rural command structure was to go into the country and reconnoitre and check other possible areas that could be used as base areas where our combatants could operate from in spreading the armed struggle in the rural areas and to link up later with the urban area struggles. For this mission, which was to concentrate mainly on Northern Natal, I was to work with one Mzamo Zulu who is a member of the Zulu royal house, who had been sort of sent away from the royal house in Zululand because of suspected tensions that he had with the leadership of the Inkatha Freedom Party which then was just called Inkatha. He had then been asked by the King to go away and was working just as an ordinary worker in Swaziland. I don't actually know what company he worked for, all I know is that he was a driver, driving these big trucks. We had been working with him, he had linked up with Comrade Shadrack Maphumulo, about whom I have already spoken, and Maphumulo then introduced him to me and we started working together in looking at the northern Natal area. I went into the country with Comrade Mzamo and we went to see a number of his contacts and that included one Induna, or senior headman, of the Nongoma area, Induna Sokhulu who was reported as being one of the advisers of King Zwelithini the King of the Zulus. Sokhulu owned a very big homestead and had more than one wife, a very big family in the Nongoma area. We also met another headman in the Pongola area, I just forget his name now and another traditional healer in the Paulpietersburg area, and in the Dumbe area. Those were the key ones but we met a number of other people that we would have worked with had things worked according to plan.
I then went back and reported to the command structures in Swaziland and a decision was later taken that we were going to try and locate one unit in the Nongoma area. They would do further reconnaissance and check out the areas about the possibilities of using it as a base area as well as look at other areas that could be used in a similar way as well as identifying targets that we would be hitting in the operational areas in line with the new strategy.
All of the people that we met with Mzamo welcomed the arrival of the ANC and MK and indicated their readiness to join in the efforts that we were making both in organising the people as well as in prosecuting the armed struggle. This was quite interesting because it included people who were already members of the Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe, that is the party of Home Affairs Minister today, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Some of them didn't find there being any contradiction between their membership of Inkatha and their joining in with uMkhonto weSizwe in the armed struggle.
POM Why do you think that was so?
VT At one level at the establishment of Inkatha the communication that was given to people was that this was the revival of the African National Congress. Inkatha actually adopted the colours of the ANC, black, green and gold, which were the national colours of the liberation struggle, Mangosuthu himself having been a member of the ANC. Now the people understood that it wasn't likely for us to liberate the country simply using the methods that Inkatha was using, which was that of operating within the homeland structure and bleeding the regime. They understood the Inkatha strategy as merely imposed by the conditions that the leadership of the IFP could not both operate within the confines of the law as well as preach support for the armed struggle. So for them the armed struggle complemented what their leadership was saying and of course in some areas they simply did not fully believe the line or the strategy that was followed by the IFP. Some of them were of course also influenced by the apparent tensions between Buthelezi the politician and the Zulu royal house and in particular the Zulu King and realised that their agendas could differ. Certainly I think the Induna Sokhulu felt himself to be closer to the King than to Buthelezi. I think he has passed away now.
Sokhulu immediately accepted our request to house and assist the first MK unit to be located in that area under the new strategy and following that we then sent into the country, in fact Thami Zulu and I physically took into the country two young MK combatants into the household of Induna Sokhulu and they were accepted there as part of the family and the Induna explained to his trusted members of the family that these people would need to be supported and their cover story would also need to be supported.
About a month later after these comrades were living in the place and beginning to meet people they were evidently betrayed and the house in which they were living in the homestead of Sokhulu was raided by armed police and soldiers. There was a shoot out there in which they were both killed. One of the MK combatants came from Natal, I think Umlazi township, and the other one came from the Eastern Cape. I don't remember their names now. In hindsight one has to accept that it was pretty risky trying to locate within the community people from so far away from their area and whose language could be identified as not the local dialect especially with regard to the fellow who spoke Xhosa more than even Zulu. Also of course the idea was not that they should live in the homestead. The idea was that they should as soon as possible find a bush or caves where they could live in the context of a base area.
I took their death quite hard because having operated mainly in the political machineries I had not been part of operations in which our people had died, in which I had played an active role in the operations themselves. These were people who reported to me. I had had my own misgivings about the strategy but I had gone on and led them almost into a very, very difficult situation.
Mzamo was then sent into the country to check how these people had been detected by the apartheid regime and how they had met their deaths and if we could reorganise in the area and go forward. Unfortunately when he tried to cross the border into SA he was arrested and ended up in Robben Island. I think he spent some five years in Robben Island and came out of jail after 1990 when people were indemnified and some of the people were released. In fact I'm not quite sure whether he was in Robben Island but he was in jail for some time after his arrest.
Induna Sokhulu was also arrested and according to reports he was badly tortured although he was a very old man at the time. I believe that he died afterwards, though not in the hands of the police necessarily.
I had gone back just to explain the structures. Now the reason I had sought out Chris Hani in Lusaka was because a number of us had felt, and this was quite generally in the forward areas at the time, that we had in our midst, even in the command structures, enemy agents. There were two in particular that we were working with from Swaziland. One is a guy who used to be called Cyril, in South African language he was a so-called coloured, and the other was an African guy called Thami Zulu. These are MK names, Cyril also that is his MK name. I don't remember their names now. Now Cyril had been suspected as an enemy agent by ordinary combatants who had worked with him for quite a long time and it was kind of generally known that a lot of people didn't trust him but the leadership had always felt that there wasn't enough evidence to condemn him and they felt that he was an effective operative and therefore we never withdrew him from the forward areas. With Thami Zulu there were whispers which were getting louder and louder but again there wasn't any substantial evidence on which a decision could be taken that he was indeed working for the enemy.
My own feeling about both these gentlemen was that the fact that there was suspicion for me was enough to want to take precautions and not get into situations where I would be compromised should they turn out to be enemy agents. As an example I tried to make sure that Cyril would never know where I lived and I told Terence Tryon, who I was pretty close to at the time, that he had to make sure that Cyril would never know where I stayed because I knew that Terence trusted Cyril more. He had known him inside the country and felt that the suspicions about him being an enemy agent were not true. Just as a matter of record I believe that Cyril later died after being interrogated and confessed to having been an enemy agent.
On the other hand Thami Zulu, because of his position, had already been on a higher level to him and his being now in one structure which I had then been reporting to meant effectively that he was my senior and he was one of the people that I had raised my concerns about, first the deployment of cadres into Mgwavuma, the combatants, and arms into a so-called base area there, and he pushed pretty strongly for this people's war approach. Now my own argument was that he was either a fool or an enemy agent. I could never understand how a person with his apparent maturity and intelligence could not see that the tactic that we were using could only lead to disaster. I articulated my position as such.
So when I was preparing to go into the country, because I had decided by then that when I went for training in the Soviet Union and came back through Lusaka that I was not going to operate from a forward area any more. I had decided, I felt that operating from a forward area simply would not work for us. It was like organising a revolution by remote control and Swaziland itself was too small for us to actually operate from. It was easy for the local police to identify and therefore draw the attention of the apartheid regime to our presence and our activities there leading to some of our people being kidnapped, ending up in jail or dying in detention.
I then had to speak to Chris Hani and tell him that, "Comrade Commissar, I want to go into the country but I don't want the machinery in Swaziland in which Thami Zulu is operating to know about my whereabouts in the country because I don't trust Thami Zulu." Chris listened very carefully to me and said, "Comrade Vuso, I've worked in the underground, I can understand exactly where you're coming from, if you don't have the confidence in the comrade I think it is right that you should insist on him not being involved in knowing too much about your location or activities in the country and so I would support you in that." I was happy about that because whilst I think that I've always been kind of a rebel I've always been respectful of authority and so I didn't want to go my own way, so I needed to have the understanding of the senior leadership of my position of not wanting to work with a particular comrade even though I did not have any substantial evidence of his activities.
With him having agreed to this I then went back into the country. Of course I would have had to go through the structure that Thami Zulu was a member of, it had other comrades that I trusted but my sixth sense would have been that the kind of reporting that I would have would have to be strictly in terms of rules of secrecy and I would insist of the whole command not knowing where I would be living. All they would know is that I am in the country and that I am operating in these areas but how I survived in the country they would not be involved in that. In other words that meant that although the machinery in Swaziland would be in contact with ourselves inside the country I would not use any of that machinery both to get into the country or to be secured by them when I am inside the country. It would all be set up by myself.
I then went back into Swaziland. I actually flew straight into Swaziland because when I left Swaziland I had been using a Swazi passport and I was able to get through and go back to my safe house where my then wife was living with my small baby. When I left Swaziland to go to the Soviet Union my first child was about two weeks old and that meant leaving my wife with a new small baby living underground in Swaziland because she was also a member of MK although she belonged to the Transvaal urban machinery.
When I rejoined her I found that she wasn't happy with the security of the place where we were living. There were some suspicious cars that were parking nearby and we decided that we had to withdraw from there. We then withdrew into Mozambique, she was then to come back and rejoin her comrades in the Natal machinery and when I went back to Mozambique I then linked up with Comrade Jacob Zuma again.
After some long discussions and waiting for the machinery in Swaziland to arrange for my going into the country I managed, I think, to convince Zuma that it might just be as well for me to go into the country and report directly to Mozambique rather than via Swaziland because Swaziland was reporting to Maputo at the time and therefore to Zuma and the other senior comrades who were there. Zuma agreed to this so when my re-entry into the country was then planned it was under the conditions that I was going to be reporting directly to Maputo. I arranged my own entry into the country using my old networks in Mgwavuma area including no, that excluded Jameson then I used the old routes that I had been using and got back into Swaziland. So, again, I bypassed the ANC structures that would have helped me to go into Swaziland. I just went on my own, linked up with Comrade Shadrack Maphumulo and with some assistance from him I then went on into the country via Mgwavuma, via northern Natal.
I had arranged with my brother, Mbuso, to receive me in Durban when I came. I was going to use public transport coming from Mkuze, which is also in northern Natal where I would get the train going to Durban, no the bus owned by Transnet that was going to Durban. So I travelled by bus and got back home and then linked up with my brother and he provided my first safe houses where I lived in Durban at the time in the nearby shanty town of Inanda. I lived there most of the time and then established other safe houses which would then allow me to be in one place during the night and at another place during the day regardless of whether I had specific activities to carry out away from home because where I slept people were supposed to regard me as just another worker who had a shack in the area and during the day he was working. So I couldn't live I wasn't supposed to be regarded as a person who is not employed. I was supposed to be a normal worker.
I then operated from Durban and we started setting up ANC cells. What we were establishing then was what were called ATMCs, that's Area Political Military Committees, which once established would take over the direction of the struggle in the area both in terms of the underground and political work that we are doing as well as the military work that would be done in the area.
I came into the country in December 1986 and throughout 1987 I was in the country. My wife had come into the country earlier in 1986, I think around August, so she was based in the Transvaal in Soweto and I was based in Durban. We both knew that we were in the country, we just were not working together. She was working for a different structure and I was working for a different structure as well. I visited Johannesburg to see her and she visited me once and shortly after her visit to me she went back home, she went back I think on a Sunday and on the Monday she was arrested, she was detected by one of the Askari in Soweto near Baragwanath Hospital. The guy was called Gloria(?) September, he had worked with her in Swaziland, they were in the same command structure in Swaziland but when he was kidnapped by the apartheid regime he either turned enemy agent then or had been working with the enemy before then. I have never been able to establish which was which.
Later on in 1987 I was joined by another
POM And the baby was where? The baby?
VT My wife had sent the baby before she came into the country to her family in Soweto. Her elder sister came into Swaziland, picked up the baby and took her into the country as her baby, the police again not realising that she had come out of the country without a baby and came back with a baby. That's something that we established fairly soon when we started coming in and out of the country. They were simply unable to police it, to stop us from getting into the country or out of the country. So the baby at this time was living with the granny and her aunts in Pimville.
In Natal, I will try to summarise now, I was joined by one Bheki Cele who had also gone out of the country and then got trained and come back but our main thrust at the time was to form the ANC underground rather than engaging in military operations. The military operations would develop from what we were doing as our structures became more settled. He was then to report to me and I was reporting to Maputo so we were forming a unit the two of us. Bheki Cele is now one of the members of the legislative parliament, a member of the provincial legislature in KZN.
He linked up, because he had been working with them before he left the country, he linked up with Pravin Gordhan and the comrades who were working with Pravin.
POM Pravin was in Durban?
VT Pravin was in Durban at the time and was already working from underground, in other words he was living as an illegal already, in the main because of the state of emergency that had been declared in the country because all of them were liable to being picked up and detained indefinitely so they had started to evade the enemy. Already by then I think Pravin was working for Vula and had some facilities that we could use. For instance they produced two different leaflets for us pending the leaflets that were drafted for our own conditions where we were operating. We were not operating in one unit with them. So they were doing their own thing and we were doing our own thing.
After some time Bheki was arrested and I only got to learn the details of his arrest when I linked up with Vula late in 1988 because one of the comrades working for Vula was the lawyer who was in the firm of Attorneys that represented Bheki Cele during his detention and in his trial later on. That was Yusuf Mahomed.
POM He's the man who had been arrested?
VT The man who had been arrested who was in my unit was Bheki Cele. At the time of his arrest he had a very thick briefing document that I had prepared for the organisation, the setting up of the underground and this had then been found in his possession by the police.
Then late in 1988 I got a message from my brother that somebody wanted to see me. He said Billy Nair wanted to see me. Billy Nair had sent a message that he wanted to see me, to my brother, but then when my brother was organising this and met Billy Nair he then realised that Billy Nair didn't want to see me. When he met Billy Nair, Billy Nair then told him that somebody wants to see me. I didn't know who this was but then a meeting was arranged. At the right time I was at the spot and whilst I was standing waiting for the person to come somebody beckoned me into a car and when I looked at the somebody it was Mac Maharaj. It was quite a surprise to see Mac in the country in Durban in broad daylight driving around.
POM Did you recognise him right away?
VT I recognised him after looking pretty closely. I would not have recognised him otherwise. I got into the car and he told me, yes, I am not seeing a ghost, it's him, and I was going to be surprised even more when I saw who the other person was who was with him. So he took me into a safe house and there I met Siphiwe Nyanda. That was also a very big shock. Now I had known both of these comrades, they were then both of them I think in the NEC. Siphiwe had been elected into the Executive Committee for the first time in 1985 at the Kabwe Conference in Zambia. What was even more interesting was the fact that they had come to help set up or strengthen the leadership of the ANC in the country. This of course was interesting for me for other reasons as well. One of the things that had been happening in the country was that whilst we were working in the underground trying to set up structures more and more people were going directly to Lusaka and there wasn't good communication between ourselves and Lusaka. So we knew that the ANC was talking to the local leadership, the lower leadership who we would have to link up with in some way but they were getting instructions directly from Lusaka and it wasn't easy for us to link up with them from the underground.
The fact that Mac, or rather the senior leaders were now in the country meant that the whole organisation in the country would operate more as one rather than as a separate fragments, an underground that reported directly to Zuma and other structures that were reporting directly to Lusaka, all operating in the same area because the Vula structures were being set up in the same area where we were setting up structures ourselves.
POM Did Mac tell you what the purpose of Vula was?
VT We were not told the whole details about what the thinking of the leadership was about Vula save to say that they had been sent into the country to help strengthen the leadership of the ANC in the country in working towards a popular revolution in the country. There was no talk then about the direction we were getting, that we got from Mac, was not that the ANC was preparing for negotiations. That there were contacts between the people inside the country and the outside was well known, it was a public thing that some liberals went to Dakar to meet the ANC and more and more people were going to Lusaka to meet the ANC there but we were not under briefings to prepare for negotiations. We were building the armed struggle and going ahead with that and building the ANC underground was simply a measure of making sure that the armed struggle would have the necessary political base. We continued along that line so when they asked me, Mac asked whether I was willing to join them and work with them instead of working as a fragment reporting directly to Maputo, I immediately agreed because for me there could be no two ANCs. If a member of the NEC was in the country he was my leader and it was to him that I would have to report.
I'm saying this because there are always tensions between people and without making too much of it I know that Mac and Zuma didn't always agree on issues and I am sure that is why Mac was giving me an opening that if I don't want to I didn't have to be part of his structure. But for me there could never be two ANCs and I immediately agreed and was then integrated into the structure that was formed which was to be the Durban Political Military Committee which was chaired by Jabu Sithole and of which the secretary was Mpho Scott and Pravin Gordhan was the treasurer. An interesting thing there is that, in fact I think if I'm not mistaken, the secretary was to be Pravin Gordhan and the treasurer was to be Mpho Scott, or at least I moved for Mpho Scott to be the treasurer and I argued then that it's a general thing that Indians tend to be the treasurers of organisations, they hold the moneys, Indians will hold the moneys and they are good business people, merchants and such. I remember that Mac laughed about that and said what he knows is that an African when he becomes a treasurer also becomes an Indian.
But anyway there were pretty heated discussions amongst ourselves as to how we were to go about setting up these structures and we planned in great detail and then allocated tasks amongst ourselves. Under Mac's leadership it was decided that because of my illegal status I would play a specialist role within the team rather than be in charge of a particular function. So I was neither the chairman, nor the secretary, nor the treasurer. The head of the Military Committee was to be my brother, Mbuso. He was then to be the head of the setting up of armed units. Who else? The other person who was on that committee was Thembi Nkosi, Sithole. Thembi Nkosi sat for a short while and then just drifted out of the committee and we didn't insist on his remaining with us. There were other people in Natal that were ex Robben Island. Sithole himself was an ex Robben Islander. Some we worked with and others were not too keen to get involved in the underground, were quite happy to do political work above ground as it were.
So we continued like that and I think in 1989 we were joined by Comrade Ronnie Kasrils, currently Minister of Water Affairs & Forestry, and then later by Comrade Charles Ndaba who also was a trained combatant from outside the country. Ndaba was then assigned to work in the Military Committee with my brother. My area of concentration would be the infiltration of the forces including the police and setting up underground cells within
POM That was infiltrating by getting people in the police to - ?
VT By recruiting policemen to work with the ANC at a political level rather than just recruiting them to give information which would be intelligence. Intelligence was not assigned to any of us. I think it was dealt with directly by at least not from our committee, nobody in our committee was assigned intelligence. That was a function that was outside of our committee and dealt directly by others Mac Maharaj or Siphiwe Nyanda or both of them. I don't know how they organised that. All we knew was that they had intelligence capacity and they could check out some of the people we were recruiting and could give information about what the enemy plans were but we didn't develop within the committee a capacity for gathering and possessing intelligence.
Other than the building up of the ANC structures in the area one of the very burning issues at the time in the area was what the apartheid regime liked to refer to as black on black violence which was the struggle, very violent struggle for supremacy between the Mass Democratic Movement, as it was called, which included the UDF and Indian Congresses on the one hand versus Inkatha Freedom Party on the other. IFP was called the Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe (that just means Inkatha of the liberation of the nation) at the time.
What the apartheid regime called the black on black violence actually was a struggle between people who were working for the enemy or working in enemy institutions including so-called community councillors or local councillors at the time who were fighting with the political activists who were against those institutions. So there were people who wanted to abolish these institutions who were saying nobody amongst our people should participate in these institutions and people who wanted to serve in those institutions and those institutions started, as I say, from the local level all the way to the so-called homeland governments in areas under the regime or went all the way to the so-called House of Representatives for the Indians and the House of something else for coloureds in parliament. So the struggle was basically between those two and the people who were in the enemy, as we called them, were supported, aided and covered by the police. They were even armed by the apartheid police whereas on the other hand the other people could only get their support from the liberation movement, including the ANC.
Our position basically was that this was not just black on black violence any more than the general struggle, but of course black people were involved on both sides a lot of the time. I am indicating this because part then of the setting up of these armed units had to deal also with the question of defending certain communities that had aligned themselves with the liberation movement from attacks by people who operated under the Inkatha banner but basically were doing the enemy's work for them. They would tend in the main to be from the hostels, the single men's hostels and of course some of the areas like Umlazi where Inkatha had a fairly strong base, at least on the surface.
Quite a bit of our attention in terms of the setting up of armed units was setting up self defence units in the communities, that was even more paramount than the setting up of units that we would be directed to hitting, real enemy targets. To a degree one could say that the enemy had managed to distract us from focusing our attention on the main enemy into defending ourselves virtually from our own people who had been used to working in the liberation movement.
Whilst all of this was going on, of course there were operations that were directed against proper targets that had nothing to do with blacks, electricity pylons and police stations.
POM Did these operations all fall under Vula?
VT Yes, some of these operations fell under Vula. They fell under Vula in the sense that they were under the same command that Vula was under but they were not necessarily within our committee. Our committee actually did not carry out military actions when I joined that committee of Vula but of course Siphiwe Nyanda and Mac had other units not only in Durban but in the Transvaal, in Jo'burg area, in Gauteng at the time, that were reporting to them in the Vula organisation.
Of course there was the political movement at the time, it was quite clear that the situation of the enemy was getting more and more complex. The liberation movement broadly was getting stronger and stronger, so much so that we had had the release, I think in 1987/88, of Comrades Sisulu, Mbeki and Gwala and we had buses moving from Durban to go and welcome them at the FNB Stadium here in Gauteng and those people were coming back with ANC flags. It was quite clear at the time that the country was getting to the point where the ANC was saying it should get to, of ungovernability.
I remember that in 1989, some time in 1989, I don't remember what it was all about but I was a guerrilla underground, illegal in the country, but when there was a demonstration through the streets of Durban I actually joined and toyi-toyed with ordinary demonstrators. I wasn't armed, I didn't go about carrying arms and I was beginning to meet people that knew me and not run away. I could talk to them and say, yes, I'm here, I'm operating here, in some cases organised to meet them secretly and have more discussions with them.
Then of course we were still operating within Vula when De Klerk made his now famous speech which included the unbanning of the liberation movement, in particular the ANC and the PAC and the other organisations that had been banned. We were in fact in one safe house with Pravin Gordhan, Mpho Scott, I'm not sure whether Jabu Sithole was there, when we were watching De Klerk on TV making the speech. Of course, although I am saying that the country was pretty close to ungovernability in the sense that people when talking about the ANC it was no longer something that you whisper. Whereas when we started some of us in the mid seventies, I remember one comrade in Maputo saying that the people were the enemy because the people if they got to know about us they would spread the knowledge and we would be arrested. In the late eighties the people were really no longer the enemy, especially 1988/89. It was no longer something that was so critical although you still had to take the precautions because militarily in terms of the security forces the enemy was still capable of doing whatever it wanted to do. So it was militarily strong, it could still suppress the people.
POM You were saying the ANC had begun emerging into the open.
VT Into the open. It would have taken a lot of force from the side of the apartheid regime to suppress the mass struggles at the time and perhaps the country was lucky that a leadership in the country had emerged that were prepared to talk and settle the conflict peacefully.
In the underground we then moved into a new terrain where it was quite clear that we could not continue as if nothing had changed. On the other hand we had not been given any specific orders to cease armed operations. So we had to discuss this amongst ourselves, discuss it especially with Mac Maharaj and Siphiwe Nyanda who were then our most senior colleagues and the view that we took was that until we were told otherwise we would continue with actions of forming and strengthening the self defence units. We were not going to go out of our way to carry out offensive operations against the regime but obviously we were not going to emerge from the underground and live normally. A number of us still remained illegals in the country, we could have been arrested and detained and tried and convicted.
POM Now were you also at the same time importing arms into the country?
VT Yes, within Vula we had a capacity and were continuing with getting arms into the country. We needed those arms for the self defence units that we were forming but we also needed them because at the time there was no guarantee the talks would necessarily end in a settlement. So we still continued to build up our capacity for offensive operations even though we were not actively carrying out those operations.
POM So you were kind of building an insurance policy of sorts, put things in place and strengthen.
VT Yes. You could say that although it wasn't strictly an insurance policy. From the view of the ANC a peaceful settlement was always an objective to be (striven for) but we would have looked at negotiations, political negotiations as an arena of struggle which could end in a settlement or not end in a settlement in which case we would simply continue with other arenas of struggle. Ceasing offensive operations would be like just giving the talks a chance. If they fail you just continue as if nothing had happened, of course taking the decisions in view of the political situation as we understood it at the time.
It was kind of tricky for us. We had leaders of the ANC like Jacob Zuma who were already in the country. At one time I think we were actually told that Mac Maharaj would be joining the negotiating team, but there we were, still hiding. For me and other comrades the thing was that my wife was already in jail, her case was to come before an appeal hearing and at that time I started saying it doesn't make sense, why don't we have members of the leadership that are now negotiating as evidence for the defence in my wife's trial and I fully raised that with the leaders. But before all of that happened Vula was exposed, starting with the disappearance of my younger brother and Charles Ndaba, both of whom had been working together in the Military Committee which was responsible for setting up the armed units.
When I heard about the disappearance of my brother from Siphiwe Nyanda when I came in for a regular Monday morning meeting that we used to hold as a committee and he then indicated to me that they had been trying to link up with my brother as well as with Charles without success and they suspected that the two of them might have been arrested by the enemy. They knew that Charles Ndaba had disappeared earlier and then Mbuso had also disappeared. I was coming with excitement because just over that weekend I had been in Johannesburg where I had gone and seen my wife in jail. Although I was underground and illegal I had been able to get into jail and talk to my wife although through a window. She was in jail. So I was excited with news to tell and then I was told my brother is not there.
We met, we talked, we met at a place that was known to both Charles Ndaba and my younger brother. We were aware that the security situation could be bad given the disappearance of the two and we then allocated tasks to contact lawyers and check other contacts as to whether they had seen the two or not. So I was given the task of contacting a lawyer for my brother and I went and did that. We went to one of the young lawyers who was linked to Vula, who was one of the members of our underground. His name was Zo Mbele, he lived in the Lamontville township near Durban. He started in my presence calling the Police HQ and asking if my brother was in detention. They denied it at the time and he asked them to put it in writing that he was not detained and they sent a fax saying that they were not aware of him being in detention.
I then later on called my other brother who was living across the Tugela in the Mandini township and I learnt from him that the police had been to his police and they had asked about my brother and they had told him that he must call them if he hears from my brother and said that my brother is a dangerous man, he is working with terrorists and has weapons of war. I called his in-laws in Mzumbe, that's to the south coast of Natal near Port Shepstone, and I learnt from the family there that their house had been raided and some of them had been bundled into vans and taken to Durban where they were interrogated and later released. I became pretty convinced that my brother must be in the hands of the enemy and that they were planning to kill him because they were denying that he was in detention. So from then on my own understanding was that he was going to be killed.
About a week later Pravin and Mac Maharaj, Siphiwe Nyanda and others were arrested. In our committee only two of us escaped arrest, that was myself and Mpho Scott, I talked about him before. So we continued to meet but we were no longer really operating as an underground unit, we were just surviving now. We had a very weak link that was established with the rest of the Vula Operation that had not been compromised. Ronnie Kasrils was also not arrested and he had gone underground. Mac was arrested after coming out into the open because he was going to be part of the negotiating team. Siphiwe was arrested while still underground in Durban and PG (Pravin Gordhan) was arrested going into one of the safe houses to pick up some things that were there and the police were already surveying that so they arrested him there.
So nearly all of Vula, at least the Durban part of it, had been arrested. We then linked up with Ronnie Kasrils and the rest of the network that was also in Gauteng including Janet Love who, I think, came and met us a few times in Durban, and that was that. What I didn't mention is that actually whilst we were underground before the exposure of Vula Comrade Chris Hani came down to visit us and we had discussions with him. He gave us some idea about what was happening at the negotiations which was quite good because as I told him then personally I was feeling kind of somewhat hurt that our leadership was talking to the government and they were not talking to us, what actually was this going to?
POM Wouldn't talk to you?
VT Yes. I remember that one of the well that was after Vula already one of the things that, I was one person who was not very happy about it, was when a ceasefire was declared unilaterally by the ANC, I think it was around August in 1991. I couldn't understand.
POM It was 1990.
VT No, 1991. How could they declare a ceasefire before something has been said about us and the people who are in jail? But the meeting with Chris Hani was quite useful in giving us the perspective from the horse's mouth about what the leadership was thinking about the negotiations. The rest I think is history. It was reaching all the papers about what happened to people in Vula. All I would want to add now is that up till now, or rather until 1996
POM Did Vula continue after?
VT No, Vula did not continue after the arrests. We remained underground for a while then a meeting was called in which Mac participated after he had been released, and Siphiwe, and the structure was disbanded formally and we were then released to start our new lives. That was late 1992/93.
POM Had anything emerged about your brother?
VT At that time nothing had emerged. It was only in 1996 when the TRC told us that some former members of the police force of the Security Branch had applied for amnesty for the killing of both Charles Ndaba and my younger brother. We then went to the TRC and subsequently attended the hearings for the amnesty application. We were shown the statements that the applicants had made and we were quite convinced that they were not telling the whole truth. They said that my brother had been, both my brother and Charles Ndaba were dumped, their bodies were dumped in the Tugela River Mouth into the sea. This whole story that they told us just didn't hang together. None of us believed it.
In fact at the last hearing in Durban, that would have been 2000, April 2000, Mac Maharaj was one of the key witnesses for our family basically opposing the amnesty applications on the grounds that the police who made the applications had not made a full disclosure. Their story just didn't hang together and it was a lie and therefore we opposed amnesty. The one troubling thing still for us today is that whilst we then had that hearing in April 2000 up till now we have not been told what the decision of the Amnesty Committee was. Did they grant amnesty or did they not grant amnesty? Is there going to be a continued investigation or not as to exactly what happened, because that story is one that I probably will have to tell to the children of my younger brother one of whom at the time of his disappearance was still in his mother's womb. In other words the youngest son of my younger brother never got to see his father. My brother was killed, according to the police, in July 1990 and in September his son was born, that was about three months later. Up till now I don't really have a story to tell about what happened to him.
POM There has been no was there a judgement made on the amnesty application?
VT As far as the family knows no judgement has been made. The last hearing was in April 2000 but up till now, as far as we know, no decision has been made whether these people are granted amnesty or not granted amnesty. We actually tried in the last but one hearing in 1999 to talk directly to the applicants and say to them, "If you guys start telling a story that makes sense, as the family we will support your application for amnesty." They stuck to their story and then we said, "OK, then we continue opposing your amnesty application." Some of them have left the police force now and maybe dying of old age, like General Steyn who during the hearing looked one of the older ones. He's retired now. They will probably all die without us knowing what happened and that is the story the story of my brother I would like to write about when I am old so that I have a record of what happened to Mbuso Tshabalala as far as I know and hopefully some more information will come out before I die.
POM After Vula was disbanded what did you go about doing? Your whole life had been underground, so to speak, since you were a kid.
VT After Vula was disbanded I started looking for a job. Now I could have got a job in ANC HQ, I was actually offered a job there and at the time I felt a little bit I felt that the ANC leadership had not done all they could to prevent the killing of my brother in detention and also after the killing had then been established to help establish the truth. I felt that it might be difficult for me to work with the leadership at the time although politically I had no problems. I am still a member of the ANC today, today a card carrying member, I didn't have a card then. But there is still that bit that well now at least I no longer feel bitter, I just understand that that's the way life is and you move on. The ANC had to look at things, the benefits of following up each case and putting the Boer regime on the witness stand on every case or looking at the bigger picture of what happens in the whole country and obviously they chose the sensible thing which is to say no point reviving the dead because they will not come back, let's see how we create a better life for all, as the slogan goes.
POM Was your wife then detained after - ?
VT She was arrested in 1987. She stayed in jail. There was another thing, she went through the appeal and it was turned down so she remained in jail and she was only released in 1991, I think mid 1991, so all of 1990 when I heard FW de Klerk give that speech in February I expected that my wife would be out of jail in two months at most. She wasn't out of jail for another whole year, she remained in jail for another year. She spent something like four years in jail because she had been sent into the country by Jacob Zuma who was talking to the enemy every day and that didn't make sense to me. But it makes sense when I look at it outside of the emotional.
POM What age was your child?
VT Our child had come to know us, I was supposed to be an uncle and her mother was supposed to be an aunt. So when I then could go to the family and stay with them even before my wife came out of jail at least I would visit them and spent a weekend or so with my child, she would call me uncle and because I was underground I let her call me uncle. Then the mother came out, she was also called aunt for quite a while until we moved out of my in-laws place and set up a little home for ourselves in Hillbrow in Johannesburg and then we insisted on staying with my daughter. We would let her go to the township on the weekend but during the week she was with us. Slowly she became to realise that I am not uncle I am father, you call me Dad, I'm not your aunt I'm your mother, call me Mom, until she got the hang of it, got used to us. Now she doesn't even remember that she once called us uncle and aunt, she is 16 years old now.
POM Where did you find a job?
VT I found a job in a lock making factory called Viro Locks South Africa. I was helped to find that job by Janet Love who was in Vula with us. She was friends with the Deputy MD there who was the daughter of the owner of the company and she talked to her and said there's a young man who is very good, he's prepared to do anything, give him a job. And this comrade, Rina King, then met me, talked to me and said, "When would you like to start?" And I started there as a data entry clerk. I had only done a computer in a seven-weeks course which I did when I was underground in Natal, when I say seven weeks it was I think two hours a day over a seven week period. So I didn't really know much about working on a computer but she taught me and I worked there and by the time I left in 1995 they were calling me a Trainee Manager and an HR Assistant because I could deal with some of their industrial relations problems.
POM They knew nothing of your background?
VT The Deputy MD who had become the MD after the death of her father knew what was my background but nobody else when I joined knew about my background. They only learned later, at least some of them learnt later that this is where I came from. In fact most of the management, all of the management except for her, the others didn't know about my background. All they knew was that somehow I was very close to the boss. She was very good to me, she taught me a lot that I know today about managing a business or how a business runs. I only went to SARS in 1999. In between I worked on a contract basis, I shouldn't say that, let's call it Government Information Service, but there I was working on a contract basis, on a short term contract. I didn't actually want to work for government, I wanted to work in the private sector and then get involved in starting businesses in so-called black economic empowerment business in a proper way, not this smoke and mirror stuff that is happening.
But it's not easy to start it from the bottom so when Pravin Gordhan said was I interested in joining SARS I said yes in 1999 and started there in August and on a full time basis in October and from then I have been a loyal SARS employee. When I got in there PG was in the process of trying to merge the organisation into a government agency that is run on professional management principles and not on the public service, so he has used us as the activists, people like myself and Ivan and a few others. When I came into SARS I didn't have a clear job, I was told OK your job is this but I was made to do all kinds of things which had nothing to do specifically with my job. But it's been a very interesting three years as such.
POM And your daughter is at school?
VT My daughter is in Grade 11 now at the Damelin Eden College, hopefully she will pass her matric next year. My son is doing Grade 1 at Cyrildene Primary which is nearby where I live. He will be turning seven on 10 March, so there is a big gap between the two because there was a time when my wife was in jail.
POM Does your daughter remember much about apartheid or is that ancient history?
VT For her it's ancient history. She attended school for a short time in Soweto but has been in multiracial schools for a long time. We lived in Lenasia which is an Indian area for four years and she attended school there and at that stage although there is a tendency for friendships to be stronger when people that live with you - there wasn't any noticeable or race consciousness but I think I started seeing a bit of that as she grew up and she was at the Sacred Heart Convent till last year. I saw a bit, not only a bit of race consciousness, but she is different from us. One of the things that I told my wife about when we came back after registering her at Damelin College I was struck by how easily she related to the person who would be her new principal, a white man, and talked to him as if he is her equal. When we grew up at her age if you were talking to an elder person you would be very respectful. If you were talking to a white man you would be even more respectful but with her so they are different and what some of us often worry about is will they be able to relate to the mass of the people who are not able to attend these multiracial schools but on whom the future of this country hangs because they are the majority. If we all become alienated, we are already part of the elite, if our children don't even know about what it was like before some of us are not sure that it's a good thing. It's good that they are able to relate to all people but the fact that they are getting alienated, they don't understand what happens in Inanda township, is a cause of some concern. Unless the education system somehow is able to address all of these things then we are going to have some hard times, or they will have hard times, we will be dead then. But that's their problem.
POM Thank you ever so much for the time you have taken. I think I'll just drop Mac and do you. I saw him yesterday, I told him I was seeing you today and he said to make sure I said 'hello'.
VT Thanks. The only way you are going to be able to get Ivan to sit with you like this is to make sure that you get him on a Saturday and even that is not guaranteed.
POM Does he work around the clock?