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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
16 Jan 2003: Mkhatshwa, Smangaliso
POM Are you still called Father?
SM Father, yes.
POM Maybe you could just give me a little bit about your background first of all so that I have that for the record.
SM I was born and bred in Mpumalanga Province in a town called Barberton and I did my high school really in two places, one in a Roman Catholic Mission, in those days we were talking about missions and not parishes. After that I proceeded to Pax College also run by Brothers of Charity and thereafter I decided to go into the seminary and study for the priesthood so I was there for seven years and I was ordained for the diocese of what was then called Lydenburg/Witbank, a diocese, it's neighbour to the diocese of Pretoria. I was there for about five years after which I was seconded to the General Secretariat of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference which is just down the road.
Now maybe something about my first five years in Witbank. I was responsible for 17 outstations which of course meant that I had to every day go out of the main parish, if you like the main mission in those days, but then I had to go and hold religious services, I had to say Mass in 17 different places and I did that over a period of about a week. Every week I had to visit those places and so on. Some were large, some were quite small, some were just a handful of people but because they were collieries I came across a very interesting experience which was a bit of a shock to me but for the first time I found myself ministering to men largely from the neighbouring countries including Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and some of them from the now Zambia, Zimbabwe and so on, who had come here as migrant labours. So they were forced to live in single sex hostels. As you can imagine for yourself all kinds of sexual promiscuity prevailed and of course disease for the simple reason that if you force men to live unnatural lives like that, leave their families behind and shack up in some hostel, lonely, underpaid and overworked and isolated from the environments to which they are used to, what else could you really expect to have?
So it also was a challenge to me, for instance, to read the bible and preach to people about the sanctity of marriage and so on, the way families should live together, husband and wife should bring up their own children and so on. So there were a lot of contradictions. When I looked at the reality it militated against everything that I was trying to say to them. But of course I must say in a very real way I came across what it meant to be poor, to be underpaid, and what the system of migrant labour really meant, the way the people were exploited in all possible ways and so on, but also the tensions.
POM This would be during - ?
SM Well the system goes right back to the sixties, seventies. Mine was the eighties.
POM In the eighties.
SM Mostly the eighties, yes. Although of course I started working mostly in no, I was ordained in 1965 so the period I am describing is really 1965 1970 because from 1970 then I started working in an environment such as this one. So then I was seconded, as I said, to the HQ of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference where I was for 18 years.
POM So when you look at the reality and were preaching from the bible and saw the contradiction between the two, were you inclined to put the bible aside and say I must talk in more real terms to connect with these men?
SM Maybe that was really the beginning of my deep interest in and commitment to contextual theology because I suddenly began to realise that faith and life cannot be divorced from each other, that real life has an impact on the way in which you speak about God, you speak about human beings and about the world. I see it also then in a way as real hypocrisy to go to people who were starving, people who were underpaid and really cheated and exploited and so on, with all the wonderful values and fantastic ideas that came from the bible and from Christian theology as it was then taught to us.
I then, together with the people always in a way tried to make my sermons, my theology relevant to their situations which therefore meant that I had to say to them that I am sure Jesus Christ if he would be here he would actually say that you must refuse to be enslaved, you must refuse to be underpaid, you must stand up for your rights because here you're talking about your dignity as human beings, that you must refuse to be treated like little boys and girls and so on. You must refuse to be separated from your families, you must refuse to be allowed inferior and very poor education. You know all those kinds of things. In other words what one was then saying was that love as preached in the bible implies care for one's fellow neighbour, for other human beings. You care for their welfare, you care for their good health, to ensure that they have enough to eat, they have enough clothing to put around their bodies, cover their bodies, they have a home, they have a clinic, they have got affordable schools, they've got public transport. In other words that they have the basic needs of the people, that the basic needs are actually fulfilled, they are met.
That for me is what love means because if you say, as St. John puts it, you cannot say you love God when you do not love your neighbour and your neighbour is not just the fellow next door. Physically yes but it's much broader than that. I'm talking about other human beings particularly the disadvantaged people, the little people, the people that are without political clout, people that are without power, without adequate resources to meet their own needs and so forth.
So that's why then I said maybe that was also the beginning of contextual theology because contextual theology really meant that you cannot do theology outside the social context. That kind of theology is really for the birds, is for angels somewhere up there in heaven but the real theology is about living human beings, man and woman, the strong, the weak, the powerful, the less powerful, particularly the disadvantaged people because the rich people can always find a way of looking after their interests and looking after themselves.
After then I went to the University of Leuven, it's a Catholic University in Belgium, where I studied contextual theology, philosophy, for about three years, then came back and went for the Bishops' Conference for 18 years and I spent my last eight or nine years as the Secretary General for the Catholic Bishops' Conference in the whole of SA and I also in that capacity I acted as secretary to another Association of Bishops, Bishops from SA, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and so on, what is now referred to as the SADEC countries, they all came together from time to time. They formed this association and I was also a key player there.
POM Was it these who produced the Kairos document?
SM The people that produced the Kairos document were there were a number of theologians, well Archbishop Tutu didn't quite sign. I can't remember whether he actually did sign or not but Frank Chikane who is now in the Presidency, you probably heard the name
POM I know him.
SM - Albert Nolan, I wonder if you heard that name? There was a group of what we then called ourselves progressive theologians, very much like the role played by liberation theologians in Latin America so it was very much that kind of method of doing theology which therefore meant that we rubbed shoulders quite a lot with political activists, with freedom fighters to the best of our abilities because it was very dangerous in those days to do so openly, then students, particularly those at tertiary institutions. We interacted very closely also just with ordinary men and women, with leaders of trade unions, with other scholars and so forth. As I say our theology, contextual theology was different from the mainstream system of doing theology, also from the traditional system of doing theology.
POM Just as a matter of interest, how did your being appointed to these positions that are kind of - I would suggest that the Catholic Church here like the Catholic Church in most places, was fairly conservative, yet you were being appointed to promote these positions of influence by conservative bodies and at the same time you were out there visibly promoting a kind of liberation theology.
SM Yes. Well I can tell you one thing at that time Archbishop Hurley, Denis Hurley
POM I know him, yes.
SM He was the President I think for two terms so I served under him and he was much more open-minded. Certainly, you are quite right, the other Bishops were not very amused, in fact they were quite peeved by the fact that I was one of the signatories of the Kairos document because that's what it came to be known as. We were saying that if there ever was a time for us to adopt a very prophetic stance, which means a stance that is really against the establishment in its present form, we said that this was the time, hence the word Kairos in Greek meaning 'the right time', the right moment to do something, to take very important decisions.
POM The Kairos document was produced in?
SM It was produced here in SA.
POM And signed by?
SM And then we came together as theologians, about 156 of us, and each one endorsed it and then it was published and it caused quite stir. The government was very unhappy, extremely unhappy about what we were saying because we were practically saying they accused us of preaching revolutionary theology and were influenced by Marxism. They described us with all kinds of epithets which, of course, were not very flattering during those days, like communist influence and those kinds of things.
POM That was enough.
SM Which has nothing to do with it. It was just to do with our own experience and living in SA, going to schools in SA, working in SA, looking at the conditions. The fact that you were not free to chose the institution of higher learning, your own university, technikon, and our universities were racially divided. We had one for whites, we had one even for predominantly English speaking, Afrikaans speaking. They even had tried to establish universities for the different ethnic groups in SA. That's why we had so many universities and obviously some of them not particularly, not very well resourced, put it that way.
Then we were saying that's not on. Because we are black we are not allowed to assume certain responsibilities of leadership like in commerce, in business, in institutions of higher learning, research institutions, those kinds of things. We said that's wrong, it's unacceptable, our movements were restricted. For example it's only now that I'm truly rediscovering Africa in the sense that during those days it was, if you are lucky, it was much easier for you to visit the US, to visit Europe than visit Africa. Africa was dangerous and you were discouraged from going there and so on.
And we were saying it's not right for activists to be arrested and to be locked away sometimes for a number of years without any trial because we said when government was, especially the then Minister of Safety, when he was challenged why he was locking people up without giving them an option of either a fine or to be brought to court in an open court, he would say, "No, we are removing them from society for their own good because their own people might kill them so we are taking them away to a place of safety." Of course we also knew what was happening to some of them. Some of them actually went in there healthy, strong and fit but when they came back they were broken men and women, their spirits had been broken or they had been forced maybe to confess under duress. I imagine spiritually they were not very healthy people. But others came out very strong politically, even more determined spiritually and politically and were prepared to lay down their lives and so on.
Some got killed by the Security Police. They were killed in many strange ways and of course the Security Police would deny it all, "Well this fellow ran away and we pursued him and he turned round and tried to shoot at us and then we defended ourselves." As you probably heard when the TRC was having its hearings that some people were actually murdered by the Security Police and they were burned while the Security Police were actually enjoying their beer and smoking their cigarettes whilst the human corpse was burning. Those kinds of things. And we said, but there is no way we can just look at this, fold our arms and say nothing or do nothing.
We also then saw fit, because all this was secretly and underground, to assist people that were freedom fighters. You know how dangerous, of course, that was, but we had strategies to give them help.
POM How many were you involved with that at this time, who were helping the underground? Were you acting as an informal group?
SM Very much indeed an informal group.
POM How many of you were involved?
SM Remember I was involved even with people outside this province so we would be talking about well over 150 if you look at all the various provinces, for the simple reason that of course it was very dangerous to have too many people involved or even for people to know that you were helping freedom fighters that way, so you tried as much as possible to work in a small cell, small groups and so on, so we would come together. That's why, for instance, this Kairos document also gave us a very good, legitimate reason to come together to discuss theology and among those people that were there obviously we were all playing different roles in our own areas. Sometimes we did not even know in detail who was doing what, where, how and so on. We only came to know about these things much more clearly when we knew that we were not going to be arrested for disclosing things.
It was then whilst I was with the Bishops and also very active with contextual theologians that, for example, on one particular day a very interesting incident. Mac had already left the country.
POM When did you first meet him?
SM It must have been in the seventies.
POM That would be after he was released.
SM From Robben Island.
POM When he came from Robben Island he spent six months in the country. He was in Durban. Did you meet him in Durban?
SM Actually I met him in Durban but then when he was underground and he was responsible for driving Operation Vula. One day I'm sitting in my office, I was then working for ICT, the Institute for Contextual Theology, after leaving the Bishops' Conference. So I see this fellow comes in, a white guy, a student, he was a practising doctor, medical doctor, but also very much involved as an activist. I didn't really work underground with him but I knew him very well. He comes along and he says, "Can I see you alone?" OK, fine. So he comes into my office, he shuts the door and he pulls out a piece of paper. On the paper was written, "Smangaliso, this is Mac. I am in town, can we meet?" It just didn't sound real.
POM Miracles only happen in the bible.
SM Absolutely. But if it was someone I was not used to or had confidence in I probably would have refused to go to the rendezvous but because I knew this doctor I said, "OK, I won't ask too many questions." So we got into his car and we drove and he took me to some house in one of the suburbs. We opened the door, back door and so on, and when I walked inside I just couldn't believe seeing Mac all in one piece. I said, "What do you want here?" I said to him, "Now I really believe that miracles do happen." Then of course we had our own discussion, giving us a briefing of what he had been doing, what he was doing in the country and so on and the kind of contacts he really wanted to link up with. So it was a very exciting encounter.
POM Did you meet with him on a, I won't say on a regular basis, on a number of occasions?
SM I'll just say a number of occasions. Was this related to activities related to the Mass Democratic Movement? That's right, because at that time I was also very active in the UDF so he also wanted just to be briefed, which direction were we taking, how far certain things were and obviously how we could also ensure that our efforts and our struggle and activities complemented each other.
POM So he was trying to ensure that the UDF and the underground struggle in the country and the armed struggle, that they were all moving in the same direction, that it was co-ordinated.
SM Just doing different things but making sure that efforts are co-ordinated. The UDF by virtue of its being a movement inside the country and also visible that there are certain things that had to be left to the UDF to do and then people in the armed struggle obviously they also had their own responsibility and agenda so that we did not place obstacles unconsciously and vice versa that they did not place unnecessary obstacles on our activities unconsciously. I think it worked out beautifully well, very well. But he's really an amazing man, Mac.
POM Who is Mac?
SM I suppose Mac is really not only a visionary but someone who has always held very strong political beliefs and values, the policies of the ANC, non-racialism, democracy, caring for the people and ensuring that all the people of SA enjoy a better life and that they live together in peace and harmony and to ensure that people have the basic facilities that are needed in order to live a truly human and humane life. I think this is the ideal to which he was very deeply committed and the reason, therefore, why he obviously joined the ANC, why he was so active underground under the guidance of the ANC leadership was precisely because he wanted to achieve some of those objectives or assist the movement as a whole to achieve those objectives.
POM You say he is an amazing man?
SM In the sense of guts. Very bright, very articulate, but loves life as well. Yes, yes. He's a very sociable kind of person, well spoken. So that's why I said he is an amazing man in that sense.
POM Did he link you up with other people who he was speaking to or would he just always meet with you on your own?
SM In those days we always preferred to meet separately on our own so that you don't find too many people coming together because it was just too risky. The other reason was that if you got caught or someone else got caught and then would mention your name under torture or something like that, so we thought it's a much better and smarter strategy as much as possible to make it a one on one. Because even the guy who took me to him he really didn't know what we spoke about, his business was bring this man here, come back in an hour's time or two hours' time and that's how it happened.
POM So who at that time were you in close contact with in the UDF?
SM All sorts of characters, people like Allan Boesak, people like Valli Moosa who is now a minister, Trevor Manuel, Cheryl Carolus, those types, Frank Chikane. Those were the people who were very much in the forefront. Those are the people that were working with well before that I worked very closely also with people like Steve Biko before he was assassinated. When I was still with the Bishops' Conference I also ran a parish in one of the townships and Steve Biko with Dr Ramphele, who is now working for the World Bank, used to come they used to bring quite a good number of students from every part of SA during vacation time and would walk into slum areas, into townships to work with the communities, a very committed bunch of young men and women, students. After that when he was banned and he was restricted to
POM This was in your parish?
SM Well they only came to my parish during vacation time. Yes, practically every year in winter, in summer, then I would provide them with accommodation and also something to eat and a bit of money for travel.
POM So did you know him at a personal level?
SM Oh yes, yes, even the wife.
POM Was he recruiting you to Black Consciousness? I won't say recruiting but discussing it.
SM No, at that time what actually happened was that before the UDF came into existence the BC Movement was the prominent one and Steve Biko was definitely one of the prime movers in favour of that kind of philosophy even though by the time of his death it was very clear that I think ideologically he was beginning to move much more towards the direction of the UDF which of course only came into being in 1983 after Steve Biko had already died.
POM Was he moving in the direction of the ANC?
SM Very much of the ANC, very much so. Definitely. Then on one particular occasion, as you probably are aware we used to be arrested from time to time and then for six months you'd be away in prison and after six months maybe they let you go, other times the whole year, more than a year in solitary confinement. On one particular day I remember I was sharing a cell with one other fellow who had been arrested with me so whilst we were talking the Constable, because it was a police station, the Constable opened the door and I remember very clearly seeing two strange characters, strange in the sense that I didn't know them. One was squat, a shortish guy with a bull neck and the other one was quite tall and he was standing behind this short one. So they walked into my cell and the shorter guy came very close to me and he looked straight into my eyes and he said, all that he said was, "Father Mkhatshwa, you'll have to come with us unfortunately." Now what I didn't realise was that the tall guy had quietly walked behind me and just when he said the word 'unfortunately' I don't know what happened, almost like lightening I was handcuffed behind, chained here and blindfolded and I was just led obviously to a car because after they had placed me in the car I could hear the engine coming alive and the car moving away. So I spent about two full days I can't tell you where because I was blindfolded for the two days.
POM You were blindfolded for the two days?
SM Yes, yes, blindfolded, nothing to eat, beaten up and sometimes they would shoot something above me and so on, electric torture.
POM Did they use - ?
SM Electric yes, oh yes. Very, very painful. Then of course insults as you can expect of course, insulting you, threatening you and so forth. At the end of two days, in fact before the end of that whole exercise at one stage I thought, well, goodbye to the world, I can't make it. But at the end of the two days I was carried back, still blindfolded, carried back to the police cell from where I had been abducted. I couldn't walk, both my feet were swollen. But I survived, that's the main thing.
POM In pretty good form I would say.
SM I'm here to tell the tale.
POM The short guy's name wasn't Swanepoel was it? Did you ever know who it was?
SM I could never tell you really what his name was. Even the tall guy I couldn't tell you because I just saw them for a short time, before I could take their images in properly.
POM What year was this?
SM That was 1985.
POM What were they looking for?
SM All kinds of things. They accused me of recruiting young men for military training, sending them out, which is a lot of crap really. They wouldn't take no for an answer, they said they were very convinced that I had recruited young men, sent them out of the country and so forth. So at one stage I thought I was going to die. I must think of a plan. And it's amazing how the mind works when you are under stressful situations like that, very dangerous. A thought just came into my head, I suddenly remembered about five of the young men that I had known very well who had been students in my area and they had also decided then to leave the country on their own to go and do military training in some other parts of the country. But I remember five in particular, maybe a bit more than five but these five I was sure of. Now I also knew that all five of them had been killed in combat so when I realised that things were getting very tough I said, "Look, alright, I want to confess. I did recruit people and send them for military training." Of course I knew the next question who are they, where are they? So I gave them the name of those who I knew had already died because I was not betraying anybody because they don't exist any more, they are dead. So they took down the addresses. I said, "Well look really I wouldn't honestly remember their addresses. That was quite some time ago but these are their names." I was only worried about one thing that if they were to investigate and found that all the people I had mentioned had died, that they might come back to me and realise that I'm playing a game. Fortunately they didn't come back.
Then of course why did I work for the Bishops' Conference, why did I take the Bishops to Lusaka to meet the ANC?
POM When had you done that? You did that as part of - ?
SM Well it was part just of my function, my ordinary work.
POM So you took how many Bishops?
SM Seven or eight.
POM When was that?
SM In the eighties, definitely in the eighties. 1984/85.
POM You didn't meet Mac there did you?
SM No I met the President, Oliver Tambo, but also the current President Thabo Mbeki. I met him in Lusaka, I stayed in the same house where he was staying.
POM How did the Bishops react?
SM I think the whole purpose of meeting with the Bishops first of all was also to give the opportunity for the Bishops to meet with people that we knew eventually would lead this country.
POM Did the Bishops accept that?
SM That yes, but some of them I suppose they went there a bit curious, inquisitive to see what these people look like, but again Archbishop Hurley and his leadership I think they also saw the need generally at least to find out from these guys what it is that they were doing and why they were doing it, what was their ultimate aim, what kind of society, what kind of government.
POM Did they ask them about communism?
SM Oh yes, well inevitably. Yes, yes. We hear you are communists and so on and why are you communists really and what does that mean and so on. But the discussion went on very well, it was very cordial as a matter of fact, it really was very cordial.
POM I'll ask you a question because I grew up in Ireland and every week, you talked about the Bishops, we had more missionaries here proportionately in Africa than in any country in the world, every week in every shop there would be a little box.
SM Oh yes, for missions.
POM Yes, OK. It would say: a penny to save a black baby. So I don't know how many black babies I'm responsible for. I know we grew up with a fear of communism, it was drummed into us and we used to say at Mass, we would say three Hail Marys for the conversion of Russia. That's the way the Mass ended. I remember once one man who ran for public office and declared he was a communist, he was a bus driver, so whatever bus I used to get on I would always look for the unhappiest bus conductor and say, "That man must be the communist because he knows he's going to hell." And in the US the fear of communism was real. Families were stocking food in case of nuclear attack and there was all this propaganda.
Now there was that propaganda here, a lot of it in this country as there was in all the West. I wonder sometimes if it was propaganda or if it was real. The people were afraid. Do you accept that the fears of whites about communism were real fears? I mean real in the sense that they were genuinely afraid of the invasions, that this would become another Soviet puppet in the fight of the cold war?
SM I would probably say yes and no, a mixture of two things. One, I think the final analysis, the interests of the whites here really was economic. This country was just too good for them in terms of you probably have been taken round, seen the facilities, amenities that they have, good weather (well not so good now it's a bit hot), generally it's a good climate and a lovely country, beautiful. They as whites always lived in a position of accumulating a lot of wealth and also having a lot of political power. I don't think anybody wants to give up power willingly. But then the commie bogey came in very handy in the sense that if you agitated for democracy, for human rights, you must be a communist. So they used that, the communist bogey as a very convenient instrument to cling on to power, but like their friends and cousins and forbears in Europe as a result of years and years of indoctrination one would say yes, they generally also were afraid of communism for religious reasons but also for political reasons. If the communists came they would take over the country and democracy would be frustrated and all the bad men from the Kremlin would probably come here and take over all these good things and so on. So that's why I say yes and no.
POM The Bishops' stand on - Bishops preaching from the pulpit preached against atheistic communism?
SM Oh yes, oh yes. I would say yes. A lot of the priests actually did but, again, there were a few who were quite progressive. Yes, what's the difference between the communists and apartheid here? What is really the difference? And in any case our attitude was that we've not been oppressed by the communists, by Russia. It's too far away from us here and so on. Let us address the problem that faces us here and now in this country and the people that caused the problem. But I suppose there was also the element of, up till now, from the perspective of activists and people that were in the struggle, I suppose an element of, look, your enemy is my friend because you hate the Russians and the communists so much that there must be good about them, then they must be our friends because they are also helping us in our struggle. So that element came into it.
But at the level of ideology I really would say that the vast majority of black people all that they really wanted was freedom, democracy, to have a place in the sun. That's basically what they really wanted and anyone else who came to our assistance to that extent he or she would be then in a way almost an ally and that's how the whole question of Russia and communism came into play.
POM Just to talk about Mac again for a moment. Would you feed the content of your discussions into discussion with others as to what direction the UDF should be taking, since he probably was in touch with all of them too?
SM Yes. Really basically he did not have any major problems with the UDF because the UDF for all practical purposes was really an undeclared ANC inside the country because in terms of our policies, our philosophies, we shared exactly the same views.
Oh time up.
POM I know that. I'm so used to that. I know when there's a knock on the door that I'm being politely told to go.
POM So, I want to come back again when you've got more time, not in the office.
SM Next time when we meet actually we might even go to my house.
POM Oh that would be fine.
SM Where there won't be pressure on us.
POM Let's leave it right there. What I want to talk about is just and unjust war. That's always fascinated me and the evolution of that whole conversation, that whole debate. Were you tortured on more than one occasion?
SM Oh yes on more than one occasion because the second time I was arrested addressing university students at Fort Hare University.
POM This would be when about?
SM In what was then called the Ciskei, the Transkei.
POM I have been there. But what year would this have been?
SM Exactly 1983. 1983/84. Well not the whole of the 1984, six months.
POM Six months in solitary confinement.
SM And those were not good guys, they were tough customers, very brutal really. Not very nice people.
POM I want to talk about that when you've time.