Flawed it may have been, but MK helped liberate South Africa
There was gallantry and heroism in that army called Umkhonto weSizwe
ONE of the most evocative tunes from South Africa's liberation struggle is the melancholy song of an Umkhonto weSizwe guerrilla. He sings to his mother back home, telling her not to cry even when he is dead, because his death was in the interest of freedom. The song speaks of the soldier traversing lands that the father and mother have no knowledge of - all in pursuit of freedom.
It was sung internally and in Umkhonto weSizwe camps to celebrate the sacrifices of those who had left the country to seek military training.
Even today when that song is sung you cannot but feel goose bumps. It reminds you that there was gallantry in that army called Umkhonto weSizwe, whose contribution to South Africa's liberation has yet to be fully documented.
Friday marked 50 years since the first action by Umkhonto weSizwe. That action, the blowing up of a few electricity pylons, was nothing dramatic. It was the psychological impact of the action that was huge. Taking place just a year after the Sharpeville Massacre and the banning of liberation movements, the attacks sent a message to demoralised South Africans that the struggle had not been crushed.
Much derision has been levelled at MK for its ineffectiveness. It has been said that, unlike in many revolutions, no armed battalions rode into cities and were received by jubilant masses.
All of that is, of course, true. The mass uprisings, consumer boycotts, general strikes, international isolation and the collapse of the South African economy played a much bigger role in the overthrow of the National Party regime than did the military struggle.
But such a narrow assessment misunderstands the intended and practical role of MK. It was never supposed to be the sort of army that would have the capacity to overthrow a government. It was more about armed propaganda, keeping the people's spirits up by making them believe that they had an army they could call their own.
This armed propaganda worked phenomenally well.
Every limpet mine explosion, landmine blast, hand grenade attack and direct combat involving MK soldiers was celebrated across the land. These actions told oppressed South Africans that they were not defenceless.
MK built a myth that in every township and village there were units of a large army that would launch a final assault on apartheid. This myth inspired young and old to confront the apartheid government violently and peacefully. Legends of heroic deeds abounded. Young people would huddle at street corners relating the exploits of MK soldiers. The stories of the Delmas Four, so eloquently told in Peter Harris's award-winning book In a Different Time, were the stuff of legend. There were storytellers who would relate in fine detail how Barney Molokoane blew up a heavily guarded Sasol depot, attacked army headquarters and participated in numerous direct combat battles with the security forces. Ashley Kriel's marathon standoff with the security forces on the Cape Flats grew many legs and arms each time it was retold.
You could not but be inspired by these (often exaggerated) tales of heroism
Sometimes, when youths clashed with security forces armed with just stones and petrol bombs, an AK47 would emerge from the thick of the crowd. This added fire to the legend of MK.
In the early 1980s and '90s, when the security forces and Inkatha were mowing people down, it was MK soldiers who trained people to defend themselves. I know the cantankerous chief from Ulundi will want to lynch this lowly newspaper-man for this, but we should not forget that it was MK soldiers who saved the life of Nelson Mandela when IFP impis besieged ANC headquarters on the eve of the 1994 elections. This country could have turned out very differently had the so-called Shell House massacre not taken place.
There was, of course, a lot wrong with MK. Much of its leadership was inept and it was heavily infiltrated by the apartheid government's intelligence agencies.
It would be a disservice to those who were wrongly tortured and killed by the ANC's Imbokodo unit on suspicion of being enemy agents not to record the darker side of MK. Or how the army's leadership often sexually abused young women soldiers. It would also be wrong not to remember some innocent people who were caught in the crossfire when embittered young operatives planted bombs in civilian areas so that whites should smell the death that was being visited on blacks by the security forces.
But none of this should detract from the pivotal role MK played in freeing South Africa.
So in celebrating MK we should not delude ourselves that it was this amazing army that produced great exploits.
Let's celebrate MK for what it was: a force that kept the hope of freedom alive and inspired thousands to risk life, limb and a lot more in pursuit of a democratic South Africa.