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170 minutes in Irene: How ministers were held hostage on Thursday night

Ministers and deputy minister say though they were held against their will, it was not a violent ordeal

15 October 2021 - 14:39
Defence and military veterans minister Thandi Modise during a media briefing on Friday where she spoke of a hostage situation at the St George's Hotel the night before.
Defence and military veterans minister Thandi Modise during a media briefing on Friday where she spoke of a hostage situation at the St George's Hotel the night before.
Image: GCIS

For nearly three hours, three of the country's highest-ranking politicians were held against their will inside a Pretoria hotel conference room.

On Friday, the two ministers and a deputy minister — defence minister Thandi Modise, her deputy Thabang Makwetla and minister in the presidency Mondli Gungubele — detailed their hostage ordeal at the Saint George’s Hotel in Irene, where they were kept hostage for two hours 50 minutes.

The trio were meeting with liberation war veterans to hear their complaints ranging from lack of decent housing to the government's failure to provide for their children.

But the meeting could barely start as disagreements arose right from the laying down of the agenda for the meeting, as the war vets demanded to meet President Cyril Ramaphosa and Deputy President David Mabuza immediately.

“We had a meeting at the instance of military veterans, who we met last night [Thursday] and we anticipated that they would be interested in the presidential task team's work progress, as we had those preparations.

“So, getting there, our intention was to start a meeting and listen to what exactly they wanted the meeting to do, because we were very careful about assuming. We proposed the agenda [but] we could not move beyond that point because they demanded the president and deputy president should be there.

“We think is it not fair to expect the president to be everywhere whenever he is wanted because he has created a machinery through which he interacts with people and we think we were that machinery last night,” said Gungubele.

It was the military veterans who declared a stalemate when they could not accept that the high-profile trio represented Ramaphosa and Mabuza, he said.

As the ministers proceeded towards the door, the military veterans locked them inside.

“We realised then that it was no longer as exciting as it was when we started. We were there against our will, but it was not a violent stay,” said Gungubele.

Before the start of the meeting, Modise said, they had actually joined in with the veterans in singing and dancing to struggle songs.

“Therefore, we did not feel that our lives were in danger, but we were unhappy to be refused to leave when the meeting had clearly aborted,” she said.

As the situation continued to degenerate inside the meeting venue, the trio's VIP protectors maintained their cool and did not scuffle with the military veterans.

Modise said the protectors were not tempted to get involved in physical altercations.

“They knew that we could hold our own because what was taking place within those closed doors was people talking, people differing on issues and now and then breaking into song. It was not a bloodbath.”

As the time went by, said Modise, the situation was becoming unbearable as they needed “fresh air and ablution facilities, having been stuck there for hours without ablution facilities”.

It was at that point that the police special task force was called in to save the night from further degeneration.

“The room was barricaded so the police had to open those doors, but what they used [to get in] I do not know. When we heard the loud bangs. We all went down, like in the movies or on planes. And that is what happened.

“People were saved and I have been long enough in the MK to know that no bullet was fired when I was there and there was enough restraint from protectors such that nobody was touched.”

Modise said there was no chance Ramaphosa and Mabuza would be brought into a room filled with an “unrecognised group of people”.

She and Makwetla would arrange to meet the same group once more, once the dust had settled, she added, but the charges pressed against 56 of their captors would not be dropped as they should know that their actions have consequences.