Obituary: Neo Potsane, Member of the Delmas Four

12 July 2015 - 02:00 By Peter Harris

In 1994, as an Umkhonto weSizwe soldier of real experience, Neo Potsane was offered the opportunity to go into the South African National Defence Force, with the almost certain prospect of achieving high rank. He turned down the offer, saying that he had "had enough of war and violence". Potsane, who died last month of a heart-related illness at the age of 55, was a man who knew war.story_article_left1Neo Griffiths Potsane, born on March 2 1960 in Dube, Soweto, was part of the generation of youth who left South Africa in 1977 after the Soweto uprising the previous year to join MK, the military wing of the ANC. He was 17 and in Standard 8 in Orlando West when he left.Potsane followed in the footsteps of his father, Simon Atoyi Potsane, who, as a young man, had fought for the Allies in World War 2 in the North African campaign.Simon was captured and was a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany for more than three years. He returned to South Africa to find he was still a second-class citizen, subject to discrimination and oppression.Neo Potsane received military training in ANC camps in Angola, Mozambique and Zambia, and was involved in combat in Angola, where he fought Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, Unita.In January 1981, he went for specialised military training at Teterow in the then East Germany.In 1985, Potsane was recruited along with Joseph Makhura, Justice Mbizana, Ting-Ting Masango and Rufus Kekana to form a highly trained unit reporting to Chris Hani, with Jabu Masina as their commander.The unit entered South Africa early in 1986 and carried out a number of attacks and high-profile assassinations. They operated mainly in Pretoria, Mamelodi and Winterveldt before their arrest on September 13 1986.Kekana had earlier died in a hand-grenade explosion and Mbizana died at the hands of the security police, after suffering excruciating torture.Potsane and the others were subjected to severe torture, solitary confinement and lengthy detention without trial.The members of the unit, who were to become known as the Delmas Four, were eventually brought to trial in Delmas in what is now Mpumalanga on charges of high treason, murder and sabotage.The Delmas Four refused to participate in their trial, saying they regarded themselves as soldiers fighting a just war against apartheid, and should be accorded prisoner-of-war status.Their refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the court, when they were facing almost certain death sentences, earned them widespread admiration for their courage.Judge Marius de Klerk, sitting with two assessors - one of them the father of Eugene de Kock of Vlakplaas infamy - sentenced Potsane, Masina and Masango to death. Makhura was given a 25-year jail term.On the day of their sentencing they appeared in the dock in full MK uniform and made a statement, read by Masina, confirming their dedication to the ANC and a democratic South Africa. Potsane, Masina and Masango were moved straight to death row, while Makhura was sent to Robben Island.The four refused to appeal their sentences until they were ordered to do so by the ANC leadership in Lusaka. They won their appeal in the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein, and the death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.All four were released in June 1991 with other political prisoners, after having undertaken a hunger strike of more than 40 days.During their trial, in the darkest days of apartheid, the Delmas Four became heroes overnight. But as Potsane frequently said, and showed by his deeds and actions, they were ordinary people.story_article_right2Potsane was without pretension, a quiet man who spoke rarely, preferring to listen, and then engage thoughtfully and humbly.After 1994, Potsane joined a government department and worked as an information technology analyst and technician. He discovered his aptitude for this after spending an entire night taking apart a laptop, announcing the next morning that he understood how it worked.Potsane believed in the importance of education and had a great love of music, particularly African and classical music. His ear was such that he could isolate and follow one instrument at a time when listening to Handel's Messiah , a piece he loved.Potsane, like his comrades in the Delmas Four, never asked for special treatment or thought that he was owed anything by his country, despite having fought for its liberation.In fact, he thought such persons beneath contempt.Never having had children of his own, he brought up four girls and a boy - Lesego, Thakane, Modiegi, Ponteng and Katlego - all of whom achieved graduate and postgraduate degrees.At the time of his death he was studying for a BCom degree in industrial psychology.On June 11 he was admitted to Pretoria Heart Hospital and was later discharged. However, his condition worsened and he was taken back to hospital, where he died in the early hours of June 24. He is survived by his life partner, Mmaphefo Mabe, and an elder brother, Hugh Sakkie Potsane.1960-2015..

There’s never been a more important time to support independent media.

From World War 1 to present-day cosmopolitan South Africa and beyond, the Sunday Times has been a pillar in covering the stories that matter to you.

For just R80 you can become a premium member (digital access) and support a publication that has played an important political and social role in South Africa for over a century of Sundays. You can cancel anytime.

Already subscribed? Sign in below.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.