The day I was asked to shop my comrades for high treason

03 April 2016 - 02:00 By Amin Cajee and Terry Bell

The words echoed in my head: "You are guilty of high treason and the penalty is death." I froze. Terrified. It was September 1966; I was 24 years old. I was in Kongwa, an ANC camp in Tanzania.And I was going to die.The man who spoke those words was Joe Modise, a senior representative of the ANC, a movement which, we were often told, should be regarded as our mother and father.We were all South Africans a long way from home, families and friends, frustrated fighters stranded in a foreign country and totally reliant on the ANC. The movement had control over every aspect of our lives.I had no idea what would happen when my name was called out in the camp and I was escorted into a room to stand before a tribunal.Looking severe, Modise informed me I was being charged with high treason: with the help of a foreign power, I and others had plotted to overthrow the leadership of the ANC. The other accused were friends of mine - "Pat" (Patrick Molaoa), who had been an accused in the Treason Trial; "Mntungwa" (Vincent Khumalo); "Ali" (Hussain Jacobs); and "Mogorosi" (Michael Thomolang). They were to be tried separately and the penalty we all faced was death.I remained mute, staring blankly ahead, my mind racing and unable to make any sense of the charge. The other four panel members - "Paul Peterson" (Basil February), Boycie Bodibe, Chris Hani and Jack Gatiep - looked on impassively as Joe informed me there were witnesses to a meeting at which this plot had been hatched. They had given evidence that we had all been in touch with the Chinese embassy in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam.This was insane. I blurted out: "You are not serious, are you?" But they were. They were charging us with having established links with the embassy, 240km to the southeast, in Dar, when we were restricted to the camp and village, without postal, let alone radio, communications.Chris emphasised the seriousness of the charge, with Boycie threatening me with very serious consequences, among them execution in various brutal ways. I denied that I had been involved in anything treasonous and asked who the witnesses were and if I could question them. The request was refused.It was then that I was thrown a cynical lifeline by "Paul Peterson". He addressed me in a friendly way, telling me that "all this can be sorted out". What I had to do was to confirm that "Pat" and "Mntungwa" had initiated the scheme.I realised then that the whole charade was really about "Pat" and "Mntungwa", who were apparently seen by Joe as a threat at a time [of] much jockeying for power and position. Both were well known in the movement in South Africa and had considerable support in the camp. Unlike Joe, they had top positions in the ANC before it was banned.They had initially been sent for training in China. But now China and the ANC's main backer, the Soviet Union, were at loggerheads. The attack was merciless and all I remember was blocking all they threw at us with my arms When I refused to agree, the panel threatened me with serious consequences. My death sentence, I was told, could mean being taken to a game park where I would be left for wild animals I was frightened, but I couldn't help them, and said so. An order was given and I was marched out and locked in a tiny windowless room.I realised that I had been dragged into a bitter power struggle that seemed to be based on language lines - between isiXhosa speakers from the Cape and isiZulu speakers from Natal. There had also been an incident weeks earlier involving 29 members of the "Natal group". Although Modise was from Johannesburg and a Setswana speaker, he had allied himself with what was referred to as the "Cape group".The incident that triggered my trial was referred to as Operation 29 because that was the number of Natal comrades who had mutinied by taking the camp's only truck.Late one morning at the end of August 1966the Natal group had boarded the truck and left the camp at high speed. There was pandemonium, with the commanders running around. At least an hour passed before the camp was calm again.Jack Gatiep, one of the commanders, addressed us. He at first told the story in a matter-of-fact way. Dar es Salaam had been informed and the Tanzanian authorities alerted.But then Jack's language and mood changed. These men, he said, were traitors and deserters, enemies of "the people of South Africa". They had been planted by the South African security forces. They would be caught and dealt with without mercy. This rhetoric seemed to inflame the mood of some of the comrades and Chris Hani led the charge, calling for the death penalty.As we heard later, the truck was intercepted at a Tanzanian army roadblock near Morogoro. It was about 4pm when the truck trundled back into camp, with the 29 mutineers in high spirits, singing freedom songs. They disembarked, formed ranks and stood to attention, waiting for instructions. The rest of us stood watching the spectacle.Rubin stepped forward from the ranks of the Natal group. The reason for taking the vehicle, he said, was to convey their grievances to the leadership in Lusaka. For years there had been no serious attempt to move the struggle south and into South Africa. What they had done was to highlight their frustration at the inaction of the leadership.The commanders, having bayed for their blood, were at a loss as to how to handle the situation. Eventually, they simply dismissed them after telling them it was not the end of the matter; they would be tried for mutiny.As we waited for the next move from the commanders, the atmosphere in the camp was extremely tense. Groups were coalescing and seen to be meeting at different locations late into the night. My friend Omar and I kept a low profile.As we hoped, it was only a matter of days before some of the top leadership arrived in Kongwa. Acting ANC president Oliver Tambo came along with ANC and SACP leaders Moses Kotane, JB Marks and Moses Mabhida, a major ANC figure in Natal. With them were Mzwai Piliso, Mendi Msimang and Joe Modise.Meetings were held with the commanders, but JB Marks also made a point of talking with the rank and file. He wanted to know when and where things had started going wrong. We felt comfortable with him: he was easy-going and approachable.After two days of these talks an assembly was called. Oliver Tambo stood up to address us, and what he said took us completely by surprise. He did not mention any of the issues that had resulted in the so-called mutiny - the poor conditions in the camp, the low morale and the frustration at being kept in limbo. Instead, he launched a scathing attack on the group that had taken the truck. He said a panel of judges would try the group for mutiny.He added that what had happened was a serious crime against the people of South Africa and could not go unpunished. Tambo concluded that he had other important business to attend to and was leaving with the rest of the leadership for Dar es Salaam.On the morning of the trial we were marched into the hall. There were more than 400 of us in Kongwa then and we crammed into every available space, leaving room at the front where there was a table and four chairs for the panel of judges.With the exception of Joe Modise, who took the chair, [all the judges] were isiXhosa speakers from the Cape: Chris Hani, "Paul Peterson", Jack Gatiep and "Zola Zembe". Modise, in his opening statement, repeated Tambo's words, but stressed that the assembled comrades would be given the opportunity to have their say.So began what looked like the beginnings of a tragi-comedy as apparently hand-picked members, particularly from the Cape, were called on to make contributions. In each case these comrades expressed outrage and demanded the death penalty, suggesting the "mutineers" be either shot or hanged.During the lunch break a group of us decided that we had to make our voices heard. We could not allow what was a show trial choreographed by Joe Modise to go unchallenged.When we reassembled, one speaker after another stood up to state that what the Natal group had done was to highlight not only the frustration we all felt, but also the many broken promises of the leadership. The deterioration in the health of a number of comrades also featured prominently. Comrades pointed out that they had felt for a long time that it was better to fight and die in South Africa than to rot in a country thousands of miles away.Even those speakers who conceded that the manner in which the protest had been carried out was not right noted that they saw no other option because there was no access to leaders, who rarely appeared.Two and a half hours later the panel retired to offices to consider the evidence. We were surprised at the leniency when the sentence was announced: the accused were effectively confined to barracks - confined within the perimeter of the camp - for two weeks. Morale seemed to soar and I think we all thought things were about to change gear and we would be heading south to start the liberation war.It was not to be.A week after the trial, at around ten in the morning, I was sitting in my tent when I heard shouts. As I stepped out of the tent flap I saw about five groups, each comprising about three or four men, brandishing sticks and knives, running from tent to tent and attacking other comrades. I was joined by Omar and "Mntungwa" and we were moving away from the area when we were accosted by comrades with knives and sticks.The attack was merciless and all I remember was blocking everything they threw at us with my arms.I was bleeding from my head and nose where the sticks had landed and there was a stab wound in my hand, the result of a blocked knife attack. Victor helped me to the clinic. "Mntungwa" was being carried, bleeding heavily as he had been stabbed in a number of places. He was clearly the main target of the attack and was hospitalised. I had 10 stitches to my head and several to my palm.The next morning Joe Modise returned to a camp riddled with paranoia and fear and heavily armed factions. With his return came the announcement that another tribunal had been set up. And this was the occasion on which I was sentenced to death - and offered a reprieve, but only if I would effectively confirm a similar sentence on good friends and comrades."Fordsburg Fighter: the journey of an MK volunteer" is published by Cover2Cover (R195). Cajee will be at the Franschhoek Literary Festival - see - on May 14

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