As evil and effective as always, an apartheid ploy sparks outrage in the age of unreason
Easily provoked, we hare off after shadows, preferring affront to facts
17 February 2019 - 00:00
On Wednesday June 26 2000, the Pinetown magistrate's court hosted the amnesty hearing of one George Martins, a former Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) member from Pietermaritzburg, for the cold-blooded killing of Benjamin Langa on the night of May 20 1984.
Together with Clarence Payi and Sipho Xulu, Martins was driven to a house in Georgetown, Pietermaritzburg, by one Dennis Hadebe. Since Langa knew Martins well he readily opened the door when Martins knocked, enabling Xulu to shoot Langa in the chest with a Makarov pistol while Payi shot him in the head. They fired one more shot each to make sure Langa was dead.
Benjamin Langa was the brother of the late former chief justice Pius Langa and renowned author Mandla Langa. At the time, the judge was a human rights attorney who made it his brief to defend freedom fighters and ordinary people who were victimised by the apartheid state. Mandla was in exile. The Langa family was conscientious and politically active, and Benjamin was in essence a freedom fighter himself.
In his application, Martins testified that the MK men's commander in Swaziland, "Ralph" - who was later revealed to be Cyril Raymond - had instructed them to kill Langa because he was a police informer. Raymond was later to admit under torture by the ANC that he was a police spy, and Langa never was. Raymond later died in ANC detention in Zambia. At the time he was unmasked he was reportedly about to be promoted to become MK's head of operations.
The killing of Ben Langa was to neutralise him, and what better way than to use the ANC's own constant worry about traitors within to get them to kill one of their own. Langa was never afforded the opportunity to refute the allegations against him.
The story is too long to repeat here, but in essence the circumstances surrounding the compromising of an earlier operation had led to his being named as the traitor.
This account is one of many examples that demonstrate how accusations of being a collaborator were an effective death sentence, whether one was an informer or not. There was simply no way of finding out for certain.
In some instances the security branch, an institution whose tactics my own family was to become acquainted with as they hunted my uncles like animals in the 1980s, was also known to regularly frame problematic activists as informers of theirs. This was to sow division in the ranks of the struggle and make operations almost impossible.
The tragic story of Benjamin Langa came to mind when Mosiuoa Lekota, the cantankerous leader of COPE, accused President Cyril Ramaphosa of having betrayed him and others to save himself from a stint on Robben Island. Lekota did not provide much detail, except to say that Ramaphosa wrote a letter to the security branch claiming that his comrades had put communist ideas in his head.
Lekota's statement unleashed a frenzy of anger directed at Ramaphosa on social media. Opposition politicians such as the EFF's Julius Malema latched onto this, with the party demanding a commission of inquiry. For quite a while, the fact that SA was about to collapse in a sea of darkness as Eskom battled to keep its own lights on was completely forgotten. A witch had been sniffed out, and that witch had to die.
Ramaphosa has answered for himself and I am certain he can continue to do so; I shall make no attempt to defend him here. What is necessary, however, is for the South African nation to try to understand why and how we have become the people we are.
Allegations of collaboration were always a very useful instrument for sowing confusion or division - and also for settling personal scores among activists. The flakiest of accusations places an obligation on the accused to provide heaps of evidence to prove something that, in several recent instances, never existed to begin with.
We have to be able to demand more information, in particular after the Hefer commission, which was set up at great cost to look into whether the former national director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, was an apartheid spy. On that occasion the real spy was unmasked as one Vanessa Brereton.
Why are so many seemingly not able to ask how Lekota came to know of the letter? Did the Special Branch show it to him? Was it produced at trial? Is it in some secret file? Was this, as usually happened at the time, a rumour that did the rounds among activists but was never substantiated? If Lekota heard this from the Special Branch, why did he elect to believe them on that occasion?
These are basic inquiries that require no special talents, yet many are treating this serious allegation as unquestioned fact.
What has become apparent in recent times is how easy it is to mislead many on social media by tickling a sense of injustice or betrayal, or to appeal to group solidarity even if this is in defence of criminality. Doing so removes all sense of reason and induces positions and behaviours that are self-destructive and bode ill for South African society in the long term.
It is to be seen in the unreason of cheap sloganeering in the form of catchy new phrases and hashtags that serve to distract from the serious business of the day. When Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki and others were accused, without evidence, of having collaborated with the police to besmirch the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the same trend was visible. That countless historical records tell a detailed account of what happened either did not matter or their very existence was not known or considered interesting.
We have to ask what an inability to inquire, to gather information and to analyse meaning, means for our future.
We are becoming a people who believe anything, follow anyone and do anything as long as demagogues and their agents can arouse deep emotions about one thing or another. Knowledge, facts, the search and sharing thereof, are heresy.
No society advances when an increasing number of its people lack the basic tools to tell what is true or important.
Whether or not Lekota's motives are genuine is not that important because even if his intentions are bad, the story itself may be true, and vice versa. The facts, however, are the minimum we must demand.
We also have a responsibility to demand that those who make accusations provide a reasonable amount of evidence. If we fail to implement this minimum standard of justice, we will be a nation that permanently chases shadows, looking for witches within and never getting to focus on what is really important.
Sadly, I am not hopeful. It feels like it is already too late.
• Zibi is an author and former editor of Business Day..