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Culture, Reality

The Soldiers Are Still Among Us

by Hagen Engler / 10.12.2013

I was trying to get hold of Elias Motsoaledi’s widow. We were doing a story on the late Rivonia trialist, and I’d heard his wife was still alive and living in Orlando. She’s 85, so there was not a moment to lose. I needed to set up that interview sharp quick.

We made an appointment to meet on a Monday morning, but when we got to Soweto we battled to find her house. I was struggling to understand her pronunciation of the street name so I could enter it into my Google Maps. She handed the phone to some gent, probably a lodger. He gave me directions that were all “…from behind the stadium, you go past the park, and then right at the big double-storey. The you go straight-straight-straight…”

When we worked out that we were meant to be in Orlando West and not Orlando East, things got a lot easier, and we soon found ourselves outside the house we were looking for.

With the photographer and his assistant in my wake, I sprang into action. We were ushered into the lounge and I immediately began my interview.

But Comrade Caroline and I were joined by this other gentleman. He was small in stature, wore a slightly scruffy blue tracksuit and was in a wheelchair. It turns out he was Phahle, one of the seven children of Elias Motsoaledi.

Comrade Elias spent 26 years in prison for sabotage, following his conviction in the Rivonia trial, alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and other struggle icons. That was the story I was chasing. What could these people tell me about this great leader, who had passed away in 1994 – the very day that Mandela was sworn in as our first democratic president?

Protest against pass laws

They willingly shared their precious memories with us. I gradually pieced together enough reminiscences to make up the profile piece I envisioned. Yes, Mandela and Sisulu had come to their house for meetings. Yes, Comrade Caroline was involved in the struggle. She was once arrested at court, when she came to attend one of Comrade Motsoaledi’s hearings!

As I assembled these anecdotes, and inched towards the 500 words I imagined this was worth, Phahle mentioned that he, too, had a struggle background.

That kind of information wasn’t exactly what I was here for, but it might be worth a sentence of background colour, I figured. What kind of things had he got up to in the Eighties?

Oh, it turned out, Comrade Phahle had worked as an Umkhonto we Sizwe fighter throughout the Eighties, living underground in exile and launching guerrilla attacks against apartheid security outposts along the SA Swazi border.

He was a security operative stationed in Manzini, smuggling arms for operations within South Africa. From time to time he would infiltrate the country to recruit new ANC members. His youthful appearance meant he could simply walk through SADF checkpoints, as he was assumed to be a schoolboy. Meanwhile, he was one of the most wanted MK operatives in the game.


Later in the decade, as negotiations with the NP began, the ANC hedged its bets. It simultaneously launched Operation Vula, smuggling arms and ammunition into South Africa to prosecute an armed insurrection if need be and also for the war against Inkatha then raging in Natal. Cassius Phahle Motsoaledi, aka MaCashCash, helped smuggle these arms.

The duplicitous nationalist regime was at the same time funding Inkatha, coordinating third-force attacks and trying to assassinate ANC members. They were messy times and the Rainbow Nation but a twinkle in Desmond Tutu’s eye.

What many forget about the negotiated solution to the South African freedom struggle, is that the deliberate amnesia that designated 1994 as Year Zero of the New South Africa not only benefitted whites, who were by act or omission almost all guilty of racist oppression. At a stroke, the accomplishments of generations of freedom fighters were also obliterated from our history.

Memories of the heroism required to simply live with self-respect were set aside in the interests of rebuilding a new non-racist, non-sexist, free and democratic country.

And so Phahle Motsoaledi, who in the Eighties had led armed attacks on police posts under the nom de guerre MaCash-Cash, and become MK’s regional Chief Logistics Officer, later became First Secretary, Political, for SA’s High Commission to Swaziland. I don’t know what he achieved in the latter post, but I know which contribution took more courage and sacrifice.

Here I was, sitting with a war hero and basically ignoring him like a gibbering idiot! All because he simply didn’t fit into the new South African narrative. We honour the famous.

It’s about time we honoured the heroism of normal people too.

ANC supporters

A man in a wheelchair is not simply someone who requires ramp access to office buildings. This one is a man who fought, was exiled, was arrested, escaped and went back into battle, so that you could have a multiracial geography class. So that the world could muse, “How cute that they sing and dance when they’re mourning Nelson Mandela.”

The fact is, toyi-toyi is not a dance. It’s more akin to the march of a guerrilla army. And the lyrics of those songs “celebrating Madiba’s life”?

“Sizodibana, dibana” go the lyrics of struggle song Shona Malanga, “Sizodibana nge-bazooka ehlatini…”

“When the sun goes down, we will meet you in the forest with our bazookas.”

The congress members were singing that outside the Madiba house because Mandela was a founder of the armed wing of the ANC, jailed for planning and orchestrating bombing campaigns.

And “MaCash-Cash” Cassius Phahle Motsoaledi? He was one of those guys in the forest, with his bazooka, facing down the armed forces of apartheid. He trained in Angola, Cuba and the USSR to do that.

Wars and battles were fought for South Africa. And while Mandela is gone, may he rest in peace, the soldiers who fought those wars are still among us.

That we are today a standard-issue secular, neoliberal client nation is all very well, but we coalesced from the chaos of a highly militarized police state at war internally and on every border.

According to ANC strategy and tactics, the four pillars of struggle were mass mobilisation, armed operations, underground organisation and international solidarity work. Racial reconciliation was not what led to South African democracy.

It was the decades of struggle of people like Comrade Phahle that won freedom for South Africa. Reconciliation came later. Perhaps it’s yet to come.

And South Africa is full of Comrade Phahle Motsoaledis – South Africans who are not famous, stylish, affluent or young, but people of matchless integrity, warriors of selfless courage.

They literally fought for freedom when it meant jail, beatings and death. Those acts of courage, dedication and love did not disappear just because we somehow decided to start with a clean slate in 1994.

Today they still live among us.

Rivonia Trial

The people who freed us were soldiers. OR Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Ronnie Kasrils, Siphiwe Nyanda, Winnie Mandela, Chris Hani, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma… All of them.

But they led an army of combatants, at home and abroad, who secured our liberation. Cuddly old Madiba, with his paisley shirts and message of unity – he was a military commander. He chose imprisonment over renouncing the armed struggle. To him the ANC was at war with apartheid South Africa right up until the very moment when they were certain they had won.

The South African democratic settlement was a peace treaty between warring armies. I’m resolved to keep an eye out for these soldiers, to give them the respect I have till now been too ignorant to provide, and to simply thank them.

“Thank you, sir. You helped to liberate us,” is what I eventually managed to say to Phahle Motsoaledi. “Yes,” he said. “You must tell the people. We went to jail to free them.”

* For stories about the Swaziland underground of the ANC, see the book Number 43 Trelawney Park KwaMagogo, by Elias Masilela. It includes some of the exploits of Phahle Motsoaledi.

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