The other ANC of OR Tambo

Sara Gon says this was the ANC of the camps, torture and human rights abuses

When Member of Parliament Dr. Makhosi Khosa resigned from the ANC she said: “This ANC is alien and corrupt. This is not Madibas‚ Chief Albert Luthulis and O.R. Tambos ANC. THAT is the ANC that I am.”1.

2017 is the centenary of Tambos birth. Commemorative coins have been issued and a statue has been erected in OR Tambo Airport.

The ANCs website describes him as “one of the key founding fathers of South Africas liberation and constitutional democracy. The celebrations will be used to draw lessons from his life and understand the qualities that made him succeed in uniting the ANC.”2.

Dali Tambo, his son, recently described him as very humble, a strong moral leader and highly ethical.

President Jacob Zuma describes him as a “solution oriented leader who always sought to move forward on the basis of building consensus”.

“South Africa is today a constitutional democracy founded on the principles of human dignity and equal rights for everyone because of his leadership.”3.

Tambo was the ANC’s longest serving president, serving uninterruptedly from 1967 to 1991.

Tambo, who lived in Muswell Hill in London during all his time in exile, became Acting ANC President in 1967 on the death of Albert Luthuli. Tambo was also the Chair of the National Executive Committee (NEC) for 21 uninterrupted years. Members were co-opted to the NEC until 1985 until they were elected controversially.

Tambo was also -

 Chairman of the Revolutionary Council, the NEC’s executive arm;

 Chairman of the Politico-Military Council, The Revolutionary Council’s replacement;

 Commander-in-Chief of Military Head Quarters (1983 until 1990);

 Chairman of the President’s Committee (established in 1987).

Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s military wing, comprised about 11,000 volunteers. MK and its Security Department, Mbokodo (“the stone that crushes”), were at all times subordinate to the political leadership.

MK operated a system of “rehabilitation” camps for MK fighters deemed dissidents, mutineers or spies. The most notorious camp was the Morris Seabelo Rehabilitation Centre (Camp 32) or Quatro, built in Angola in 1979.

Seabelo was MK Chief-of-Staff, Chris Hani’s closest lieutenant, and sat on the tribunal which ordered death by firing squad for seven mutineers at Pango Camp, near Quibaxe, Angola. Seabelo boasted to Quatro prisoners that he had personally taken part by blasting his victims with an RPG7 anti-tank bazooka rocket.

Mwezi Twala spent fifteen years in exile as a Soviet-trained MK fighter. In 1979 Twala was based at Camp 13 (‘Villa Rosa’) in Quibaxe when he was sent to help build the nearby ‘rehabilitation’ centre of Quatro. All the builders were under oath to forget they had ever been there. Not long after, people were removed from Villa Rosa, taken to Quatro and ‘disappeared’.

One excuse for ANC excesses in exile was the fear of infiltration by South African spies. These fears were often well-founded, but the main purpose for the prison camps was to incarcerate MK fighters who had become disillusioned with the ANC leadership.

Life in military camps everywhere is difficult. Unpleasant living conditions, dissatisfaction and boredom are common, and mutinies do occur. The NEC, however, exacerbated discontent by allowing fighters to complain and promising change, but never doing anything about it.

In February 1981 an NEC entourage, including Tambo, visited all the Angolan camps. “Cadres were warned of the presence of a spy network and the need for vigilance was emphasised… An ‘internal enemy’ psychosis had been whipped up and whenever ANC leaders visited camps they were heavily guarded. Many men and women apprehended on suspicion of dissidence were to be exterminated in the most brutal manner in the months ahead.”4.

Twala was in Pango in 1981 when the ANC established commissions of enquiry into alleged breaches of discipline by discontented fighters. “This wave of terror engulfed the entire MK, and underground interrogation houses were set up… from Angola to Mozambique.”5.

Twala describes Tambo’s visit to Pango: “The path from the entrance to the admin buildings lined - like a scene from ‘Spartacus’ - with men, bloodied and filthy, hanging from trees.”6.

Tambo met all camp members, including the men hanging from the trees. Tambo berated the group for their dissident behaviour. Andrew Masondo declared that on the President’s next visit they would be in shallow graves behind the stage. Tambo said nothing.

The prisoners were returned to their trees. Tambo “passed the unfortunate men without a glance on his way out, and they hung there for another three months - followed by three months hard labour.”7.

Twala describes Tambo as ‘brilliant and ruthless’. “Tambo effectively became a dictator. He co-opted his cronies into the ruling clique, and in 1977, without calling for a consultative conference, declared himself president.”8.

A hero cult was promoted; cadres had to sing his praises “like sacred hymns”. NEC members were no longer addressed as ‘comrade’ but as ‘comrade leader’.

In 1982 Tambo issued a directive urging MK to review the ANC’s activities, strategies and tactics; and make positive suggestions for change.

At Viana Camp, Angola, about 300 soldiers held meetings to discuss the directive. Their 35-page typed report did not name any ANC leaders. However, personal complaints, which were annexed to the report did name leaders.

In January 1983 Tambo publicly said that the Viana Papers had been studied at great length. But he then criticised them harshly, condemning them as unreadable. This was yet another act of betrayal by Tambo.

In 1984 ninety percent of the fighters based in Angola mutinied. Factors included the excesses of Mbokodo, poor recreational facilities, the quality of food, and the yearning to go home and fight.

Tambo’s presidential report at the ANC’s 1985 Kabwe Conference in Zambia made no mention of the 1984 mutiny.

In 1987 Tambo visited Quatro, expressing his shock at conditions, which were incomprehensibly appalling. He told that prisoners that the NEC had agreed that their 1984 grievances should “be recognised as genuine, but it criticised our refusal to disarm.”

Twala explained that MK had assured mutineers that both it and Mbokodo would lay down their arms and protect the mutineers. The mutineers disarmed, but immediately Mbokodo turned their guns on them. After that the mutineers re-armed for their own protection.

“He replied with a monotonous litany about the need of all members of the ANC, MK and security, to work in harmony, to bury the hatchet once and for all, to close ranks and march forward to victory, then wished us well, turned on his heels and disappeared through the door, giving us a chance to discuss how best this harmony could be achieved.”9.

After Tambo left the prisoners were immediately subjected to brutal treatment which intensified increasingly.

The events of the mid-1980’s were not unprecedented.

Amin Cajee left South Africa in 1962 to join MK. In 1964 Cajee was sent to Kongwa Camp, in Tanzania. Cajee discloses that similar methods had been used against dissenters in the mid-1960’s.

The camp commanders took all the decisions about which punishments should be meted out and often participated in the cruelty. Camp internees felt that this could only be with leadership at the very top

In 1966 Abe Moloi (aka Socrates) told Cajee that he was in Morogoro when news of an attack on ‘dissidents’ came thorough. Tambo was present and “laughed, stamped his feet and waved a stick in the air, obviously applauding what has happened.”10.

In 1969 Tambo’s closing address at the Morogoro Conference he said: “Wage a relentless war against disrupters and defend the ANC…Be vigilant, comrades….Beware of the wedge driver, the man who creeps from ear to ear, carrying a full bag of wedges, driving them between you and the next man, between a group and another, a man who goes round creating splits and divisions. Beware of the wedge drive, comrades, with this poisonous tongue.”11.

Although life in exile understandably bred paranoia, could the real problem have been that the ANC leadership was unable to wage the war successfully, and so it had to imprison disgruntled fighters to keep control?

MK soldiers received training in at least five different countries. The Russian trainees (the majority) had been trained in conventional warfare; the rest in guerrilla warfare. It was difficult to mesh this into a cohesive fighting force.

The ANC-in-exile was based in eight Southern African countries. Due to the South African government’s policy of destabilisation, neighbouring countries (Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland) were especially vulnerable. So the ANC’s most prominent presence was in Angola, Tanzania, Zambia and, to a much lesser extent, in Zimbabwe. Other than Zimbabwe these countries don’t border South Africa. So MK’s difficulties were exacerbated by having the enemy at a geographical remove.

Joe Slovo, Chief of Staff of MK from 1985, member of the NEC and leader of the SACP, became frustrated as the ANC became more bureaucratic. It became less capable of actually waging the war, remaining stuck in exile and guerrilla camps.

Tambo led the ANC for over 25 years. Some argue that the circumstances of exile were not conducive to running a democratic ANC. But Tambo remained in charge by purging his enemies. Perhaps another leader might have achieved more success.

The ANC’s greatest success has been its propaganda, learnt from its communist masters in the USSR. The Armed Struggle was a failure as a war but simply by having waged it, MK became ‘the people’s’ army which would someday liberate them from the yolk of apartheid.

In 1992, after Nelson Mandela’s release and the unbanning of the ANC, MK fighters began to return and the ANC was compelled to acknowledge its excesses in exile. The Skweyiya Commission of Enquiry was appointed. Two of the three commissioners were highly placed ANC members.

The Commission concluded that for most of the1980s,”there existed a situation of extraordinary abuse of power and lack of accountability.”12.

The Commission also found “staggering’ brutality by the ANC security department,…”13. However, it exonerated the ANC leadership in exile and didn’t mention their names.

In 1992 Amnesty International (Amnesty) released a report into its investigation of ANC’s abuses in exile. Its research included first-hand interviews with victims. Amnesty documented a long-standing pattern of torture, ill-treatment and execution of prisoners by Mkobodo. Gross abuse was allowed to go unchecked for many years by the ANC's leadership in exile and by the governments of its host countries.

Amnesty recommended that any individual found to be responsible for human rights abuses, should not be allowed to hold any future position of responsibility for law enforcement or custody of prisoners. Such individuals should be brought to justice.

The Douglas Commission, headed by Natal Advocate Robert Douglas, was commissioned by a conservative American think-tank, the International Freedom Foundation (IFF). It interviewed more than 100 witnesses and its report was published in January 1993. The Douglas Commission was criticised by the ANC for being “virulently anti-communist”.

In 1995 the notorious apartheid-era spy, Craig Williamson, told Associated Press that the IFF was secretly funded by the South African government. The IFF was intended to portray the ANC as a “tool of Soviet Communism”.

The Commission was considered by some as the most detailed and comprehensive of the commissions, but in the circumstances its credibility would have to be proved by being tested against all other evidence available. Trewhela cautions about this in his discussion about the Commission.

The Douglas Commission found the ANC responsible for ‘a litany of unbridled and sustained horror’, marked by ‘tyranny, terror, brutality, forced labour in concern camps, and mass murder’.

Trewhela. says Douglas Commission report was particularly damning of Tambo. A former medical officer in the camps was quoted as saying:

‘The security system was directly under the President. We reported to the President directly and his secretary Duma Nokwe was the one we first reported to. (pp 58-59)’

Trewhela says “Tambo has a powerful case to answer. As president he was no remote,purely formal figure in the ANC… like a modern constitutional monarch. He was more in the manner of the president of the United States, head of the executive: and in this case, at the time of the mutiny, an unaccountable and largely unelected executive, unrestrained by checks and balances. As ANC president he was commander in chief of MK and one of the three senior office-holders in the ANC.” 14.

In 1993 the ANC appointed the Motsuenyane Commission. The Commissioners were an ANC-aligned business man, Zimbabwean barrister in Robert Mugabe’s government and an African-American jurist and civil rights lawyer. Its terms were wider than Skweyiya and it held evidential hearings.

This Commission did the strangest thing: it allowed the accused to be heard first. As a result the complainants’ versions were never put to the accused. The eleven actually found guilty of abuses were just the foot soldiers. The Commission recommended that they be disciplined by the ANC. Nothing was found against the implicated leadership.

Ultimately, in a glimpse of the future, the ANC leadership took collective 'ultimate responsibility for not adequately monitoring and, therefore, eradicating such abuses'.

Current and past ANC leaders now ask in anguished terms how the ANC fell from grace. The past always informs our future. It seems that the ANC which Khosa left is the ANC of OR Tambo after all.

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica.

Quotes & Sources

1. READ: Makhosi Khoza explains why she left the ANC (full letter), The Citizen, 21.9.2017;

2. Life and legacy of OR TAMBO. CENTENARY;

3. Ibid.

4. Twala, Mwezi and Benard, Ed, MBOKODO Inside MK; Mwezi Twala - A Soldiers Story (Jonathan Ball Publishers 1994);

5. Twala (p 49)

6. Twala (p 51)

7. Twala (pp 51 - 52)

8. Twala (p 52)

9. Twala (pp 101)

10. Cajee, Amin as told to Terry Bell FORDSBURG FIGHTER the journey of an MK volunteer , Face2Face, 2016; p118

11. Cajee (p119)

12. Skweyiya Commission Report - 1992: Report of the Commission of Enquiry into Complaints by former African National Congress Prisoners and Detainees - N. CONTEXT, JUSTIFICATION AND EXPLANATION  para. 12


13. Skweyiya, H. MALTREATMENT 1. QUATRO para. 1

14. Trewhela,Paul, THE ANC PRISON CAMPS: AN AUDIT OF THREE YEARS 1990-1993, Vindication of Searchlight South Africa, Searchlight South Africa, Vol 3, No 2, April 1993;

15. The Report of the Douglas Commission, Durban, January 1993.

16. APPENDIX ONE: ANC STRUCTURES AND PERSONNEL, 1960 -1994 Further Submissions and Responses by the African National Congress to questions raised by the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation,12 May 1997; 

17. Ellis, Stephen, Mbokodo: Security in ANC Camps, 1961-1990, African Affairs, Vol. 93, No.371. (Apr. 1994), pp.279-298;

18. Amnesty International: Torture, ill-treatment and executions in African National Congress camps, AI Index: AFR 53/27/92, 2 December 1992;

19. Gordon, Marc Justice for all? An Independent Assessment of the African National Congress (ANC) Sponsored Motsuenyane Commission Inquiry into ANC External Detention Centres, International Society for Human Rights, London, August 1993;

20. Jeffery, Anthea People’s War - a new light on the struggle for South Africa, Jonathan Ball Publishers (Pty) Ltd 2009.