Something greater than oneself

Thula Bopela writes that joining the ANC once demanded sacrifice, but now?

When I arrived in Dar-es-Salaam in 1964, the ANC sent me to Mtoni, a student residence, where all the ANC young men who were going to study in overseas universities stayed. I met many young men there who came from different parts of South Africa and we quickly developed a very good esprit' des corps.

We took turns at cooking the meals, but each person was responsible for his personal cleanliness. In the mornings an ANC vehicle would come to collect those who wished to go to the ANC office in town, or those who were not well and needed to see a doctor. Otherwise, one was free to spend the entire day reading books and chatting with the other students.

In Mtoni nobody was in charge of anything or anybody. It was a society of equals, but it worked quite well. The discussions were mostly about the political events at home, how the South African government responded to strikes and boycotts, and what the United Nations, Commonwealth countries were saying about it. We listened to the news every morning and evening and held lively debates.

We were part of what was happening in South Africa because we were South Africans, but again, we were not directly involved. We were going to get scholarships to study in overseas countries and acquire qualifications. When South Africa became free, we were going to make our way back to the country, and become part of the new government. We saw it happening in all the African states that had recently become independent, black ministers, black magistrates and judges, black commissioners of police and so on.

Surely, some of us thought to ourselves, if one came back to South Africa with a doctorate in one field or another, one stood a good chance of being appointed to a high position in government! We sang revolutionary songs, held political discussions and dreamt of a free South Africa that would be ruled by black people ... us.

One day I went to the ANC office in town (Dar-es-Salaam) as I usually did; only, this day was different. I saw five young men sitting on the sofa in the foyer and I greeted them. I could tell they were South African even though I had never seen them before. I went and spoke to one of them who appeared to be the same age as I was. I told him my name and that I came from Durban, and asked him his name and where he came from. He told me his name and said he came from the Union of South Africa. 'I know you are from South Africa, but where about?' I asked him. He repeated his name and that he came from the Union South Africa; that was all.

Before I could lose my temper, President Tambo's secretary, Maud Manyoni, called me. 'You must stop asking those guys their names and where they come from, do you understand?' she admonished me. 'But why not?' I wanted to know. 'Those guys are from home, they are my homeboys, so why can I not ask them who they are? Where do they stay anyway?' 'That is another question you are not allowed to ask! They are soldiers of MK and where they stay and who they are is none of your business!'

Ah! So these were the MK guys! These were the guys who were going to stare down the barrel of a gun, pull the trigger and kill the soldiers of the South African Defence Force! My, my! I turned around and looked at them. Nothing spectacular about them except that they looked very fit and some were heavily bearded. Something leapt in my breast; I could not describe the feeling accurately, but I was no longer the man I was before I entered the office that morning.

I was confused. My mind was in turmoil. What was the difference between those guys and me? Nothing. No, there was, and it was undeniable. At Mtoni I was in the company of young men who would go and study overseas, become professionals, wait for others to free South Africa, and return to run the country. Was there anything wrong with that, I asked myself. No; a free country needs educated people to run it; otherwise all kinds of wrong decisions would be made and the country would become a banana republic.

So, if that is so, why are you having this turmoil in your head? What is the matter with you? Something was wrong with me but I could not tell what it was! The turmoil continued and became unbearable. What was wrong with me, I asked myself.

I went away from the office and sat facing the Indian Ocean. It was calmer here, no people. Only the gentle sea and the high palm trees waving in the wind, and some seagulls in the distance. I became calmer and began to analyse my feelings. Yes, there was nothing wrong with going to school as we planned to do; the country was going to need professionals to run it when freedom came. The only thing that I needed to answer for myself, me, Thula Bopela, son of Simo kaMhlathini kaDambuza kaVananda kaBatshwazayo was whether it was right to go to school when other men were going to war.

I come from a family of warriors, men who always understood that their supreme duty was to the nation, not themselves. All my great grandparents had served the Zulu nation as warriors, without exception. I come from a culture where every man is considered a warrior from the day he is born. If there is no war during his lifetime, fine. But if there was, nobody needs to tell you what role you are expected to play, and it is not about going to school.

I had not known that the ANC had trained men here in Tanzania; I had not seen them, but then I knew that MK was there, ready to go and fight to free the land. The question I needed to settle for myself was whether I was going to select the role of a scholar for myself, wait for other young men to die in my place and come back to a free South Africa. If I went into MK I would most probably not even survive to see a free South Africa. The problem was that even if I lived to see a free South Africa, deep inside me a voice would admonish me and say: 'Other young men went to do their duty and died so that you could be free.'

I came back to Mtoni a quieter man than I had been when I had left that morning. The other students noticed it but decided to leave me alone, assuming that I was maybe just home sick. I sat on the veranda and pondered my next move. The people of South Africa needed warriors at this particular time, not scholars. They would need scholars after the country had been freed; just now the need was for warriors.

All nations go through this phase in their lives. When Hitler hurled his forces against the Soviet Union in 1941, the men and women of that country did their patriot duty, which is why they refer to World War II as The Great Patriotic War. The British men and women heeded Churchill's call to 'fight them (the Germans) on the beaches, fight them on the landing grounds, fight them in the hills, fight them in the air, fight them in the sea, fight them everywhere, and never to surrender!'

Joining the African National Congress at that time was a dangerous undertaking. Joining MK was tantamount to signing one's own death warrant. How then did a sensible person abandon a safe life, a promising school career in an English university, and plunge himself into an organization whose main business is to be killed or imprisoned? I was not the only one who was faced with such a choice. Young men and women of my age in South Africa were faced with the choice of joining the struggle, and most probably perish or go to Robben Island.

Many chose not to fight endured oppression and let others stick their necks out. They obtained degrees, found good jobs, got married and started families. They read in the newspapers about their former schoolmates who had opted for the struggle, that they were being imprisoned or were being hanged. They congratulated themselves on their good sense for staying out of it all.

Joining the African National Congress at that time was coming into something far greater than oneself. That is how most of us saw it. For the first time in our lives we were not going to do something that, in the end, was going to be of benefit to us as individuals. We were going to do something that, if it succeeded, was going to benefit a whole nation. Yes, we would mostly certainly suffer, imprisonment or death, but in so doing, we would join the ranks of that superior specimen of humanity called REVOLUTIONARIES.

Revolutionaries are not like other men and women. They do not live ordinary lives like the rest of us. After their deaths, eternal flames of remembrance are burned in their memory. History mentions how they stood in the face of extreme peril and did not flinch. Do ordinary Zulus think they are equal to the men who charged the cannons and rifle fire at Isandlwana? Do they think they are peers of Mvundlana of the Biyelas, the commander of the Khandampemvu regiment, who aroused the Zulu army when it faltered by telling them that 'okaNdaba akashongo njalo'(King Cetshwayo did not command us to lie and hide in the grass from British bullets!) He, Mvundlana, was shot in the forehead and died while he exhorted his warriors to charge the British. The Zulu army rose and charged the British guns, and history knows what the outcome of the Battle of Isandlwana was.

When I joined MK I realised that everything that had been important to me needed to be sacrificed, starting with my school career. I was not going to make rules for myself and make choices about my life anymore. My body, my mind and my life now belonged to the people of South Africa. Their representative, Oliver Tambo, was now going to decide what to do with my life.

I was not going to live like other young men of my age, chase girls and go to parties. MK was greater than me and my challenge was to measure up to what was required of me as an MK soldier. We saw the men of the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR) advance and fire on us in Wankie. We trembled when their bullets whizzed past our heads, but when our commander, the later Chris Hani gave the order, we fired back and charged them, bayonet- to-bayonet. We tasted victory, and it was sweeter than anything I had ever known.

Then came the time when one needed to face the hangman. The date, place and time when we were going to hang had been fixed. How does a young man of 23 walk calmly to the gallows? We sang instead! How is that possible? I cannot tell you to day, but I was one of the men who sang on the way to the execution chamber. It is only when we face extreme situations like that that we discover our full potential; otherwise we are just ordinary men. We sang: 'Hamba kahle Mkhonto, uMkhonto WeSizwe'. It was not about us here; it was about 'isizwe' (the Nation).

What does it mean to join the ANC today? You walk down the street to an ANC office, pay R12 and bingo, you are a member. There is no danger anymore. Actually, you can make your way up the political ladder and end up in parliament. Alternatively you can obtain a tender worth hundreds of millions and live happily ever after. You may be murdered of course by your own comrades who covet the position you hold, or who are disappointed that you did not throw a 'fat' tender in their direction. Otherwise, it is now perfectly safe to join the ANC these days.

Joining the ANC in the 60s demanded service and sacrifice. It was something far greater than the people who joined it. This ANC now has become a vehicle to power and wealth. For that reason it has become less than the people who join and manipulate it. They will even destroy it, because they have weakened it. For it to survive, it again requires men and women who will restore it to its former status, its former glory, something far greater than themselves.

Does the ANC still have such men and women? The 'stupid ones' who serve without expecting appointment to powerful positions, those who seek only to serve? Yes, the consensus is that they are 'stupid', those who serve without requiring from the ANC to be appointed to lucrative positions. I think the ANC itself has forgotten who these people are; they are the forgotten men and women of the revolution.

We do not know whether the ANC can still find such 'fools', as they are called; but if it does not find them, it will have to do with people, cadres of the movement who see the ANC as a vehicle for the promotion of personal agendas. The growing culture in the ANC today is what is in it for me?

Can the ANC redeem itself from the malady that afflicts it today, the malady of self-aggrandizement? I have no idea, because I do not meet many people, from the leadership downwards, who want to serve; the majority I meet are people who want to promote and fulfil personal agendas.

Discipline has become an unknown concept in the organization. What do I mean by discipline? I mean the ability to criticize leadership decisions without degrading the leaders in their personal capacity.

An old warrior stood on the side of a hill and faced a regiment that he had been fighting against since daybreak. Hundreds of men from that regiment, uHlomendlini oMhlophe, lay dead at his feet. The sun was about to set and he was tired. He sat down and threw his assegais away and addressed the men who stood a few metres from where he sat. "General Nongalaza, help me to go to the land of my ancestors. I have fought all the battles that King Shaka kaSenzangakhona required me to fight. I have fought all the battles that King Dingane kaSenzangakhona required me to fight; this battle I fought to day is the last one.

I shall not fight another, because I can tell that the Zulu nation is dying. Zulu warrior is killing Zulu warrior because our princes are now at war among themselves. The Zulu nation is therefore about to perish. Come, General, help me to go to the land of my ancestors.' General Nongalaza, Prince Mpande's commander pushed the spear into the heart of the great warrior as a courtesy to him, uNozishada kaMaqhoboza.

If the prevailing conditions are not arrested and nabbed out, our great movement will die and like the old warrior, uNozishada ka Maqhoboza we can also conclude that the ANC is about to die, because the comrades are now at war with each other. The ANC is no longer something greater than us; our personal agendas are now greater than the ANC.

>> Thula Bopela is an ANC veteran and former member of uMkhonto weSizwe. This article first appeared in ANC Today, the weekly online newsletter of the African National Congress.

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