Monument to a torturer

Gareth van Onselen writes on how the ANC venerates, defends and rewrites history when it comes to its own

1/ Amidst the global removal of statues should the ANC celebrate “African” human rights abusers? Here is a long thread on how the ANC venerates, defends and rewrites history when it comes to its own.

2/ Mzwandile Piliso was the late ANC head of security in exile and the person after whom the SA National Academy for Intelligence Mafikeng campus was named. His story is relevant in light of the current focus on erasing from contemporary life, tributes to history's villains.

3/ Background: Piliso left SA in the 1950’s and served on the ANC’s NEC for some 20 years, for the most part, as a member of the party armed wing Umkhonto weSizwe and for a significant period, as head of its notorious security department, Mbokodo.

4/ Along with Andrew Masondo and Joe Modise, Piliso was responsible for, and oversaw the running of, the ANC’s infamous Morris Seabelo Rehabilitation Centre – Camp 32 or Quatro Camp – in Angola.

5/ Under a cloud of suspicion and as a consequence of massive infighting and turmoil in the ANC security services, Piliso was redeployed to the party’s department of manpower in 1980 and with the advent of South Africa’s new democracy, he returned to the country in 1990.

6/ Piliso was elected an ANC MP in 1994 and in 1998 – as his health deteriorated – appointed advisor to EC Premier Raymond Mhlaba. He died June 1998, at 73. Deputy President Thabo Mbeki and Defence Minister Joe Modise were among the senior ANC members who attended the funeral.

7/ A Sunday Times obituary read, “It was under his authority that many of the human rights abuses of government informers or suspects in ANC camps were carried out” and “those who fell foul of Mbokodo’s iron fist name Piliso as one of the most ruthless leaders during the purges of the 1980s”.

8/ That, however, was arguably a kind description. Paul Trewhela, in his 1990 expose on Quatro in Searchlight South Africa, described Pilso as, “…the most notorious, the most feared, soulless ideologue of the suppression of dissent and democracy in the ANC”.

9/ The Academy: On 23 February 2003, at a small ceremony in Mafikeng in the North West Province, the new South African National Academy for Intelligence was launched by then-Deputy President Jacob Zuma, with a new name for its main campus – the Mzwandile Piliso Campus.

10/ You can read Zuma’s speech at the time here. Significantly, it included the following:

“I think it is important right at the outset to say that intelligence in this country is no longer a euphemism for dirty tricks under a heavy veil of secrecy. That era is long past. In this era of democracy we are not in the business of operating outside the confines of the Constitution as spelt out in the White Paper on intelligence of 1994. We have created a number of civilian oversight mechanisms of which the Joint Standing Committee on intelligence is one. We are honoured to have so many of their members present here today. Gone are the days when brutal interrogation and violence could be associated with intelligence. That actually distorts a proper understanding of intelligence”

11/ Significantly though, aside from a brief passing reference to Piliso, Zuma provided no justification for why the campus should be named after him. The likely reason is well-enough documented: Pilso was a human rights abuser, with a history of cruelty and torture.

12/ Human Rights: As the ANC’s Head of Intelligence, and its Security Department or NAT (Intelligence Counter-Intelligence and Security), he served on the ANC’s Politico-Military Council and NEC. Thus he was privy to and played a key role in decisions made at the highest level.

13/ In 1976, Piliso was placed in charge of establishing the ANC’s military training camps. The last of these camps, in Angola, was Quatro, and it was conceived of and constructed under Piliso’s direction during the latter part of that year.

14/ Piliso’s human rights abuses are not in dispute, least of all by the ANC or, indeed, by Piliso himself. Three separate ANC reports - the Stuart Commission (1984), The Skweyiya Commission (1990) and The Motsueyane Commission – all implicated Piliso, to varying degrees.

15/ The Stuart Report, the mildest of the three, found Masondo and Piliso were responsible for the victimisation of certain detainees. It recommended that, as a consequence, Masondo’s position as Commissar be abolished and that those “notorious security men be redeployed.”

16/ In April 1990, surviving ex-ANC detainees wrote an open letter to Nelson Mandela requesting a “commission to inquire into these atrocities [committed by ANC security in its concentration camps]”. In the letter, dated 14 April, the ex-detainees stated:

“… it is a fact, undisputable indeed, that the 1984 mutiny was a spontaneous reaction of the overwhelming majority of the cadres of MK to crimes and misdeeds, incompatible with the noble and humane ideals of our political objectives, carried out by certain elements in the leadership of the ANC. These included, among other things, acts of torture and murder through beatings, committed by the ANC Security personnel under the leadership of Mzwandile Piliso; brutal suppression of democracy denying the membership of the ANC any opportunity, for a period exceeding thirteen years, to decide through democratic elections who should lead them; and misleading our people's army by locking it into diversional battles from which our struggle did not benefit…”

17/ It was this request, along with a great amount of public pressure, that led to the ANC’s decision to establish the Skweyiya Commission, in 1992, to investigate “complaints by former African National Congress Prisoners and Detainees.”

18/ Tom Lodge argued the Commission “interviewed only a fraction of those people who were confined there” and that it “was not empowered to investigate… any specific deaths in detention" or "to identify individuals responsible for any violence or mistreatment.”

19/ Nevertheless, the Commission’s final report found that Mzwandile Piliso was responsible for having committed and overseen human rights violations. Referring to evidence Piliso gave before the Commission, the report stated:

“Mr Piliso candidly admitted his personal participation in the beatings of suspects in 1981. A plot to assassinate certain senior ANC members had been uncovered and suspects were interrogated over a period of two weeks. These suspects were beaten on the soles of their feet in Mr Piliso’s presence. The soles of the feet were specifically chosen, according to Mr Piliso, because other parts of the body “easily rupture”. Mr Piliso justified this treatment on the basis that he wanted information and he wanted it, in his words, 'at any cost.”

20/ Tom Lodge said the following of the report: “A variety of punishments were inflicted: flogging, being forced to crawl naked through red ants, suffocation, partial burial and solitary confinement... inmates were 'denigrated, humiliated and abused, often with staggering brutality.'"

21/ More pressure was applied to the ANC subsequent to the Skweyiya Commission, primarily in the form of an Amnesty International Report (1992), which elaborated on the crimes of Piliso. Thus, the ANC appointed The Motsueyane Commission.

22/ The Motsueyane Commission was the most particular of the three ANC reports. It made the following findings:

“Inmates were not only abused by the general conditions in which they were kept, but also actual acts of ill treatment meted out against them. Forms of ill-treatment reported to the Commission by complainants were:

- Lengthy isolation in solitary confinement;

- Regular beatings under the feet or elsewhere with guava tree sticks (guava juice treatment) or with coffee tree sticks (coffee treatment);

- Napalm – being rubbed with (or rolling naked on) hairy beans or leaves of a plant which caused itching;

- Pompa – blowing one’s cheeks or pumping them up so that a guard would slap the cheeks causing excruciating pain to the ears;

- Pawpaw – being covered on the face with the skin of a scooped-out pawpaw fruit and beaten;

- Beruit – flogging while naked and lying in a face-down position;

- Helicopter – being tied hand and foot and suspended on a pole or log like a pig on a spit;

- Being tied to a tree and remaining there in public view for a long time;

- Red ants introduced into clothes one was wearing and being bitten by these ants;

- Slaughter – digging a hole shoulder deep and being beaten on the head and hands as you obey the instruction to come out of the hole;

- Starvation – being denied food as a form of punishment;

- Chopping wood for hours on end;

- 1000 litre tank – drawing water and pulling a 1000 litre tank uphill with other and being beaten in the process.

- Third degree interrogation – non-stop interrogation for two days or more.”

23/ There were other accounts. In one report, the Weekly Mail relayed the testimony of Patrick Hlongwane, a former ANC dissident: ″My left hand was put in boiling tar and I was burned with hot tea. There were times when I was punished with no water or food for three days.″

24/ After the advent of democracy and before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, the ANC admitted there was a problem, but argued it not widespread and a suitable intervention had been made at the time – that Piliso had been “seriously censured”.

25/ Asked by the TRC why Piliso retained a senior post the ANC said, "To continue punishing these officials endlessly would be contrary to humane practice and to the ANC's belief that after rehabilitation those members who had erred should be reintegrated fully into structures."

26/ Post 1994: In 2004 the Democratic Alliance took issue with the decision to name the NIA academy after Piliso. It wrote to the Intelligence Minister, Ronnie Kasrils and the Human Rights Commission (Jody Kollpen). Both refused to take any action.

27/ In his reply to the DA, Kollapen argued, “We appear to be dealing with a person who had committed human rights abuses and who has made a significant contribution in the struggle against apartheid. This is thus not a simplistic acknowledgement of a violator of human rights.”

28/ Kasrils argued Piliso was “engaged in a legitimate struggle against a pernicious system, which the world declared as a crime against humanity” and he had assumed “full responsibility on behalf of those who had transgressed ANC policy in respect of the treatment of detainees”

29/ And so, do this day, Piliso’s name stands. A man who tortured, brutalised, mutilated and oversaw the death of ANC detainees is held up as a source of inspiration for young student intelligence officers, learning their way.

30/ There are several points to be made. When the UCT Rhodes statue was being destroyed, the ANC said it, “believes that there can no longer be negotiations on transformation 20 years into democracy. Transformation of our institutions must be a reality as a matter of urgency."

31/ First, “transformation” and the rewriting of history, is almost always done exclusively on the ANC’s terms. Violent torturers like Piliso can be celebrated, recognized and defended – because their fight was “just” (and even though his victims were mostly ANC).

32/ Second, when it comes to Piliso, the ANC seems willing to recognize, even defend, ambiguity, a far cry from the binary and puritanical way it defines any historical figure it detests.

33/ third, there has never been, and likely never will be, any real public outrage about Piliso being recognized in the way he has. His victims and their families are mere fodder in the ANC’s relentless drive for political and historical hegemony.

34/ When the Rhodes statue was being pulled down, the suggestion was made, rather than destroy it, contextualise it: put next to it a plaque that explained his crimes, so the it stopped being a tribute, but became a reminder. For Piliso, the ANC will not even concede to that.

35/ And that, perhaps, brings us to the ultimate point: History is full of people who were evil, some fundamentally so. But most people are ambiguous. That is not to suggest a moral equivalence between Piliso’s crimes and his “just” fight. Only that there was good and bad.

36/ If you fail to recognize that most historical figures are fallible in some way, you will never learn from history. If you reduce people to pure archetypes, you fail to learn from their crimes or from their good deeds. One or the other is eradicated.

37/ So much of this contemporary drive to purify how we understand history is driven by this kind of fundamentalism. It is how we become ignorant, not wise. And the worm turns, history has a way of coming for every generation eventually.

38/ There is in Nigeria today a giant statue of Jacob Zuma. Likewise, in Groot Marico. In the grand scheme of things, how long will they stand? Outside of those grand villains of history, the Leopold’s and Hitlers, almost all our heroes today won’t stand the test of time.