South Africa

Op-Ed

Reflections of a Wayward Boy: Skeletons from exile days in Somafco

Reflections of a Wayward Boy: Skeletons from exile days in Somafco
Terry, left, and Barbara Bell, right, with OR Tambo, seated, centre, and some of the Somafco primary school students. Seated, far right, is secondary school principal Tim Maseko. (Photo: Eli Weinberg)

Exiled from South Africa and scheduled to start a primary school division at the ANC’s Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco) in Tanzania, the only equipment Barbara and I were given was a strap with a wooden handle and a brass hand bell.

The accusation of paternalism levelled last week at the government by Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang highlighted an historic reality. Because paternalism, coupled with what is best described as a Victorian attitude to parenting, has long been part of the political DNA of the ANC.

Perhaps it stems from the authoritarian schooling at mission schools endured by so many of the leaders of the ANC. That was where teachers saw themselves very much in loco parentis. They guided their charges, with the aid of strap and cane enforced discipline, to forgo the ways of their ancestors.

Along with literacy and numeracy, such schooling also ensured upward social mobility, but only within a dominant white racist environment. And, as Franz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, in a rigid and often brutal pecking order, “the same violence is thrown back upon us as when our reflection comes forward to meet us when we go toward a mirror”.

This leads to structures where the “leadership” expects obedience without question. The disobedient and the complainers are always seen as naughty, even criminal, minorities resisting the will of the majority. This is based on the clear arithmetic fantasy that the ANC represents “the people” of South Africa.

A classic example of this reasoning came with the explanation by co-operative governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma that “our people” want cigarette sales stopped. She proceeded to refer to “zols” that were rolled and passed to one another to puff. 

In this, she was apparently unaware that the zol and this practice refers almost entirely to dagga which, even under lockdown, is still legal for home production and consumption.

However, her performance must have raised some wry smiles among former exiles who had spent time in 1982 in the military camps in Angola and at the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco) in Tanzania. Because dagga became, at that time, a prime scapegoat for widespread disgruntlement among soldiers on the one hand and students on the other.

But there was a 20-year history to what was usually perceived as insolence and rebelliousness encouraged by “enemy agents”. In a paranoid atmosphere, such agents were perceived to be behind anyone questioning, complaining or criticising decisions taken by the hierarchy.

“I’ve seen police in Moscow beat up suspects. And if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.”

Although the official policies of the ANC stressed democracy and opposed the use of cruel and inhuman treatment such as torture or even corporal punishment, the practice on the ground differed. Donor groups, especially in countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands, would have been horrified at many of the punishments meted out to students at Somafco, although these never reached the often frightening levels they did in Angola.

I was made glaringly aware of the difference between policy and practice on the day I was scheduled to start the primary division at Somafco. The very democratic – “progressive” – curriculum drafted by my wife, Barbara, and myself had been approved by the ANC’s national education council that included ANC educationalists and sociologists flown in from Britain and Canada, but they had left when the term began. And the only equipment I was given on that day was a strap (with a wooden handle) and a brass hand bell.

The strap was thrown away and the bell became a decoration. Although malaria was a constant problem, voluntary attendance at the primary school was seldom lower than 90%. At the secondary level, however, attendance was compulsory – and sometimes fell to 10% with students often claiming to be too ill to attend classes.

Similar “malingering”, we later heard, was plaguing the military in Angola where there were complaints about favouritism, the lack of democracy, and the fact that appointed leaders were given better rations and conditions than the rank and file. At the school, I thought this class distinction was best summed up by the fact that (when it was available) teachers received four rolls of toilet paper each month and students one. 

We also got more than an inkling of the sort of treatment that was meted out to those who stepped out of line in the military camps, when the military commander, Joe Modise, visited the school. He recommended that students refusing consistently to carry out tasks should be dealt with “as we do in the West”.  

His remedy: feed them six chloroquine (anti-malarial) tablets and tie them to a pole in the middle of a field and let them sweat it out in the sun throughout the day. To give them their due, most of the other teachers at the meeting later expressed shock at Modise’s suggestion.

When I got back the next morning Barbara informed me that she had heard “horrible screams” in the night, that, apparently, nobody else admitted to hearing.

What none of us realised was that some of that army brutality would soon spill over into the school – and either be accepted or acquiesced in by most of the community. Dagga was the issue. It was deemed to be at the root of the apparent idleness and lack of enthusiasm the leadership had noticed.

Among some of the more enthusiastic students were members of my drama group and some had smoked the weed. But, during political discussions in workshops to develop the play, Dear Sir, the group agreed with me that pot and revolutionary politics should not mix. 

But two of the group were among the “dagga suspects” dragged out of their dormitories one midnight by the burly student commissar, Arthur Sidweshu, and a hand-picked student “security detachment”. They were taken to a classroom away from the main school complex where they were tied down over upended desks and beaten on the soles of their feet with a length of rubber hose.

It was on one of only two nights in my time at Somafco that I was away from the school. When I got back the next morning Barbara informed me that she had heard “horrible screams” in the night, that, apparently, nobody else admitted to hearing.

We soon discovered what had happened and immediately penned a protest to headquarters in Lusaka and to the principal of the secondary school whose own son had been one of the students tortured. The upshot: again at night, Sidweshu and two security personnel marched me from our residence to an office to confront the national commissar, Andrew Masondo, flanked by the secondary school principal.

There were some heated exchanges. But one comment by Masondo I will never forget. As I was telling him that beatings and brutality had no place in the ANC and were, at the very least, counterproductive, he responded: 

“I’ve seen police in Moscow beat up suspects. And if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.”

Barbara and I lost the debate that was subsequently held about banning corporal punishment at Somafco although the ban remained an official policy of the ANC. After another incident in which three women were sjambokked after a nighttime kangaroo court, we resigned from Somafco.

Aware of what we had heard about punishments in the camps in Angola, we were not surprised when, in 1984, there was a mutiny by ANC soldiers protesting at corruption, favouritism and their treatment and conditions. Subsequent inquiries revealed how brutally it was dealt with.

Many years later, educationalist and academic Dr Sam Govender discovered a report of an inquiry into resignations from Somafco in 1982. It was conducted by Andrew Masondo who concluded it was good that I had left because: “The man was a plotter, a snooper, a provocateur and anarchist who was very influential.”

I can live with that. DM

Terry and Barbara Bell were asked in 1979 by ANC acting president OR Tambo to start a primary division at the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College established on a former sisal estate in Tanzania. They arrived in 1980 and resigned from the school in 1982.

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