South Africa has lost a brave and gentle giant with the passing this week of former uMkhonto weSizwe guerilla David Moisi – or, as he was known (apparently because of his penchant for making long political speeches while in prison), “Comrade Speech”.
Speech is one of the lesser known heroes of our Struggle, at least outside MK ranks, which is partly due to his own humble and quiet approach to his past, his present and the future. Most of the time, he was disarmingly quiet, despite his nickname – but when he spoke, people listened.
His tale, in the beginning, is not unlike many of his generation: fuelled by a fundamental anger at the injustice of apartheid and deeply influenced by the student uprisings in 1976, he joined the South African Students’ Movement (SASM) in 1977. He became the first chairperson of the Vaal branch of the SASM and was arrested in a number of protests before deciding to leave the country in 1978 and take up arms.
The young Moisi trained in Angola and the then German Democratic Republic and became part of MK’s Special Operations Unit. Two years later, at the age of 24, he was part of a triple attack on Sasol facilities – bombing the Sasol factory in Sasolburg, the nearby Natref refinery, and what was known as Sasol 2 in Secunda, which was Moisi’s target.
My parents were living in Sasolburg at the time, and I remember how the attacks stunned the white community. Flames filled the night sky at both Sasol and Natref, and the white community in Secunda – regarded as something of a sister town, despite being hundreds of kilometres away – was equally stunned.
(I’m a member of a Facebook page called “I lived in Sasolburg and survived”, and to this day members compare notes – when not discussing the sad state of the suburban parks and pavements — on where they were on the night of the attack and from how far away they could see the flames.)
The trio of attacks constituted a spectacular hit. It took MK beyond armed propaganda (the term often used to describe largely symbolic attacks on institutions of apartheid such as police stations) and struck at the heart of apartheid’s economic infrastructure.
Speech and his fellow combatants, Bobby Tsotsobe and Johannes Shabangu, managed to leave Secunda safely and escaped via Swaziland, only to be captured in a cross-border raid into Zimbabwe by the then SA Defence Force in 1981.
After a speedy trial, Speech, Tsotsobe and Shabangu were sentenced to death. Speech was just 25 at the time.
For two years, the Sasol Three sat on death row awaiting the noose. During that time, they were joined by three other captured combatants — Thelle Mogoerane, Marcus Motaung and Jerry Mosololi, also known as the Moroka Three — and had to listen, in extreme anguish, as they were taken to their appointment with the apartheid hangman.
Fortunately, Speech and his fellow unit members escaped the noose when their death sentence was commuted to a life sentence in 1983 – “life”, in their case, being incarceration on Robben Island.
They were finally released in 1991, after going on a week-long hunger strike.
I first encountered Speech around 2006, when he headed the Ex-Political Prisoners’ Committee (EPPC) and needed some help communicating how the EPPC was trying to assist ex-prisoners. I told him of my very humble role in ANC and SACP underground work, and he got a particular kick out of the fact that I’d grown up in Sasolburg, and that he and other members of Special Ops had – very successfully – blown the shit out of Natref, Sasol and its sister plant in Secunda.
“My laaitie,” he would say. “Good thing you left Sasolburg and dodged the army when you left school. Imagine if you hadn’t gone to college and studied journalism. You could have been in that factory when we made it go ‘boom’! Or you could have been a troepie in the SADF raid into Zimbabwe. But now, we meet during peacetime as fellow ex-combatants…”
Running the EPPC was no walk in the park, and we spent a lot of time together trying to ensure that at least some of the money meant to provide dividends for ex-political prisoners actually reached their pockets. Day after day, we encountered tragic tales of damaged ex-political prisoners who were down and out, marginalised, disrespected or unable to get work because of the after-effects of war, prison and selective progress.
It troubled Speech greatly that society – and a number of people who had benefited financially from the transition from apartheid to democracy – had turned their backs on many of the people who made it happen.
Speech and I were reunited when Tokyo Sexwale was appointed Human Settlements Minister in 2009 – Speech as a community liaison officer (yes, they existed before Tito Mboweni and Ranjeni Munusamy found each other), me as special adviser/general flak-catcher.
A key part of our work was to understand the dynamics of communities that were being serviced, or were meant to be serviced, by the national and provincial departments of human settlements. This sometimes meant days doing “surveillance” in communities such as Diepsloot, N2 Gateway and Duncan Village to understand the dynamics and analyse solutions.
Speech took to it as if he was still an MK combatant on a mission: careful preparation; studious analysis of the “balance of forces” – and the occasional bit of gung-ho recklessness when push came to shove.
But always, always, the diplomat. Listening attentively to community leaders, weaving consensus where at first it seemed there was none.
We spent countless hours together on the road, discussing the obvious: crap service delivery. Houses that fell down a few months after they were built. Incomplete housing projects. Dodgy tenders. Zuma. The Guptas. The many, many betrayals of history by people who’d wiggled or wrangled their way to the top.
Speech was the first person I’d met who ate chicken livers for breakfast, and he got a kick out of offending my pescatarian nose with a cheap plate of body parts – always, but always, at my expense – over which we would proceed to dissect what appeared to be the dying body of the ANC.
It seemed to be an exorcism of sorts, being able to speak in a safe space about the very real disappointments he was encountering.
Our formal camaraderie unravelled when I left Human Settlements in 2011 and, soon afterwards, Sexwale was turfed out of Cabinet after pushing back against plans by Ace Magashule and his stooge Mosebenzi Zwane to blow their provincial housing subsidy on just buying bricks and cement for building houses, rather than building actual houses.
Speech and I had both sat in on Sexwale’s meeting – convened by the Auditor-General – to confront Zwane, who was then Free State Human Settlements Minister. Zwane grinned his way through the meeting, sure in the fact that he had political protection from Magashule (and, no doubt, from JZ).
Zwane outlived Sexwale, going on to higher office. Sexwale was “unappointed” by Zuma some months later, and Speech was consequently “unappointed” as community liaison officer.
The next few years were tough for Speech. He accompanied Sexwale on a few trips to FIFA in Europe and got a job as international liaison director for South Africa’s Maritime Safety Authority. When we occasionally met for (even more) chicken liver breakfasts, he used to say he enjoyed the new role. But he clearly missed the cut and thrust of politics and activism, was increasingly concerned about corruption and bemoaned how our Struggle – which he had almost died for – had lost its way.
He was the epitome of a servant leader. And the ultimate peacetime soldier: highly disciplined, deeply committed, but well aware of the pain and suffering caused by conflict, injustice and oppression. And, in his own calm way, never shy to speak out about how the name of uMkhonto weSizwe was being abused by charlatans (no names needed here).
“They’re pissing on our Struggle. They are an embarrassment to the people’s army and the liberation movement as a whole, broer,” he would say.
Death row ghosts — and ghost towns
During our time at Human Settlements, Speech went back to death row with Sexwale. I think he wanted, somehow, to cleanse his spirit of the ghosts that lay there but, to be honest, all I saw on their return to the office was something akin to a dead man walking. He was quiet, disturbingly so, and told me later that he felt the visit had possibly been a mistake.
“Too much darkness, my laaitie. Too many voices in my head. The boers sent me there to die, and I ended up watching others die, some of them even younger than me. I still struggle with that. Why them? Why not me?”
At first, it was strange hearing this man who had the courage to strike at the heart of the apartheid military-industrial complex being so rattled, so many years later. But it was a sign, I believe, of his true humanity — and the fragility that many members of the liberation movement feel because of unprocessed post-traumatic stress.
As Speech told me a year later, this time over a glass of wine, the death row visit was the first time he had really confronted the prospect of death.
“Back then,” he said, “we never thought of death. We were propelled by our Struggle, compelled by our consciences, and never hesitated. In the camps, in combat, on trial and in prison, we felt we were indestructible.”
And yet he had been forced to hesitate, a number of times, before walking up the steps to the gallows that had claimed the lives of too many of his fellow fighters.
My last point (again, about ghosts) relates to the rather tragic irony that the people of the Vaal eventually paid tribute to Speech’s contributions and named a street after him – in Sasolburg, of all places, rather than in his hometown of Sebokeng.
During a visit to my mother a few months after I left Human Settlements — in 2012, as I recall — I visited the area, to see what Zwane’s people had done there.
Sasolburg’s David Moisi Street, it turned out, was part of one of those very same Free State “ghost projects”, and the houses were incomplete – in many cases just foundations, overgrown with weeds. It was a ghost town of note, and I called Speech to tell him.
“The corrupt fuckers,” was all he would say. “Moerskont.”
I haven’t been back to David Moisi Street since. But I hope, if those houses still haven’t been finished yet, that the provincial government does the right thing, fixes them up — and builds a massive monument to Comrade Speech, David Moisi, brave son of the Vaal.
And I guess we can also only hope, if that happens, that the tender doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Hamba kahle, Mkhonto. DM
Chris Vick runs Black, a communications consultancy. His email address is [email protected], and on Twitter he is @chrisvick3
When sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings half your brain remains alert.
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