Remembering my friend Sizwe Kondile, brutally murdered by apartheid police
The awarding of the Order of Mendi to Gcinisizwe Kondile today (Thursday) will be the culmination of years of effort by his best friend Vusi Pikoli to make sure he is not forgotten. This extract from Pikoli’s book, ‘My Second Initiation’ gives us a glimpse into their friendship and how Kondile was brutally murdered by the apartheid police.
Tall and regal, Sizwe Kondile always carried a quiet confidence about him. He was the de facto leader of our group. He was never much of a talker but rather listened to what all those around him had to say first. When he spoke, everyone listened. There were times when he walked all the way from his house to my place, just over a kilometre away, and when I started talking to him, he would say, “No, keep quiet man. Shut up!” I would ask him why he had bothered to walk all the way to my house if he just wanted to sit in silence. And he would respond, “No, man, I just want to be with you.” Sizwe was a strong rugby player and, like Phaki, a flanker. Along with the Majolas and Ximiyas, the Kondiles were also highly regarded in society and Sizwe’s father was a black Springbok, playing for the African Springboks in the 1960s. He was a flanker and prominent in legal circles, eventually becoming the chief magistrate of Port Elizabeth and later a judge on the Natal Bench.
I don’t remember when or where I first met Sizwe — he was simply always around. At church, at school, in the neighbourhood, he was there. Even when he went to Amanzimtoti to do his high-school years, we spent our holidays together. He was my best friend and like my brother.
I remember this one time when Sizwe’s mother was there and we were showing off about what we were going to be when we grew up. Teddy wanted to be a lawyer, Zingi was going to be involved in sport, and Sizwe — I remember him distinctly — he said that one day he was going to be the president of South Africa. It was a bit lofty. I didn’t really wonder much about it except that I thought it was impossible in terms of where we were at the time. We were still young teenagers. That was the first indication for me that he was politically inclined. But another thing that struck me at the time about his sensitivity was that with all the potential the family knew he had, in terms of academics, we knew he was clever and we looked up to him, was that he also said he wanted to go and work at Ford and be a simple worker. When he said that, as immature as I was, I realised that he was sensitive to people’s plight. It was being talked about him being a doctor or a lawyer in the family; and for him to say that, it was not that he was aiming low, it indicated to me his sensitivity to the plight of people.
Sizwe disappeared in June 1981.
He had just come back from one of his missions.
A few days before, we were walking together through the streets of Lithabaneng township on the outskirts of Maseru, chatting about life. Sizwe turned to me and said, “There are three important women in my life: my mother, my sister Lindiwe and my girlfriend.” I asked him which girlfriend and he told me it was Nowi Tshiki. He explained that he was having a problem with Nowi because she was supposed to visit him but had had to postpone. Sizwe was upset by it, but I told him he needn’t be so uptight because she would come when she could. He was not impressed.
And then he asked me a strange question.
“Do you know whether, as a movement, we have walkie-talkies?” I didn’t know but suggested we ask the senior comrades who knew these things. I asked him why he wanted to know but he didn’t say. I felt so strange and to this day I can’t figure out that conversation. Part of me thought that perhaps he had been arrested on his last trip and they sent him back to Lesotho and he was worried about the safety of his family at home. Maybe he wanted to remain in touch with the ANC when he was in the country. I have always tried to convince myself that Sizwe could not have meant anything untoward, but the questions have never gone away. Late the following night Sizwe arrived at our house and knocked on the window looking for a cigarette. Only Thozi and I were there because Phaki was on a mission inside the country and Sizwe was staying at the home of another comrade who was on a visit to Lusaka. He had walked to our place, which was quite a distance away. I’m not sure what he was busy with at the time, because we operated on a need-to-know basis and there were things that we would be asked to do that did not involve the others and would not be discussed. It was a security arrangement. We didn’t ask him where he was coming from or where he was going. Thozi had temporarily stopped smoking so we had no cigarettes.
Sizwe said, “I’m leaving if you don’t have a cigarette. I’m going to look for a cigarette.” We ignored him. It was late and we went back to sleep.
Thozi remembers that night vividly:
He walked that distance to come and ask for a cigarette and I’ll always remember that when he got to us, he said, “Jissus, I knew you had stopped smoking.” And that’s the last we saw him. He left us, he went to Ngoako Ramatlhodi’s place where Ngoako and Tito Mboweni were staying and he sat with them for a long time. They had arguments, discussions — normal discussions that we have about the situation at home — but they were not aware that he was from an operation. They were not part of our unit. I mean, we worked together, but on missions inside of the country we were broken up into different units, so they were not aware of the circumstances that Sizwe had just returned from the country, but they discussed a lot with him until 2am. He was on foot… From there he went back to where he was staying and there was no transport in Lesotho that time. Then in the morning, that’s when we heard he had been to Chris’s place and borrowed a car to go and make a call. And Chris gave him money to put fuel in the car. One person who saw him at the garage, he said he saw him putting petrol in the car and then he had to go and make a call. And that’s where he was arrested… he went to the Holiday Inn and that’s where they captured him.
That was the last time that we saw him.
Chris Hani arrived at our house the following afternoon. Thozi and I were sitting around doing political reading and Chris wanted to know if we had seen Sizwe. He explained that in the morning Sizwe had come to his place to tell him that he was having a problem with his girlfriend. Chris told him to go and phone her and talk through the issues and gave him his car. He was driving a yellow Datsun Stanza SSS at the time. That was around eight o’clock in the morning and by three o’clock Sizwe still hadn’t returned. Chris thought that Sizwe might be with us but we told him that we had last seen him the previous night. We started to panic.
It was unlike Sizwe to disappear without a trace or at least somebody not knowing where he was. He had Chris’s car and he knew that Chris was a busy person. Chris asked us to look for him and gave us a car, and sent Comrade Socks Sokupa to accompany us. We went everywhere Sizwe could’ve gone and even considered that he may have committed suicide.
Sizwe was a private person and I was probably the one who had the best understanding of him. We were very close, and I was always completely open and honest with him. I held no secrets back, but he on the other hand was quiet and measured and didn’t give much away. If he was going to share anything with anyone, it was going to be with me but no one truly ever knew Sizwe. What he shared with me about Nowi he never told anyone else about and we spoke freely about women and love. If we were going to be grouped into teams for tasks, Sizwe and I would always be paired together. I felt that he was my brother. He could have gone with Phaki and Thozi to the bush for his initiation but he chose to wait for me. That spoke volumes.
We couldn’t work out what might have happened to him. At no point did we think of the possibility of abduction at all. We drove around and thought, if he was going to commit suicide, the likely place would be Modimo Nthuse (God help me), a winding and treacherous road where you could drive off and kill yourself. We went to the “Arrival Centre” where Sis Mandisa Williams stayed. She was working for the International Red Cross and was like an elder sister to us. We would go there when times were tough, so we went to ask her if she’d seen Sizwe, but he wasn’t there.
So we went back to Comrade Chris and told him we couldn’t find the man. Comrade Chris said we needed to notify Sizwe’s family. First, I called Nowi, Sizwe’s girlfriend, to find out whether they had actually spoken that day. She confirmed that they had, but that the call had ended very strangely. Sizwe had hung up midway through the conversation, while she was still talking. She kept saying “Hello? Hello? Hello?” but there had been no response from Sizwe.
By eight o’clock that evening Sizwe had been gone for 12 hours. I couldn’t bring myself to call Sizwe’s father so instead I phoned Boet Sy and explained that we had no idea what had happened to Sizwe, that he had disappeared without a trace.
Vusi and Sizwe went together. They were big buddies because they played rugby together, sport and so forth. We didn’t know the inner part of it all as they did certain things behind our backs.
It was partially an element of respect and also a security matter in the sense that whatever you did, you tried not to expose your parents. We received a report that Sizwe was abducted by the Security Police. Sizwe’s father, an attorney, was my friend and I was acting as an intermediary. The commander in charge in Lesotho was Chris Hani. There was an active campaign amongst the parents to try to find Sizwe. When the police stole him, captured him, abducted him into South Africa, oh there were rumours of him being there and there and at one time there were rumours that he was being held in Humansdorp. We tried all means to verify that and get to Humansdorp but I think the Security Police must have got wind that information is leaking somewhere and they removed him and that was the end of it.
Molly Blackburn was involved. It was not successful. We asked her to help locate where this boy is detained because we knew he was detained by the Security Police, in their hands, but we did not know where. We just wanted to locate him. It had happened before. People just disappeared completely so it was important to trace, follow up and establish where that person is detained so that the Security Police know that it’s known that so-and-so is being detained at such a place. The Security Police were generally hostile in all the matters that I was involved with. In those days, anybody who was detained by the Security Police, his life was at risk. Anything could happen, they could disappear.
Our lives changed when Sizwe disappeared.
We didn’t know what had happened. We started hearing stories that he had been seen inside the country, that he had been seen in Joburg. There were also stories flying around that he was actually a sell-out. An internal operative who came to Lesotho for debriefings said his brother saw Sizwe in Sandton in the company of some white guys. People were beginning to say, he’s an impimpi, an informer, he must have gone to South Africa with Chris’s car, all sorts of strange talk. Loose talk.
And, as a result, we — the three of us who were left — felt that we were also being looked at with suspicion. The careless talk hurt me. There was no way Sizwe could have sold out. Ai, ai, ai, I was hurt. I felt like I had lost a brother. Thozi, Phaki, Sizwe and I had come a long way together and I felt that I knew Sizwe intimately. I simply couldn’t comprehend that he had become a traitor.
These things were never said directly to us. Nobody ever came to us and said, “Look, guys, we don’t trust you any more because Sizwe has sold out.” But we heard stories and people talking.
My response was always that unless somebody came forward with clear information about what had happened, we don’t know if he is in South Africa or how he left or what happened to the car. Chris never said anything but he also found it strange. He really believed in us and had confidence in the unit. The fact that he had given Sizwe a car showed the level of confidence he had in us.
Thozi had a particularly difficult experience:
It was a June 16 celebration. Chris’s wife came and then she said, “Now, call Thozi.” We were two Thozi’s, there was Thozamile Botha and there was myself. So I went to her. She was at the door. Ai, the way that woman insulted me and insulted all of us! That we were sent by the Special Branch here. We were here to steal ANC cars. That we are all spies, we were sent by a surrogate government. And in front of people. I left the hall immediately, I said, “That woman insulted me!” I went back home and Chris came. He found me still crying and then Chris was very angry with Limpho. It was that time I was doing guard duties at Chris’s house and I said, “I am not going to that house any more, I will never go to that house.” I said, “But if that woman doesn’t want me in her house, how am I going to sit there in that house? I can’t go there.” But Chris took me in his car, we went back and I did my duty, but I said, “I do not want to see this woman in front of me.” You know, I was one of her confidants. Limpho’s personal car was never driven by anybody except me. I was the only one who would drive her car.
I don’t know whether [Sizwe] was a spy or not a spy up to now. Now if somebody can tell me did he really see Sizwe with the Security Police, was anyone arrested because of information Sizwe gave out that endangered us during that time? You can’t get anything. There’s nothing that you can hear that Sizwe gave this information. So really, to me, I don’t want to say because Sizwe was my friend — he was not a spy, but I still want to get facts about what really happened.
We were all shattered by the accusations. Phaki remembers how difficult that time was:
It’s not nice when you see some of your comrades are talking behind your back. There is mistrust. And you have to pretend as if you don’t see. We couldn’t accept songs about Sizwe that said he had sold out. There was nothing that could back up that Sizwe had probably sold out. Each time you sat down and thought about it, Sizwe had just simply disappeared and no one could tell us what had happened. People were jumping to conclusions that Sizwe had turned against the movement. When they tried to sing the songs about Sizwe being a sell-out we refused to join in. There was also a finger coming in our direction. A long time after Sizwe disappeared, in 1986, I was coming back from inside the country and was taken by our ANC security chaps and questioned. Nobody was telling me exactly what was going on. They kept on saying I should write a report. I would write a report and then be made to write the report again. And then they’d interrogate me on those aspects that were not very clear in the report. Then I could see, no man, I’m being suspected of being an informer or something.
And then I was asked, “Did you meet with Sizwe?” because they were being told that Sizwe had been seen inside the country.
“No, I didn’t meet Sizwe.”
“For how long have you been working with Sizwe against us?”
It was terrible and you’re trying to explain yourself. You don’t know what has happened to Sizwe. You still don’t think that Sizwe sold out but these people are convinced that Sizwe is on the other side.
I was at Roma when Sizwe’s mother came to Lesotho to try to find answers. It was around three months after he had vanished. She also didn’t know what had happened and I didn’t go and see her. I didn’t have the courage to look her in the eye. It was a difficult time — she knew that Sizwe and I were close, and the ANC leadership was sceptical and suspicious of her motives in Maseru and why she had arrived in town. It was a tough situation, emotionally, for all of us and I felt that I didn’t have the strength to sit with her and not be able to account for her son. I was with Sizwe until more or less the last hours before he disappeared and I was weak. I was not strong enough to face her. It’s like you go on a mission and one of you dies while the other survives — any mother would ask, “Why my son and not you?” I was worried that seeing me would make her grief even more difficult to bear. Phaki went to see her in Maseru, but the reception was hostile because some of the leadership in Maseru believed that Sizwe had sold out and they wanted to know why she would want to collect his clothes if she didn’t know where he was. That was a weak moment in my life — when I was not able to look Sizwe’s mother in the eye. She was the mother of my best friend, but I didn’t go and see her.
Captain Du Plessis arrived with his colleagues. He said, “When you are investigating a terrorist, this is how you go about it, you have got to get the truth.” He then showed us the way you retrieve information from a terrorist. Sizwe was tied at the knees. He said I must handcuff him from the back. We then made him lie on the floor and we put a sack on him — we refer to it as “the prisoner’s bag”. We put this over his head and you have to put this on very tightly so that he can’t breathe and then at the same time there was a small machine. This machine has a crank handle with two wires. When you use this crank handle it’s very painful to the victim. That is how information was retrieved from a prisoner. Every time we saw that he [was] suffocating we took the bag off his head and then he’d be asked questions. This machine, when used, is very, very painful, you will give us any information that we want from you because of the pain. It shocks you. There’s a handle and the second person takes the two wires, puts it on your body wherever they choose to. If you wind this machine to be more powerful you splash water on the victim and then the victim will give us the information because of the pain. The captain showed us how to use the machine. He said that we should not beat him up because he does not want a “Steve Biko” case again. (Abridged TRC testimony of policeman Ginotry Danster about Sizwe’s torture and interrogation at the Jeffreys Bay Police Station (18 February 1998) DM/MC
Extract from My Second Initiation by Vusi Pikoli and Mandy Wiener (Publisher: Pan MacMillan)
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