This column first appeared on www.theconmag.co.za
My comrade and I had to rough it to Umkhonto weSizwe’s 47th anniversary celebrations in 2008.
His favourite private jet – a refitted Boeing 737, complete with a double bed – was in for a service, so we had to use one of his junior jets. As I recall, it was a Challenger 300, which the on-board brochure described as “a super mid-sized jet capable of traversing transcontinental distances”.
We were only doing Lanseria to Bloemfontein and back, but because we didn’t have to rely on the timetable of the national airline, we arrived later than most of the honoured ex-combatants – which meant we missed the formal seating allocations. So even though my comrade had spent years on Robben Island as an Apartheid prisoner of war (and been awarded the rank of honorary colonel in the South African Air Force, as well as the French Légion d’honneur and the Order of the Freedom of Havana), he didn’t crack a chair on the main stage.
Instead we roughed it on the grass with the lumpen proletariat – who turned out to be the real heroes, and provided insight into how Umkhonto weSizwe had morphed from being a People’s Army to something of an elite unit.
Dodging the December sun, we ended next to a 60-year-old former soldier who proudly told us how he’d saved up six months’ worth of military pension to cover the cost of a taxi from Limpopo and a new pair of boots for the occasion. He didn’t want to embarrass MK during its march past, so he’d cut back on essentials so his feet could “represent”.
Our fellow veteran was proud of his time in the trenches, and rightly so. In between the singing, he regaled us with anecdotes from his training in the Soviet Union, his unit’s skirmishes with the Apartheid army, and his return from exile as a war hero.
But his pride turned to resentment as some of MK’s “dignitaries” took the podium.
“That one never fought,” he grumbled as one speaker started reading his speech. “He spent all his time at universities.”
Another ‘commander’ took to the podium. “That one never fought either…” he muttered. “He was drinking in London while we were eating guinea fowl in Angola…”
And then he proceeded to count off, one by one, many in the MK ‘leadership’ on stage who had never seen a minute’s warfare. “They have the uniform, but they never saw combat. All they did was go to conferences. They never fought for us…”
It was a day rich with history, but not much of that was shared history – either pre- or post-Apartheid. Those who had avoided the trenches had somehow made it on to the stage at Mangaung, just as they had made it into Parliament or the Union Buildings. Some, like my jet-owning comrade, had even segued on to the Forbes list.
But on the sidelines were thousands of MK veterans who were commemorating their freedom on a shitty military pension – still waiting, 14 years after liberation, for the free housing, educational development and economic opportunities they’d been promised.
I couldn’t help thinking of that Challenger trip to Mangaung six years ago as I watched the small Twitter storm unleashed by EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema two weeks ago after he was ‘served’ by Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete and slapped down by Kebby Maphatsoe, the man who’s headed the MK Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) for the past seven years.
Malema’s comments on Mbete were well reported by journalists who attended his press conference. What didn’t make it into the papers were his remarks about Maphatsoe, recently promoted to deputy defence minister in charge of military veterans (while remaining chairperson of MKMVA, as well as president of the South African National Military Veterans Association).
Maphatsoe, you may recall, has been one of the most vocal public protectors of President Jacob Zuma ever since “Butternut Head”, as he is now affectionately called by some inside the ANC, started to feel the famous Mbeki pinch in the early part of the 21st century.
Maphatsoe has entered public discourse many times, paper pistol blazing: he vehemently rejected the rape and corruption charges levelled against Zuma; he rebuffed challenges to the president’s re-election at the 2012 ANC national conference in Manguang; and during the same year he repeatedly called for Malema to be expelled from the ANC. To back him up, the KwaZulu-Natal region of MKMVA warned Malema that “as former soldiers we will not sit back and allow attacks on Zuma” (aka “we will really fucking kill for Zuma”). And earlier this year Maphatsoe condemned a proper MK veteran, Ronnie Kasrils, for his “Vote No” election statements.
So on 21 August, when Malema and his fellow fighters in the EFF banged on the parliamentary tables to demand that Zuma “pay back the Nkandla money”, it was somehow predictable that Maphatsoe would be at the frontline of those defending the president.
Addressing MKMVA’s elective conference on 25 August, he declared: “What we are saying, comrades, is that the MK manifesto of 1961 is still relevant even today because it says there will come a time of any nation where there remains only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa, we shall not submit, we will fight back with anything at our disposal in defence of our people, our future and our freedom.”
Drawing on his experience as a trained guerilla, Maphatsoe clearly saw the EFF as a seditious threat to national security, and was not prepared to submit. He wanted to fight.
But can he fight? Sadly, if Juju is to be believed, the man who has headed MKMVA for the past seven years has done a much better job fighting for “Butternut Head” than he did fighting Apartheid.
Malema gave his own interpretation of Maphatsoe’s military history as follows (courtesy of the EFF’s parliamentary Twitter handle, @effparliament) on 28 August:
“The MKVA and the ANC have been beating war drums. The chairperson of MKVA was in Parliament on Thursday,” he said. “If he has a black belt as he claims, why didn’t he use it? He leaves and goes somewhere else to make noise.
“But there is nothing they can do. One of you must ask Kebby Maphatsoe how he lost his hand … he was running away from the MK camps. He went AWOL. Kebby was running into a dangerous farm of wild animals. The police had to shoot him to save him from wild and dangerous animals.
“We’re not scared of him … we’re not threatened by people who spent time in MK camps doing the cooking.”
For once, Twitter disappointed. Although Malema’s brief history lesson was crying out for a #onearmedbandit hashtag, his comments on Maphatsoe’s credentials died a quick death.
But Malema is not the first to suggest that Maphatsoe’s combat history is less than illustrious. I’ve heard the “deserter” accusation from a number of people who did fight in Angola. Some of them were on the grass with us on that day in December 2008, and others confirmed the Malema version in conversations with me this week.
Maphatsoe, never one to shy away from verbal combat, has been uncharacteristically quiet on the matter, and his CV talks only of his training, not his fighting – an example, from www.gov.za: “During the Apartheid years, he went to exile and became a trained Political Commissar of MK; he received further training in Angola, and in the Soviet Union and was also exiled in Uganda before returning to South Africa.”
And, given that there is still no official detailed history of MK, we will probably never know the truth beyond what was presented to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
What we do know, though, is that in addition to the questions raised by Malema and others, the leader of the military veterans association has had his remaining hand in the till on more than one occasion.
As the Mail & Guardian reported in 2012, in an article headed “Leading MK vets ‘looted millions’”: “The top brass of MKMVA turned [its] investment holdings into their personal piggy bank, using funds to pay for jewellery, spa treatments and school drama lessons, and to withdraw large sums of cash before Christmas.
“A forensic report… by auditing firm SizweNtsalubaGobodo directly fingers former association treasurer Dumisani Khoza, former chairperson Deacon Mathe, current treasurer Johannes ‘Sparks’ Motseki and current chairperson Kebby Maphatsoe.
“It alleges that they helped themselves to R5.4 million, almost half of all the money coming into two accounts that the auditors scrutinised.”
Just as he may have escaped combat, Maphatsoe also seems to have escaped answering questions about what happened to the money in MKMVA’s bank account – or having to “pay back the money” that was meant to provide a safety net for MK veterans who use their military pensions to buy boots.
He’s also managed to elude capture and interrogation over his role in the controversial Gold Fields South Deep empowerment deal, where he was one of three former MK beneficiaries in a multibillion-rand deal.
One armed bandit, indeed…
But there’s a more serious question that has to be asked given Maphatsoe’s declaration last week that “we shall not submit, we will fight back”.
That question is, of course, what the role and character – or even the status – of MK should be in post-Apartheid South Africa.
One person who has posed that question recently is Siphiwe Nyanda, who fought in the ANC underground since 1975. Maphatsoe was 12 at the time – judging by his official CV (that’s before he even joined Cosas). “Gebuza”, as Nyanda is still known, headed the banned organisation’s regional command in Swaziland in the early 1980s and served on MK’s military committee until he infiltrated South Africa in 1988 as part of Operation Vula.
Now Nyanda may not have been South Africa’s favourite communications minister or chief of the SA National Defence Force, but his soldier’s pedigree – and his knowledge of MK – is hard to question.
He had this to say about MKMVA in 2012: “The notion advanced by some leaders of the military veterans association that Jacob Zuma is a commander-chief of the MKMVA is a dangerous illusion…
“The ANC has no army,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “The president of the ANC does not possess a private army. To style MKMVA as a security or enforcement arm of the ANC is wrong. It has no such mandate. No decision of any ANC structure or even its own constitution gives MKMVA such a role.”
Maphatsoe’s trigger-happy mouth (as opposed to his missing trigger finger) couldn’t resist the bait, and his response to Nyanda days later was predictably cutting: “All these comments are about Mangaung [a reference to the ANC national conference in December 2012]. MKMVA has been vocal about the retention of the president. This is an attack against President Zuma in another way.”
He went on: “[Many] MK members are being buried in a pathetic way … they are people who were dismissed dishonourably in [Nyanda’s] presence [at the SANDF]. Nyanda must also say what did he do for MK members when he was chief of the SANDF,” he said.
And then, as his punchline, Maphatsoe submitted a deeply ironic accusation: “He never fought for us…”
Throwing sand in the face of people who fought for freedom while you were still in short pants should, in my view, not be encouraged. But if you’re going to do it, at least have a plausible explanation for why you can’t throw properly. DM
Wild rats still enjoying running wheels.