Opinionista Lebo Keswa 23 March 2015

Human Rights Day: Lest we forget

As we celebrate Human Rights Day, let's not forget that Africa's hospitality liberated us. Let's not forget the recent xenophobic attacks on shop owners in Soweto, should bring to mind, in a reasonable person, the role that African countries played in South Africa’s liberation.

Listening to the sentiments of some of our people, I became worried, thinking just how little so many South Africans know about the role that so many African countries played in our liberation. It is so sad how quickly a generation can forget.

The story is not very complicated. In order to defeat Apartheid, the liberation movement needed the help of other countries, both to put pressure on South Africa to change, and to be a place of refuge for many of the freedom fighters who decided to fight from outside. We ourselves were guests of many other countries, just the same as many Africans from other countries have found a place of refuge in Soweto, and other parts of South Africa.

We must always remind ourselves of this history. It is so disappointing to see our leaders skirting this issue, attempting to be polite instead of being forthright to our communities. Outrageous remarks recently came from our Minister of Small Business Development, Lindiwe Zulu, who herself spent so many years in exile as a guest of foreign countries. She bizarrely stated that foreigners must share their trade secrets with locals if they were to earn their position, and acceptance, in South Africa. What a poor display of judgement from one of our leaders.

Business Day columnist Thami Mazwai has also, disappointingly, blown hot and cold. While acknowledging that our people were guests of other countries, he also adds that we at least did not set up business in those countries – firstly, as though no South African in exile ever worked, and secondly, as if this made xenophobia any more justifiable.

The world is becoming smaller and smaller thanks to technology and a rising population, and we all need to be globally competitive in what we do. Skills no longer know borders, and there is greater competition for work. We are all competing with the rest of the world in business – and in all other areas of life, too. If South Africans abroad during Apartheid had been prevented from plying their trade or refining their skills – just because their hosts felt threatened – I shudder to think what would have become of our greatest cultural exports. The likes of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba would never have made it onto the world stage.

It is clear that few understand what actually happened out there. It was clear from the time Apartheid ravaged South Africa that to defeat it was going to be a collective effort. The African maxim goes: If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

Repression was rife in South Africa long before the Apartheid era. The freedom struggle emphasised racial and class oppression as key causes of poverty, inequality and a lack of rights for South Africans, especially women. As a country, we had to overcome Apartheid, and the struggle for liberation in South Africa was not an easy one.

In his statement dated 15 June 1962, titled ‘Our struggle is for progress,’ Albert Luthuli stated that there could be no compromise in our struggle to make South Africa a truly democratic country.

One cannot even begin to mention South Africa’s democracy without honouring Umkhonto we Sizwe. It was the armed wing of the ANC, co-founded by Nelson Mandela in the wake of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. Notable members included Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Mac Maharaj, Govan Mbeki and Joe Modise, to name just a few. This military intervention could only happen because there were African countries such as Tanzania willing to host it and support it with practical commodities, shelter and even arms.

So what are some of the African countries that helped us on the path to liberation? Botswana, which gained independence from Britain on 30 September 1966, was very vocal in its opposition to Apartheid. Numerous activists, such as the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, skipped the country and sought refuge in Botswana. While it supported the liberation struggle by providing refuge for political activists, it refused to allow its territory to be used as a base for military training for all liberation movements. This was obviously to make sure that it did not become a target of the powerful South African Defence Force.

A number of personalities in Botswana come to mind. Seretse Khama had a moral imperative to support South Africa liberation from white minority rule. Fish Keitseng helped to establish the Batswana Route for the ANC. Mandela spent the night at his place when his flight to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania was cancelled. Jonas Dinoue Matlou, another figure connected with the ANC’s early contact in Botswana.

In 1966, after Lesotho gained independence, the government of Lebua initially allied itself with the Apartheid government, to the extent that some members of the South African National Party took up positions in the newly elected government. The presence of the ANC in Lesotho dates back to the early 1960s, and members included Ezra Sigwela, Khalaki Sello, Robert Matji and others.

The South African government stepped up pressure on the Lesotho government by conducting more raids in the country. In 1982, on 9 December, a total of 42 people, including three children, were killed by commandos from South Africa who raided flats and houses in Maseru. Thirty of them were South Africans. The outbreak of the students’ uprising in 1976 forced the youth to flee into exile in Lesotho. Many of them joined the ANC, and went for military training under the MK. Chris Hani worked with Lambert Moloi to build underground units, linking them to units based in Eastern Cape, particularly the Transkei, and the border regions. The Lesotho government made special provision for the education of all young South African refugees in schools within its borders. Furthermore, 25% of scholarships from the Lesotho government’s coffers were offered to South African refugees for university education.

Some of the key personalities in Lesotho worth remembering are Ntsu Mokhehle, leader of the Basotho Congress Party and also a former member of the ANC Youth League. Joe Matthews, a member of the ANC and SACP, fled persecution in South Africa and went to Lesotho, where he became involved in politics and supported Ntsu Mokhehle. Chief Jonathan Leabua, leader of the Basotho National Party, repeatedly criticised the South African government’s policy of Apartheid.

One of the most outstanding contributions to our liberation struggle came from Tanzania. Tanzania provided military facilities for liberation movements such as the ANC and PAC. The first military camps were founded by Tlou Theophilus Cholo (one of the commissars of MK and a deputy commander) and Joe Modise. In the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre, the government banned the ANC and PAC, and Tanzania became an important point of contact and transit for the ANC in exile. In 1962, Nelson Mandela visited Tanzania to seek financial and military assistance to enable MK to wage the armed struggle. Tanzania issued travel documents for Mandela to travel to other African countries.

Due to increasing repression in South Africa, Swaziland noted a significant number of refugees arriving in the country in the mid-1970s and accommodated them. In December 1974, Thabo Mbeki and Maxwell Sisulu arrived in Swaziland and were tasked with improving relations with the Swazi monarchy and recruiting refugees for the movement.

Finally, another country to highlight is Zambia. In 1978, the Zambian government led the ANC and MK to expand their propaganda capabilities by allowing regular transmission from Lusaka, in addition to broadcasts from Tanzania. Other transmission areas included Angola, Madagascar and Ethiopia, and were added later. Pallo Jordan, Lindiwe Mabuza, Josiah Jele and Johannes Refiloe Mudimu were attached to Radio Freedom and were also co-ordinators of ANC Youth Radio Programmes.

Next time you think of making foreigners unwelcome, think of what Human Rights Day stands for – think of this tapestry of hospitality, and realise that we are free because those in the rest of Africa opened their hearts, their homes, their countries; and risked the lives of their citizens for our freedom, when we were denied human rights and dignity in our own country. The maxim Motho ke motho ka batho must also apply to all persons regardless of their origins.

“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity,” said Nelson Mandela. We would do well to remember it. DM

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