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We owe a greater debt to Sizwe Kondile

Sizwe Kondile could have been one of the great men of the struggle for liberation and post-democratic South Africa. He was being mentored by Chris Hani. His comrades were Vusi Pikoli, Ngoako Ramatlhodi and Tito Mboweni. Yet, today, no one knows his name or remembers his story.

Sizwe Kondile was tall and regal. He was quiet, a thinker, but he had great presence. An innate leader. Although his family expected him to be a lawyer or a doctor, he once told his nephew he wanted to be a factory worker at Ford. He came from a revered family, his father was an African Springbok and the chief magistrate of Port Elizabeth; he later sat on the bench.

Sizwe Kondile fled into exile as a teenager with his best friend Vusi Pikoli and two others, Phaki Ximiya and Thozi Majola. The men went to Lesotho where they had heady hopes of becoming militants and liberating their country from Apartheid. There they served under Chris Hani.

Sizwe disappeared from Maseru in 1981.

The night before he vanished, Sizwe had visited Vusi and his other friends at their home, looking for a cigarette to smoke. He also went to see other comrades, Ngoako Ramatlhodi and Tito Mboweni and they discussed politics. Then early in the morning he borrowed Chris Hani’s yellow Datsun SSS and went to go and make a phone call. He never returned. He had hung up midway through a conversation with his girlfriend.

In the wake of his disappearance there were rumours of defection, of his being an apartheid spy and reports that he had been spotted here, there and everywhere. His mother travelled to Maseru to try to find answers but the reception was hostile and she was turned away. The ANC leadership was skeptical of her motives.

It was only during the TRC hearings, in 1998, that excruciating details were revealed about what really happened to Sizwe Kondile. For years he was suspected of being a spy.

In truth, he died a horrible, tortured death.

He was interrogated by the Eastern Cape security police. Sizwe was handcuffed and tied at the knees. A ‘prisoner bag’ was placed over his head. An electric machine was attached to him and he was repeatedly shocked and beaten. Initially he gave information to the police but when they discovered a note he had written to the ANC, saying he was pretending to be an informer, they decided he had to be disposed of. They couldn’t afford another Steve Biko scandal. So Dirk Coetzee was called in.

Coetzee and his Vlakplaas unit took Sizwe to Komatipoort, to a piece of ground near the river, alongside the border. A balaclava was placed over his head and he was handcuffed, they gave him knock out drops in a cooldrink and he began to sway. Eventually he fell over and the cops shot him in the head. They threw him on a pyre of tyre and wood, poured petrol on it and set it alight. For seven hours Sizwe’s body burnt while the officers braaied and drank beer alongside him. Later they would recall how the chunks of meat, the buttocks and the upper part of the legs, had to be turned frequently during the night to make sure that everything had been burnt to ashes. The next morning in the rubble there was no flesh or bone left at all. The remains were thrown into the Komati river.

Four men applied to the TRC for amnesty. They were granted amnesty and none of them were ever criminally charged for killing Sizwe.

In May 2013, I tracked down one of them, former Eastern Cape security policeman Captain Hermanus Barend du Plessis. He was living in Pretoria. Du Plessis was the man who had driven Sizwe from Jeffrey’s Bay to Komatipoort.

I arranged for him to meet with Vusi Pikoli in the hope that they could both find some kind of closure. It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my career as a journalist. The two men sat at a wooden table on the patio of a butchery cum coffee shop in Silverton. Vusi pushed the Captain for answers but there were none. Du Plessis insisted he had not killed Sizwe and did not accept responsibility. Spectacularly, he did admit that he had told a ‘little lie’ to the TRC but would not reveal what this was. Vusi believed the ex-cop had ‘selective amnesia’ and was still part of a protective brotherhood of former Apartheid policemen.

Du Plessis also couldn’t say exactly where Sizwe was killed. For years Madeleine Fullard and the Missing Person’s Task Team searched for Sizwe’s remains. Dirk Coetzee was even taken out to the area to try to point out the exact location. Nothing was found.

On a misty day in 2013, I went to Butterworth to speak to Sizwe’s elderly mother, Charity. I navigated my way through the treacherous Kei Cuttings and arrived at her ramshackle mustard yellow and red home, with rubbish strewn on the street outside. She was in a printed kaftan and fussed over me, offering tea and coffee. Charity recalled how Sizwe and Vusi used to chase springkaan as little boys. She clutched a grainy weathered picture of Sizwe on his graduation day and I could see how raw and painful her son’s brutal death still was, more than thirty years after he was killed.

Charity remained embittered that the ANC never acknowledged Sizwe. No memorial had been held. They had never been to visit her to discuss his disappearance. No one had offered to look after her health or to pay for the education of Sizwe’s son Bantu.

Photo: Charity clutched a grainy weathered picture of Sizwe… (Photo courtesy of EWN)

‘He would have been an advocate, like Vusi. He would be somebody opposing all this corruption and boldly speaking out as Barney Pityana is doing,’ she told me. ‘He would be crushing everything that is corrupt. If he were alive, he would be acting like Vusi. If Sizwe was there, they would be strong enough and they would be fighting like hell for what is happening in the country every day.’

Here is a man who could have been one of the great men of the struggle for liberation and for post-democratic South Africa. He was being mentored by Chris Hani. His comrades were Pikoli, Ramatlhodi and Mboweni. Yet, today, no one knows his name or remembers his story.

This week, Sizwe Kondile’s family held a spiritual repatriation along the banks of the Komati River. It was arranged by the Missing Person’s Task Team and was attended by his sister and his son, as well as his best friend Vusi Pikoli. His mother Charity was too ill to take part. At a ceremony, officiated by the justice minister Michael Masutha, he was symbolically buried at Freedom Park in Pretoria.

His sister Nompumelelo says the family feels that now Sizwe’s spirit is at rest and there is some sense of closure. Finally, the chapter can be brought to an end. She is also grateful this was done while their mother was still alive so that now too she can be at peace.

But there are still lingering issues. Is a small, symbolic ceremony, hastily arranged, enough to remember people like Sizwe Kondile? Surely our country owes the Kondile’s a far greater debt. Surely Sizwe’s comrades owe him the respect he deserves through their actions and through their leadership? And surely people like Captain Hermanus Barend du Plessis owe us real answers about what happened to Sizwe Kondile and others like him? DM

*Mandy Wiener is the co-author of My Second Initiation: The memoir of Vusi Pikoli


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