Defend Truth


Coming to terms with our history — Winnie and the anti-apartheid assassin Tsafendas


Dr Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute.

Two new books published in South Africa raise the question of truth. Read together they are profoundly important and profoundly uncomfortable.

George Orwell wrote that “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Antonio Gramsci insisted that “To tell the truth is revolutionary.” Amical Cabral famously recommended that a genuine revolutionary must “Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures.”

Two new books published in South Africa raise the question of truth. Read together they are profoundly important and profoundly uncomfortable. Harris Dousemetzis’ The Man Who Killed Apartheid shows that Dimitri Tsafendas, who assassinated Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966, was not insane. In fact, Tsafendas was a highly intelligent, well-read and well-travelled man who was a committed political radical.

The apartheid state effectively covered all this up and presented Tsafendas as a madman in order to depoliticise a fundamentally political act. They were so successful in their cover-up that it wasn’t just white supporters of apartheid that bought into the “big lie”. The liberation movements also accepted it.

Dousemetzis’s book is almost 500 pages long and is an impressive work of scholarship. It has been validated by some of our leading legal, journalistic and academic minds. The case that he makes is unanswerable.

After reading it one is left reeling. The fact that white supporters of apartheid were duped by a neo-fascist regime is not surprising. But the fact that that regime was so effective in its propaganda that we all, including black opponents of apartheid, came to believe some of its propaganda as if it were fact is surprising.

This book makes it clear that the work of coming to terms with our past is far from concluded and that there is much to do.

But discovering that one’s enemy has lied is not a psychologically difficult thing. It is much harder to come to terms with uncomfortable truths about one’s own “side”. Some Catholics have struggled to come to terms with the abuse of children in the church. Some Muslims have struggled to come to terms with how their religion has been distorted. Some fans of Michael Jackson find it easier to believe that all evidence of the abusive behaviour of their idol is a giant conspiracy theory than to face reality.

For those of us on the left, or who grew up in the anti-apartheid movement, it is not always easy to confront the failings of our political heroes, and their movements. But if we are to be honest and committed to truth, facts must be faced. This is what Orwell, Gramsci and Cabral demand of us when they insist that the true revolutionary must be committed to the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.

Fred Bridgland’s new book on Winnie Mandela, Truth, Lies and Alibis, is a very difficult book to read for those who grew up with Winnie Mandela as an uncomplicated hero.

Those new to reading about Winnie Mandela should start with her prison diary, 491 Days, Prisoner number 1323/69. It is a book that all South Africans should read, and an incredibly painful and moving account of the torture to which she was subjected by the apartheid state.

Bridgland’s book mentions the torture and abuse to which Winnie Mandela was subjected but is primarily about the murders of Stompie Seipei and Abu Baker Asvat, who was known as “the people’s doctor”, and associated events in late 1988 and early 1989. It also includes an examination of the trial and the TRC hearing that followed.

Bridgland doesn’t write with the political sophistication of Dousemetzis. He hits a few wrong notes. There are places in his book when he discusses Mandela’s dress and her lovers in a way that is arguably sexist. However, the evidence that he brings to bear on the murders of Seipei and Asvat is detailed, and as unanswerable as the case that Dousemetzis makes in support of Tsafendas’s sanity.

Bridgland shows that Mandela, no doubt seriously damaged by the torture that she had endured, had, by the late 1980s, become a serious abuser herself. A particularly disturbing element of Bridgland’s story is that a witness in the Seipei matter, Katiza Cebekhulu, was kidnapped by the ANC and taken to Zambia, where he was jailed, without trial, for two years. It seems that this happened at the request of Nelson Mandela, who asked Kenneth Kaunda to arrange for Cebekhulu to disappear.

It is well known that the “football club” that surrounded Winnie Mandela in the late 1980s contained numerous spies and that it engaged in repeated abuses. This is why local school children eventually burnt down Mandela’s home in Soweto.

In February 1989 the United Democratic Front (UDF), which at the time represented millions of people and was the largest movement in the anti-apartheid struggle, issued a statement distancing itself from the actions of Winnie Mandela and the “football club” that surrounded her.

This was a brave and principled act and a very different choice to the decision of the ANC to abduct and jail Cebekhulu in 1991. This was an attempt to silence an uncomfortable truth and to do so at a huge personal cost for a vulnerable person.

We can all understand the desire to believe in the moral stature of “our own side”, especially in a struggle as obviously on the side of justice as the struggle against apartheid. But ultimately the demands of morality compel us to always tell the truth and to recognise when injustice has happened on our side.

The UDF passed this test. But others failed this test. One person who appears in both books, and who passed one moral test and failed another, is anti-apartheid lawyer George Bizos.

Bizos is a strong supporter of Tsafendas and comes out of this story with his integrity intact. However, he does not come out of Bridgland’s book well. Brigland shows Bizos as someone who was complicit in the cover-up of Winnie Mandela’s crimes, including a deliberate attempt to mislead a court.

It is very easy to understand why Bizos would support Tsafendas and Winnie Mandela — after all, they were both opposed to apartheid. But just as we must, at the end of the day, face up to the full and complex realities of ourselves and our families, we also need to face up to the full and complex realities of the political movements and projects with which we associate ourselves. In the end, Bizos couldn’t do this.

There is something tragic about this.

We need to do better as we come to terms with the full and complex nature of our history. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

Daily Maverick The Gathering 2024 banner

Daily Maverick has secured an esteemed speaker line-up...

to help make sense of Elections 2024.

Trevor Manuel, Prof Thuli Madonsela and Minister Ronald Lamola are among the latest panellists confirmed for Daily Maverick The Gathering Twenty Twenty-Four.

Join us, on Thurs 14 March 2024 at CTICC Cape Town or online wherever you are, for an event that will put the election in perspective.

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider