Book Review by Professor Hugh Macmillan

Stanley Manong’s self-published book takes its title from a 1922 poem by the Jamaican poet, Claude McKay. It is the most remarkable of a number of recently published MK memoirs, including James Ngculu’s The Honour to Serve, Fanele Mbali’s In Transit, and Welile Bottoman’s The Making of an MK Cadre. The book begins with an account of Manong’s upbringing and political formation in the Karoo town of Victoria West, where he was born in 1955, and where many of his relatives were charged and acquitted in a trumped-up Poqo trial in 1968. He goes on to describe his time at secondary school in Cradock, where he was taught by Matthew Goniwe, whose brother Jacques was one of the original ‘Cradock Four’ - men from the town who were killed in action during the ANC’s Wankie and Sipolilo Campaigns, in 1967-8. Incidentally, he provides evidence to support Chris Hani’s contention that these campaigns were an early example of ‘armed propaganda’, which influenced him and others to think of recruiting themselves to MK. He also testifies to the influence of the ANC’s Radio Freedom, broadcasting from Lusaka, which was suspended at a critical moment – from 1975-7.

With his friend Rocks Mashinini, brother of Tsietsi, a leader of the Soweto Uprising, he went to Swaziland to look for the ANC in 1976 and, after an initial cautious rebuff, was recruited in December of that year by Stanley Mabizela, the ANC’s deputy or acting chief representative there. He underwent miltary training in Angola in the following year as a member of the 16th June Detachment, the first group of Soweto generation recruits. After completing his training, he was sent immediately to the front line in Botswana, where he was based for more than three years. He demonstrates how difficult it was for MK to manage urban and rural guerrilla campaigns in South Africa from Botswana in the face of a hostile host government and penetration by people working for ‘the other side’.

Manong offers a warts-and-all account of his often painful experiences: his betrayal in Botswana by people who either were, or became, askaris, including Joe Mamasela, and his detention, with others, for eighteen months in Angola by ANC security. This was during the Shishita, a serious outbreak of liberation movement paranoia, which began in Zambia in 1980 and gripped the ANC in exile throughout the Southern African region in 1981.

He was ‘recalled’ to Angola with others on the clearly bogus charge that they had failed to organise from Botswana attacks inside South Africa to coincide with the official celebration of the 20th anniversary of the South African republic – and must therefore be enemy agents. He was held for six months at a detention centre known as ‘Iran’, which was located at a FAPLA (Angolan army) base near Luanda and was then moved to Camp 13, at Quibaxe, which was adjacent to the notorious Quatro detention centre. The national commissar, Andrew Masondo, and members of the security deparment, known in Angola as Mbokodo, had apparently come to the irrational conclusion that people who could not show that they had been recruited to the ANC inside South Africa through the (almost non-existent) undeground structures, must have been sent into exile as agents of the regime. They felt entitled to beat people until they got the ‘correct’ answers. Manong began to doubt the wisdom of joining the ANC. ‘In my wildest dreams, I never imagined the ANC could be so brutal against its own innocent members.’ (163) He found it hard to believe that any of those executed as enemy agents at this time, most of whom he knew as members of the 16th June detachment, were guilty of the crimes of which they were accused – and there was certainly no proper judicial process. He documents the deaths of many of his comrades as a result of torture and execution, but, remarkably, his fundamental loyalty to the organisation was not shaken. ‘Despite all adversities, being wrongfully removed from Botswana, re-trained at ZAPU military camps in Zambia, incarcerated in ANC military camps in Angola, accused of being a spy and isolated from my comrades in the camps, I remained loyal, committed and a dedicated member of the ANC.’ (xxiv)

He was eventually cleared at the end of 1982, but was still side-lined, together with the Soweto Uprising leader, Tebello Motopanyane, and other critical voices. It is hard to believe that he was able to maintain his loyalty in these circumstances, but he makes it clear that he had learnt from Mark Shope, who provided political education to the June 16th Detachment in Angola in 1977, that he should be loyal to the ideals of the ANC and not to individual leaders – and he also drew inspiration from the writings of the Vietnamese communist, Le Duan. A strong believer in political education, he attributes the actions of the police at Marikana to its absence in the contemporary ANC. He frequently quotes Shope’s view that ‘a soldier without politics is a mercenary’.

He attributes the breakdown of morale and discipline in the Angolan camps in the early 1980s to the abandonment of the kind of political education that was provided by Shope and Jack Simons, the suppression of critical thinking and political debate, and the influence of the apolitical military training offered by ZAPU, from which MK learned the toyi-toyi. It is also clear that the ANC’s decision to become involved in the war with UNITA, in which Manong himself participated, was also a major demoralising factor. He testifies to the accuracy of the Stuart commission of inquiry into the first of the Angolan mutinies in 1984, which pointed out that the appalling conditions in the camps made it unnecessary to look for the ‘enemy agents’ behind the mutiny - it had also reported the widely-held view that there was a reactionary army led by Andrew Masondo, and Mzwai Piliso, the head of security, and a revolutionary army, led by Chris Hani and Joe Slovo.

His account of the mutinies in Angola is second-hand, as he was not then on the spot, and does not add much to what is known, but his account of the subsequent Angolan regional conference, and the national consultative confererence, which was held at Kabwe in Zambia, both in 1985, is first-hand and convincing. The attempt of MK commanders in Angola to pack the regional conference, and to handpick the delegates to the national conference, was almost successful, but it was ultimately thwarted by Hani and Ronnie Kasrils. They intervened to ensure that some dissident voices, including Manong’s, were heard in both places.

Although Chris Hani opposed Manong’s suggestion that the Stuart Report on the Angolan mutinies should be tabled at the conference, probably thinking that it had been overtaken by events and could be divisive, he sees Kabwe as a success and attributes this to Oliver Tambo’s leadership, which prevented a Polokwane-style split. It was through the intervention of Hani and Tambo, and what he sees as the ANC’s ‘mild and timid’ version of glasnost and perestroika, that he was able to escape the camps in 1986, after five frustrating years, to do a civil engineering degree in Hungary - in Hungarian, a notoriously difficult language.

Stanley Manong’s book provides the best account in existence to date of MK in the Angolan camps. It makes it clear that its location in the middle of the ‘hot, cold war’ in Angola, to use Vladimir Shubin’s phrase, was a disaster. Its position there, which had been forced upon it by the refusal of Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique to provide bases for Soweto refugees seeking military training after 1976, deteriorated continuously until it was finally compelled to withdraw in 1988-9 – a matter of relief rather than a major setback. It is clear that Manong himself was a beneficiary of a decision made after Kabwe in 1985 to empty the camps as far as possible. By 1987 there were less than two thousand people in the camps but that was still too many. By 1990 about half of the survivors were in Lusaka and half in Uganda.

In the final chapters of this excellent book, Manong documents his return to South Africa, his discovery of the truth about his mother’s murder in Victoria West in 1985 at the hands of a mob, including many of his own relatives and childhood friends, who took issue with his brother’s participation in an urban advisory council; his struggle over many years to build his own civil engineering business, and his frustration at the hands of the BEE partners of the large ‘white’ civil engineering contractors. Paraphrasing the lines of a poem by Pablo Neruda, he asks of the new political and financial elite: ‘Why do you want to eat alone?’

Professor Hugh Macmillan

the author of: “The Lusaka Years”, the ANC in Exile