Book Review by Thembile Ndabeni

The origin of the title of the book is touching, revolutionary, progressive and befitting. It emanates from a poem by Claude McKay in 1922 in Harlem, New York, making an appeal to African-Americans to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in fighting for their rights. The author (Manong) lived it by joining others who put their lives on the line for the liberation of their country.

Also, the quotations from the late two former MK (uMkhonto we Sizwe) Commanders, Basil February and Barney Molokoane are befitting, especially if one considers the meaning of the book’s title. (Page v).

It’s amazing that a former MK Commander writes such a book and in this way: nothing else but the truth, because most MK and ANC members are defensive when it comes to their political party and its military wing.

Starting from the cover, the words in the placard of the Liberation Struggle demonstration is the first good picture giving direction where the book is headed.   

The Askaris’ confessions on Page vii are relevant and in the right place.

Illustrations like maps which are also on the front pages give a picture of the roots of the battlefield. (Pages viii - ix).

Actually, Manong’s writing of this book is three-dimensional: for him, for us and for them.

For him: It serves as a form of healing because he needed to take out what has been “eating” him: the wound caused by an Askari – the killing of his mother by a state secret agent he thought was his comrade; clearing his name after being labelled by his own liberation movement as an enemy agent – something that was potentially very serious when it happened, that would have also led to him being harmed and lastly, clearing his conscience about the hidden information of what really happened in MK camps, particularly  in Angola.

Generally, people who were involved in mutinies were and continue to be seen as traitors. Therefore, his book also helps in dispelling that myth and distortion which would have remained for generations and generations to come. Therefore his book, just as he did in the camps, represents the voices of those voiceless people, some of whom are no longer with us.

For us: As the last paragraph above outlines, without him we would not have known what happened to those voiceless people. Therefore, his book gives us the information we would have not known due to the distortion, rhetoric and propaganda that has been fed to us. Also, it helped and healed those who wanted to come out but did not have guts to do so.

The last chapter, “Why Do You Want to Eat Alone?” addresses the current situation in SA – a kind of situation that leaves a lot to be desired. It talks to those who are “really” earning a living, who are rich, and who have forgotten about those who are poverty-stricken. Let alone those who had nothing but put their lives on the line for the freedom we enjoy today. (Pages 259-270).

What impresses me more is that it refers to the members of the ruling party, some of whom became ministers after 1994 and others are ministers currently who committed two wrongs:

First, getting involved in businesses that are supposed to bring opportunities to the poor, but allow themselves to be used as fronts by conservative white-owned big business that wants to maintain the status quo.    

Second, being richer and richer while the majority of the downtrodden is becoming poorer and poorer (the Mobutu Sese Sekos of South Africa).

For them:  The perpetrators: he also helped them so that they get to face the consequences of their actions, once and for all.

Manong mentions a plot to assassinate Chris Hani with the involvement of Joe Modise. According to Manong, the Tribunal’s decision, Joe Modise being part of it, imposed the death penalty on Chris Hani and his co-signatories of the “Hani Memorandum”. The Memorandum “severely criticised the ANC leadership for the events leading to and after the Wankie/Sipolilo operations”. (Page 60). 

Author RW Johnson goes further on that issue in his book, South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid (Allen Lane, London). On the death of Chris Hani, he says everything points at former defence minister Joe Modise because he alone had a compelling motive to kill Chris Hani.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Overall, the mentioning of all these atrocities without fear or favour by Manong helps everybody. Part of it is uncovering all the hidden truth about the ANC camps. It takes away the claimed glory of a glorious people’s army constructed through the ANC’s propaganda machine.  

His (Manong’s) assertion of the MK being an “ANC’s child” is still hanging as the late Prof Stephen Ellis says in his book External Mission it is “SACP’s child”. Though other writers do not say that, they lean on him, for example, Martin Plaut & Paul Holden in their book Who Rules South Africa: Pulling the Strings in the Battle for Power (Jonathan Ball Publishers, Cape Town & Johannesburg). Plaut & Holden present Howard Barrell quoting Joe Modise saying the decision to launch the armed struggle was taken by all formations associated with the ANC, including trade unions. As a result, RW Johnson’s argument in his book South Africa: The First Man; The Last Nation (Jonathan Ball Publishers, Cape Town & Johannesburg) holds water. He says Joe Slovo was a figure “whose command over the SACP and MK made him unchallengeably the leading strategic thinker”. Therefore, the claim by Manong that MK was the ANC’s child is questionable.

I am also not convinced by his claim that the late ANC President OR Tambo was the best leader as presented by the author. (Page 256). I also used to admire Tambo even more than former president Nelson Mandela. But after thorough research, I am no longer so impressed by OR. For example, on the mutinies, he turned a blind eye as Prof Ellis claims in External Mission (Jonathan Ball Publishers, Cape Town & Johannesburg).

Other writers also agree with Ellis. Among them is James Barber in his book South Africa in the Twentieth Century (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford). Barber says there were limits to Tambo’s authority:

“He had no control over the SACP or directly over the MK. Nor was he able to avoid internal clashes, or crises of morale and confidence, or gaps appearing between the leadership and the rank and file”.  

I am impressed by the author’s research and presentation. Within that sphere he provides theory, articulation and eloquence. And within that is his ability to expose those who don’t read but are in leadership positions, especially in MK, the ANC’s military wing.

Unintentionally the book manages to unearth two crucial things about the ruling party: its tendency to label people who ask or challenge things. People would be labelled as traitors, enemy agents, spies and populists. The worst thing to happen was the labelling of Ronnie Kasrils and Chris Hani as populists by Joe Nhlanhla for understanding the situation of mutinies that took place in the camps in Angola. (Page 229). This helps us to understand better the culture of denialism and labelling in the ANC today. An example of the latter is to do with the Nkandla issue. The ANC’s Secretary General said in Daily News in an article headed “ANC NEC concerned at ‘right-wing’ opposition coalition”. He said: “The emergence of a right-wing coalition among political parties is one of convenience and is brought together only by their common animosity towards the ANC.”

Also, the question of “class” or elitism: depending on who you are, you are treated differently in the ANC. (Page 240). This was a scenario in the people’s liberation movement, privileges based on rank in a form of “master and servant” relationships. Where were the Communists who claim to fight for the poorest of the poor and a classless society? This also helps in understanding the ANC of today, elitists who camouflage to be the representatives of the people while they represent their selfish interests.   

It is unfortunate for those who have passed on having not known the real truth but were fed myths and distortions. Among those people would be some academics whose theses were falsified by myths and distortions. It is worse for those who died, and some are still living, with the stigma of having been labelled traitors.  

This is one of the best reads I’ve come across about the ANC, a critical report from an insider.
Before history is phased out as a subject in SA schools, I recommend this book to be made available to high school learners for its sterling role in dispelling the myth about the “glorious people’s army and liberation movement’s history”.

Thembile Ndabeni is a freelance writer. He holds a Master’s degree in South African Politics and Political Economy from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. 


Thembile Ndabeni