MK: In pursuit of liberty

[Image]A display on Solomon Mahlangu, who was
hanged in 1979 at the age of 23.

[Image]This headline refers to the 1980 Silverton
Siege, when 25 people were taken hostage
in Volkskas Bank, Silverton, Pretoria, by
three ANC members who were later all
shot dead.
(Images: Lucille Davie)

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Lucille Davie

African National Congress (ANC) military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) turns 50 this year, and in commemoration, the Nelson Mandela Foundation is hosting an exhibition highlighting the organisation during its active period.

Movingly displayed in the foyer of the foundation’s offices in Houghton, the exhibition is titled In pursuit of liberty: legality vs justice. Its theme is “heroism, martyrdom and the ethical principles of South African liberation movements”.

Visitors can learn about the struggle of MK cadres against apartheid.

The exhibition has three main areas of focus – the Rivonia triallists and their capture at Liliesleaf; the story of Solomon Mahlangu who in 1979 became the first MK soldier to be executed by the government of the time; and the 1980 bank siege in Silverton, Pretoria, and the subsequent Soekmekaar and Silverton trials, which became the “turning point of the liberation struggle”.

“The exhibition portrays how freedom fighters used the apartheid courts and police holding cells as sites of struggle,” said a press statement.

“It evokes unpleasant memories of the turbulent apartheid years, but it can help those who were born after the dawn of democracy to understand the heavy price their forebears paid for democracy.”

In pursuit of liberty runs until the end of 2011. Viewing is by appointment only.

The South African Post Office, which is a participant in the exhibition, will issue a new set of stamps in support of its successful Legends of Freedom series and its 2009 Solomon Mahlangu stamp.

The struggle for freedom

In a moving address at the exhibition’s opening, during which she sang a verse of a freedom song, Deputy Minister of Public Service and Administration Ayanda Dlodlo talked about her time in MK.

“Ours was a just war and it should be celebrated,” she said. “It was a war that had to be fought to find freedom.”

She described the “vigorous training” that she and many other young South Africans went through in the 1970s, after they left South Africa in the wake of the 16 June 1976 Soweto pupils’ uprising.

Dlodlo thanked guest and respected advocate George Bizos, who defended Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki in the Rivonia Trial, for his support during the struggle years.

She also mentioned the citizens of various countries, including Angola, Mozambique, Russia, Sweden and Cuba, who welcomed exiled MK members within their borders. People like the late Zimbabwean politician Joshua Nkomo, music producer Quincy Jones, former Cuban president Fidel Castro, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson had also offered unfailing support to the ANC.

“Whites were not our enemy, the system was the enemy,” she said.

Dlodlo, who is also secretary-general of the Military Veterans Association, stressed that many comrades in exile were young – some were 18 and 19 years old. The women cadres in exile were called “flowers of our revolution”, a term originally coined by ANC leader in exile Oliver Tambo.

Continuing the fight

James Mange, an MK commander who was arrested with Mahlangu and 12 others, described his experience of the trial, and how the death sentence hung over them.

“There was no doubt in our minds that John Vorster would hang Solomon,” he said, referring to the state president at the time.

Despite a two-year wait during which the government came under intense international pressure to repeal his sentence, Mahlangu went to the gallows in 1979. His hanging “just gave us strength and more determination,” added Mange.

Mahlangu’s long incarceration had not broken his spirit, and his last words were reportedly: ”My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.”

Like a number of struggle heroes, he posthumously received the National Order of Mendi for Bravery, in 2005.

Mange, too, was sentenced to death while his comrades were sent to Robben Island, but this fate was commuted to a jail term of 20 years after an appeal.

“We were afraid to disgrace the generation before us,” he said, and added that the present generation needs to learn about the sacrifices made by his generation, as they go forward into the future.

Taking up arms

Umkhonto we Sizwe is isiZulu and isiXhosa for “Spear of the Nation”. The movement played a major role in South Africa’s armed struggle.

The decision to form MK was taken in mid-1961 in response to the government’s increasing and sometimes lethal determination to oppress non-white South Africans, despite the fact that resistance action had been peaceful until then. The ANC decided that it had no choice but to take up arms.

MK’s founding members were, among others, former president Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo, the secretary-general of the South African Communist Party.

Other key members in cells around the country included Jack Hogson, Ahmed Kathrada, Arthur Goldreich, Chris Hani, Dennis Goldberg, Ronnie Kasrils, former president Thabo Mbeki, current president Jacob Zuma, Curnick Dlovu and Vuyisile Mini.

MK announced its presence with a series of bomb attacks on government buildings on 16 December 1961 in Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth. Now the Day of Reconciliation, the 16 December public holiday formerly commemorated the Afrikaner defeat of the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838, and was known as the Day of the Covenant or Dingaan’s Day.

The government promptly banned MK as a terrorist organisation, but this didn’t stop many cadres from receiving military training overseas. During its years of activity the organisation’s operations included sabotage of transport systems and power plants – including the Koeberg nuclear facility – attacks on police stations and military bases, and bomb blasts of varying intensity.

Despite fierce resistance from the government and two states of emergency, the first one in 1960 and the second in 1986, the apartheid system eventually fell away.

After 29 years MK suspended its armed struggle when the ANC and other organisations were unbanned in 1990, four years before South Africa’s first democratic elections. It was completely absorbed into the National Defence Force by 1994.

A display on Solomon Mahlangu, who was hanged in 1979