How not to lead a liberation
Gaby Rubin reviews 'Fordsburg fighter: the journey of an MK volunteer' by Amin Cajee, as told to Terry Bell (Cover2Cover Books, 2016, pp194, £22.09)
The foreword to this book - written by Paul Joseph, a lifelong African National Congress activist - states that Cajee’s “honestly told story is an essential one for us to gain a fuller picture of our history, if only to ensure, perhaps, that future generations will learn from our mistakes” (pvii). From that it is clear that this is not a life story of someone whose views of the ANC are all sweetness and light.
Here I must insert a personal exculpation: for many years I was an active member of the ANC in London. At the time my partner (who was South African) and I believed that it was necessary for the ANC (and by implication the South African Communist Party) to take power, in order to progress towards a socialist and eventually communist society. Yes, OK, it did not quite work out that way, but this was 50 years ago, so forgive the naivety. Not that we were naive about the ANC itself: we were aware of the personal and political venality within it even then, but believed this would be ironed out after the wash, as it were.
Amin Cajee opens the first chapter by describing how he was sentenced to death, along with others, for high treason. Not by the South African state, as was common, but by the leadership of the ANC! They were in a camp in Tanzania, supposedly getting ready to become a fighting force in SA. The charges were complex, but consisted of being in collusion with the Chinese embassy in Dar-es-Salaam, and being groomed to take over the liberation movement for that purpose. This in a camp which the fighters were not allowed to leave and had no access to the outside world - no radios, letters or anything.
The accusing tribunal refused to identify witnesses or evidence. The underlying political problem, it turned out, was the Sino-Soviet split, so that those in the camp who had been trained in China were suspect. Cajee was asked to testify against two comrades who had been trained in China in return for unspecified amnesty, but he refused.
However, the death sentence was not carried out. Eventually, on the basis that Cajee had been led astray by ‘others’, he was sent back to his tent on three months’ probation with a stiff warning that he had to toe the line - or else. The ‘others’ - those dangerous Chinese-instructed spies - were carted off to Tanzanian prisons. Cajee did see some of them later - in London, in exile.
Other continuing problems throughout the book were the political rivalry between Xhosa and Zulu speakers - and racism among the fighters themselves. Cajee noted that most of the black South African fighters were sent to other African countries for training, while South African Indians like himself and ‘coloureds’ were sent to Czechoslovakia/Soviet Union. A few were sent to China, with unforeseen results.
In Czechoslovakia, the trainees found difficulties. A minor but amusing episode occurs when, never having seen a teabag before, they mistook what was floating in the teapot for an insect! A rather more important problem was the racism they discovered. One of their African comrades became depressed by the fact that, when they went into town, people would come up to him and touch his hair or rub his skin to see if the blackness came off. When using the swimming pool, people would ask him how he knew when he was clean, and did he wear clothes for the first time in their country? After a while he refused to leave the camp.
A small group got together and decided to challenge this behaviour. They went into town with their comrade and, every time someone said or did something unpleasant to him, they would challenge the person for being racist and ignorant. Occasionally, they would decide to use sarcasm - at one point they agreed with the questioner that, yes, they did live in trees, and the ambassadors were the ones who were highest on the branches. They became known very well in the town, and began to be treated better.
Another difficulty was that in the beginning, the training was for conventional warfare, as though when they began the armed struggle in South Africa somehow the Soviet Union would be able to make sure they had all of the tanks, machine guns, etc they needed in the midst of a battle. Cajee argued that in all probability they would be fighting an unconventional, probably a guerrilla, war. They eventually got some of the training they needed.
Their return to Tanzania was full of disorganisation. Their cover story was that they were Indians returning from India, but the ANC had neglected to organise Indian visas for them. (The Indian government would have been helpful.) Upon flying to England, they were interrogated by the UK immigration services, followed by an attempted bribe from a large Afrikaans-speaking man - probably part of the external security service. They were sent back to Prague, where they continued their training, but encountered further racist taunting - this time from one of their fellow trainees.
This was not the only time the ANC’s obsessive secrecy meant that one part of the organisation did not tell another what was happening. Several times in Cajee’s perambulations, they would arrive in a city having been sent by the ANC in one country, only to find that the office in the receiving city knew nothing about them. At one point they were told they were going to be sent back into South Africa on their own passports, and it turned out that no-one knew about what had happened to them in London. So that plan was scrapped.
Cajee was eventually sent back to his original camp in Tanzania, but found the atmosphere changed:
Any form of challenge to the commanders would be seen not only as a challenge to the leadership, but as a challenge to the people of South Africa. This approach made me feel very uncomfortable. It was not the type of welcome I had expected, thinking I was joining a democratic organisation” (p88).
Other aspects of camp life were also disappointing - and unnerving. The men had to do a two-mile jog every morning before breakfast, while the commanders followed in a land rover, from where the sound of clinking glasses could be heard.
There was a ‘people’s court’, which meted out savage punishments, including beatings, for minor infractions. The Africans (in the South African sense) would say quite openly: “When the revolution was achieved the leadership would consider accepting Indians into the country. The Congress Alliance was moribund and the decision rested entirely with the Africans” (p94). In the meantime, the fighters were all anxious to get back to South Africa to engage in the struggle, but for the leadership “there was no real urgency” (p97).
The language differences became more pronounced. The command structure of the camp was handed to the Xhosa speakers. One man was given the position of commander in chief of uMkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing, because he was a Setswana speaker, and the direct infiltration route into South Africa would have been through Botswana, where that language was spoken. One of the Xhosa speakers - supposedly a committed Marxist - stated that there would be no role for Zulus in a future government: the Xhosas would “take control of the movement and the armed struggle” (p115).
Difficulties piled up in the camp, until finally Cajee felt they were now overbearing:
I was beginning to realise that perhaps I had been naive in thinking I had joined a movement that superseded all trivialities, such as racism, tribalism, regionalism and ethnic groupings. In the camp this hope was being systematically destroyed … and … set the stage for the future of the movement … [These differences] … were exploited by individuals in leadership positions, because unity at rank-and-file level might have confronted them with a force that might have exposed the hypocrisy and corruption that existed (p102).
Cajee describes the problems (and corruption) in the camp itself, which were ignored. The fact that those who had returned from the Soviet Union had no training in guerrilla warfare, but only in conventional battle conditions. The fact that the food became less and less palatable - sent from the Soviet Union with 1942 as the date embossed on the tins! But gradually the desire to be part of the struggle in South Africa and the constant promises that they would go back ‘soon’ - a ‘soon’ that never happened - began to take its toll. Discipline and morale plunged. Punishments were decided on and meted out by camp commanders - the ‘people’s court’ no longer existed. Cajee describes the camp as containing “a demoralised army of men, who were underfed and prone to malaria, diarrhoea, malnutrition, eye infections and depression”.
And then someone tried to kill him, and in secrecy he was told to beware of old enemies. He then describes how he and some of his comrades decided to leave the camp, how they got out and how he became a refugee in London, where he has spent the rest of his life. He saw his mother in London also, who was on a stopover from South Africa, for the first time in eight years.
In the last chapters of the book, Cajee describes the attempts of the MK to penetrate South Africa through “dubious” military strategy (p174), and the results of the Soweto uprisings.
He reports and comments on all this without hyperbole, self-pity or individual censure (and with some humour). Of course, he and his friends worried about deserting the struggle, but, as he says,
I volunteered to serve what I saw as a democratic movement dedicated to bringing down an oppressive and racist regime. Instead, I found myself serving a movement that was relentless in exercising power and riddled with corruption. I had to take a decision to continue being party to this or to exit. I chose to exit (p175).
From a political point of view this is a difficult book to read. In not planning and putting into operation rigorous political education and optimum unity, the road was left open for prejudice and error. Kept without action, without information and eventually without hope, the troops in training became demoralised and ill-disciplined.
Some of the difficulties faced by those embarking on a revolutionary action are very clearly pointed to and as such this is an important book to read.