For The Fallen - Review

The concept of comradeship is one of the lessons to learn from the book, For The Fallen. A reader gets a sense of this when reading of the relationship among three trained soldiers of Umkhonto WeSizwe, Zakes, Lizo and Mzwandile. In introducing the three the author, Comrade Mzwakhe Ndlela (aka Phopho), says of them, “[They] never tried to pretend they were big shots, or that they were financially well off. They were just three responsible friends who wanted to relax. ...Their choice of the ‘Spot’ in Ha-Tsosane, Maseru, confirmed not only their maturity but also their vigilance as revolutionaries.  Maseru at the time had a number of high-class and glamorous nightspots and pubs which they could have chosen.”  Instead they opted for Ha-Tsosane, which was situated in a peri-urban area.  “Perhaps Ha-Tsosane reminded the three of where they had all come from: Alice in the Eastern Cape.  Ntselamanzi and Gqumahashe villages ... The understanding among them was not just about comradeship. It went much deeper than that. They were brothers, if not by blood, then by fate and belief in each other. ...It seemed nothing but death could part them. ...And yet they were distinctly different! They complemented each other ... The common suffering that they had endured as boys and young adults, and their common journey to the liberation movement, had served to strengthen their friendship and brotherhood.”

Dedication to a cause
“[They] often used to discuss this issue (to die in exile or fighting inside the country), quite heatedly at times. There was consensus that MK soldiers should not fight in order to die. They should fight and survive so that they could continue fighting until our country is free. The three of them made it clear that they would never allow the enemy the pleasure of capturing them alive.”    True to his words Mzwandile died in battle, fighting. “He and two other comrades made contact with the enemy near the small town of Sterkspruit on the Lesotho border. [He] took command and ordered the comrades to retreat to the rear, back to Lesotho. In order to divert the enemy from his retreating comrades, Mzwandile continued to fight alone. ... After many hours of fighting, Mzwandile was overcome.” On Zakes he says, “Zakes always made the distinction between mere freedom fighters and revolutionaries. Not that he disrespected freedom fighters but, in Zakes’ mind, freedom fighters were not in the same league as true revolutionaries.”

On Lizo he writes, “Sipho’s (Lizo’s combat name) was a different kind of fear. It was not death itself that bothered him. It was the thought of dying without having made a meaningful contribution to the liberation struggle. True revolutionaries never feel that they have contributed significantly or adequately, precisely because they know that the revolutionary task is never completed. Any claim by a freedom fighter of ‘mission accomplished’ would be more than a sign of naivety ... Sipho knew very well that the task ahead was huge and difficult ... but we learned from his narratives that fear can sometimes make you wise. For fear of being arrested or captured, he would sometimes travel without firearms.  When he was searched at a roadblock, nothing would be found... And he would reach his destination and carry on with his political work. Many guerrillas fell or were captured because they carried firearms at the wrong time and place.”  Developing the theme on to arm-on-needs basis he says, “As a guerrilla fighter, I thought, it was always preferable to choose not only your battles, but also your time and space. That is why some fighters choose not to carry any weapons when infiltrating the country. Knowing that they were unarmed tended to make guerrillas more cautious. They avoided situations that could result in unplanned battles.” But then there were no cast-in-stone theories, he goes on to say, “Of course, this is only one point of view, and it is not necessarily shared by all. I have listened to guerrilla fighters who felt the opposite, and compared going into apartheid South Africa without their weapons to going into a lion’s den stark naked.”

Phopho was involved in creating underground structures inside the country. Like Zakes [who] had built a number of active underground cells and worked with activists such as Mfanelo, Vukile, Ntlebi, Cliff, the late Pondo, the late Khaya Mabece, Ndumiso Gola, Doug Ngwenya, Skhumbuso and many others” Phopho too had his cells. He “was deployed to establish a political cell; if possible, a fighting unit” in Alice. Due to unfavourable security setup he ended up trying to secure a base in Keiskammahoek and finally moved to Cape Town where he joined Lizo Ngqunwana. “Way back in Lesotho, Zakes, Lizo and I had agreed that if the operational situation became too risky in a particular place, we could contact each other and move to a safer area.” He availed himself of that comradely agreement. The political underground environment there was favourable: “Sipho’s legacy in the Western Cape was also very impressive.” Through that he managed to stay underground until the security climate cleared in Alice region, “Reverend Stofile asked Ngconde Balfour to find safe accommodation for me. That is how I landed in a staff cottage at Healdtown near Fort Beaufort. I was able to do some political work, develop some documents and even train operatives on how to handle firearms. In the evening we did target shooting in the veld ... Once or twice we used an AK-47, but soon realised that that it could land us in trouble.” 

“I was fortunate and blessed to be in the company of men who valued feedback and constructive criticism. They viewed these sessions as an opportunity to share and learn from each other. ... As they discussed real issues and shared combat experiences, many of the old debates, both theoretical and practical, surfaced in a more concrete form.  ... What became abundantly clear was that however much you may read up on the theory of guerrilla warfare, the indisputable truth is that each situation is unique. However much you may prepare and plan, the bottom line for a successful guerrilla fighter is the ability to ‘think on your feet’. ... Guerrilla fighters must therefore thoroughly grasp the political, economic, physical and social environment in which they live.” As a practical example later in the book he relates an incident where his colleagues were supposed to collect him at an agreed spot at 07h00 but had not showed up by 10h00. According to the textbook instructions he should have assumed the worst case scenario and aborted the mission. He did not, instead “In this case I ... decided against the norm, and wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt.” He continued to do what he could under the circumstances to facilitate their meeting, and finally succeeded to make contact in the early hours of the night! Besides the rules, an underground operator must also take the characters of other operators into account. Example, “Mganu (a struggle sympathiser) arrived unexpectedly. He explained that he had had second thoughts, and had come to the conclusion that we would be safer if we travelled in his car. I accepted immediately without asking too many questions. I knew Mganu was an honest person. The only problem was that he sometimes took too long to make decisions.” In this case Mganu had taken the whole night to do what he had refused to do the previous day. Had Phopho lost patience with Mganu or grown suspicious, he might later have been arrested at a roadblock. Mganu’s Ciskei diplomatic status secured a safe passage for them at a roadblock.

Looking ahead
A number of leading ANC members had spent years, if not decades, in exile, the United States of America, United Kingdom and France. They know that in those countries there’s no political distinction between people of mixed-race descent and Africans. In view, the ANC should work to end the political divide between ‘Coloureds’, people of mixed-race descent, and Africans identity. The benefits Coloureds enjoyed under Apartheid were minimal and should never be allowed to continue the divide between them and Africans. In Chapter Eight, Leon “Joe Juluka” Meyer, Phopho asks the simple question, “Did it really matter that Leon was a Coloured? Yes and No. It did not matter because the ANC is a non-racial organisation. You could not doubt that. There had been many others before him, and they had been loyal members of the organisation. On the other hand, it did matter because there were not many coloured comrades in Maseru at the time. You could count them on hand.” These are facts. Given that most Coloured are located in Western Cape and few are found in other provinces what purpose does it serve to keep and maintain the old divide-and-rule policy of giving them an identity that does not serve the revolution? Phopho does not pose the question, yet he poses many others on similar lines.

Of Pierrie Andre Albertini, a French lecturer, who had joined the struggle against Apartheid he asks the question “what about white South Africans? Did they support him or did they perceive him as a communist who had come to ... disturb their peace? What about black South Africans? Could the valour and commitment shown by Albertini not perhaps resuscitate the consciences of the significant section of the population who refused to participate actively in the struggle against the apartheid regime?” In the one but last chapter, A Last Word, Phopho observes: “These days, stories of heroism of the guerrilla fighters are often told with much excitement and a lot of exaggeration. As early as the 1990s, a trend emerged where even those who were apolitical or reactionary started to identify themselves with the progressive forces. ... I realised that people were now beginning to position themselves in such a way that they could benefit from the anticipated fruits of freedom. I had no idea that this tendency would have such devastating effects on our country and symbolise the beginning of moral degeneration.”

“...On the day of President Mandela’s inauguration. I gazed upon the pomp and splendour of the occasion, and thought it was the right way of celebrating what the masses of our people had achieved. But again I thought about those who could not enjoy the moment. I wondered what Zakes would have said about this day.” The book is dedicated to the fallen. Though we know of the helpless victims, we seldom “spare a thought for those who had died of diseases like kwashiorkor, tuberculosis and other poverty related illnesses. They too died because white privilege was maintained and apartheid thrived.” The last chapter, The Good Die Young, list the fallen victims, heroes and heroines in the narrative. The list includes South African Student Movement, Pan Africanist Congress and Black Consciousness activists.