The Honour to Serve – Book Review

How befitting it was that Commissar James Ngculu’s (aka James Makhaya) book, The Honour to Serve, was the second book to be produced from the ranks of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK – African National Congress military wing) June 16 and later Detachments after Mwezi Twala’s Mbokodo: Inside MK: Mwezi Twala – A Soldier’s Story. As a soldier who had turned his back against the ANC, Mwezi spared no effort in smearing MK in the gloomiest colours possible. Thus Commissar James faced the monumental challenge to counterbalance the tales of gory dispensed by Mwezi in his book

An outright attack against Mwezi’s book would merely have fuelled spurts between the pro-Mwezi, anti-ANC elements and ANC-MK supporters. But then Commissar James might not even had read Mwezi’s book, and wrote his book to simply share with the public the inspirations and ideals that were cherished by soldiers who filled the ranks of MK. The book’s title The Honour To Serve suggests that nobler motive and purpose. Indeed, a glance at the contents page with chapter titles like University of the South: Novo Catengue, The Commissariat, The character of the MK soldier confirms that surmise.

James, however, is no blind dreamer. In the chapter Going Home he writes “A number of MK comrades died during battles... some were killed by the ANC in exile for various reasons.” Earlier in the chapter From ‘Shishita’ to Mutiny he recounts a litany of malpractices, “The tales of those who had gone through torture would send shivers down your spine.” Then “They [camp administrators] would slaughter pigs and chickens and have a meal with meat while the rank and file starved.” Also, “people were tied to a tree as part of punishment or they would be locked in a window-less container.”  “Such measures excited some young members of the Security Department.” Finally, “... ruthlessness associated with the Security Department gave rise to the name Imbokodo – ‘the grinding stone’. This graphically captured the general spirit of revulsion against the department.”

Notwithstanding the miscarriages of justice, the overarching aim in training MK cadres was to build a cadre of a special type. Chapter 9, The character of an MK solder, starts with the sentence “..., Umkhonto we Sizwe camps were distilling tanks, producing soldiers of a special type.” To emphasise this cadre of a special type point James quotes from Soledad Brother, a book by George Jackson:

I don’t care how long I live. Over this I have no control, but I do care about what kind of life I live and I can control this. I many not live another five minutes, but it will be five minutes definitely on my terms.

This captures the spirit of a revolutionary, a soldier who’s motivated not by general trends, mob psychology, but principles and an inbred belief to do what is right. That sense of right first needs nurturing. The Revolutionary Council and its replacement Politico-Military Council, accountable to the NEC (National Executive Council), were responsible for all MK-related functions: camps and training, mass mobilisation, building underground structures and military operations, spared no effort in imparting and inculcating upright morals and ideals to MK cadres. Above conducting political classes on the topics mentioned in chapter 4, University of the South: Novo Cangue (Colonialism and wars of resistance, emergence of the working class in South Africa – Communist Party and Industrial Commercial Workers Union, ANC-MK History and the International Communist movement) the Commissariat actively promoted literature with rich examples of discipline, determination and selflessness. Commissar James cites favoured books like Volokolamsk Highway by Alexander Bek, Notes from the Gallows by Julius Fuchik, Naked Among The Wolves by Bruno Apitz, Malaya Zemlya by Leonid Brezhnev, etc.

Like most graduates from the University, Commissar James duly pays his respect to the academic Jack Simons and trade unionist Mark Shope who were the political instructors of the June 16 Detachment. About Jack Simons he writes, “His brief from the NEC was to ensure that he instilled a consciousness of duty and responsibility to the new cadres.” Earlier he noted “Jack Simons was against dogmatism. He caused a stir in the company when he criticised certain aspects of the Soviet Union.” “Jack Simons would insist that we situate everything within the South African context and avoid being pedantic and dogmatic.” “This was essential because an evaluation of these comrades (soldiers who had been sent to Party school) revealed that they tended to regurgitate what they had learned from their [European] instructors, without understanding its applicability in the South African context.”

On Mark Shope he notes, “Mark Shope was a fatherly figure with a strong trade union background. Every time he addressed a meeting he would say that we were fighting for every child in South Africa to have a pint of milk a day.” When the June 16 Detachment soldiers grew weary of their stay in the camps – a foreboding of what Commissar later describes as “There were people who, after deployment to Angola, [t]heir only mission was to change from one guard post to another, or to be changed from guard post to kitchen staff, or from kitchen staff back to guard post.” – Mark Shope, then camp commissar at Novo Catengue, would round up all companies and persuade them to understand that in joining MK they had made a sacrifice for a just cause.

The book’s depth and extent in its exposition of the Commissariat’s institutional mandate reflects Commissar James’ personal involvement, familiarity and commitment to the structure. In The Commissariat chapter he writes “The commissars held the most critical positions in the camps... had to ensure that the soldiers attended the political programmes ... had to organise various platforms where cadres could debate issues. They were, in fact, the custodians of ANC policy.” Again, “Another critical role of the commissar was to organise cultural and creative activities, such as art and writing.” In 1979 Commissar James was appointed as the Regional Secretary of the Commissariat. As regional secretary he was charged with managing and co-ordinating the body, which was the focal point for the moulding of a special type of soldier.

Of course, Commissar’s say would not be complete without him dedicating a chapter to Strategy and Tactics. Interestingly the first two points in the terms of reference of a commission set up in January 1979 to review strategy and tactics are: elaboration of an overall strategy based on mass mobilisation and creation of the broadest possible national front for liberation. These conjure up the formation of United Democratic Front and the upsurge of mass political activity in the 80s. How much was coincidence between the 1980 political uprising and calculated implementation of the strategic recommendations of the Green Book - the name given to the final report of the commission – is itself a topic for research.

12 May 2015