Fordsburg Fighter: the journey of an MK volunteer, by Amin Cajee, as told to Terry Bell, Face2Face (an imprint of Cover2Cover Books), 2016, ISBN: 978-0-9946744-2-5.
This memoir is a fascinating read because it raises important questions about the role of a memoir in contributing to serious discourse on South Africa’s armed struggle. However, the book comes across as poorly researched and possibly revisionist, often ignoring well acknowledged historical facts, and context, in a way not uncommon to memoirs but potentially harmful to current and future discourse on the armed struggle. What is glaring is Cajee’s reliance on rumours and hearsay to cast aspersions on the ANC and its leaders, in what seems to be an attempt to justify his personal decision to desert the struggle. For this reason, there is a need to engage the entire text in detail, in order juxtapose Cajee’s version of events with information we already know from the documented personal accounts of other ANC and MK members as well as other books and official sources.
In the book’s preface, Amin Cajee explains, ‘I still see it as a story for my grandchildren. In it, I have tried to be as honest as possible because that is what, I think my grandchildren deserve.’ Cajee also reveals that Terry Bell urged him on to write his version of history because, ‘stories of the past were essential to help understand the present and plan for the future.’ Interestingly, Cajee also explains that he was not convinced by this argument (p. VIII).
The book begins with an extraordinary scene in which Cajee is sentenced to death by a panel comprising Joe Modise as chair, Chris Hani, Basil February, Boycie Bodibe and Jack Gatiep (pp. 1-9). According to Cajee, their crime was one of high treason, as him and others had plotted to overthrow the leadership of the ANC with the help of a foreign power. Interestingly, Cajee’s view is that the tribunal was set up in order to allow Joe Modise to deal with two cadres, Pat Molaoa and Vincent Khumalo (Mntungwa) who Modise allegedly saw as threat to his rise to power. Cajee contends that, ‘both (Molaoa and Mntungwa) were well known in the movement in South Africa and had considerable support in the camp (Kongwa). Unlike Joe, they had held top positions in the ANC before it was banned and were widely respected. They were also among the earliest recruits to MK when it was decided to embark on armed struggle’ (p. 2).
This claim is quite dubious given the wealth of literature (including official court evidence and submissions) that exist and which detail Modise’s rise to the position of Commander in Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the official title Modise held in September 1966, the time at which the tribunal described by Cajee was held. For example, we know that in 1947 Joe Modise was a driver for PUTCO and other transport companies before he was recruited into the ANC Youth League in Newclare by Nelson Mandela and others to help organise the people’s movement (see inter alia Holland, 2012, p. 116). He was a key organiser of the 1950s Defiance Campaigns and, as a leading figure in the campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter, was one of the 156 activists charged with treason in the 1956 Treason Trials (refer to inter alia SAHO, 2011). In fact, in Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela recalls Joe Modise as ‘one of the most dedicated of the local ANC leaders,’ during the campaigns against the Sophia Town forced removals (see Mandela, 1995, pp. 105 - 128).
As one of the founding members of MK (and a member of the high command), Modise was personally involved in and led the planning and execution of numerous successful sabotage operations (see inter alia Simpson, 2016, pp. 41- 47). As a result of this, he was officially named as co-conspirator (unindicted) during the Rivonia Trial (see Broun, 2012, p. 61; Joffe & Mandela, 2009). One would have been tempted to consider that Cajee was incredibly ignorant of the history of the movement which he claims to have served were it not for the fact that other parts of the book present profiles of other members of the 1950s Defiance Campaigns, while the work also includes a picture of The 1956 Treason Trialists such as Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada and, probably unwittingly, Johannes Modise (p. 19). This leaves the reader wondering if the book is an attempt to rewrite history, settle old scores or both.
Chapter one also begins casting aspersions on the characters of Chris Hani and OR Tambo. Hani is painted as ruthless - calling for the death penalty for the so called ‘Natal’ mutineers (p. 4). OR Tambo is portrayed as uncaring about the poor conditions at Kongwa and of the frustration faced by cadres (p. 5). The first chapter of the book leaves the reader with other questions regarding the true extent of the tribal tensions that existed at the MK camps in Tanzania given how Cajee makes no attempt to ground his view on more complex, contextual factors that have been described in other literature such as Callinicos’ biography of OR Tambo (see Callinicos, 2004). Nonetheless, as Cajee’s book is a memoir, he probably was at liberty to omit some aspects of this incredibly complex part of the ANC’s, and South Africa’s, history.
Chapters 2 and 3
Chapter 2 of the book contains a very interesting and sad reflection on Cajee’s early life. One learns of how the coming into power of the Herengigde Nasionale Party resulted in Cajee’s father being denied permission to return to South Africa after a visit to India (pp. 10-12). His father’s absence resulted in a deterioration of the family’s financial position and Cajee, together with his siblings, was sent to Waterval Islamic Institute, a boarding school for indigent Muslim children (also known as Mia’s Farm), where the youngsters were subjected to various forms of physical and emotional abuse (p. 11). Eventually, he found himself at Fordsburg’s Central Indian High School whose staff complement included anti-apartheid activists such as Duma Nokwe and Molly Fischer (pp. 15 - 16). As was the case with most of MK’s early recruits, Cajee describes his involvement in low level political activity including painting slogans on government buildings (p. 19). In Chapter 3, Cajee also details his co-option into the Indian Youth Congress, and his experience as a clerk at the New Age Newspaper (p. 24).
Chapters 4 to 10
In Chapter 4, Cajee explains how, although they suspected him of being a government agent, he and others associated with Gerard Ludi in the Congress of Democrats (COD) and also at social gathering and parties (p. 27). Ludi would later turn out to be an apartheid agent and one of the most prolific SACP infiltrators (Ludi, 2010). Cajee later learns from his friend Pam, ‘everyone seemed aware that the South African Special Branch had been sending out people to infiltrate the movement’. Cajee adds, ‘Strict security measures obviously had to be taken’ (p. 41). It is therefore not unreasonable to speculate that if news of Cajee’s previous associations with suspected spies and infiltrators had reached the ANC’s office in Tanzania, then Cajee and his companions definitely would have been treated with suspicion by the whole ANC leadership, including OR Tambo upon their arrival in Tanzania (pp. 41 - 42). It is likely that the repeated questioning and back and forth that went on at the Tanzania ANC office was part of the movement’s attempt to check the consistency of the new recruit’s responses (p. 35, pp. 40 - 41). Chapter 4 is also important in that Cajee explains first hand, the devastation that informants and infiltrators had on the movement during the early stages of the struggle (p. 31). In addition, the reader learns that at the time, ANC policy on the involvement of non-Africans in MK was unclear and so from Tanzania, Cajee and his companions were then sent off to London (p. 62).
Chapters 6 to 8 reveal that compared to the odious experiences of hundreds of cadres journeying from South Africa to Eastern Europe for military training at the time, Cajee and his group had a fairly uneventful experience. For example, the biographies of both Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani reveal far different and remarkably testing experiences (see inter alia Smith and Tromp, 2009, pp. 37 - 63; Gevisser, 2010). Peculiarly, when told that his group would be sent to the Czechoslovakia for training, Cajee’s immediate reaction was to debate whether or not they should desert the struggle and return home (pp. 63 - 64).
In Chapter 9, Cajee explains the type of training they received which initially consisted of classes on socialism, small arms training, topography, use of explosives, anti-tank guns, howitzers, military strategy and tactics and so forth but later included guerrilla warfare (p. 69; pp 77 - 79). He also makes it clear that he did not like Joe Modise and makes the remarkable claim that Joe Modise had asked him to polish his shoes in front of Raymond Mhlaba (p. 70). Although it is strange that Modise, a founder member of MK and member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC, would target a junior recruit as described in the book, unfortunately, neither Mhlaba nor Cajee’s perceived nemesis, Modise, are alive to confirm the events that unfolded. What is definitely unlikely is that Modise would have offered for Omar to marry his sister, as Cajee claims, because Modise was an only child. (Sedibe, 2015).
Chapters to 11 to 16
Chapter 11, begins with a description of a poorly resourced Kongwa camp, and it is important to note that this hardly sets it apart from the first camps set up by other armed liberation movements such as FRELIMO, ZIPRA and ZANLA (pp.88 - 90). Cajee also explains how the Kongwa camp commanders would drink alcohol from morning whilst the troops exercised (p.91). One would have expected Cajee to applaud the removal from command of these “incompetent” commanders instead of his choice to view the motivation for the change though a tribal lens. As one who could not understand “vernacular languages”, Cajee relied on hearsay to gain his view that Joe Modise had been appointed Commander in Chief of MK in order to placate him and so he could agree to a Xhosa domination of Kongwa (p. 99). This is a strange take on this critical event as other personal accounts confirm that a power struggle ensued but recall different reasons for this. For example, Gerald Lockman, Walter Sisulu’s nephew, recalls that he strongly supported Joe Modise’s elevation because he was the best trained cadre and he knew him from the time Modise and Sisulu attended the Treason Trial (Sisulu, 2003, pp. 326). Cajee’s account is in tandem with Lockman’s in that there was confusion in the camps regarding leadership and this added to the discontent among rank and file. However, Lockman put the blame squarely at the door of ANC leadership rather than the feuding soldiers as he felt the leadership should have been more decisive in appointing an overall leader for the MK.
In Chapters 13 and 14, Cajee and others discover corruption in the camp and after facing resistance from camp commanders, they reported their findings to the Commander in Chief, Joe Modise (pp 107 to 110). What is startling is that when Modise acted on this information and dismissed Ambrose Makiwane as camp commander, Cajee saw this as another malicious move by Modise (p. 109). Moreover, Cajee seems surprised that the OAU reduced the allocation of funds to the camps, almost as if it were not probable that Modise had disclosed the Kongwa commander’s misconduct to ANC hierarchy who would have relayed the information to the OAU.
In Chapters 14 and 15, the book reaches a crescendo in terms of attacks on the leadership of the ANC and MK, specifically Modise, Hani and Tambo. Modise is portrayed as illiterate (how this could have been possible given he had attained his high school certificate and completed a full senior officer’s course in the USSR is beyond most), Hani as a rabid tribalist and Tambo as weak and ineffectual, incapable of reining in MK’s commanders (pp. 114 to 121). Curiously, in other parts of the book, Cajee is not as “brave” in revealing injustices allegedly committed by some in the ANC leadership, for example, he intentionally conceals the identity of the leader who seemed not to care about the financial position of the families of new recruits despite the fact that the leader was well taken care of (p. 32).
Regarding the so called tribunal - if at all Cajee was sentenced to death by the panel, it is bizarre that an allegedly ruthless leadership would dramatically reduce the accused sentence to 3 months’ probation (p. 116). In Chapter 15 Cajee repeats a long refuted claim that Joe Modise called for Hani to be sentenced to death for the so called Hani memorandum. We already know from Hugh Macmillan that, “It was widely believed in exile that Hani and the other signatories were sentenced to death, though there is no evidence to confirm this and the balance of probability suggests that they were not” (Macmillan, 2009). Former chair of Corruption Watch Walter Mavuso on 9 October 2014 remarked, “I was part of the military leadership – there was never, to my knowledge, an instruction from Joe Modise to shoot anyone. There was never an official or organizational decision that someone had to be shot” (Mavuso, 2014).
Chapters to 16 to 22
Chapters 16 to 22 cover Cajee’s final years in the struggle and many of the themes from previous chapters are carried through. For example, Mendi Msimang and Mzwai Piliso are portrayed as racially biased - referring to Cajee using the deragotory term “coolie” (p. 126). In addition, Cajee subtly hints at the possibility that both may have collaborated with another comrade to steal money from an ANC shop in Dar es Salaam (pp. 128 to 129). Cajee seemed to have believed rumours that Kongwa dissidents and those seen by the leadership as problematic would be selected to be at the fore of the 1967 Wankie and Sipolilo Campaigns and this was a key reason for his reason to dessert (p.129). However, we know from first-hand accounts (from General Nqose) that all MK cadres who participated heroically in these campaigns had volunteered to take part in the missions (Nqose, 2001). In addition, according to General Tshali (MK name Lennox Lagu), ‘We said look, we’ve got these people from Zimbabwe, ZIPRA. There they are. They know their situation. If we go with them through Zimbabwe it would be much more easier and practicable for us to reach our country. And these people will later become of great assistance whatever we do, in ferrying our material for us inside the country. That’s how we looked at it. Fortunately for us the leadership approved of it’ (Tshali, 2001).
Contrary to Cajee’s suggestion, it is evident that the Hwange and Sipolilo Campaigns were not the result of a hair brained idea from MK commanders in the absence of the knowledge of ANC leadership. According to Chris Hani, OR Tambo was involved in the “smallest details” during the planning and preparation for the mission (Callinicos, 2015, p. 317). Dumiso Dabengwa, a former ZIPRA commander and Minister of Home Affairs of the Republic of Zimbabwe recently confirmed that he, OR Tambo, Modise and other top commanders carried out detailed planning using information obtained from teams (which often included Modise and Hani) that had crossed over into Rhodesia to assess the situation (Dabengwa, 2016).
In Chapter 21, Cajee claims Modise ignored Mtungwa’s challenge for him to cross over into Rhodesia (p. 152). The significance of Cajee’s version of events is not entirely clear as at the time, Modise was Commander in Chief of MK and so it would have been strange for him to engage in combat, neglecting his responsibilities to the rest of the army which at time numbered in the thousands in Tanzania, Zambia and those undergoing training overseas. Both Modise and Ndhlovu, the commander of the ZIPRA forces had delegated tasks to capable operational commanders (such as Chris Hani) who crossed into Rhodesia with other heroic volunteers a decision in line with good military practice wherein operational commanders are expected to be close to the troops (Ware, 1989). In the end, Cajee and others eventually succeeded in executing their plan to desert MK as they had contemplated much earlier when they were new recruits being prepared to go for training in Czechoslovakia. As recently explained by Ronnie Kasrils, all liberation movements including Fidel Castro’s troops heroically planned and executed their first battles under incredibly difficult conditions including severe under resourcing and limited popular support. He also added that although a simple count of casualties would lead some to regard these battles as great failures, what is undeniable is that these encounters were critical in the refinement of the strategy and tactics of the armed movements concerned (Kasrils 2016). MK and ZIPRA’s efforts in Wankie and Sipolilo are no exception to this view and the same can be said of ZANLA’s 1966 Chinhoyi battles.
At a conference hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand in November this year, Oxford academic and historian Jocelyn Alexander reminded participants that even the most honest personal stories by former rank and file reflect the fighter’s restricted range of vision. These accounts often show the narrow views of the fighter’s own small sub-group (defined by rank, ethnicity e.tc) and reflect a world where rumours run rife and both information and dis-information are commonplace (Alexander, 2016). Given South Africa’s current political climate, this memoir is certainly thought provoking although much of it appears to be revisionist history, heavily informed by rumours and conspiracy theories. It is certainly a text burdened neither by basic facts nor a balanced consideration of context. Cajee managed to achieve his goal of telling his side of the story for the benefit of his grandchild but in the final analysis, it is extremely difficult to see how the memoir will help us understand the present and plan for the future.
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Author: Dr Fidelis Hove is one of the founders of the Mayibuye iAfrika, a new online platform created by researchers and journalists from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states who are interested in critically engaging books, online articles and other publications on the armed struggle. The platform accepts book reviews from all quarters and if you are interested in having your review published on the platform, or if you want to join the platform, please email review@Mayibuye-iAfrika.org