Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Day the Enemy Struck Us a Blow: Remembering Joe Nzingo Gqabi

Courtesy of Umrabulo, Number 26, August 2006

Twenty-five years after his assassination at the hands of the apartheid government, Joe Gqabi's legacy as a dedicated, disciplined and effective revolutionary leader continues, writes Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi.

Speaking at the funeral of Joe Nzingo Gqabi on 9 August 1981, former ANC President Oliver Tambo said: 'To say that the enemy has struck us a blow is to tell the truth. He is a positive loss because he is the type of leader who knew how to follow. He was the type of operative who yielded results. He was a leader who in his sector produced results. And it is the test of leadership to be able to produce intended results. Joe Gqabi passed this test with great distinction.' These words resonate through our minds as we remember Joe Gqabi.

It is twenty-five years since the assassination of Joe Gqabi in Ashdown Park, Harare on 31 July 1981. The South African revolution now, more than at any other time, needs the kind of leader that Oliver Tambo described Joe Gqabi to be - a leader that 'knew how to follow... an operative who yielded results... a leader who in his sector produced results'. He was also a leader who would never place the revolution and the democratic project at risk, a leader who was willing to pay the ultimate price in furthering the revolution and defending its gains.

Joe Gqabi touched the lives of many of people. In the words of Tambo: 'Joe Gqabi was capable of making friends across political and ideological barriers, across colour lines. He communicated with ease and effortlessly with all generations: young and old. That is why in the Pretoria Twelve trial one of the accused was 67 years old, another twenty. That was why he was the most effective organiser of the youth - he understood them and they understood him.'

Those who met him - as activists, members of the underground, in mass political formations, as members of the community, and others socially -have vivid recollections of their interaction with him. He could quite easily appear as just another 'peasant' if the situation required, as he pointed out that an underground operative should never attract undue attention to themselves. However, when the situation required he distinguished himself through his interaction with people.

Recent recollections by the Swedish Minister of International Development Cooperation, Carin JSmtin, of when she was a sixteen-year-old in Harare, as the daughter of a Swedish diplomat, bears testimony to the impact Gqabi made on old and young alike. She recalls discussions her father, Ula JSmtin, had with Joe Gqabi for hours on end debating the South African struggle. They provided him with 'safe accommodation' when he was warned of a direct threat on his life by the South African regime. This action was reflective of many who formed a support network to Joe Gqabi fully conscious of the risks associated with it. He was able to develop an extensive support network that would not only be for his personal benefit.

Joe Gqabi was a good and rigorous teacher. Those who were exposed to training in underground work under his tutelage would recollect that he emphasised the need for rigour in understanding and appreciating the political-military situation. He combined theoretical and practical training. He would allocate tasks starting with less complex ones to observe the results and allow for learning, then escalating these to more complex tasks. He allowed for time with people irrespective of their background as he believed that everyone could make a contribution.

Joe Gqabi was persuasive in recruiting people into the ANC and in mobilising others to support our struggle. He also taught perseverance. He had a love for the Marxist classics and he would spend hours studying, reading and re-reading the classics, specifically Lenin's 'What is to be done?', in preparation for meetings with internal operatives.

Joe Gqabi did not hesitate to express his impatience when he felt comrades were taking undue risks that could lead to their exposure, arrest or worse.

One such incident was when a young Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) cadre called 'Fury' was in some difficulty and came directly to the Angwa Street office of the ANC. He was exposed to the wrath of Gqabi, who physically lifted him off his feet and said: 'You know how to contact me. This place is under constant surveillance by the enemy and you are unnecessarily exposing yourself, which could lead to problems for yourself and the unit that you are part of.' He was particularly critical of mistakes by those who he believed, because of their maturity in theory and practice, should have the tools of analysis to assess a particular situation and handle its complexity.

He loved the music of the ANC's cultural ensemble 'Amandla'. On one occasion when he left Harare for Angola he had collected some money and bought guitar strings as it had come to his attention that they needed these. He enjoyed listening to the cassettes of
'Amandla' and Letta Mbulu and Caiphus Semenya as he drove his white Toyota Cressida in the streets of Harare. He had a great sense of humour and he loved life.

He loved his family very dearly and yet they never had the opportunity to spend sufficient time together. He believed that his commitment to the larger cause would ensure that all families, his family included, would eventually be able to live together in 'peace, security and comfort'. His untimely death came as a great blow to the ANC but especially to his wife Nomazothswa, daughter Nonkululeko and son Jomo. At that stage, he had one grandson, Tebogo. His grandsons will never have the opportunity to know their grandfather.

An extraordinary comrade On 6 June 1960 a group of amaMpondo community leaders and representatives met on Ngquza Hill between Bizana and Lusikisiki to discuss their grievances. Since the passing of the Bantu Authorities Act (Proclamation 180 of 1956) the people of the area had been trying to get the authorities to hear their grievances and had been holding meetings. In March 1960 these meetings had been banned, but the people continued to meet, and it was on that day at Ngquza Hill that the turning point came.

Between the green grass and blue winter skies, they discussed their concerns around the Bantu Authority and government interference within their communities. Suddenly two Harvard airplanes and a helicopter swept overhead and dropped teargas into the crowd. At this, men in the crowd tore off their white shirts and waved them in the air: they wanted peace. They did not get it - police vehicles roared up and what had been a peaceful and orderly meeting descended into chaos. Eleven people were killed, scores were beaten with sjamboks, arrested and sentenced to prison.

A government commission of inquiry into the incident reported that the complaints raised at the meeting were unjustified. The amaMpondo, of course, rejected this.

Deployed by the ANC to organise in the region was a man who had played a significant role in earlier campaigns, Joe Gqabi. Gqabi was born in Aliwal North during the depression. He was 20 years old when the National Party came to power in 1948. In 1950 he joined the ANC Youth League and the ANC.

The community embarked on a boycott in November 1960. The people avoided shopping in towns, and refused to pay taxes. They also boycotted the Native Recruiting Corporation. The campaign was highly organised, and a complex cell structure developed. Mass meetings were held, many of which ended in violent confrontations with the police. This was the Pondoland Revolt. The revolt ended with 30 members of the community being sent to the gallows for participating in this campaign against apartheid oppression.

Potato Boycott In an article in Sechaba in October 1982, Wolfie Kodesh describes how he was sitting in his office at New Age newspaper, when a gaunt man dressed in tattered clothing walked into his office.

The man told an horrific story of 'starvation and deaths from exhaustion and whippings on the farm; of work bent over from sunrise to sunset in long rows, picking up the potatoes, while behind them were sjambok-carrying 'baas boys' whipping anyone who straightened up through sheer exhaustion. All of the slave workers had been 'bought' at the detention centres for pass (offenders).

Kodesh, with his colleagues Ruth First and Joe Gqabi, immediately drove out to the farm and saw - as Gillian Slovo describes in her book, 'Every Secret Thing' - 'a vision straight from Hades: scarecrow men, shoeless and dressed in sacks, working with hoes along rows of potatoes while baas boys - black overseers - stood ready to lash at them with knobkerries.' Kodesh noticed mound in the fields which, he realised, were the same shape as those he had seen in Ethiopia during World War II - mounds formed by too-shallow graves, which when kicked revealed corpses. Later investigation would reveal that these were indeed corpses, though who was buried in the graves would never be discovered - by the time the graves were uncovered, only skeletons remained.

The photographs by Joe Gqabi and articles by Ruth First on the conditions on this and other farms triggered a sensation in the national press, and led the ANC to launch the historic potato boycott which resulted in stockpiling of potatoes across the cities of South Africa.

The Pondoland Revolt gave Gqabi an insight into the challenges facing the struggle for liberation. He was described as a militant cadre and became one of the first four ANC cadres to be sent to China for military training. The youngest of the four, he returned to South Africa in 1962 to become an active member of Umkhonto we Sizwe. On his return he immediately resumed his political activities and carried out several sabotage operations.

In 1963, as part of a group of twenty-eight who were to receive military training outside the country, Gqabi was arrested in what was then Southern Rhodesia. He was deported to South Africa and sentenced to 12 years on Robben Island.

He completed his sentence at a turning point in the struggle for liberation.

In 1975 he returned to Soweto. His imprisonment did not deter him from getting centrally involved in underground work. Many a youth activist at the time relates how they scaled the wall of his Soweto home to meet with him at night and confer on their organising. He was directly linked to many of the leaders and youth who played a role in the Soweto uprising.

In December 1976, he was arrested and was one of the twelve ANC cadres who stood trial in 1977, charged under the Terrorism Act. He, however, was so effective at operating underground that the state was unable to secure a conviction against him at what became known as the Pretoria Twelve trial.

Following his trial he escaped to Botswana where he continued to play a major role in organising and working with underground structures from the neighbouring states.

After the independence of Zimbabwe, Gqabi was appointed ANC representative there. In the short time he spent in Zimbabwe he made an impact in the diplomatic arena. Along with current ANC President Thabo Mbeki he played a crucial role in developing and cementing relations between the ANC and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). He retained his links with both the political and military underground structures.

The South African regime made several attempts on his life in 1981. An attempt in January 1981 involved attaching a bomb to his car at the ANC residence in Ashdown Park. In view of this attempt on his life, the ANC recalled Gqabi to Lusaka, Zambia. However, he insisted that he needed to return as he had just started his work in Zimbabwe. He increased his vigilance and avoided staying at the Ashdown Park house at night.

On 31 July 1981, Gqabi was murdered by operatives of the apartheid government outside the ANC residence in Ashdown Park. After Joe Gqabi's murder, the Citizen newspaper published an editorial alleging that Gqabi was killed as a result of an internal fight between factions within the ANC. One of self-admitted members of the death squad who assassinated Joe Gqabi, Gray Branfield, was killed in Iraq in April 2004.

Gqabi's entire adult life had been dedicated to the liberation of South Africa. The remains of Joe Gqabi were returned to South Africa in 2004, where they were re-interred at his birthplace, Aliwal North, on 16 December.

Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi is a member of the ANC National Executive Committee.

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