An uMkhonto we Sizwe retrospective account contesting the memoir; From Marabastadt to Mogadishu

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ANC flag, of which the uMkhonto we Sizwe was an armed wing. Photo: Phill Magakoe
We dare not trade on the sacrifices of our martyrs to glorify our egos. Unfortunately, such a gross injustice has transpired with the publication ‘From Marabastadt to Mogadishu’ (Jacana Publishers 2019) by Hassen Ebrahim.

The story of one MK cell, the Ahmed Timol Unit (ATU), named after the murdered martyr in relation to authors role in the ANC underground and his connection with the unit, features prominently in the publication. The ATU, known as one of the most successful units in MK history, comprised Prakash Napier, our commander Yusuf Akhalwaya, and myself the political commissar, involved in the planning and execution of every sabotage attack against the enemy. 

Prakash and I trained in Angola and the Soviet Union. Our skills, expertise and experience in urban guerrilla warfare ensured a successful execution of 33 acts of sabotage on the enemy regime, until the night my comrades were killed. Prakash Napier and Yusuf Akhalwaya were killed at Johannesburg’s Park Station on the 11th December 1989. A limpet mine strapped to the body of Prakash Napier detonated prematurely. 

The author, our contact in Botswana, gets many facts wrong; he inflates his role and there are parts that are pure distortion. Worse still, he fabricates the events leading to the deaths of my comrades. This despite his access to TRC records from my submission to the Commission in Johannesburg in 1997, (AM7062/97). I was granted full amnesty (AC2000/0143) in the year 2000. Communications, spanning two years, to ensure accurate portrayal and representation of my unit, to the writer included our Johannesburg contact, Neeshan Balton, CEO of the Kathrada Foundation, I raised concerns and requested perusal of content pertaining to my unit. 

Many reported the sight of content prior to publication. Yet, I, a bona fide MK operative, a member of Ebrahim’s Kabwe machinery, a living witness and who like my fallen comrades contributed equally to the military accomplishment of the ATU, was denied access to content pertaining to my involvement, activities and my own history. I was deeply concerned when my last note to Ebrahim in September 2019 referencing the historical distortion of the ATU by Balton, was disregarded. The Kathrada Foundation CEO submitted a nomination for National Awards, for the ATU, to the office of the presidency. In his motivation, Balton indicates the deaths of Yusuf and Prakash “took place after retrieving a limpet mine to avoid the loss of life.” I urge Balton to correct this error.  

Bolton and Ebrahim propagate reasoning that is fallacious and serves to undermine the history and the integrity of the contributions of the ATU. In his publication, the author writes “…the intended target was the Hillbrow police barracks. It was a Monday night and after placing their limpet mine, they thought better of it because there was a risk of life being lost. The unit then decided to recover the limpet mine and proceed to the secondary target which was at Park Station…”

The author backs investigation to his claim the device didn’t explode prematurely but the result of the unit’s decision to relocate a primed limpet from the Hillbrow Police Barracks to Park Station. When was this investigation conducted? How did Ebrahim conduct this assessment? What were his evaluation tools? Did he disclose his findings to the families? As the sole surviving member of my unit, I would be failing in the memory and legacy of my fallen comrades, without setting the record straight.  

At no point did we make a decision to retrieve or relocate a primed limpet. This is in contradiction of MK Protocol. That tragic night, as in operations before, our strategy to create anarchy and mayhem for the enemy was simultaneous explosions of two limpets in the Johannesburg CBD. The first, the Hillbrow Police Barracks, an obvious high-value enemy target. Park Station was chosen to provide impetus to the 1989 Railway Worker Strike where people were killed and employees sacked.

Due diligence conducted personally by the members of the ATU, including follow up reconnaissance, we first proceeded towards Hillbrow Police Barracks. We waited until the opportune moment to ensure the successful placement of the limpet. Once the change of shift of police dispersed, laddering on Prakash, I scaled the fence, placing the limpet at barracks while Yusuf stood to watch.  

We advanced to Park Station. Final reconnaissance undertaken, we positioned to carry out our operation. This time, limpet strapped on Prakash. A few metres ahead of him, Yusuf and I couple of metres behind Prakash, as rear lookout. My comrades entered the station subway and I still, alighting the subway stairs when the explosion occurred. Shortly after, the limpet placed at the barracks detonated. A few days after the tragedy, I briefed Balton and Ebrahim pointing out the faultiness of the explosive device and not any miscalculation or reckless handling of the device. 

We handled the device in an exact manner we had been taught. There was never any warning from the writer that heat or body temperature could hasten the timing device’s action which may well be the cause of the premature explosion. The author’s distorted account discredits our experience, diminishes the legacy of the ATU and twists the sacrifice of Yusuf and Prakash, to suit an agenda best known only to him. 

Interestingly, the author’s account surrounding the events of the night absolves him from any blame and accountability. The implication of the historical inaccuracy by Ebrahim and Balton is huge, as it suggests the unit did not follow MK protocol and training prescripts. We failed to distinguish a high-value enemy target. The author implies the operations were planned without due consideration of conditions on the ground. 

Ebrahim’s publication spins a tale of three reckless MK combatants who were naïve and ill-disciplined in their operations, bringing into disrepute our training and the work of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Disingenuous and corrupting to the memory of my comrades is his claim, as the military operatives in the field were reliant and dependant on political and strategic direction from his ‘Area Political-Military’ command.  

Any trained MK operative can confirm we were educated in the politics of the ANC and well understood that policy directed the armed struggle. The author positions as our military commander. He was not. Like Balton, Hassan directed us to weapons caches, arrange contact with Lusaka, facilitated our training and debriefed us. Both of our contacts and related persons were never involved in the planning, reconnaissance or execution of any of the ATU acts of sabotage.   

It is disparaging when those who were not MK combatants, deviate from accuracy. It is an even greater disservice when those far removed from the operations, choose to ignore our lived experience and personal account of us, the military operatives on the ground. In this instance both the writer and the Kathrada Foundation CEO, sat comfortably hundreds of kilometres away, and yet it was I, along with my comrades, and the living eyewitness to the unfolding events of that tragic night.

At his Melville book launch, I challenged Ebrahim as why he chose to write a falsified account on the death of my two comrades, he responded, “This is my version of the truth and you have your version of the truth.” There can never be two “versions” of truth. Accounts of any form must be based on evidence and every attempt must be made to seek this such as reliable eyewitness accounts, historical and media reports and possible face to face interviews. 

At the same launch, Yusuf Akhalwaya’s widow asked why 30 years after the death of her late husband, he provides a distorted account of two young men killed under his watch. Ebrahim replied, “They were not the only two who fell under my watch. Many fell under my watch.” 
Given this comment, I could not find any TRC application by Ebrahim taking account for his actions. Has he accounted to the families of the many who died under his watch?   

The author’s response, and in the absence of any appeal by him for indemnity, raise questions about the true nature and intent of the writers motives and why years later he claims responsibility for the ATUs operations but not at anyone of the TRC indemnity hearing? His claim that his book is to honour the contribution of my fallen comrades, is questionable indeed. 

Ebrahim’s conjured accounts and flawed interpretations of the ATU is evidence. Historical inaccuracies diminishing contributions and dishonouring sacrifices by brave young men leaves me with little option but question the integrity of the author. Writers and commentators delving into the South African struggle genre must undertake their works with integrity and be especially sensitive and responsible when writing about those who made the ultimate sacrifice, or future generations will be robbed from being inspired by authentic accounts of our history.  

Publishers have a role to play to ensure integrity and accuracy of what they publish. The same applies to organisations endorsing such publications. In this case the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s endorsement is alarming given that its Executive Director was privy to all communications to ensure historical accuracy of the ATU narrative. Yet, the foundation continues to endorse a publication where the narrative is false and highly questionable. 

The reopening of the Ahmed Timol Inquest and recently Neil Aggett, indicates our deep scars. It has taken decades for the truth to come to light. The Apartheid agents responsible for their deaths continue to lie and deceive us, but it is more reprehensible when deliberate distortions are perpetrated by those, we consider comrades. The ANC has an obligation to enquire Ebrahim’s accountability for the many killed under his watch. Therefore also has the responsibility to ensure the legacy of our contributions be protected and the dignity of the sacrifices of my fallen comrades be restored. 

When we picked up the Spear of MK it was in the pursuit of freedom and justice and our contributions and the sacrifices of my fallen comrades, for whom I speak, was not for the ego, ambitions and political machinations of those trying to capture and exploit our story.

Jameel Chand is a Political Commissar & sole surviving member of the Ahmed Timol Unit of the ANC Military Wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe. Chand is currently the COO of the Gauteng Growth & Development Agency.