Freedom Day: The return of the Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela

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The much-anticipated annual commemoration of 27 April as National Freedom Day has been compromised by the outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020. The lockdown imposed by the South African government provides an opportunity to think about liberation studies/history differently.

In the broader historiography of the liberation struggle, the emphasis is on the collective, at the expense of the role played by individuals. The latter’s ‘neglect’ downplays the significance of ‘writing history from below’. Therefore, it is within this context that the experiences of the disciples are interrogated. Tragically, their ‘voices’ remain ‘voiceless’ as many have passed away. Having spent almost three decades in exile, they cherished what became known as ‘homecoming’. The oversimplification by many scholars dealing with the question of the returning exiles poses challenges when arguments are made to indicate that going ‘home’ means returning to the country of origin. For example, the fact that the disciples spent more than three decades in exile, means that they may have found ‘home’ in exile as the host countries fulfilled their aspirations.

The return of the political exiles was facilitated by a number of legal and political initiatives. In March 1990, the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) announced that a group of 30, led by Jacob Zuma, was to be dispatched to South Africa to assess the situation and to make the necessary consultations. The NEC in Lusaka also moved quickly to establish a repatriation office under Jackie Sedibe. The office was given the responsibility to prepare for the repatriation of exiles. Another initiative was the 1991 Memorandum of Understanding on the voluntary repatriation and reintegration of South African refugees and exiles, which was entered into between the government of South Africa and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This granted blanket amnesty to returnees who had committed political offences before 8 November 1990

In his book; A Circle is closed: A lifetime in exile, Prof Bethuel Setai, one of the disciples, summarises involvement in the liberation struggle as follows: “one of the realities of being part of any political struggle is that the attendant sacrifices assume many and varied forms. You are deprived of your home, time with your family, and an opportunity to watch your children grow. One of the unappreciated aspects of a commitment to a political cause is the financial implications… Being a refugee in the countries where I lived and worked, I never had a permanent job, and consequently was never able to build a solid retirement fund.”

The deepest hurt of life in exile and the most profound sorrow felt by the disciples were that they were unable to take part in the rituals of birth, marriage, and death in the families that they had left behind. It was no secret that many of those who returned from exile were exposed to major challenges of integration into the South African communities. Socialisation in the communities caused a serious obstacle. This was also complicated by the fact that some of the people who knew them when they left the country three decades previously, had died, while others did not recognise them. To a certain extent, some experienced rejection from family members and were seen as ‘burdens’ because there was no guarantee of employment upon their arrival in South Africa.

It should be noted that not all the disciples returned home after 1991. Billy Mokhonoana died in London in a motorcycle accident. Unfortunately, to date the family members have not been able to get closure, as his remains have not been repatriated to South Africa. It is almost 60 years since he died, and the family is still in the dark as to the circumstances that led to his death. Another disciple is Peter Swartz, also believed to have disappeared in London in 1965, never to be seen or heard from again. Theodore Motobi contracted TB and died in Angola in 1980.

However, for those of the disciples who did return ‘home’, they found the place so strange compared to their experiences of three decades before. A professional boxer in exile, Olihile Mokgele came home sickly and later developed prostate cancer from which he died on 12 February 2020. One of the main challenges experienced by the disciples was the need to re-adapt to a society that had changed profoundly during the time of their absence. Because of the gap between exile life and home life, most of them had to reassemble an exile-broken history into a new whole. In exile, many of the activists had forged passports from other countries, which facilitated their travelling around the world; at that time, it was a process within the country to get genuine documentation. The longer the process took, the more impatient these people became.

On returning home, the disciples were met by a variety of problems for which they and the ANC were unprepared. These included, among others, unemployment, a lack of skills, dislocated families, and the challenge of being referred to as ‘outsiders or foreigners’. Some employers simply refused to employ exiles, because they were deemed highly politicised. Some of the disciples managed to get employment in the civil service. While in exile, the disciples used their combat or MK names, and the qualifications acquired outside the country did not show their real names. Jacob Seekoe recalls: “Remember, I did all my qualifications under my MK name, Wesi Masisi. It was a cumbersome exercise to change my certificates to my real names. I had to do this when I was ambassador to Russia.”

There was also a lack of support for those who had serious medical and psychiatric problems. In exile, many had seen death in various forms. Therefore, the difficulties of adjusting to South Africa’s lifestyle in the early 1990s, coupled with other socio-political challenges, forced some to resort to excessive intake of alcohol.

The above challenges endured by the disciples in the country indeed confirmed the utterances made by Setai, who said: “We have come back home, but we have not yet arrived.”