Victor Gqweta, or Sabelo Phama as he was popularly known, was called to head and command the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA) forces and serve in the Central Committee of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania as Secretary for Defence in 1982 when restructuring of the Party took place under the new leadership of John Nyathi Pokela.
Pokela was released at the end of 1980 after serving a thirteen (13) year term on Robben Island maximum prison. Both the underground and prison leadership of the PAC sent him abroad to join the leadership of Mission-in-Exile and establish unity of the warring groupings, restore Party discipline and roll out a home going programme for APLA combatants.
In essence, the PAC was taking responsibility once more to unfold a programme of action and overthrow an illegitimate racist settler-regime. Vusi Make voluntarily and magnanimously stepped down from the position of chairman of the Party to allow this process to be taken up with untrammelled energy and vigour.
John Pokela, Zephania Mothopeng, Mfanasekhaya Gqobose and others in the Task Force (a PAC structure to propel militant action on the ground) were transformational leaders assigned to launch armed struggle after the Party was forced underground in April 1960. The PAC was banned soon after the Sharpeville and Langa massacres in March 1960. The Party set up Poqo – a rag tag army using traditional methods of secret society – to launch the armed struggle and defend the people from being mowed down by the Saracens and bullets of Hendrik Verwoerd’s security apparatus.
Poqo launched its first attack on 11 September 1960 without having sent one guerrilla for training abroad, and used indigenous methods of fighting to shake down a well-resourced enemy and bring fear to its population. Poqo’s transmutation into the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army took place in 1966. By then it had established operational brigades in each of the then four provinces of the country. Some characters in the leadership committed fatal errors out of recklessness and poor judgments, and the Poqo insurrection suffered setbacks and defeats against the British South Africa powerhouse. Poqo was forced to retreat to Zambia and Tanzania, as some of its prominent leaders were imprisoned on the notorious Robben Island hell-hole prison.
On his release, Pokela was only happy and willing to serve once more – this time as commander in chief of the fighting forces.
The Central Committee established the Military Commission led by Pokela and Sabelo Phama. This Military Commission was an integrated political and military formation that strategically led the PAC and APLA forces to conduct the fight against settler colonialism, monopoly capitalism and imperialism. The emphasis was to raise the fighting capacity of the Azanian masses, and not just to highlight their plight under apartheid. The PAC’s brand of African Nationalism is founded on the premise that the African people are their own liberators.
The apartheid and settler colonial rule was a police state, with every white person accorded the right to kill on sight any form of resistance by the indigenous folks, which they called the ‘Swart Gevaar’. The liberals called this the ‘Native Problem’. There was a compulsory conscription of sixteen to eighteen year old white males who primarily learnt to kill.
The liberation movement, led by the PAC, explained the objective conditions in racist South Africa as one where a life and death contradiction existed between the oppressed and oppressors, and between the dispossessed and the settlers. White domination prevailed – with guns aimed at the defenceless African people who were exploited to the hilt.
APLA carried the burden of history to fight and transform society, and establish peace and safety. But APLA was not aimed at bloodletting and was not a gang of bandits.
In APLA’s definition, a guerrilla is a political fighter. That is, a guerrilla is a freedom fighter pursuing the objectives of national liberation – to resolve the national question and see to it that a people-powered democracy is restored. APLA identified with the dictum of Mao Zedong that a guerrilla is like fish in the water – fish is the guerrilla and water is the people. APLA forces were taught to respect and serve the Azanian masses, and win their hearts and minds.
Theoretically, the ‘mass line’ meant that everything starts from the people, is of the people and is by the people. The Azanian masses as a political definition are the engines of change and transformation. The masses make history. Political and military fighters such as the PAC and APLA are borne from ‘the loins of the African people’. The African people were the alpha and omega of the revolution led by the PAC.
THE NEW BEGINNING: 1982-1985….
1982 was the year of action for Party cadres and leaders. This article sums up the experience from that time until 1994 – which is the period of the Great Storm Campaign. We also appreciate and acknowledge the leadership qualities of Pokela and Sabelo Phama. The life and times of these two comrades represent a stoic symbol of dedication and determination against extremely heavy odds, and are similar to the biblical young goat-herd David using a slingshot to fall down a well-armed Goliath.
After the Party leader Mangaliso Sobukwe died of lung cancer in 1978; the end of the secret (and, at the time, marathon) Bethal Trial in 1979; and, the crisis in leadership of the Azanian Revolution expressed by the poor handling of inner Party struggles in exile; enemies and rivals of the PAC declared the organisation dead. The Vorster regime said the ‘PAC was a monster without a head’, and rival groups said APLA was ‘a man and a fax machine’ or a ‘Dad’s Army’. Opponents ridiculed the PAC stating that the organisation was fighting ‘an imaginary war’.
Pokela and Phama intervened at a critical historical point and made all of them to eat humble pie. The plans and implementation programmes of APLA rose phenomenally in their watch, and led to a critical climax before the new dispensation wherein APLA and the PAC were holding sway. In 1993 the notorious South African Defence Force (SADF) staged the last kick of a dying horse by attacking innocent teenagers in Mthatha with false intelligence information and sloppy reconnaissance that the target place was an APLA High Command facility or safe house. FW De Klerk and his cabinet authorised the cold-blooded murder after advice and recommendation of the Goldstone Commission. The PAC and APLA, pursuing the Great Storm Campaign, had shaken the nerve centre of political and military power at the Union Building and Voortrekkers Hoogte.
The Military Commission set up the APLA High Command and a new style of management. Commanders and the commissariat were now liable to be called to account, and they took responsibility for everything that happens within the organisation, good or bad. Professionalism was encouraged and upheld. Dysfunctional structures were dismantled and new progressive procedures were adopted. The decisions and processes that held the whole organisational structure together were taught and understood at every level of leadership.
The strategic model of APLA’s guerrilla warfare was a three-phased people’s war. Politically, the first phase was to mobilise the masses and take measures to increase their fighting capacity; secondly, to subvert the SADF, the police and all other security organs on the one hand, and on the other to proselytise the auxiliary forces in the Bantustans and encourage defections to join the people’s army; and, thirdly, to take political and military action among the enemy’s population in order to demoralise their opinions and draw their attention to the proximity of the people’s inevitable take-over of political power.
Militarily, the first phase was led by the commissariat setting up underground cells, recruiting new operatives, infiltrating strategic organisations and smuggling in a stockpile of weapons distributed into dead letter boxes. The second phase was guerrilla activities which included surprise attacks and sudden raids on enemy forces, sabotage of economic targets and establishing parallel administrations authorities in areas under APLA control. The third phase was not completely realised – but it was aimed at a conventional war with regular formations.
APLA hierarchy also deployed a smash and grab repossession unit. It targeted the enemy’s commercial banks, their rich land owners and farm entities. It expropriated government resources and wealth belonging to colonial-settlers as a fund-raising campaign to sustain and support guerrilla warfare operations.
In action, APLA tactics were intended to impose a constant debilitating strain on the police and the army by launching low-intensity warfare of small and repetitive attacks – like the war of the flea – to slowly but surely wear down the unpopular authority of the settler regime. The attacks were meant to sow defeatism, discontent and disloyalty among the enemy’s population. With the belief of invincibility and that they were commanding superior fire power; the white settler population could not bear repeated armed attacks, or last long morally and politically as they counted body bags of their own troops.
As leader of a political organisation, Pokela approached Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress to explore a mutual relation of the fighting forces and to work towards a possible united patriotic front. Tambo’s response was tepid. However, in public he took a disparaging attack against the PAC. At the time, the African National Congress held a Soviet Union-inspired policy that it was an ‘authentic’ movement and the sole representative of the South African people, and campaigned to oust the PAC from the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Organisation of African Unity.
The ANC were also recipients of financial and diplomatic support from Scandinavian countries who ran a concerted campaign against the Great Storm. Gora Ibrahim, the PAC’s Secretary for Foreign Affairs, was rebuffed and deliberately frustrated by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) officials who kept shifting the goal posts and refusing to provide humanitarian aid to the PAC’s exile community and its internal front organisations. Sweden’s Social Democrats mobilised a PAC bashing campaign to exclude the Party from membership of the Socialist International.
The Party, however, kept most of its allies and friends. APLA sent its guerrillas for advanced training in military academies of countries such as the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Kampuchea, Yugoslavia, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Guinea Conakry, Chad, Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda, Egypt, Burkina Faso, and Ghana and others on a smaller but specialist scale. APLA in turn set up its own training academy – the Zeph Mothopeng Military Academy – in the host country for liberation movement armies, Tanzania, for reorientation of graduates from these different and various disciplines and military cultures. New recruits from home were also put through crash courses to handle weapons and establish discipline.
APLA had well-trained military strategists, engineers, intelligence analysts, medical corps, pilots, topologists, and even documentation forgers.
Two members of the High Command, Jan Shoba and Enoch Zulu, were captured in separate incidents inside occupied Azania by mid-1985. The enemy’s counter-insurgency was beginning to infiltrate the APLA ranks and establishing an embedded fifth column. It was unrealistic to expect that APLA and the PAC, as a formidable opponent of the settler regime, could be water-tight and avoid suffering setbacks and making mistakes in operational activities.
CHAIRMAN POKELA’S UNTIMELY DEATH….
In early June 1985 the Military Commission, accompanied by High Command representatives, met with the underground leadership from home at a secret venue in Botswana. The SADF had killed compatriots and fellow freedom fighters in a midnight raid on Gaborone, to further its project to destabilise the front line states. The security climate was tense but the PAC’s collective leadership met in what would become Chairman Pokela’s last strategic session.
The meeting took audit and reviewed the Great Storm Campaign since 1982 and critically assessed weaknesses and failures. The Mission-in-Exile, the Underground, and the Imprisoned (through smuggled messages) leaderships presented their summary of experiences and suggested remedial plans. It was decided not to put all eggs in one basket. All the sites of struggle needed to be fortified and consolidated – even though armed struggle was considered the principal form of struggle. The meeting adopted a forward looking strategy based on increasing and preserving own resources and capabilities.
Pokela’s transformational leadership had revived and placed the PAC in its rightful place in the hearts and minds of the Azanian masses. Almost all key stakeholders in the PAC worked in a framework where they could relate to one another, and to the axis. They could fairly understand the internal processes, values, organisational culture, and leadership structure, as it evolved. Pokela took personal blame for the failures, acknowledged collective breakthroughs where potential and new avenues and were successfully created, and praised the resilience of the African people where small victories were achieved.
Pokela had chaired the Bureau of African Nationalism, a think-tank of the Africanists guided by the 1949 Programme of Action. He was a Fort Hare University graduate and high school teacher. He worked at Standerton with Robert Sobukwe. One of the key political theorists of the Party, he led the PAC in prison from B-section and united all divergent strands.
He fell ill soon after the Botswana strategic meeting and died at a hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe. The leadership of ZANU (PF) accorded him a state funeral.
THE ONGOING STRUGGLE GAINS MOMENTUM: 1985-1994….
APLA’s campaign gained momentum and captured the imagination of the popular media. Intermittent reports and analysis began to appear in prominent pages and open editorials. APLA was engaging in skirmishes with the SADF along the borders and in the townships, alongside the popular struggles of the masses.
As it would be expected, the media was obsessed with the slogan “one settler, one bullet” and used this to demonise and bash both the PAC and APLA as blood thirsty.
The slogan was used in the seventies in the training camps of Ithumbi and Mgagao in Tanzania by both APLA and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) who shared the premises as fraternal forces and political allies. ZANLA was led by Josiah Tongogara and Rex Nhongo. APLA’s top commanders were then TM Ntantala and Edwin Makoti. Militarily, the slogan was intended to control wasteful use of ammunition and to instil the practice of a good aim and precision firing among trainees. Politically, it was used to demoralise the enemy’s population and support base, whilst drawing the people’s focus on the national liberation struggle against a common enemy.
APLA forces were tutored on the military strategies of Mao Zedong, Nguyen Giap, Ho Chi Ming, Kwame Nkrumah, Marighella and others. It was compulsory for operatives to know and understand ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of a Guerrilla’.
APLA popularised its calibre of weapons in its attacks. The Czechoslovakian made Scorpion automatic machine pistol, for example, was used frequently around the Witwatersrand townships to distinguish APLA from other formations. Themba Phikwane, who used Solly Mohapi as his nom de guerre, formed a roving unit to attack several guarding post of SADF soldiers in entry points of Alexandra Township in 1986. Azania Combat, APLA’s news bulletin, was often spread within a reasonable radius of its operations and attacks to claim responsibility and inform the masses. The South African Police spread propaganda that the roving unit was a criminal Scorpion gang based in Alex, which harassed the people.
Trained cadres – Tshepo Lilele, Neo Khoza and Fana Sabela – died in a daylight encounter with enemy forces on Corlette Drive in what is now recorded as the Battle of Bramley. They used Scorpion pistols. Some of their comrades in arms retreated from the skirmish unscathed to tell the tale. The police also suffered fatalities.
APLA combatants continued to engage in exchange of fire with the police and army personnel. When they were ambushed, APLA’s forces never surrendered easily – they responded measure for measure. Battles in Lichtenburg, Port Elizabeth, East London, Pietermaritzburg, Bloemfontein and other areas are public records of some major feats by APLA.
The combination between exile and the underground complemented each other successfully; a Springs magistrate’s court convicted a prominent book publisher for leading the underground’s propaganda machinery and sitting on Military Commission deliberations, and the coup de tat by the Transkei military council in 1988 was reported by the enemy media as a PAC-inspired activity.
The SADF military intelligence and the SA police in a swoop on the PAC in May 1993 had planned but failed to charge some sixty members of the leadership of the PAC on a countrywide scale for high treason. It was again a last kick of a dying mule. The PAC and APLA were the very last organisations to be detained by apartheid rule under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act.
APLA High Command members such as Vuma Ntikinca, Andile Ntabeni, Polite Xuma, Happy Mphahlele, Bizza Ntsiki Mbete, Mbulelo Fihla, Mjomba Sello Kungwane, David Castro Phillips, and others were in action on the field – and led their forces in front, side by side, and from the rear. Sabelo Phama was himself frequently active inside the country. He conducted interviews with the commercial media and the government controlled SABC inside South Africa.
Sabelo Phama was a people’s person. He knew every soldier in the camp by name. The women guerrillas adored him. He always carried his own bags, personally cooked for his guests in his house, did household chores to assist his wife and children. His infectious belly laugh made everyone around him at ease. And yet he was a hard taskmaster and demanded focus and deliverables from his charges.
Phama had been an above average student at the University of Fort Hare in 1972 when he was harassed by the security police for taking part as a ring leader in protests and strikes. He went into exile to join APLA. Having shown potential, he was groomed for leadership and eventually entrusted with the responsibility to lead APLA.
There were several misleading reports in the media in November 1993 that Phama had died in action in Durban. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange performed poorly on the day and a PAC spokesperson had to confirm that he was alive and in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. This was a precursor to his death that Phama himself laughed off. In February 1994 he died tragically in suspicious circumstances in a car crush a few kilometres from Magagao military camp.
PATRIOTIC HEROES MUST BE HONOURED AND MEMORIALISED….
Pokela, Phama, Mothopeng, Gqobose, John Ganya, Gora Ibrahim, Dr Naboth Ntshuntsha, Barney Desai, Enoch Zulu, Jeff Masemola, Boniswa Ngcukana, Thami Zani and other valiant leaders of the Azanian revolution who laid down their lives and paid the supreme sacrifice must never be forgotten. Their footprints must not be erased from the psyche of the collective memory of African people. If they are not honoured and remembered, the future of the people and their continent is doomed once more.
By Jaki Seroke
The writer is a strategic management consultant. He is a member of the National Executive Committee of SANMVA, the newly established statutory umbrella body of military veteran’s organisations, and Chairperson of the Pan Africanist Research Institute (PARI).
1. Apla High Command Submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: www.justice.gov.za/trc/hrvtrans/submit/apla.htm
2. Field Manual for Commissars: PAC publication 1975 (Reprinted 1991)
3. From Protest to Challenge – A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa (2010): Gerhart, Glaser, and Others. Indiana University Press.
4. In the Twilight of the Azanian Revolution – The Exile History of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (South Africa): Kwandiwe Kondlo (2006).
5. Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla (1969): Carlos Marighella.
6. SWEDEN and National Liberation in Southern Africa (Volume 2: Solidarity and Assistance 1970 -1994). Stockholm, 2000. Nordiska Afrika Institutet. Tor Sellstom.