When Peter Jacobs enrolled at the University of the Western Cape a decade ago as a prospective teacher, he was already deep into the struggle against apartheid--deeper than even he realized.
Jacobs, now 28, had helped organize the Cape Youth Congress and the local branch of the radical Congress of South African Students; he was reading smuggled material from the outlawed African National Congress and South African Communist Party, and he was in touch with underground members of the ANC and its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).
“I was hyperactive,” Jacobs said, recalling the tide of campaigns then being waged by Colored youths against the minority white regime in Cape Town. “I was involved in everything from the boycott of the Colored elections for Parliament to local strikes to the rally for Sen. (Edward M.) Kennedy. When I was approached to join the underground myself, it made sense politically.
“There is a point at which you can’t go any further, when organizing demonstrations and rallies does not make sense when the regime is shooting people and detaining activists and attacking from all sides. That’s when you want to do more--when you want to pick up a gun and shoot back.”
Jacobs became the political commissar of an ANC guerrilla unit in Mitchell’s Plain, the sprawling Colored town on the Cape Peninsula, recruiting other activists and planning a series of minor attacks--a grenade attack on a policeman’s home, bombs in police stations and magistrate’s courts, demolition of towers for electrical lines--meant to show the ANC’s presence there.
“Peter had grown up angry,” his mother, Patricia, recalled. “He had been tear-gassed a lot as a small boy and chased by police. He knew how the government had taken away my parents’ home and given it to whites. He had seen how we were moved here--when there were no schools, no parks, nothing to make this place livable.
“But I was still surprised--shocked really--when police raided the house and said Peter was a member of the ANC. We had argued a lot about politics, almost every day in fact, and the question was not whether to change things, but how. I told him apartheid was like a weed and that breaking off leaves one by one was not enough--that its roots had to be pulled out.”
Just a few steps ahead of the security police, Peter Jacobs fled the country, missing his sister’s wedding.
Making his way to Mozambique, Jacobs formally joined Umkhonto we Sizwe. “We got a lot of training on urban guerrilla tactics, improvising weapons and operating underground,” he said. “We came back with instructions to lead the campaign to make the country ungovernable and to push it toward a full insurrection.”
He was arrested six months later, in May, 1987, while waiting for one of his underground contacts, and held under emergency regulations. Seven months after that, he was charged with terrorism along with 20 other members of the ANC and, after a yearlong trial, was sentenced to 14 years on Robben Island, South Africa’s notorious penal colony off Cape Town.
With his initial detention began the amazing radicalization of Patricia Jacobs, now 66, who had just retired after working 19 years in Cape Town clothing factories.
“I had always tried to look at things from a Christian point of view,” she said. “I believed that reforms would come, I was against violence, I thought the law was wrong but could be changed, I thought the ANC was too radical. . . . As I sat in court day after day, I came to understand what motivated them. To me, it became absolutely clear that it was right to resist.”
To the surprise of her family and friends, Patricia--still a Sunday school teacher in the conservative Colored branch of the Dutch Reformed Church--became a leader in parents’ protests over the imprisonment of their sons and daughters.
The struggle had been under way, handed from one generation to the next, virtually since European settlers pushed inland from the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th Century.
In the Cape, the Dutch, German and French Huguenot settlers--who became Africa’s “white tribe,” the Afrikaners--and later the English came into conflict with the indigenous San (or “Bushmen”) and Khoikhoi (“Hottentots”) peoples and farther north with Bantu-speaking Africans who had moved south from Central Africa into regions now known as Transvaal, the Orange Free State, Natal and the Eastern Cape.
After the British captured the Cape Colony from the Dutch, they fought a series of border wars with the Xhosas from 1811 to 1878 as settlers expanded their holdings and the Africans resisted. The Afrikaners, rejecting British rule and trekking farther inland, fought the Zulus, defeating them in 1838. Forty years later, the Zulus defeated the British in one epic battle, but they were then crushed and Zululand was annexed.
In 1913, three years after the Union of South Africa was established after the Anglo-Boer War, the white Parliament limited Africans, then 70% of the population, to land in tribal reserves equal to 7% of the country’s territory; later, the reserves were increased to 13.7%.
For South Africans, both blacks and whites, the fundamental question thus has long been: Whose land is this?
Under apartheid, the white regime asserted that modern South Africa really belonged to those, first of all the Afrikaners, who had developed it, and it insisted that most black Africans should “return” to tribal homelands, such places as Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Quaqua or KwaZulu, and develop those areas.
For blacks, the repeated seizure of their land over the centuries was the crucial issue, for without the land not only were they reduced to penury, but their society, culture and political system were threatened with extinction.
Sentiment remains strong among many blacks, particularly supporters of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, that until the land is reclaimed and an African government installed in power, black grievances cannot be redressed.
The African National Congress, though founded in 1912 to represent the African majority and battle racial discrimination, came to the view in its 1955 Freedom Charter that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white” and that “our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities.”
“The turning point in our struggle came in 1949--that’s right, 1949,” ANC Deputy President Walter Sisulu, 82, said, reflecting on the long battle against apartheid. “That is when the ANC adopted its action program, and my generation--Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and others--dedicated ourselves not just to ending apartheid but to achieving democracy for South Africa. . . .
“We had a long tradition of nonviolence in the ANC, but the regime was so stubborn that in time--we waited until 1961--we had to take up arms. There was no other way forward. We had to believe that we could compel the regime by force of arms to change, but we always hoped that the solution would come through negotiations. We thought this was a sober policy. Today, we feel vindicated.”
Convicted of sabotage and preparing for guerrilla warfare, Sisulu was sent to prison for life in 1964 with Mandela and other ANC leaders, and the ANC faded into exile, first in London and then in Lusaka, Zambia. Although they trained younger men to carry on the struggle, the ANC had been badly hurt.
“We needed time to regroup, reorganize and restructure ourselves,” said Max Sisulu, 48, eldest of the five Sisulu children, who was freed from detention and ordered out of the country by the ANC while his father was on trial. “We needed time to recover and to develop a long-term strategy. This was not going to be won quickly or easily. It was going to take another generation--at least.”
Ellen Molekane still remembers that Saturday night date 17 years ago when her boyfriend, Mandla Msibi, a Baptist minister advising her youth group in Soweto, stopped his car in a secluded spot, got out, opened the trunk and invited her to have a look.
“There were two brand-new AK-47s, absolutely glistening and very, very beautiful,” she recalled. “That was the first time I had seen anything like these rifles. They were exquisite. I knew then that I was in the right movement. I was convinced that we could defeat the Boers.”
Working with “Black Man,” as the legendary Msibi was known in the ANC underground, Molekane helped establish arms caches around Johannesburg and then took part in ANC operations, including the assassination in Durban of a defector from the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and the shooting of another police informer within the movement, also in Durban.
“Some were really quite sensational military actions, and they helped put the ANC back on the political scene,” she recalled. “To defeat apartheid, we had to convince both the regime and our own people that we could and would fight. We had to overcome our sense of powerlessness and total vulnerability and their sense of omnipotence and impunity.”
With the police closing in, Molekane and Msibi moved to neighboring Swaziland, then to Mozambique and Tanzania, where their son, Tumi, was born in 1979. When Msibi died in 1980 in Swaziland, it was believed that he had suffered a heart attack. Evidence from government files now suggests that he was poisoned by South African agents.
Ellen Molekane, who is 40 and a senior ANC finance official today, was trained in military engineering in East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, served in a series of front-line and staff positions in Umkhonto we Sizwe and later became secretary of the ANC’s key political-military committee in Lusaka, Zambia, before returning to South Africa after the ban on the ANC was lifted in 1990.
“Life is what leads you into these situations,” she said. “I wanted to become a nurse or maybe an accountant, but instead I became a soldier. I have asked myself why, and the answer I keep coming up with was that it was the only way. When I was young, I believed in education, in virtue, in the goodness of people--all those things my mother and father believed in.
“When I got a bit older, I saw that believing was not enough--we had to act ourselves. But what sort of actions? At first, we thought that, if the whole (black) nation raised its political consciousness and united and stood up against the oppression, this would bring apartheid to an end. When we tried, we found that it was not enough simply to demand freedom and justice. This had to be fought for and won. It has been a very hard struggle, a struggle of a lifetime.”
The second of seven Molekane children, Ellen Molekane readily admits that she grew up angry--angry at “The System,” angry at whites for creating it, angry at blacks for accepting it with a seeming inability to resist.
“I looked at the older generation, not so much my parents but the generation as a whole, and thought: ‘What a mess you have left us! How could you just accept what these whites dictated? Why didn’t you fight? Why didn’t you struggle to win back our country?’ ” she recalled, still feisty. “Oh, I was a very angry young lady! Our generation, my friends and I decided, would be the one that ended this apartheid.”
While she was at Soweto’s Morris Isaacson Comprehensive Secondary School, long a center of political activism, Molekane had joined the South African Students’ Movement, many of whose members went on to lead other anti-apartheid groups in later years, but she found its Black Consciousness ideology “a long, dark tunnel that led nowhere.”
“This was the era of the Cultural Revolution in China, and we all had little Mao Tse-tung books that we read aloud to one another,” Molekane reminisced, her eyes twinkling with humor. “And then we had this very funny ‘black is beautiful’ stuff from America. . . .
“But our protests, however big and bold we thought they were, would never have done it. It took time to realize that the apartheid regime was not going to crumble like the walls of Jericho simply because we marched in the streets and shouted, ‘Down with apartheid!’ ”
Watching his sister become involved in politics was a younger brother, Rapu, who listened to the older students’ debates in the small Molekane house in Soweto’s Jabavu neighborhood and watched as they planned their protests.
“The landmark for me was June 16, 1976, and the uprising against Afrikaans as the language we were being taught in,” Rapu Molekane said, recalling student protests that swelled into the first major challenge to apartheid in 15 years. “I was only in primary school, but I knew something big was going to happen when I saw my sisters’ friends making banners out of mealie (cornmeal) sacks in the back yard and heard them planning their march.
“We younger kids--I was 15 or 16--went to school to start our midyear exams that day, but we were summoned from there by older students to a meeting protesting Afrikaans. We tore up our exams right there in the classroom and marched out.”
For Rapu, who is now 33, it was his first step into what is known among blacks as simply “The Struggle.”
“Living in Soweto is what makes people like my family go into politics,” Rapu Molekane said. “You keep asking questions about why you’re nine or 10 or 12 people in a tiny, four-roomed house with outdoor plumbing, about why you have to go to school without shoes, about why the white bosses are working your mother and father to death. . . . We weren’t born radicals--life made us this way.”
Rapu Molekane joined the Congress of South African Students, got training in organizational methods from a Catholic-run group, Young Christian Students, and used it to help found the Soweto Youth Congress and later the South African Youth Congress, becoming its secretary general.
Repeatedly arrested, frequently tortured and detained without charge under emergency regulations for months at a time, Rapu Molekane helped organize the United Democratic Front, the main anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, and then joined the ANC’s political underground. Released from detention in 1989, he slipped out of the country and, infuriating the government, flew to New York to address a United Nations committee on political prisoners.
“We did a lot of our planning in prison,” he recounted. “We took Robben Island (where top ANC leaders had been jailed since 1964) as our model, and we debated and strategized and planned one campaign after another right there in our cells. We were actually expecting the government to put us all in concentration camps in the desert.
“Through the various states of emergency in the 1980s, the government was detaining more and more people, but that enabled us to get new information, send out new directives and think ahead to the next step. We recruited the prison warders and had all sorts of political materials smuggled in to us.”
At the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Ellen Molekane read of her brother’s activities, and later they met for the first time in a decade when he came to confer with ANC leaders.
“From 1983, I started picking up Rapu’s name in intelligence reports, but when I got to know how deeply he was involved it was really bad news,” she said. “I thought it was OK for him to be an activist, but the underground work could make things worse for the family. Still, I was proud--my little brother doing such big things.”
Rapu Molekane was indeed a key figure in the mobilization of millions of black youths as the shock force in the ANC’s campaign to make South Africa ungovernable.
“We were aiming at building the protests into an insurrection and turning that into an armed rebellion and then a seizure of power,” he recalled. “That strategy may look naive today, totally unrealistic and a failure, but we developed a momentum that shattered the regime’s self-confidence and diminished its ability to maintain apartheid. In the end, it was forced into negotiations.”
As most of the Molekane family gathered for lunch this Easter--with Ellen taking charge of the sausage, the salads, the squash, the rice with peas and a dessert of ice cream, custard and fruit cocktail--there was satisfaction that the toughest part of the struggle was over, both for the country and the family.
Although worn down by his years of work in a Johannesburg furniture factory, Stephen Molekane surveyed the array of children and grandchildren, who now number 16, and smiled with tears in the corners of his eyes.
“What a pleasure this family is,” he said. “Life has been hard, but this family is a wonder.”
That pride is evident in the pictures of Rapu Molekane with ANC President Nelson Mandela and his predecessor, Oliver R. Tambo, hanging on the living-room wall. When Mandela was released, Rapu worked as his personal assistant. When the ANC Youth League was re-established inside South Africa, he was elected its secretary general, a post held by Mandela himself four decades earlier.
And, to complete the reversal of fortunes, Rapu Molekane is now an ANC candidate for Parliament and assured of a seat by his rank on the ticket.
Sitting on a favorite bench in the shade of the house, Stephen Molekane, who retired five years ago, spoke quietly of the effort required to raise his family through the years of apartheid.
“We first thought apartheid would not last so long,” he said, recalling the hopes he and his wife, Mary, who died in 1991, had when they first moved to Johannesburg in the late 1940s. “We thought the Boers (the Afrikaners) would see that this foolishness would not work and would give it up, but they didn’t.
“Then we hoped that, at least, if our children got an education then they would get ahead despite The System, but that was not possible. When Ellen went into exile, it hurt, it really hurt, and when Rapu got involved in politics, Mary and I were afraid for his life. Now, I must say these children were right--that apartheid had to be battled. But we were lucky, very lucky they came through it all alive.”
Thousands did die--more than 20,000 have been killed in political conflict in South Africa over the last decade--for as blacks pressed forward, demanding an end to apartheid, whites tightened their grip on power.
“Above anything else, apartheid was an instrument of political and economic power, and no regime yields power willingly,” said Zwelakhe Sisulu, 43, the third of Walter Sisulu’s five children and a major figure in his own right. “This regime was more determined than most, even to the point of great brutality, to preserve its position.”
Reluctantly, the National Party did retreat in the 1980s from the strictures of “petty apartheid"--the racial segregation that kept whites and blacks separate in restaurants and hotels, on buses and trains, in schools and sports--in the hope of satisfying black demands.
Later, the government responded to requests of businessmen to liberalize other laws in the name of economic stability and increased efficiency. Blacks would be satisfied, it was believed, with material rather than political concessions--better housing, education and job opportunities.
President Pieter W. Botha went further, backing away from “grand apartheid” to bring Indians and Coloreds into his government in 1984, and then to accept a permanent but still limited presence of Africans in urban areas.
Most Afrikaners had already moved beyond the embarrassingly crude racial concepts of the original apartheid and supported the changes. Apartheid had proved unworkable, many believed, and some sort of “power-sharing” with blacks would come in time. But more conservative whites, feeling betrayed, began leaving the National Party for the far right.
Botha had substituted “security” for apartheid as the dominant political theme to mobilize the whites. Increasingly, he relied upon the country’s vast security Establishment--the military, the security police, the intelligence service--and pursued a “total strategy” to meet what he saw as a “total onslaught” directed against South Africa from the Soviet Union.
“The essential flaw in their strategy was that we were not directed from Moscow--this was a true liberation struggle, not a revolutionary war,” said Zwelakhe Sisulu, who was repeatedly detained during the 1980s for his political activities but never charged. “Nothing happened at the snap of some Soviet commissar’s fingers. Everything we did was on the base of what we had done before.”
The turning point for Zwelakhe Sisulu, founding editor of the weekly newspaper New Nation and now a top executive of the South African Broadcasting Corp., came with the emergence of the United Democratic Front, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and other groups that focused not on ending apartheid but replacing it with democracy.
“It took years for the people to realize they had to engage in mass struggle against the regime and to gain the confidence to do so,” he commented. “But when they did, they found the government couldn’t crush it.
“The next step was to move from ungovernability, which meant that the state was not in control but neither were we, to the establishment of democratic structures of our own.”