By Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp
The MK-ZIPRA plan involved setting up three crossing points along the Zambezi in order to stretch the enemy forces. The first crossing, which involved Hani's group, would take place near Livingstone, another near Lake Kariba and a third near Feira. As the men prepared to cross, ANC NEC member Ruth Mompati went through the group's luggage, ensuring there was nothing to incriminate them, such as a Soviet-made watch or shirt. Nevertheless, there was a problem.
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By the time the almost 100-strong contingent was loaded onto trucks under cover of darkness for the 25-kilometre journey to the crossing point, trucks had ferried their equipment to the same point, so it seemed as if preparations had been more than adequate.
But once they arrived, it became clear to Hani that there was insufficient weaponry. Marching at the head of the Luthuli Detachment with Tambo and fellow commander Mjojo Mxwaku, Hani told Tambo that this was a serious enough issue to stall the entire campaign. Mjojo backed up Hani's assertion.
Earlier, the MK commander-in-chief, Joe Modise, had turned down a request from the men for additional ammunition.
Now Tambo himself made the request. By the next day, each man had been given an additional magazine, a grenade and 300 rounds of ammunition. The detachment was now armed with an assortment of SKS rifles, AK47s, submachine guns, light machine guns (LMGs), rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), Makarov pistols and small radios. Finally, the mission could get under way.
As the group made their way towards the river, February, fiddling with his rifle, accidentally let off a shot. The men stopped dead and fell silent.
Hani investigated the source of the noise, as the report could have carried across the river to patrolling enemy troops. But there was no turning back now. As they approached the riverine escarpment, the echoes of the wild broke the night air. The howl of a jackal, the hollow bark of a hippo. Hearts pumped furiously with excitement. Fear. Anticipation. Far below, the men could hear the sound of rushing water.
The crossing point had been carefully selected, with the thinking being that the enemy would not expect the liberation fighters to cross at such a difficult spot. "Lizwe?" came a call from the darkness.
"Lolo," replied one of the men in the detachment. Emerging from behind a tree was their comrade, Boston Gagarin, a short and stocky man in swimming trunks.
His team would lead them from Point Lolo across the river to Base One.
Hani was the first to climb down. The rope snaking 200 metres down the side of the steep gorge allowed the men to quietly clamber over the rockface, although they occasionally flinched as rocks loosened by those above them hurtled downwards.
Moments before Dabengwa reached the bottom, a climber above him slipped, sending a small boulder tumbling down, which knocked the ZIPRA commander unconscious.
At the foot of the rockface, the comrades gathered on the narrow shoreline.
The occasional shimmer revealed the 35-metre-wide, fastmoving obstacle before them. On the opposite side of the river, by the sliver of light available, some could discern the figure of Hani. He was already doing exercises.
Moving close to 100 men across on inflatable boats was a tedious business, but the entire contingent finally reached the Rhodesian shore by 5am. Having successfully concluded the first phase of its operation, the Luthuli Detachment saluted its leader, Tambo, still standing, watching and waiting, on the opposite shore.
Thus, 2 August 1967 saw the start of one of the most courageous, if ill-fated, adventures in the history of the ANC.
Those who were there remember the unity as night descended again, and the men resting quietly in the shadows of the mopane trees came to life. At the head of the column, Hani set a blistering pace.
Marching only in darkness, the soldiers navigated using the stars and their compasses. But trouble struck early.
Their food and water started running out, and the men were soon reduced to one meal a day. Two days into its mission, the detachment was forced to make contact with locals in order to supplement their rations.
After a week, as planned, a smaller combined MK-ZIPRA unit of 21 men broke away and headed towards Lupane in the east. It was planned that this group, led by Andries Motsepe, would establish a northern and central Zimbabwe base for the future infiltration of cadres to the home front. Two weeks after entering Rhodesia, Motsepe and his group made contact with the enemy on the banks of the Nyatuwe River, between Wankie Game Reserve and Dett. The battle raged for 10 hours. Pinned down on the banks of the river, the small group put up a spirited fight, but were no match for the Rhodesian troops.
Far away from the fighting, the main Luthuli contingent listened to the battle on their radios. They had been plagued by setbacks, the most serious of which was when a cadre went missing, and three others were sent to look for him. None rejoined the group. The ever-jovial Hani, however, lived up to his role as commissar, continually encouraging the men under his command and cracking jokes to keep their spirits up. He knew it was only a matter of time before they engaged the Rhodesians. Until then, it was a case of marching at night, sleeping during the day.
After almost two weeks, the pace and conditions were gruelling. The men became exhausted. On one of the stops, cadre Lawrence Phokanoka, also known as Peter Tladi, discovered he had left his weapon behind at a camp where the men had rested in the middle of the night. He had to return to find it, and eventually the contingent moved on, leaving him behind.
He, too, did not rejoin the detachment and was ultimately arrested.
By now deep inside the reserve and without any contact, Hani's show of bravado, fiercely marching on with a knapsack that seemed featherlight, began to lose its inspiration. Marching on empty stomachs and critically short of water, the weakened soldiers found themselves stumbling through acacia thorn bushes, which tore at their uniforms and at their flesh. At one point, a contingent - including James April and John Dube - went in search of water.
Although they used pangas to mark trees along the way, the group soon lost their way in the dense bush. This was the dry season, so there were almost no rivers or streams. Their survey maps, which dated from the 1940s, were hugely inaccurate. April told us of how the sight of water one morning caused utter disbelief.
The pan was shining and unbroken, reflecting the sky, and the men were emotional as they approached it.
Being in a game reserve also presented a unique set of challenges. Hani said he regarded the elephant, lion and giraffe as part of a greater harmony, the way in which he and his men would know if water was safe to drink, or if there were other people in the vicinity. During night-time training sessions, the troops had often encountered game animals and had come to understand their behaviour. At one point, a rogue elephant chased the group, eventually singling out Mjojo Mxwaku, who fortunately managed to escape.
Rhodesian forces had by now picked up the invaders' trail, and were following close behind. The distance covered by Hani's detachment was dropping each day. The soldiers were getting weaker. The time to attack was fast approaching.
Despite the hardships, Hani's view was that so far everything had gone according to plan. By mid-August, however, spotter planes began to track their movements, prompting the detachment to prepare for battle. The men fortified their positions, dug foxholes and organised defence lines, just as they had been taught in training.
The enemy waited. Two weeks later, they struck. Aircraft circled their position early one morning. Trucks packed with soldiers started arriving at about 10am, passing only about 100m away. The Luthuli men took up their positions, but there was some concern for two cadres who had gone to fetch water at a dam.
When, hours later, the group heard an exchange of fire, Hani realised the two men must have been killed. For a long time afterwards, the air was silent.
Then, at about 3pm, a burst of gunfire was directed at the Luthuli Detachment positions. The Rhodesians shouted for the 'terrorists' to surrender, and so the taunting began. Hani's command insisted that nobody was allowed to pull a trigger before a target was clearly identified.
There had to be economy of ammunition. Every bullet was precious. But the silence worried the enemy, and they opened fire. Caught in their first ever battle, the Luthuli men were terrified as bullets landed at their feet and whizzed past their ears. "It was like the chopping of hearts against the ribs," said Hani later.
The unspoken understanding within the detachment was that there would be no surrender.
The silence had given the Rhodesian troops a false sense of confidence, even arrogance. Standing up from their firing positions, some of their soldiers called out, trying to get a better view of the enemy. Finally, with the RAR clearly in their sights, some cadres opened fire. Two Rhodesians fell, and immediately there was panic in the RAR ranks. Hani led the Luthuli unit as they broke from their positions to pursue the fleeing enemy.
Then, like pirates, the men descended on the supplies left by their attackers. Also among the booty was a brand new LMG, new uniforms and boots. In one RAR soldier's bag, they found an unfinished letter to a girlfriend.
The liberation force's success in this early battle resounded across the continent.
Tambo and Chikerema released a press statement shortly afterwards, respectful of the fierce fighting that had taken place:
'From the 13th of this month, the area of Wankie has been the scene of the most daring battles ever fought between freedom fighters and the white oppressors' army in Rhodesia. Only last night, the Rhodesian regime admitted having been engaged in a six-hour battle yesterday.
'In fact, the fighting in this area has been going on continuously for a full six days. Both the Rhodesian and the South African regimes have admitted that South African freedom fighters belonging to the ANC have been involved in these courageous battles, fighting their way to strike at the boers themselves in South Africa.'
Ben Magubane recalls reports on the BBC World Service and Voice of America, in which it was said the men were encircled. He also read about Wankie in the newspapers, 'and it was actually exciting, but in order to get a copy, you had to be at the shop very early'. The descriptions of bombs falling and bodies shaking underpinned dozens of almost mythical adventure stories about Wankie. For the oppressed peoples of Southern Africa, this benign energy and idealism offset some of the humiliation and violence to which they were subjected.
Albie Sachs - who was living in London at the time, having decided to go into exile - said he can remember 'vividly' how Tambo announced this grand move forward with the armed struggle. The meeting at which he made the announcement was held at Peace House, which was actually a Quaker meeting house:
'We were not told what it was all about, but it was very important to get a big crowd. He (Tambo) said armed combatants were proceeding to South Africa and managing to roam undetected... that they had engaged in combat.
'People cheered and cheered, then a man shouted, "That's murder!" a couple of times. It was a well-elocuted voice from the back. But we wanted to know, who was this provocateur? Then Tambo responded.
'He said, "yes, we have become killers. We sought by every means possible a peaceful solution. This was met by more and more repression. We were a peaceloving people ..."'
Sachs said Tambo ended up telling the gathering about the implications of the campaign: the ANC was not only going after installations now, but was using weapons of war. He said he sensed a 'very close understanding between Chris Hani and OR Tambo - a great moral and personal respect that each had for the other'.
Wankie had turned Hani into 'an admired leader... he'd been in combat and now had a different kind of authority, an unofficial, intangible sense of authority'.
Sachs said one of the outstanding things about Nelson Mandela is that he 'stood out, physically - he had a kind of stature'. The judge explained that Hani also had 'that standout quality". "You know that excitement when a person (like that) enters a room. They have an allure, a charisma. He had physical courage, intellectual clarity, a strong sense of morality'
When he spoke later about the fighting, Hani believed this was indeed the moment at which the detachment was transformed into a fighting force. The men's reaction to the enemy attack recognised courage and faith, he would later say. And the initial triumph also gave hope to those fighting for liberation all across Africa, echoing throughout South Africa and inspiring a new generation. The legend of Chris Hani was born.
Extracted from Hani: A Life too Short, by Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp. Published by Jonathan Ball, it is available at bookshops nationwide at a cost of R190. Don't miss the Saturday Star and Sunday Independent for more extracts in which the never-told stories of Hani's relationships beyond politics are revealed - the tale of a long love affair and the high drama of a terrible betrayal in battle.
This article was originally published on page 15 of The Star on October 02, 2009
- Beaver Shaw
- Nairobi, Kenya
- I an ex member of both 7 and 8 Squadron's of the Rhodesian war spending most of my operational time on Seven Squadron as a K Car gunner. I was credited for shooting down a fixed wing aircraft from a K Car on the 9 August 1979. This blog is from articles for research on a book which I HAVE HANDED THIS MANUSCRIPT OVER TO MIMI CAWOOD WHO WILL BE HANDLING THE PUBLICATION OF THE BOOK OF WHICH THERE WILL BE VERY LIMITED COPIES AVAILABLE Contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org The latest news is that the Editing is now done and we can expect to start sales and deliveries by the end of April 2011
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