85. Neighbours stood by us: remember the important role that front-line states played in our liberation struggle

The Star
07 October 2019
Anthony Kaziboni

In September 2019, the world again witnessed xenophobic attacks in South Africa – a reminder of the attacks in 2008, 2015, and 2017 – which culminated once more in the destruction of property and loss of life. The common rhetoric from the perpetrators is that non-South Africans must buyelekhaya (go back home), as they are contributing to crime, poverty and many other social ills.

South Africa is Africa’s most industrialised state. It has the second largest economy – after Nigeria – on the continent and has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. It is a country favoured by many in the region as their preferred destination for a new beginning: professionals, economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, alike. South Africa is also the youngest “free” nation in Southern Africa, owing this debt to many of its neighbours.

Citizens of the Frontline States (FLS) living in South Africa have been among the most persistent victims of xenophobic attacks. The FLS was a diplomatic coalition of six Southern African states which were bent on undoing apartheid and colonialism in the region. These included: Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

In Angola and Mozambique, the apartheid regime triggered civil wars by supporting rebel groups, the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), respectively. In 1976, the Africa National Congress (ANC) set up military training camps for the party’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), with the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government.

Angola’s proximity to Namibia – a South African-ruled territory formerly known as South West Africa – made the apartheid regime feel very insecure. Pretoria thus launched numerous invasions into Angola. The regime supported UNITA rebels to carry on a prolonged civil war, which only ended with the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002. At least 500,000 people died in the conflict, with 4.1 million people displaced, in one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars.

In Mozambique, RENAMO rebels received arms and logistical support from Pretoria. The death of the Mozambican President Samora Machel, and 34 others, in a plane crash in Mpumalanga, in October 1986, has often been attributed to the apartheid regime. To appreciate the magnitude of such a loss, as Mathews Phosa, an ANC stalwart, noted, “The people of Mozambique paid a supreme price for the struggle of South Africa. The highest price they paid was the death of their president”.

Like the ANC/MPLA relationship in Angola, the apartheid regime detested the relationship between the ANC and FRELIMO in Mozambique. The Mozambican suburb of Matola in the capital, Maputo, was the ANC’s haven for safe houses and MK bases. The apartheid regime carried out numerous raids there, most notably in January 1981, when 16 people were killed.

Botswana was no exception. The country was the preferred route by ANC members in and out of South Africa before Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980. This route was established by Fish Keitseng, a citizen of Botswana, who has been referred to as “one of the unsung heroes of modern South African history”. Keitseng, together with Klaas Motshididi – another Botswana national – drove South African refugees up the Pandamatenga road en route to Zambia. General Hendrik van den Bergh, head of the South African Police Services (SAPS), was quoted as saying that Botswana was a “free port for runaways, Reds and saboteurs,” as it was also a “red carpet” for South African saboteurs from Lobatsi to Zambia. In retaliation, the South African Defence Force (SADF) attacked safe houses in Gaborone, under the banner of Operation Plecksy. In June 1985, a coordinated assault by the SADF and Selous Scouts – a special regiment of the Rhodesian Security Forces – attacked ANC cadres and MK offices. This resulted in 12 fatalities, and six people were injured, including women and children.

In 1960, ANC leader, Frene Ginwala, proceeded to Tanzania where she established an office in Dar es Salaam with ANC President Oliver Tambo and Yusuf Dadoo. MK cadets were trained by the Tanzanian People’s Defence Force (TPDF), and some also made their way to Eastern Europe and Russia for further training. A school was opened for South African children near the Tanzania town of Morogoro, named Mazimbu, and was later renamed the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College.

In Zambia, exiled revolutionary fighters went to Lusaka. Oliver Tambo moved the ANC headquarters there in 1969, where he also resided. The ANC set up Radio Freedom in Lusaka which broadcast into South Africa. This assisted in the party’s recruitment of members and MK cadets. In 1985, the ANC held its first national consultative conference in 16 years under the protection of Zambian soldiers.

Zimbabwe was the latest entrant into the FLS coalition. Harare joined after its independence in 1980. The Zimbabwe African Peoples Union’s (ZAPU) military wing – Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) – helped MK recruits to reach their camps in Tanzania through Zambia. When ZIPRA left Angola for Zimbabwe, they bequeathed to the MK two military camps – Caculama and Camalundi – as well as a flat to the ANC in Luanda.

The ANC formally established its presence in Zimbabwe by appointing Joe Gqabi as the party’s Chief Representative in Harare. Other party cadres who lived in exile in Zimbabwe included Baleka Mbete, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, and Michael Lapsley. This prompted the apartheid regime to embark on assassinations. There were multiple bombings: two in 1987 and 1988, and the ANC office in Harare was hit by a rocket in April 1990.

What is detailed above are but some of the assistance and sacrifices that South Africa received from its Southern African neighbours. Unfortunately, key politicians have propagated misinformation and disinformation about non-South Africans which has sparked xenophobic attacks. Under the banner of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s “rainbow nation”, South Africans should not only embrace racial diversity, but also multiculturalism.

Mr. Anthony Kaziboni is a Research Coordinator at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC), University of Johannesburg.