This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
16 Oct 2002: Patel, Dipak
POM If you could start by giving me a little bit about your background, where you were born, school, how you got to be involved and then we can work our way towards your participation in Vula.
DP All of us have stories to tell. We've also found a way of sketching our own life paths I think through stories. Born in Durban of lower middle class family roots. My father had a greengrocery store from which he sold vegetables.
POM What year would this be about?
DP I was born in 1964, it makes me 38. I really got involved in school. It's difficult to say exactly where the point of transition was between having just a rebellious streak and becoming politically applied in that rebelliousness but there was a schools' boycott in the late seventies. After Soweto a lot of activity obviously unfolded. I got involved in a number of schools' boycotts at that time being in high school culminating, I think, in 1980 with my recruitment into really community based organisations initially and then very quickly into the ANC so I was 16 going on 17 when I was recruited into the ANC.
POM So this would be post-1985?
DP No before, 1980.
POM I always get different answers on this. It's been my understanding that anyone could belong to the ANC but you had to be an African to be on the Executive Committee until 1985.
DP That's right. So you needed to be a South African African to be on the National Executive Committee but you didn't need that demographic characteristic to participate in the structures. I was obviously recruited into the internal structures of the ANC, initially doing political work and I guess peripheral work that was supportive of the armed struggle but never really recruited into MK up till 1981. I got my training, basic training, outside the country in Angola and then subsequent training inside the country.
POM How long?
DP Four months.
POM How much training did you do in four months and this training covered?
DP Basics. You must bear in mind that people either left the country of their personal volition in which case they generally ended up not having a guaranteed route or access back to the country and they ended up staying in exile really. I was sent specifically intending to come back and so I was one of the lucky few who actually went and came back almost immediately upon completion of basic.
POM When you came back to the country you went for further training immediately?
DP No. Further advanced training within the country by people who themselves had undergone advanced training outside of the country, either in the GDR or the Soviet Union.
POM Where would this take place?
DP Safe houses.
POM Would it be around the country or in the Durban area?
DP In my case largely in the Durban area where there was a need for physical range in that training. We had special quiet spots further away from Durban on the South Coast along deserted stretches of beach so that is how more advanced training would be conducted. I then got involved in the normal MK structures within, at that time, Southern Natal and that is how the ANC demarcated its internal areas and went through a process of being a member of an MK unit, becoming a member of command structures, overseeing the work of a number of cells and did a combination of logistics work for MK as well as some operations with
POM Were you strictly involved in military type operations at this point or was there an overlap between your underground work for the ANC and your underground - ?
DP Sure, there was a fair amount of overlap. In the early eighties obviously mass organisations had begun to come into their own. Leading up to the launch of the UDF there were a range of youth structures, civic organisations, etc., and at that point anyone inside the country whether military or political was expected to play a role in that mass mobilisation process.
POM Had you gone on to college?
DP Yes, finished school and went on to register for an Engineering degree, completed two years of that.
POM This was at University of Natal?
DP No, Durban/Westville. Completed two years of that and then dropped out because it wasn't possible to continue with my political/military activities at the same time as completing my degree. So I dropped out of that, took my credits and went for a slightly easier option which was a National Diploma rather than a degree and that served quite a useful purpose because I did go on to work by day as an engineer. All of my time was spent inside of the country really having dual identities, quite often multiple identities, and until Vula came along functional in Natal, not just Durban, in the Natal region.
POM Did members of your unit carry out operations or was it engaged in activities with the IFP?
DP There were two types of activities and I think you're aware that military activity in KZN was not just the token bomb blasts but sort of active, quite often hand to hand combative experiences given the IFP/ANC dynamic particularly in the years 1982/83 leading up to the state of emergency and just beyond that. I was part of that whole process of in many instances defensive networks, in some cases offensive initiatives also being taken and a lot of my time at that time was in fact spent in the townships either defending areas that ANC activists and MDM, Democratic Movement, leadership lived in and I did that, sure, I as well as those units that were associated with the control network.
POM How do you see that particular conflict at that time? It's been portrayed in so many different ways as, one, being the IFP retaliating against the ANC once the ANC began or the UDF became a force and began to move into its territory and take over its territory and recruit members and that it was losing membership and later on it became that the police were actively involved and backing the IFP? What did you see at that time?
DP I think in retrospect it's always easier to intellectually analyse conflict but when one finds oneself in the conflict situation I think the dynamics and the drivers of that conflict are very different so while obviously I have been amongst those who have reflected back on that time with the benefit of having (i) lived to do that reflection, but (ii) having the benefit of having a fairly stable and peaceful environment currently from which to do that. There is one way of looking at the conflict, i.e. the toll that the conflict imparted on ordinary people; there are some who will say that it was a very naïve conflict based on simplistic ideological differences but what I would like to do perhaps is just share with you the analysis that caused us to take a position at that time.
Firstly, I was a loyal ANC member. Secondly, it wasn't just a blind loyalty or an uninformed loyalty that caused me to be a soldier for the movement. It was a very clear understanding about the fundamentals of SA society, the fundamentals of really apartheid capitalism at that time. By that time, I need to point out that I had already been recruited and served my probation in the SA Communist Party so by that stage I was an ANC member in an illegal movement, I was an MK operative in that illegal movement and I had been recruited and had passed my probation and in fact was heading up a unit of the party in the Durban area by that time.
To say that it was simply militancy that drove my participation in that conflict is not true. It was a very clinical analysis of what the political dynamic in that region was at that time. It was a very clear understanding that just being black did not necessarily mean that one was progressive, and I use 'progressive' in the South African sense of the word, that apartheid had in fact perfected the art of co-opting certain classes or certain political groups from amongst the black community into its own rights, sometimes with those players knowing full well what their involvement and bolstering of apartheid was, sometimes naively so. We took a view really that in the case of KZN, at least amongst the intellectual leadership if there was that at that time, within the IFP there was an understanding that in this fundamental conflict between pro and anti apartheid forces they had positioned themselves in that landscape which made it impossible not to attack them when one was attacking apartheid. That's the first point.
The second point is that as the dynamic in the context of mass mobilisation began to unfold, yes, sure there were previously what we would call areas of hegemony which in our view were far from hegemony resulting from voluntary choice but hegemony resulting from oppression, hegemony resulting from very well resourced institutional arrangements being put into place that perhaps led the IFP to believe that not only was it the dominant political force in KZN but that it was entitled to be that by virtue of a whole range of things including its cultural positions.
With the emergence of popular movements clearly there became the dynamic of moving into areas that 'belonged' to someone else. The issue became that that popular democratic mobilisation process was met very often with physical brute force and it was in that context where I think a lot of us who were operational in that area as military operatives asked a very fundamental question and that is are we involved in this conflict and should we in fact bring some of our resources to bear in that conflict? Quite often the answer was yes. I don't think that there was a clear ANC mandate or strategy in respect of exactly what form that support or involvement would take but it was us who were on the ground and it was us who were experiencing the day to day dynamic and it therefore was us who had to respond appropriately and quite often we did.
It was also a time, you must remember, where the UDF was beginning to develop a momentum and in some ways an identity of its own and in that period often the criticism that was levelled at the ANC was its absence from the terrain of real struggle and that made it impossible for those of us who were ANC members and who were MK members operating inside the country to hold ourselves aloof of a process and a dynamic, in this case conflictual dynamic, that was unfolding right on our doorstep.
POM Were you just involved in incidences where like a township would be invaded by IFP Impis and there would be hand to hand struggle?
DP Maybe hand to hand is a bit dramatic. Sure, it was close enough to be close to hand to hand. There were times when resources were not available so you would provide both the expertise and the material that would go into making petrol bombs and, sure, that was the kind of thing that we did. Occasionally there would be a case of deploying trained, armed MK personnel into certain areas. There would be instances where, for example, ANC operatives amongst a group facing the prospects of having an entire Impi descend on them would open fire, sure, and lives were lost.
POM In areas that you were defending would you get to have some prior notice of an impending attack or were attacks kind of spontaneous?
DP Yes and no. Some were spontaneous, some were unanticipated. Others, generally as a result of both a fairly effective but informal network of not informants per se but because of (I haven't even thought about these things for a long time, I have drawn an intellectual, political, analytical, historical brush over that period.) The best way I can describe it, and this was a general feature of that time, there was a throb and a pulse that you could feel and so while I'm sitting here in a corporate office now, the conditions at that time were such that you were in dynamic contact with people in a range of different places. There was, like I said, an informal but highly effective network through which communication took place really quickly and generally, particularly in the case of organised attacks on either areas or on certain individuals, you would get to know well enough in advance to prepare some rudimentary defence plan. But having said that I think there were also those times where you just didn't have the information in advance and then the attack was a surprise one.
POM Would you on occasion take the initiative yourselves and attack IFP 'strongholds'?
DP Would I or would the ANC operatives in that area? Let's personalise this.
POM Let's say the ANC operatives in the area.
DP The ANC operatives in the area, and we're using ANC loosely now, would take some initiatives. There were meetings that I was part of where even the possibility of initiated assassinations were discussed. There was always a degree of hesitancy in going down that route partly because once you became the offensive or the offence initiator it became very difficult to be seen to be containing the violence from spreading. But there were instances where either UDF groups, who amongst them would have ANC operatives, or other looser formations from certain townships which actively inspired to thwart what they believed to be a repressive individual or repressive capacity which was constantly unleashing. For example, in Bambai(?) which is an area in Inanda which is north of Durban, in KZN probably the largest informal settlement, there was an extremely militant and brave MK unit operating. It had surrounded itself with non-credentialed members who for all intents and purposes were ANC members, so not recruited into the ANC but who had formed themselves as a sort of informal militant capability behind or around the ANC/MK cell that operated there and they would often take initiatives.
POM This is a man that I interviewed on a number of occasions, in fact I went into his stronghold once before he kind of disappeared from view, a man named Thomas Shabalala, was he one of the IFP warlords, active?
DP Sure. That name certainly rings a bell and there were others, there were others who clearly showed themselves as not just being IFP political office bearers but very, very clearly the centres from where planned attacks unfolded and Shabalala was one of them, there were others as well. Some of them did have attacks launched against them by ANC or ANC aligned groups in the KZN area, sure.
POM So you're back, you're engaged in activities in the townships in KZN. Are you maintaining a cover still at the same time, you're working in - ?
DP I'm working in SA Breweries as a chemical engineer being trained to become a brewer, somehow managing the two lives. Volunteered for shift work giving me a greater spread of hours during the day to go and do things that needed to be done so one way or the other I managed the balance although it was difficult to keep those two identities completely separate and from time to time I would get visited by the police. Until I left SA Breweries in 1989 they had no clue about what the other part of my life looked like.
POM So much for their great intelligence. One often had abroad this fearsome impression of the intensity and then you come across case after case where their ineptitude
DP We credited them with more capabilities than they had. If we only knew that then.
POM It would saved a lot of trouble.
DP So that was the case and by that time I had become part of something called the Durban RPMC which was the Durban Regional Political Military Committee. That was headed up by Pravin Gordhan.
POM Ivan Pillay was in that too?
DP Yes. And that's the point at which I mean someone like Mac must say why he thinks I was recruited into Vula but by that stage I was simply an MK member in a very dynamic province doing what he had to do. Then I got a message one day and strangely enough it was completely separate from my relationship with Pravin. Pravin was a very early mentor to me. There became a point where you graduate from your mentor and Pravin himself was not personally involved on the military side and there came a point where I was passed on from Pravin to a more military discipline and reporting relationship within the ANC and at that point while we continued to remain in contact we really led very separate political lives and it was a courier who came to see me who indicated that I had to shelter him, I had to ask as few questions as possible and that over time it would become clear what was afoot.
POM So the courier said this to you that somebody was coming or the courier said, 'I need accommodation, I need secrecy, I need as few questions as possible'?
DP That's right, and 'I need that with you and your own role as time goes on will become clearer.'
POM But how could you verify his - ?
DP Oh there was a system of verification.
POM There was, OK. You didn't just open the door and say come in.
DP No, no. There was a clear system, a very rudimentary, but effective nonetheless, system of making contact, creating a sort of trust basis on which to meet people that you had never seen in your life and verify their bona fides, their credentials and that's how it happened. That set the stage for really my being drawn into the process of preparing for Mac's arrival.
POM Did this courier just hang around?
DP He hung around, he did whatever he had to do. We engaged in discussions, he would disappear from time to time, he would then return.
POM Did you learn in time who this courier was?
DP Oh yes, he's no longer alive now but it was well I knew him as but he was basically the connect point between Lusaka and our operation in Durban prior to Mac's arrival. Then there was a flurry of activity and while I didn't have knowledge of the entire story one got a keen enough sense that something big and potentially dangerous was afoot. One thing led to the other and before I knew it I was involved with Mac initially ensuring that
POM Can you remember the circumstances of you being introduced to him or him visiting you? Did he come in one of his disguises? In the middle of the day, the middle of the night? Carrying a newspaper under his arm?
DP The first meeting was actually at night, him being presented to me by Billy Nair and Billy had recruited me into the party. I had basically known Billy from the day he was released from Robben Island, and I was introduced to him by Billy. I was given very simple instructions at which point I realised that I had graduated from being a foot soldier and in some ways though demoted because the tasks that I had to perform for Mac in the initial period anyway I saw as mundane, not exciting. Really I was given the job at least for the time that he was in Durban to ensure that his basic accommodation arrangements were safe, his interactive capability was sorted out. I was told not to ask who he is, ever, and I didn't, and he was extremely disappointed when six months later he asked me if I knew who he was and I said, "No, I have no clue. In fact I'm wondering why you deserve such attention from an important resource like me." For six months I did what I had to do.
POM Did you know who he was?
DP I had a sense but this is the point at which I think my own training, a very mechanical notion of what it means to be disciplined, kick in and I had the capacity at that stage every time that question arose in my head to shove it aside and not entertain it any further.
POM Claudia Manning was telling me that she was brought under the shroud of great secrecy to a room where Mac had arrived and he was in a disguise and she had never met him in his life, never seen him in his life and whoever the courier was said, "Do you know who this man is?" She said, "Oh yes, he looks like Mac Maharaj." Mac was very disappointed.
DP No, I had a sense from the first time that I saw him that it was Mac but it got pushed aside. Bear in mind as well that as a result of all the fanfare that went into preparing for his arrival one got a sense of what the stature of the person who was arriving was likely to be because in something like four or five years of MK membership and action I had never seen something that was taken as seriously as this was just in terms of the logistics that went behind it, just in terms of the checking and double checking and triple checking that was done of routes, of locations, of housing arrangements, of safe houses and the number of them. Nothing in MK had been resourced like this before. So I had a sense of who it was, I knew it was Mac. I can't even recall actually whether I met him in disguise at first. I was immediately briefed with respect to his legend which obviously then made it very clear that I was close enough and trusted enough to be part of the process of developing the legend and to me he was Lara who as far as people around my safe house were concerned, because Mac used it as a base, as the prime base for a long time, and as an important base thereafter at which time it became my Vula Military Combat Works Committee base. I knew it was Mac, just didn't raise the issue and I guess disappointed him when I said, "I have no idea who you are." To me he was Lara, he was an uncle, he was an uncle with huge amounts of personal and domestic problems, an uncle who nonetheless was a fairly successful and widely travelled and travelling computer industry businessman. Neighbours, in fact the landlords of that safe house where we were finally arrested, even attempted to talk me into talking him into considering getting a wife for him.
POM Getting a what?
DP A wife.
POM A wife for him?
DP Yes. So the woman of that house calls me one day and says," 'Your uncle", I obviously made sure that the legend was watertight and therefore shared the legend with them and so they knew that this was my uncle, he was a very lonely man and he was very successful but, God, only if he had a very stable, loyal, loving partner his life would be so much better and she offered to find a wife for Lara.
That developed, I think, from very humble beginnings. Clearly what Mac realised when he got into the country was that while there was lots of passion and lots of people, a lot of whom were capable, there just wasn't the infrastructure to support a very coherent plan. So very quickly I got drawn into things other than just ensuring his safety, things other than just ensuring that he had basic amenities sorted out and it became clear that everybody who was available and who could be trusted had to stretch themselves and so the whole process of establishing the linkages, the networks, to other parts of the country, the process of arranging interactions with high profile MDM/UDF types.
POM These would be people like?
DP Cyril, people like at that time clearly more ANC than UDF but legally and with an open profile Harry Gwala and a whole range of others. Allan Boesak, Jay Naidoo, other members of the COSATU executive and we got drawn into that.
POM So they were aware that there was an underground?
DP I think they were all aware for a long time that there was an underground. It just didn't present itself in a kind of coherent form until Vula came along. Then there were military connections that had to be made, units of MK, all support units of MK who were in the country. Our assessment at that point was that both from the political underground as well as from the MK underground, there were something like 28 independent lines of communication going out of the country each one of which was seen as the mandate from the ANC on any single issue.
POM Going out of?
DP South Africa to Lusaka generally.
POM OK, seen as the ANC's mandate or the other way round? As coming from Lusaka?
DP That's right. There was not one line of communication or command.
POM From Lusaka?
DP From Lusaka.
POM So they had all these 28 lines? So this is where the communication system in fact developed or Mac handled?
DP Communication system but it wasn't just a communication system, it was a command system and the way I saw it, and I see it still, is that Mac and Vula's mandate wasn't just to improve communications, it was to rationalise these lines of communication and command to ensure that whatever strategy was chosen in terms of the multiple fronts on which we were involved there would be a coherence in command. One began to get a sense of what had to be done to cajole people into co-operating, to sometimes brutally sever those chains of command and replace them with others. That was the kind of thing that Mac was busy with so for a long time what needed to happen was a process of establishing himself, credibility building, harnessing much more coherently the political underground with the ANC and they reached a point with Siphiwe as being chosen to be the head of the MCW Committee of Vula clearly the imperative also became to begin to streamline.
POM Who became the head of?
DP Siphiwe Nyanda.
POM OK, head of the?
DP Of the military operation of Vula. Soon after Mac had established himself and we needed to put into place a proper leadership structure on the military side I stopped working directly for Mac and started working for Siphiwe. So in some ways I was very happy to be rid of my mundane non-military and be sort of back in action. At that point my relationship with Mac changed slightly because there wasn't the pressure of being directly under his command any more and therefore having to behave like an underling and a protégé. There was a point at which I think it became all right and in fact quite enjoyable to sit down with him and have a drink and get drunk occasionally. It was in that period that I think a much easier relationship with Mac began to get formed but until that point it was very strained - it was not strained, it was very clearly defined.
POM Did you find him demanding?
DP Absolutely. There's no-one in the world that is as fucking demanding as Mac is. He's not easy to work for.
POM I remember a phrase of somebody he's somebody who needs a lot of attention to deal with the ordinary things in life. There's a phrase. It's used for somebody who's a high politician or whatever, who requires everything being done. High maintenance. High maintenance, yes.
DP Oh absolutely. If you're working for Mac in a functionary capacity, unless you yourself have a very high tolerance for mundane tasks, sure Mac is high maintenance. But having said that, clearly he saw himself as too important to be concerned about silly issues. I think if there's one person who got right the formula of concentrating as much attention as possible on those things that matter it's him and he made sure that he used to the maximum extent possible all the resources at his disposal to ensure that he was freed up to focus on the bigger issues. He's a taskmaster not just in terms of the simple tasks that he expects people to perform but in terms of responsibilities that they have. He's very clear about people either taking responsibility and delivering in terms of those responsibilities or stepping aside and letting other people who are more capable take on those responsibilities.
POM When you worked for General Nyanda were you engaged in military operations or were you putting military structures in place and recruiting people and training people and importing arms and the like?
DP What we decided fairly early on was that we would scale down military operations, active military targets being chosen.
POM A conscious decision?
DP Yes, partly because we came to the conclusion that while there was propaganda benefit to be derived from high profile bomb attacks on one or other type of installation but in terms of that activity making a contribution to our capacity to engage in military activities in support of an insurrection there was very little merit in those activities. So really we appreciated that those activities had some propaganda value.
POM They were just a one off thing.
DP Exactly. And we were very clearly focused, in Vula anyway, on the correctness of adopting an insurrectionary approach to our military capability in SA. I think the debate that took place at that time amongst us was whether political work was the prime strategy supported to the extent possibly by military actions and military capability or not and I think the balance, there was no clear understanding. No, not understanding, we weren't unanimous in our understanding of that issue.
POM Was that prior to Mac's arrival or during his stay here?
DP Oh prior to Mac's arrival there was just an arrogant assumption made on the part of MK activists that this country was going to be taken by AK47s and limpet mines. Similarly there was just an assumption by those people who were involved in political mobilisation that what was going to result in this country changing or being taken over was a mass uprising. There was a sense that there was a connect between military and popular mobilisation but no-one really had the answer in terms of what that connect or relationship was. We just had a sense, we had a political sense that MK and the political underground together would take this country. There wasn't a keen sense of what that relationship was and it was after Mac's arrival that the debates with respect to preparing for insurrection really began to get held. And I'm saying in the context of those debates it was still unclear whether it would be a case of military action supporting mass mobilisation or mass mobilisation reaching a point where a military action catalyst, so to speak, would bring the two together.
The kind of vision that we had, and we talked about it, sometimes naively, and we knew that we were preparing for insurrection which would be a combination of mass activity and military activity. As we proceeded we started getting a keener theoretical sense of what that connection and complementarity would be but we were never absolutely sure. Mac himself was probably never sure about how exactly it will unfold. But in Vula what we did know for sure was that both would be key ingredients and that both needed to be taken to a point of organisational coherence, capacity, etc., so that when that time came whatever the mix was between the two they would both be ready.
POM But wasn't it a case of there being, or sometimes you read of there being the hard liners who believed in the seizure of power by military means and the negotiators who believed the way forward would be through political means as the primary instrument of bringing about a settlement?
DP Look intellectually and in terms of the ANC's understanding there may have been a case of some people having a harder line than others but those of us who were schooled in the ANC, or in particular the SACP, understood that at each point you needed to make a material analysis of what the conditions were and what the balance of forces were and at the time we were in Vula, and this I am saying very clearly, people like myself operated off the basis that this country needed to be taken and so within Vula while we may have debated the potential or the possibility of a space being created for a negotiated solution, Vula itself by its very nature was programmed on a premise that the country will be taken and so you could say that Vula represented the hard core, hawkish, or the hard line element of the ANC. Not true, hawkish, hard core, hard line, not in terms of the individual personality traits of those individuals who were involved in Vula. Hard core, hawkish, unrepentant perhaps, yes, by organisational design. But always we were absolutely clear that we were an organisational sub-structure of the ANC and that a choice made by the ANC would necessarily render whatever we thought subservient. I don't think there was any doubt about that.
There were debates, for example, and Mac resigned or retired from the ANC and there are two perspectives to that issue and I have both. One is a personal one because obviously people like me got extremely pissed off.
POM Why did he do it?
DP A question I ask up to today. He did it because he's Mac and he did it because he thought that that was one way in which to send a signal to the leadership that you cannot ask a group of loyal, dedicated soldiers of your movement to be located here and prepare for that and when the time comes to defend them you either don't know how to defend them or walk away from them. That was historical consequence, it wasn't something that
POM Sorry, that you had a loyal group here in Vula and other underground structures?
DP Who had been deployed to march in that direction.
POM To march towards Pretoria.
DP To basically march towards every single major city of this country in order to take it over.
POM OK, at the same time?
DP At the same time because conditions have changed and because you have seen the gap opening up for negotiations, not yet a negotiated settlement, but the space opening up for negotiations but confronted with real information that shows that you have a group facing in that direction, you're not able to defend that group and you're not able to explain with a sufficient degree of political sophistication why you needed a dual strategy at that time in the negotiations. So understandably the ANC was caught a bit flat footed. You need to bear in mind as well that Vula was something that was in broad terms mandated by Kabwe in 1985, in very broad terms, and in particular the President of the ANC at that time was mandated to do whatever was necessary to strengthen the support, the leadership, the organisational structure and the communication lines within the political and military underground in the country. So not everyone, even at the highest level of leadership in the ANC, necessarily knew about Vula. Objectively speaking you have a set of circumstances in which here we were, a bunch of people with our hardware, with plans now disclosed, preparing really for insurrection but at the same time there's a group of ANC representatives inside the country exploring avenues for negotiations and they themselves sitting with the responsibility of being seen to be and actually being the leadership group of the ANC get taken by surprise as a result of the Vula revelations. Of course the ANC is not going to respond adequately.
POM Let's take it from you were arrested with, at the same time as Siphiwe?
DP On the same day, a few hours apart.
POM So were you operating out of that safe house that you were living in?
POM That you had used. A whole question has arisen of the unencrypted tapes that were picked up at that time as to why they were unencrypted when it was a rule that all unencrypted materials be re-encrypted immediately.
DP That's one way of putting it which is bound to get someone's back up, in this case technically myself because I guess that safe house was mine although I was never directly involved by that stage in the communications. I think a more appropriate question would be: why does it appear that at that time we were lax in terms of security, in terms of the extent to which we practised vigilance as trained? I think that's probably a more appropriate question because latching onto the one issue of unencrypted disks detracts from doing a general analysis of what the conditions were at that time. So those disks were unencrypted but I have a feeling that by then so much was happening in the country that within Vula itself people had become slightly confused about the political direction in which the ANC was moving compared to the mandate or the instructions that were given to Vula operatives.
I will just give a very simple example: 2 February 1990, I was lying spread-eagled on the floor of that same house, television on in front of me because there was an announcement to be made by De Klerk. 2 February I was going to be bringing in two operatives that night into the country, in that same trip bringing in a consignment of arms. That same night another unit was going to bring in another consignment of arms by the Botswana route and as I lay there, maps in front of me finalising plans, making sure all the logistics and all of the security issues had been dealt with, in front of me is De Klerk unbanning the ANC and 52 other organisations. And I paused because something said there's a contradiction here. Here I am, tonight I'm going to bring in two trained combatants, they've just returned from training in the Soviet Union, I'm bringing them into the country illegally, also bringing in a consignment of weapons and the movement in whose name I'm doing that has just been unbanned. And I proceeded and I brought those individuals and that consignment of weapons in nonetheless.
Now all I'm trying to sketch is a picture of the kind of doubt and destabilisation that kicks in when things go from a very clear understanding about what the enemy line is and where you are vis-à-vis that enemy line and what needs to be done. Almost overnight a situation where people that you consider either your peers or your political leadership who have not been inside the country for the last 35/40 years are now back home and talking with the regime. I'm trying to sketch this scenario. Mac had to leave, for example, soon thereafter in order to pretend that he was coming back with conditional indemnity as part of the ANC's team.
POM Vula was still ongoing, you were still going about your business of bringing people into the country, storing arms.
DP Absolutely. Yes. And the commander of Vula clandestinely leaves the country again and two weeks later emerges with as high a profile as the rest who have come with conditional indemnity. Suddenly you go from having worked under a certain set of conditions for years where you are protecting his identity, where you were ensuring that he is not recognised, to him now being broadcast on public television. All I'm trying to explain is that there was a very dramatic turnaround.
POM Did Mac at any point after Mandela was released inform organs of Vula that he had met with Mandela and that Mandela had mandated a continuation of Vula activities?
DP Some of us knew. I don't think he broadly communicated that, no. No, he hadn't communicated that broadly and I recall a debate when we decided not to communicate that broadly because that would have compromised Madiba himself. I think that was a correct decision not to communicate too broadly. Even if there was not endorsement, I don't think there was endorsement at that stage and I don't think that Mac was looking for endorsement from Nelson, he was simply wanting
DP No, to ensure that there was knowledge. I wonder. Look, Mac's personal relationship with Madiba is a different story and I would be so bold as to say that given where our primary mandate came from, if there was to be a change of direction for Vula it had to come necessarily from where the original mandate came. But of course the complication there was that by that stage OR had suffered a stroke and was extremely debilitated and that begs the question, if there was to be a mandate for directional change where should it come from? I don't know the answer to that question. But we made an assumption that we stuck to our posts and we trudged onward and forward and it was in that period where, I guess, we became less vigilant than we were for a number of years and it was not only the unencrypted disks, simple issues two comrades who were picked up, and this is still our conviction, who led to the unravelling of Vula and who are now dead, had not kept appointments in one case, no in fact in both cases, with me. And the thing we were trained to do in the event of loss of contact is a range of very systematic steps which we didn't take. If we had taken those failures to show up as pre-arranged seriously that safe house should have been vacated three or four days earlier. It wasn't.
POM I get the point you're making is that there was an atmosphere in the country where the Minute had been passed, coming up to the August meeting, the Pretoria Minute, things were
DP The ANC was looking for a headquarters in Johannesburg. We had entered into discussions between ourselves and Lusaka about where we thought military headquarters should be. Can you imagine? Here we are having been in a highly secretive, highly vigilant, stressed set of conditions and suddenly you're part of a discussion about where military headquarters should be when the ANC came back in a few months time. It was a simple human response and then you can look back and talk about whether the Vula comrades were as disciplined as they should have been or not but that's really an intellectual debate now. The country's all right, we've come through a negotiated settlement. Some people have not, I'm very sorry about that, and Vula was found out. A pity. But given hindsight Vula would have been disbanded anyway. So what's the issue? Personally we all carry our own perspectives largely informed by our own analysis of history and how it unfolded but more so, I believe, informed by our emotions at that time. All of us have a story to tell. It's largely similar and resonates, one with the other, but we all have our own little twist either because there's something that we want to forget or there's something that we want to say which was not the case perhaps or because very simply we're either optimists or pessimists or perhaps more importantly because some have adjusted to civilian life and others haven't. So it depends on which category or combination of categories you fall into, the nuances in your stories are slightly different.
POM Did you go to trial? After you were arrested were you interrogated?
DP All of us were, the nine who finally came to trial have a fairly similar story in that period.
POM Can you remember the name of the guy who did the interrogation? A guy I interviewed, his name was Christo Davidson, he said he interrogated Nyanda in Newcastle.
DP That could be the case. In my case it was a Captain Carr. What happened was quite interesting. Initially there was a swoop and our estimate of the number of people taken into custody was about sixty.
DP In the first two days, yes, and they sifted through those very quickly and my sense is that they had no idea what exactly it was that they had stumbled upon until they were able to print out, and of course it took them a while to begin to put the pieces together. It took them at least a week before they realised what the magnitude of the thing was that they stumbled onto. But rather than take chances I think what they chose to do was go for a broad swoop and by the time the message got out, and I was literally the last person to be arrested
POM The sixtieth?
DP I don't know if it was the sixtieth but there were no more arrests after me and I had a sense of what I was going into. I knew that I was going to be arrested.
POM At that time were you still working for Breweries?
DP No, no, by then I was a full time Vula operative. The point I wanted to make is that they sifted through those very quickly and within a matter of two to three days the number that was converted from simply being detained to being Section 29 detainees, and usually Section 29 is used as detention without trial but with full interrogation and no access
POM To a lawyer or
DP To anything. There you know that that is likely to lead to fairly serious charges. Once that happens you have a sense that they've decided to proceed but there were about 16 or 17 of us who were finally translated, taken into custody, into being Section 29 detainees and all of us went through almost six months of interrogation but within a very short period of time I think realising that there was a communication capability among some of us we were then spread throughout the country. So that's the point at which Siphiwe was taken to Newcastle, Mac was taken to John Vorster Square here, I was taken to Eshowe and moved between Eshowe and Ulundi, deep, dark Northern KZN. That's where I spent six months of my interrogation. Pravin was moved to Bloemfontein I think. Catherine was kept at a combination of CR Swart in Durban and Westville. Suzanna was kept somewhere in Durban. Raymond Lalla, I brought him into the country less than
POM Is this Chiba's brother?
DP No, no. I brought him into the country about a week before the arrests. He gets arrested and in his possession he was an MK person who needed to be brought into the Vula string because we wanted to bring his own internal military structures within the Vula command and that's the reason we brought him into the country, but he came in for whatever reason with a map and that map led to an arms cache in Soshanguve which is outside of Pretoria. In that arms cache they found a couple of AKM and AK47 assault rifles, a couple of blocks of TNT, a couple of metres of detonating cord, a couple of Markarovs, a couple of thousand rounds of ammunition and a couple of spare magazines. They took a view that he was too dangerous to keep in one place so that poor guy spent almost six months being interrogated by many different people in different parts of the country. He would be moved every seven or eight days. He got a tour of the country.
The rest of us were actively interrogated and we got a sense that what they had chosen was a 'spread far apart geographically strategy' to keep us far from each other so that, I think on hindsight, the chances of our communicating with each other would be in their view nil but that any attempt to break us out would require loads of logistical planning. We spent I think it was five and a bit months.
POM Was this straightforward interrogation or interrogation with assault or physical abuse or no sleep?
DP It varied, it varied from person to person. We didn't expect, for example, Mac to be physically interrogated given his profile, given that the ANC had commenced negotiations, given that Madiba was leading that negotiations process. We subsequently discovered that he was also physically interrogated. I think he was assaulted, he was thrown against the wall. The lesser of us were interrogated pretty exhaustively and intensively. Partly those who they thought knew the whereabouts of the rest of the arms.
POM Were you beaten?
DP Oh yes beaten all the time, sure.
DP Well for the first two weeks there was no limit to the beatings, in my case anyway and I guess that's partly because I was brought up in the ANC to follow a certain regimen of response and I did. For the first 36 hours all I would say is, "I don't know anything", and for the first 48 hours, well between 36 and 48 I would say, "Fuck you." For a day thereafter I would go back partly to saying, "I don't know what you're talking about", and very selectively disclosing information that I knew would implicate nobody but myself. But in my case for whatever reason I refused to acknowledge any knowledge of even how to use the arms. It became a battle of wits in my case rather than something that I was intelligently pursuing as a strategy to counter my interrogation process, it just reached a point in my case anyway where I had to say I know nothing, or, alternative to that, I would say, "Fuck off." Of course those two are not reconcilable. In my case I took a fair amount of beating. I am stronger in my character for that now. Less concerned about how I behaved and how I performed in the course of my detention.
POM Were you aware in any way at this point that negotiations were proceeding?
DP Had a sense. There was a very rudimentary communication channel which we had established from detention so I had managed to smuggle out a note within two and a half weeks of having been confirmed as a Section 29 detainee. It was basically giving assurance to the movement and in particular those people who I knew would now be in hiding. It was basically to say it was tough but also to reassure them not to worry. Then there were messages that came back so we got a sense, we got a sense that negotiations were proceeding and in some ways I can understand the emotions that did come into play in that period. For example, we got a sense that a suspension of the armed struggle was likely to be on the cards and one of the notes that I smuggled out, for example, did say that if you were to ask me, given where I am at this point, whether we should suspend the armed struggle or not my answer would be no. Here are people precisely who can give expression to a suspension of the armed struggle continuing to be actively interrogated, it doesn't make sense, and I personally would not support a suspension of the armed struggle. I ended on a very emotional note saying something like the ANC is my movement and in particular if the leadership of the ANC concedes a suspension of the armed struggle I will accept that concession and subject myself to it. So it was that kind of thing.
POM I suppose that's what I see as paradoxical. When one talks about Mac quitting, here was a man who spent 40 years of his life devoted solely to one thing, who had undergone enormous sacrifice and torture in that process, who had been trained to accept that when a decision is made at the top that that's the decision of the organisation and the individual is always secondary to the organisation and accepts the decisions of the organisation, suddenly saying, "No, fuck you, I've had it."
DP There comes a point where there's a loyalty to the organisation that has mixed up with it also a personal position in that organisation which for a long historical period was taken seriously in mapping the course forward.
Now I'm going to speak, I have no idea how Mac is likely to respond to how I see what he did and why he did it. I think Mac expected, and we've covered that part, Mac expects a lot of everybody but having said that I think one needs to hasten and add that he expects a lot of himself as well. In this case Mac expected the ANC and in particular certain high level leadership individuals in the ANC once Vula was uncovered to have quickly taken stock of what the implications of that uncovering were, number one, but number two, having taken stock of what the implications were to find a sophisticated reconciliation between the ANC appearing to be dual agenda, because that was the accusation at that time, and the ANC being able to defend at that time what was a dual agenda. I think Mac was looking for a sign from the ANC as an organisation that the ANC as an organisation was one capable of, loyal to its own members that it had asked to occupy fairly dangerous frontline positions inside the country and come to the defence of those individuals in a timeous and in a sophisticated manner.
Now that's quite a mouthful of demands given the conditions that pertained at that time. Was that expectation a reasonable one? I'm not sure what the answer to that question is but I have a feeling that Mac came to the conclusion that that expectation was reasonable and that it was simply intransigence and the failure to understand the importance of defending your cadreship that caused him, I think, at that time to get really, really upset with the ANC. At that time given that the ANC had burst into wide open space that a politic different to the modus operandi in existence at the time of illegality and exiled working probably caused Mac to ask a question - how do I take this reasonable expectation that I had, which the ANC failed to rise up to, where do I take that and seek some explanation or redress? And the ANC at that point had no place where you could take that and get answers.
I imagine that it was one of the few occasions in Mac's life where he felt frustrated and hopeless because gone was the very clear hierarchical and very safe and prep-formed structures of the ANC as an illegal organisation operating in exile. Here was an ANC that expanded into wide open space preparing for its first legal conference, congress, at home and, sure, there was a semblance of structure but nothing as structured and disciplined as he had been accustomed to. In that context I have a feeling that he took a view that the best way in which he could make the point that he wanted to make was to say that he was retiring.
Personally I think that was a miscalculation. Personally, and I know this because we discussed it as those less senior members of the Vula project remained within the ANC, remained active in a variety of different areas of activity in the ANC, we've discussed this and we felt that we had been abandoned because if amongst us the head of Vula saw fit to leave the ANC because of unhappiness with respect to how the ANC had responded or not responded in this case to the uncovering of Vula, what happens to the more junior members of Vula? Those of us who had profiles were all right actually. I'm very lucky, I was one of those who was charged and I could stand up and publicly declare my credentials. What happens to those thousands of people within Vula who either were not profiled because they were in hiding, but more importantly what about those thousands within the country who had never properly been recruited into the ANC and therefore were not known of by the ANC? These were the kinds of questions that we asked and, well, history spoke for itself. Not much later Mac was back.
POM I will leave it there for the moment. I might come back to you again because you're very interesting and I'm interested in your story. I collect stories, that's what I do in this country now, that's what I'm going to do for Robben Island. I have, I think, the largest single collection of anyone in the country and I've done it mostly in the years as things were happening, the negotiations for example.