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Interview by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, Johannesburg, March 1995
Suspension points in this interview and in any quotes extracted from this interview indicate a pause or break in the flow of conversation.
Ellipses in square brackets indicate text omitted.
Some sections of this interview were very unclear, as the noise of telephones and the street intruded to overwhelm Zakes' words.
Myself I was born in a place called Eastern Native township [unclear]. It was an area divided by the railway and the Main Reef Road
between the whites and the blacks and during the time when we go there, we were considered different, we played together with whites
after school. So after school, we have the mine dumps, we used to go there we used to play soccer, we all used to play there, but
once you reach a certain age, let's say 15, 16, then you start seeing, you know, attitudes nè, then we started to realize that
no, we were no longer friends, so the world apart now, now once your reach that age its a the divided world, South Africa in two worlds.
But I schooled there, until 1970 when I left school.
Well, my mother died a long time ago, 1959, we were left with our father and my grandparents. Because of economic difficulties I couldn't
pursue my studies. So I was forced to work at a very early age. I was working all along till the period of 1976. But if you look at South
Africa then, there were some signs if you remember, tensions from the workplace, if you remember in 1973—strikes around Jo'burg.
These were sparks, which, if you remember very well, even the '76, from January it was … the situation was not normal. You
can see, you know, the tension was mounting, and if you look at the crisis within the education system, there were a lot of frustrations.
I would not say that people they didn't like Afrikaans. No, it was not like that. The question of, if you are forcing somebody to do
something, which he feels is not correct. Because there were no structures which were created to allow whatever somebody is
having some difficulties to be in a position to channel the complaints within the proper channels. So this, you were not there, the
question of the Bantu …, that was the type of situation there.
But from January till May June, because by that time
myself, I was already involved politically, I was … [phone]. So it was a question of operating under ground. We were having cells
for, for, for … I was working with one of the few trade unionists then, by the name of Laurence Nzame, he died in detention
in 1977. He was trade unionist. This is the old man who would teach us about the ANC, about the struggle, to understand correctly…
What kinds of things would he teach?
Well, firstly the political orientation, so that you have the vision, you understand all the problems, so that you know… The ANC,
was ours. You know, I grew up within the ANC. A differently father organization, it gives you … not to hate, the politics of hatred,
our politics was not based on the question of race, or to hate a certain racial group. No. It was based on the apartheid system, to
understand correctly what is apartheid. And in the end what will result in this system itself to be checked, for future generations and
all this… So that one could be brought in a position to look at it in a broader way, not narrow. So this, and the question of
recruitment. To teach how to recruit for the ANC.
So it was, that time it was still a build-up to 1976. By then already, we have
penetrated, even the student organizations. Because if you remember, there was SASO, there was SASM, which was through ANC… We have
our people within the student organizations, so that [telephone] …
We were still at the point where I was telling you about the cells, how they functioned, the aims and objectives… The recruitment,
if you remember, started before the uprising. By the time the uprising came into being, already most of some of the youth, had left the
country… to Botswana, they started there.
So, some people already left before June 16?
Yes, they went to Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, … and from there …
How long before?
By February-March there was already a movement already. It was a year that was a very dark year, you could see that … a sense that there
was something wrong, but till the spark of Wednesday, June 16 …[unclear]. There is no one thing, I really can't tell you about the '76
uprising that will explain, it will lead to a train reaction … after that it was just a chain reaction, it was anger, frustration, only.
Normally after that the students, and the people who were working, it was just a … [unclear]
… if you look at even the targeted areas of the anger, the burning of bottle stores, so many bottle stores.
There were more bottle stores than any other thing. So that … If we look at that generation … it was a generation that said no, it
was a defiant group, very defiant. The older generation was saying there is nothing you can do, you can't change it, you just keep on praying.
This generation it said no, enough is enough, and from 1976 on, onwards … I remained in the country [unclear] because I was going to
Botswana, coming back [taking people to Botswana] people … we take them out. [From] Botswana, we came back from Botswana [snaps his fingers]
back to the country … this is what we were doing. Soo, the last time they make it impossible for me to return, I was in Botswana then, with
money to take the group from Bophutatswana, if you remember very well, a group of students who burned the … both killed, one of them was a
minister … those kids … [unclear] we took them out…
Then, when I was that side in Botswana, in Gaborone, … [unclear]. The people I was working with they had already been arrested… It was
difficult for me now to come back, because once one is arrested, you don't know what happens, given the process of interrogation, [unclear] …
They will remember me. They were captured inside South Africa …[unclear].It was decided that I should remain. It was really a very fateful
year. It was sad, you know to see people being just slaughtered. It was sad.
There is a question/debate of whether the extent of the flare-up was a sign of its spontaneity or whether it was planned?
From the beginning, it was just … the march was planned, but not the after events of the march. No one expected that the government
would retaliate the way it does. Where it would just mow down everybody. But the question of the march, it was organized. The students were
organizing most of the high schools, the primary schools in Soweto, so that everybody would partake on that particular day of the march. But
the event started very early, and then when it started to go for the life of Hector Pieterson, and the others… So then from there it was
just a train crash, an emotional run, there was no planning on the retaliation. But the march was organized. But the events after, it was now
starting to be a spontaneous anger in response to the killing of Hector and other people who were killed. Because if you remember very well,
from that day only, it was a very big number of people killed, not counting the days after [unclear]. On that day only, during the day they
killed nine, it was just the gunpowder everywhere. Then other days, after that other areas in the country, but most affected was the
Can you describe the actual day
[unclear] No it was, as you have heard, this is the end of the world, because everything was just burning, it was smoke throughout Soweto,
trains were not working, roads were closed, it was terrible, lot of police…
Where were you exactly?
That time I was in my township, in Mapetla, township Mapetla. So that time, everybody now, we start to organize. As I have mentioned, the group
I belonged to. We started to teach people how to make petrol bombs and all these things, when the gas, the teargas, how to counter it. Now, the
organization started after 1976, the days which followed the 1976, because after that everybody, more our generation, was no longer
staying at his parents. We started to move out of our homes, run away, because it was a terror… Because they started to pick up and detain
everyone, come and search houses looking for what they say [was Black Power].
Where would you go?
Within Soweto but not at home … friend's houses, we can't go to the relatives, because it was easy to pick one up there directly…[other
parents would harbor other people's children] … that was the situation.
So now, it's where all these things started, thus far if you look at the generation which left during '76, basically, most of us were from—in
Soweto. Other areas started to come later, but '76 most of us were from the Soweto area. Because we were the people who were directly affected.
Describe to me the day of June 16.
After the day one, which was '76, other things followed on Thursday, following, that is on the 17th because most of other bottle stores had not yet
been destroyed, so the opportunity to call victims… Roads, there were roadblocks now, … we would take some barriers so that it is difficult
for the police to go in. So there were now no off areas of operation … [we made] petrol bombs of whatever there was around… It created a
very negative attitude towards the police … [the] suppression and violence. They used … very brutal means [unclear]… And from there
they were hated… You could look at [that] even now, because of the past, because these were the people who were directly involved unlike …
[Were there] events that were particularly shocking to you or frightening?
No, because … and the police were there backing them up.
One family, five people, were just shot to death … there was one family, there was this old women, she lost all her children in the attack. People
didn't expect [that].
… because it was during the time from '76 … there was no work here, there were no people … [We were] taking most of the youths out
[into exile], talking to people, … most of us, our parents … parents just see everyone disappear.
How did people actually get out?
Because that time—we used to get money, … we were having enough money. At the border you don't go to the border gate, you just jump the fence.
[you had] special routes?
We had continuous … people who go and look at new ways, so that if they discovered this route, the police already know that particular area …
then we retreat to another area.
[informers ] … to penetrate a cell was very difficult, because you never [knew who the other cell members were]… I only know myself …
but you will never know other people about you, which made it difficult really to penetrate the cell. They can only catch me because maybe I have
leaked the information to him. Maybe I … him one in the process, but to the other extent we managed to work till the time I was in Botswana.
Then outside [the movement was more vulnerable to informers].
[poisoning … spies] … either in the water … because in that camp it was us South Africans and the Cubans … everybody.
Describe the trip out of the country.
Microbusses … We used them during the weekend, because it is easy, most people are off work, resting at home, but we used to, we had this
trick of using the football team. Go and get a poster, take about … people … so we had a football kits inside, to put off the police.
The when we reach Mafeking, from Mafeking you can't travel with that big bus towards the border. We started to group them, give them directions,
we'd meet the other side of the border. That time, once you reach there, then one would take them to the border on the other side. But they were
very strict, Botswana people. Because once you reach that customs, you have to take the whole … [unclear] … I [did it] more than seven
times… 800 men.
Crossing these borders was courageous, not knowing where you are going… But they wanted to go, move away from …
… the percentage of women was small, but they went to school. That's why you find most of them … very courageous, if you look at the age
[big gap, very choppy, lots of words missing, telephone conversation, sound improves gradually]
He was very [interested], the old man Tambo. He was our father. He played a very much important role in taking out the anger out of us. Because
he, you know, if you sit down and looked at it when, immediately after our first training, if most of would return into the country I don't think we
could have achieved what we have achieved.
So how did he take the anger away?
They make us you know to sit, to teach certain [things] to understand correctly, what type of … We are not going to be, like PLO for example,
when they are fighting against the Israelis, even the kids… With us it was very different. We select, deal with police, deal with the army.
Civilians, if there [are some involved], is a very serious thing… He really managed to do that, and … when the time comes for one to
be taken to the front, already you don't have the ideas of somebody who came yesterday from the country. You understand correctly what is needed
of you, and so they manage it. It was that. I remember at one point in time when we wanted action, he used to say no. You are not prepared, ready
now. Then take us to Zimbabwe, take us to Namibia, so that we at least equip ourselves with fighting and all these things. But the ANC told us,
wait … a time will come. So there, systematically reducing this tension, taking away the anger… [We will] take you to Europe, take you
to where the best …you come back, no, after some time, you are normal again. So, once you come into the country, you know what is wrong and
what is right.
Once you were out, was there completely no communication anymore?
… with the parents? No, at home. Since I left '76—they started to see me [only] when I was in Pretoria … already on trial, that
was the first time. Even the time when I was operating, because I started [to] operate here inside the country from '81, '82, '83, I was
arrested in '83. You see. So I couldn't go to them, I couldn't go to my family.
So you effectively had no home?
No, we build our home inside, so. Because you knew very well that if I can go to any family member, if the information can reach the police,
the whole family will be arrested and they will be beaten and where they are going to get me. No, [I could not be going]. Now, to avoid those
things, you have to stick to certain rules and regulations.
No communication with them, you only communicate through—with your unit and your outside commanders, that's that. So you communicate
through Swaziland, Botswana, and no unit here. Finish. You don't go to shebeens, you don't go to anywhere.
So, let's just go back to your own history, you left then in October?
You decided to stay out …
…and then you went for training in … ?
… the same year. Ja, I left for Tanzania, then from Tanzania to Angola. To Angola. Then, after—my first course was '7—I
picked another one '77. And then, from '78, I was chief of logistics in a camp. I remained chief of logistics till 1980, when I left for the
Soviet Union. Then I came back, done some courses around Angola again, on … [unclear: training] explosives. '81 I was taken to the
Mozambican front, so I was operating then under General Langa [?].
… and then '81, '82, '83 you were in and out of the country?
Ja. I was operating now.
And then in '83 you were arrested?
… I was captured at Piet Retief. Even then—I was arrested in 1982—at the beginning, and then it was during the festive season,
we went to Swaziland to go and get some material. So, we fall into the trap, it was a roadblock. So now when we reached the roadblock the owner
of the car said, "no, I don't know these people," … [unclear]. "No, I don't know them." So we were taken to the police station. So when we
reach the police station I told them, "no, we are working, here are our id's [identity documents] for …" so we left. Then, [we] came back
into the country, we went through Botswana, and from Botswana back to Zambia, Zambia, Mozambique, back into the country.
Now when we are coming [back in] '83, that's where all this started. There was a shootout with us, and then they arrested my co-accused first,
and then the two of us, and then I give this other one his directions to go to Swaziland. I'll remain, because I knew the place. So, and this
one who was arrested, he was not a threat. He doesn't know where we were, he doesn't know any weapons … he doesn't know anything. It was
first time he entered the country. So I didn't have any problem. So … [there were] helicopters, dogs and all this stuff… I remained
there where I was by the water…[unclear] There was just a little island, just go and sit alone then I planned a contact with them at
twelve midnight … going back to Swaziland. But, you know, it was misty, very misty, you couldn't even see, and it was dark… And so
I decided okay, let me sleep, and in the morning I will take the … my way out. That was my biggest mistake.
[Both of us laugh.]
In the morning the mist cleared and they could see you too.
[more laughter] … and the mist cleared, and then there were the soldiers. Now, they were asking me questions… [I answered:] "No, I'm …
[unclear]. I bring this money, I was sent by my father to come and fetch this money, so he must buy building material for the old granny at home."
And they believed it, did buy that story. Immediately when I turned my back, facing … somebody came from behind … just called my name:
"Zakes." I know that was the end of it.
They knew who you were?
Ja, they had been long looking for me. Most specially because I had been in the commanding structure for outside, so everybody
always looking for the switch [snitch?]… So when I was arrested they phoned Pretoria immediately, military intelligence, all these things
were there. I couldn't sleep for three weeks, no sleep. Questions after question. Questions after questions. Now, it was worse during the times
when I am seeing everything now is near the end… In conclusion, one would go for the truck, and there was a Pretoria car, go …[unclear].
It was a turning point again, they started again: "why do you tell us all the time that we have Arabs in the ANC?" "No, is no Arabs." And you must
remember that by the time this thing … the changing of tactics, we have already been inside prisons, we understand this thing. They just tell
you: "This time we've got you my friend, and you are going for years." And it's true.
I was sentenced to 18 years. '83
So you were actually on Robben Island for how long?
Almost eight years. I was still remaining with ten years to go. [laughs] But it was an experience, really … it was an experience, and
I've been on the Island. It was an experience. You could not believe some of the things you see, the relationship which is, was … the
warder will come in there, being very very racist. But when he leaves that base, he will be a changed person. I tell you. Because
they are with us every day, talk to them, share with them, the little, whatever thing we have, we give them. Because they were prisoners
too. Their families, when they [were] supposed to get a visit, they must also go through the red tape, as myself being a prisoner. So we
share the same thing… [unclear] So we created a very strong bond relationship between us and them. And then we started really …
There were some few [warders who were bad], but the majority really, after some time … Because at the beginning is hell, when
they are still new—from Kroonstad training college—they want to implement what they have learned in Kroonstad and … This is
different, you know other prisons is different from Robben Island…
There must also be a real difference between political prisoners and …
… and criminals.
Even though I am sure they were not trained to see the difference?
… too vast differences… So, that was … But it was when I've learnt so much, for me… I can speak various languages. It's
because of the exposure outside. That's why I am saying one cannot really say that I am bitter because of [it]… No. I mean, we knew, and
we understand very well that the whites in this country belong to this country. That's why when talk about settlers we talk about something
which is 18something. But the generation which is here in South Africa, these are South Africans. They built this country with us. I mean we
are set together in all this thing to build this country. And we are so proud, because we manage even to produce the language, which are not
found anywhere in the world. Because Afrikaans is a pure South African language.
Let's go back to 1976. I'd like to know more about the difference between the ANC and the ANC cells that you were working in already very
early on, and the Black Consciousness Movement.
You see, the BC movement came during a certain period, if you look at it, it originated from the States … and internally, and it caught
up with a flame in South Africa because of the racial problems which existed. To be black and proud … dangerous you know, the Rasta
also got caught up and became a very serious confusion in the whole thing. But really you cannot say that they didn't have any role in the
politics of South Africa. They played a very important role in conscientizing the people. Because people were having a problem, you know,
to talk about themselves. So Black Consciousness Movement really helped managed to put that in the minds of the black person, that he is a
person. Is living so why not he cannot do whatever thing every other person can do.
Especially among the young people who have a generation of parents who they saw as very complacent?
Ja, Ja, so that was the aim. That it brings your life back. Be proud of what you are. If you are white why can you be proud.
Whites are proud of themselves. Why are you black people not proud of yourself. That was something it created in the mind, that I'm a living
person. I'm not different from any person. The only difference is the question of color. But they really played a certain role.
So in terms of really on the ground contact, during the early part of '76, was there tension between BC and ANC?
No, there was none—that time, it was a close[d] society. There was no ANC, there was no PAC. The organization, these organizations,
they existed underground, but above the ground level, they were really not there, because it was difficult to talk about these organizations.
You could not even refer to them by names in '76. So that is why it was a question of—everybody was just associating with any other
[unclear] as long as we all agree. That's why even now, it's … so important even now that people should accept, my belief, that we should
accept, yes, you are right to believe in whatever way you want to. As long as we don't take those differences physically. Inside here they
existed, but it was not about that. So it was not easy to trace that this particular person belongs to the ANC, this one belongs to the
PAC, this one belongs to AZAPO. It was very difficult to do that.
That's sort of more a retrospective political analysis…
So on the ground it was … ?
… there was no tension, on the ground. That's why even when we reach exile, some would go to the ANC thinking that it is PAC, they didn't
know even the difference between the PAC and the ANC.
[Author's note: Partly I am sure he is here speaking with the conciliatory voice of the present, but it is also a useful reminder that the
conditions under which any form of resistance acted and organized at the time—i.e. with careful secrecy and guarded suspicion in a time
when any political organization was illegal and informers everywhere—would have produced a similar blurring of political differences,
at least in public. This is an interesting thought that Zakes introduced here—the possibility that the conditions of severe suppression
of political expression and organization would have had a similar effect as the later need to put aside political diffrences in an effort
to unify the country and rebuild]
Now you said you were a working boy until '76… What kind of work did you do?
It was a factory work. I was working at the Penguin Ink and Pen Company, and the … then … I think I was at three places before then.
I am still trying to take this particular day apart, June 16, because a lot of people knew that the demonstration was
going to take place, but I'm wondering about how it—you personally—when and how you realized that something had gone badly wrong?
No, you see. We, the people who were working, we knew about the demonstration that is on that day. But we all left for work.
So you actually left Soweto itself.
Ja, but on the day, around 11, 12, there were already news which was spreading throughout the factories. That Soweto is burning. So everybody
started to leave the working place. So that we reach home very early. Because of the situation which has started.
So, on the trains and all this … it was just a tension, because everybody doesn't know whether his kids or her kids are still living. So this
was the whole situation.
I took the train back home, went back home. But when we came through, after Canada to Mzimhlope, the trains were not going in, so we have to come
from Mzimhlope through the Soweto township, we started to realize now that it's incendiary.
And if you will remember very well, immediately after those nè, followed the march in town. Remember the march in town, which was organized
by the students immediately after the march of that Wednesday? No, not the next day … the big march in September. It was terrible.
One hundred fifty-eight children were arrested.
Ja, the police were all over, but the kids managed to penetrate, pierce right in town. It was so exciting …[laughs]. I was here in
Jo'burg too. Because that time, we were now really involved. We don't care about work any longer.
How did you get into town?
We came in with trains, busses, taxis and all these things. Students wearing just ordinary clothing, but when they reach town, they started…
You know they reached town on three points, from Westgate, Faraday, Johannesburg, and then through the trains and through the taxis. And then when
they reached Joubert Park is where they started to remove [the ordinary clothing that covered their uniforms] … and then they started to march
… towards John Vorster. But now, the only thing that, it started before the time, because those who were arriving from Westgate—they
started you know coming in big numbers—so they started to alert the police that there is something that is suspicious, but it was really …
Do you know whether that trial ever went to court?
No that time, most of them, the people who were sentenced, … after it was bail, and then they steal the bail most of them, they run away.
[that's right, a lot of them were released on bail because they were under age] Ja, and then they run away, fled the country.
And that's why from there, when the group from the Eastern Cape was arrested there was no bail. The group of students, Sizane and others,
those they were in the … they were all sentenced. Sake Moto, … because she was very young when she went to Robben Island.
Let me check this document for you. [new side of tape]
In terms of your personal evaluation, how would you assess the whole uprising, what it means for present South Africa, how it's changed things,
and how, what the meaning actually was? Maybe think about a little bit also what it was then, and how it might have changed now.
I think—if you take the whole result of '76—though there is no one really who can appreciate that it was maybe a correct [thing to
do]. But in certain ways it has a very special influence in the whole process today. Because, this was a generation which was so eager after,
you know, the period, … you know, they take up things with vigor and so much endurance that is, for things to change. And if you look
even at the present moment, most of them they are playing a very leading role, that is within the society today. I think, I'll say we must
not really leave things to be as in 1976 again, if there are things that can be addressed very early. And try to sit down and negotiate
whatever problems, so that other generations, they must not have the same situation of 1976 which I don't think really do we quite want to appreciate.
In turn most of this present generation, they grew up within the level of violence, and in turn they are no longer …
Zakes Molotsi, interview by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, tape recording, Johannesburg, March 1995.