Noluthando: Uncle, last night I forgot to ask you about the book you said you wrote about you and the youth.
Khulu Mbatha: Aha!
N: When was it published?
KM: This June 2022.
N: Was it timed for June specifically?
KM: Actually, there was some delay. I wanted it to be published at the beginning of this year so that by June (Youth Month) this year we could commemorate the day differently.
N: What is the title?
KM: ‘Scattered – A Personal Story of the 1976 Generation’
N: ‘Scattered? what does ‘scatter’ mean?
KM: It means spread all over the globe. This is what happened to the majority of us that left this country following the events of the revolts of the students.
N: So, this book is about that youth?
KM: Yes, and more.
N: Please explain!
KM: The book is about the journey I walked since my birth, growing up in a society officially segregated by law, where whites were superior in all respects, and Black people were juniors and subjected to daily humiliations, including forced removals. It gives details of how when I reached high school, I was swayed by my teachers at high school, Tom Manthata and Patrick Chabane (Dr), and was also influenced by the political environment of the time to look at life differently. This opened my eyes to what apartheid was all about.
N: And what happened?
KM: The events of 1976 impacted a radical change in my fate and that of my generation. Our mission was to do anything to change our circumstances and those of our country – to free South Africa from colonisation and oppression.
N: What did you do?
KM: We decided to leave the country and go fortraining. We wanted both educational and militarytraining so that we come back and take over the running of our country.
N: What? Did the government give you passports to leave the country?
KM: No Thando, this was a revolt against the government, against the system, against everything. We did not have passports, we just left and crossed borders without any papers. We jumped fences and others crossed rivers. We skipped the country, that’s what we did!
N: This sounds very interesting, did granny and grandfather allow you to do this?
KM: We never told our parents that we were leaving. They would not have allowed us to do this. We just left because we were already radicalised politically, and the killing of students made it worse. There appeared to be no other choice. We defied the system that oppressed us as Black people. In the process, we were also defying our parents and their authority over us. Keep in mind that our understanding of the situation then was that we would be back within six months or so.
N: So, you decided to leave the country, and go into exile?
KM: No, I must correct you, none of us spoke about exile. I guess many of the youth then had not usedthat word in their vocabulary. We did not understand that we were uprooting ourselves from the country of our birth, which would not have been the easiest of choices to make. No one planned to go into exile. What we wanted was training, which we knew was not possible inside the country.
N: How was the journey?
KM: After a harsh and rough trek into the unknown, I, with most of these youths, arrived in foreign countries. This was an uncharted world. If anyone had shown us a picture of what exile or exile life looks like, I am telling you, I don’t think anyone of us would have left South Africa. The country that hosted the highest numbers was Tanzania. But soon after this, we were scattered all over the globe and this book is about these experiences.
N: Did the youth that left the country not join the ANC or the PAC?
KM: That’s an important question you are asking. Before I respond to it, let me underline the fact that this book is neither a history of the ANC, the PAC, the Black Consciousness Movement, or any other organisation, nor an assessment of what these organisations stood for, what they accomplished or did not. There are many books that have been written about that side of history.
Now, when we left the country, at various times, all my friends joined these organisations. Some, like myself, remained in these organisations until we returned to South Africa following the unbanning. Some, for this and that reason, were forced or kicked out of these organisations. Some chose to remain independent. Therefore, my book centres on these individual or group experiences in these organisations or outside them. Hence, it is a personal story.
N: Huu! was this not a mammoth task?
KM: Yes indeed! That’s why it took me so long to bring everything together.
N: How long did it take you to write this book?
KM: I started drafting this book many years ago, after 1994. My friends and comrades will confirm this, I used to organise reunions and get-togethers at my home. It was with friends I grew up with in Soweto, the majority from Rockville. We spoke about how life was before 1976, what we did as young people, the schools we went to and the girlfriends we had. During my student days, I used to organise wonderful picnic getaways – for two or three days.
Then it was gatherings with friends and comrades who escaped with me into exile. For example, in June 2004, two years before the 30th anniversary in 2006, I invited comrades that were with me at a camp called Magadu in Morogoro, Tanzania. We spoke about how we lived and what we did there. I recorded and filmed some of these get-togethers. This was long before I wrote my first book ‘Unmasked: Why the ANC Failed to Govern,’ which was published in 2017. Because of the deteriorating situation in the country, I took a break to apply my mind to the state of affairs that had arisen in the country, which as you know, we are still battling with today. In early 2020 when Covid-19 hit us and we were subjected to the longest lockdown in our lives, I revisited the scripts I had put together during the past years, and then everything fell into place.
N: Now tell me, what does it take to write about yourself?
KM: In the beginning, I thought writing about myself was going to be easy. But then again, I discovered that it was not the easiest of things to undertake. You are constantly in a conversation and engaging with yourself. Should I say this or that about myself? What should I keep to myself and what should go to the public? What about family matters and secrets? What about friends and relatives? It’s a constant battle with yourself, which in the end I enjoyed very much.
N: What about the others? Did you remember all that was said during those gatherings?
KM: That’s a good question. In fact, I went back to some of those friends, those still alive and within my reach, and conducted interviews. I had to be very patient organising and setting up these meetings as not everyone was available at the same time or on the day, I needed to engage them. To a great extent, I succeeded.
N: Is that so?
KM: Yes, remember we are not that young anymore. Those still available have other tasks at home or with extended families. Some gave me excuses, but I was able to pin them down to a meeting.
N: What are some of the highlights in the book?
KM: It was experiencing the forced removals, getting politicised at high school through the 1960 Sharpeville killings, meeting Abram Onkgopotse Tiro in 1972, living through the uprising in 1976, making the decision to leave the country, arriving in exile and separating from bosom friends, going to Germany for studies, getting married and becoming a father, learning about what happened to my friends I separated from in the early years of exile, meeting Nelson Mandela while still in exile, coming back home and integrating into my family and society at large.
N: This sounds very exciting, please tell me more.
KM: No, Thando, you must read the book and that’s the reason I wrote it.
N: Okay, I am interested in history now, what should I consider important?
KM: Well, I consider everything in the book important. However, if you want to know what is the background to the 1976 uprisings, that is, what conditions made it possible for the 1976 generation to revolt? What social and economic conditions prevailed? How was ordinary life? What about the culture that existed in the townships before 1976? For example, how did the apartheid architects create Soweto as a settlement? Why did such an explosion begin in Soweto, and not for example in Kwa-Mashuin Durban, Gugulethu in Cape Town, or even in Mamelodi, Pretoria? Was it only about Afrikaans, or there was more to it? Were there underlying factors? It’s all sketched out in my personal story.
If you want to know how were things at the beginning inside the ANC and PAC in Tanzania and Angola; for example, how we were received by these organisations; how was life in the Magadu camp in Morogoro and who else was there; what led to the establishment of the school (SOMAFCO); how was life in a divided Germany and what support did countries like East Germany (the GDR) render to the ANC and who were some of the people with me in the GDR, you will find in this book.
If you want to know about the pleasant moments of exile, but also the bitter experiences of some, how others disappeared or were killed by the enemy and some by our own comrades, you will get it here. If you want to know how we returned from exile and were received by our families, and how other families either discovered or confirmed their fears that their loved ones lost their lives outside South Africa, this book deals with a few real accounts.
N: All this information is in this book?
KM: Yes! all of it.
N: Earlier you mentioned the names of your teachers, do you still remember the people you went to school with?
KM: Yes, Tom Manthata and Prof Patrick Chabane,the elder brother to the former minister, Collins Chabane, these teachers planted politics into my head. There are many names in this book, for example, the late Rev George Wauchope and President Cyril Ramaphosa were my seniors at school. Amos Masondo – the current Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces and Duma ka Ndlovu – a poet of note, screenwriter, producer and playwright, were my classmates at Sekano-Ntoane. Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse and Khaya Mahlangu were my peers, including my schoolmates, the versatile George ‘Best’ More, George Makapan – the first Black soccer player to play for Wits University, and James ‘Akulalwa Egigini’ Mabena.
Prof Keorapetsi Kgositsile and Max Sisulu, Alfred Nzo – the secretary-general of the ANC and Moses Mabhida the general secretary of the SACP, are some of the people that played a role in my life in exile. Former ministers – Dr. Zola Skweyiya and Jeff Radebe, studied with me in Germany and Dee Mashinini, the younger brother to Tsietsi Mashinini, was in Magadu too.
N: Uncle, what are your last words about this book and what is your objective?
KM: Firstly, this is a personal story about my generation, and I do hope that others will be encouraged to write their own stories and fill up the many gaps that are still there.
Secondly, every anniversary of the 1976 uprising gives us an opportunity to reflect on our past and where we come from. We must remember Nelson Mandela’s words: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” We have to make sure that the youth of today are properly armed to protect themselves and this freedom. Many who fought for our freedom never saw a free and democratic South Africa. They died and their remains lie buried in different countries. Members of their families carry open wounds with them that are not healed yet. Some of our friends, for several reasons, remained in those countries that hosted us during the struggle. Therefore, it is important that, as we mark this anniversary every year, we reflect on the sacrifices of those who were forced to cross into the neighbouring and foreign countries as a result of the June 16 uprisings. How best can we do this, especially for my generation – the youth of 1976? We have to tell and tell and tell our stories.
Thirdly, the moral regeneration of our society can best be achieved by looking back on our own history and learning from it. Furthermore, reconciliation, or what we understand as social cohesion, can only be enhanced in a more stable and participatory democracy, where there is inclusivity, tolerance and effective conflict management and resolution. This is the only way we can realise economic productivity, growth, and better quality of life for all South Africans.
On the one hand, if South African whites do not understand how Black people suffered under white rule, how can you achieve harmony? Many claim they did not support apartheid, but they do not understand or acknowledge the horrors of the system that protected their privileges as whites. On the other, Black people do not understand that despite all the past experiences, we are all South Africans. We cannot wish each other away from this country. Our fate is one after 1994.
N: Uncle, do you ever get tired of writing or telling stories?
KM: It’s my life. Let’s have tea and some biscuits.
N: Okay, before we do this, who are your heroes?
KM: Again, that’s a very important question. I know that the public sees people like me as heroes because we sacrificed our youth in exchange for freedom. No doubt, those who laid down their lives for our freedom are our heroes. But the true picture is that our heroes are our families. They made all the sacrifices at a time when many of us were in prison in South Africa or in exile. Our families stood inside the belly of the beast and continued to support us holding the hope for a free South Africa and democracy. For me personally, the emotional connection was a strong pillar of support. That’s what my mother stood for and that’s why my love for my younger sister, Maggie.
N: Okay, tea is ready.
KM: Let’s adjourn, to be continued!