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Mac Maharaj is one of thousands who endured severe brutality at the hands of security agents, writes Themba Khumalo.
Johannesburg - Justice would not be served if South Africa were to celebrate its 20 years of democracy without recalling some of the sacrifices that most of the revolutionary heroes and heroines went through.
I am doing this without defying Nelson Mandela’s call to “forgive but not forget” the past as a way to forge the spirit of national reconciliation.
In my view, it is important for us to look into the past in order to prepare for a better future.
Equally, as we celebrate youth month, it is important for our children – better known as “bornfrees” – to know that this freedom was not donated on a platter and that thousands of South Africans laid down their lives and thousands of others endured severe brutality at the hands of security agents.
It is my hope that after reading some of the episodes of torture that are reflected in this article, some people will learn to respect our country’s history and cherish our freedom as a nation.
For nothing is as heart-wrenching as hearing some people pronounce boldly that under apartheid South Africa was better than it is now.
It’s not uncommon to hear some youth in their typical Model C intonations say they are not interested in what happened during apartheid and that they are concerned by what happens now.
Perhaps the biography of Sathyandranath Ragunanan “Mac” Maharaj, Shades of Difference, which I read some five years ago, captures in minute detail the plight of detainees at the hands of apartheid security police.
Maharaj, now a spokesman for President Jacob Zuma, is a former operative of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC.
In the 1960s he was detained at Marshall Square police station (now Johannesburg Central police station) under Section Six of the Terrorism Act, for his involvement in the underground movement.
He was in a group that was rounded up after the Rivonia Trial in 1964.
He was tortured by a well-known sadist in the security circles of the day, a Colonel Swanepoel, whom his colleagues fondly nicknamed die Rooi Rus (the Red Russian).
Swanepoel had earlier led a team of security police that raided Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia and arrested the leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe that included Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Raymond Mhlaba, among others.
Apparently, Swanepoel gained his notoriety after torturing some of his captives severely and elicited confessions that culminated in the Rivonia Trial.
The apartheid government credited him for “breaking” what it considered a communist threat to South Africa and he was aptly nicknamed the Red Russian.
In Shades of Difference, Maharaj says that for months on end, Swanepoel took pleasure in subjecting him to the kind of brutal torture that would make the Nazi Gestapo look like Sunday angels.
Apparently, Swanepoel’s favourite torture method was to make Maharaj stand naked at the edge of a table in a torture room known as die Waarheid Kamer (Truth Room).
He would handcuff his hands behind him and place his private parts on a table and hit them hard with a blunt object.
He would do this repeatedly until Maharaj fainted. When he came to Swanepoel would ask Maharaj to save himself the trouble and confess his “sins”, but the detainee would not budge.
In desperate times the bouts of torture would be accompanied by deprivation of sleep for successive nights.
The cocktail would be repeated and when Maharaj stood his ground, Swanepoel would order his henchmen to take the “parmantige coolie” to the cells and retire for the day.
The next day the brutality would be repeated over and over again until Swanepoel finally gave up.
After being sentenced to 12 years in prison Maharaj was sent to Robben Island where he joined Mandela and others.
Later, when he was released, Maharaj managed to smuggle Mandela’s manuscripts from Robben Island and to take them into exile when he left the country to join the ANC.
Detainees who were tortured by Swanepoel after Maharaj’s trial were warned by Swanepoel that in his history of torture, Maharaj was the only “terrorist” who withstood his brutal methods.
Maharaj was later sentenced to 12 years on Robben Island for his underground activities.
Maharaj is one of the members of the Political Military Revolutionary Council of the ANC to infiltrate South Africa in the late 1980s to set up and strengthen MK structures in the country in the event the negotiations with the apartheid regime bore no fruit.
In his foreword to Shades of Difference, Nelson Mandela was overawed by Maharaj’s heroism and called him Ngquphephe, after a one-eyed hero in Xhosa folklore.
The author of Maharaj’s book, Padraig O’Malley, described his subject’s underground work and personal sacrifice in the following words: “Mac’s life is an expression of the struggle against apartheid and institutionalised oppression, of the triumph of endurance in the face of almost insurmountable odds, of absolute conviction in a cause that became his raison d’être and consumed him to the exclusion of all other considerations and led him repeatedly to put his life at risk.
“He lived in a special world, one he had to create in order to survive, a world of half-truths, outright lies, deception, and the compelling need to trust judiciously, for even trust might be the instrument of betrayal.
“Few could measure up to his demanding standards, and few had the stamina and intellect necessary to keep him from a ruthless, relentless obsession to turn his vision of South Africa into reality.
“His iron discipline and will contrasted with his surrender of self to the movement.”
I have vivid memories of Swanepoel when he led a group of riot squad police at Baragwanath taxi rank where they were called to “deal” with a group of youths who were throwing stones along the main route that leads to Soweto.
This was June 17, 1976, when the student unrest spread like wildfire after the shooting of Hector Pieterson in Orlando West the previous day.
Three people died in the wake of Swanepoel’s men’s intervention, among them a 13-year-old girl who had been sent by her parents to buy bread from the local shops.
At the time of his death in the 1990s Swanepoel had been promoted to the rank of colonel.
* Themba Khumalo is a public servant writing in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.