The Department of Defence and Military Veterans has a new deputy, and former MK soldier Kebby Maphatsoe says he’s hitting the ground running. Janet Smith spoke to him
How did you find out you were going to be a deputy minister?
“I did not know about it, really. I thought, I’m new in Parliament, I would serve in the portfolio committees, so when it happened, it took me by surprise. We were just called to report at the Presidency in the Union Buildings last Sunday (May 25).
Why were you selected by the president? What’s your relationship like with the minister?
“With the background that I’m having (as the national chairman of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association or MKMVA), I don’t think it will be much different. I’ll be able to adapt fast, although there is still room to learn. Above all, I’ll be working with Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula who has been holding those reins before. She’s now in her second term and she’s also a former member of MK and she’s in the ANC NEC. I’ll learn from her a lot.
“I think the minister would like me to concentrate on issues of military veterans, but not neglect other duties. That would be because veterans are an issue for the president and the country, and I think with having even been involved in this department getting established, I have some expertise there.
“The minister has been in Angola in the 1980s and she has been responsible also for women in Angola. She’s a well-disciplined cadre and grew up in the ANC.
“That’s one thing we need: women who are brave to stand up for other women. She’s also firm on leadership. Humble, but firm.
When did you become conscientised? When did you become a soldier?
“I was part of the Young Lions. I started getting involved in politics at an early age. I think I was 14.
“I grew up in Soweto, Mofolo Central, in a family of nine.
“The most important event in my life at that time was in 1979 when, on the eve of the hanging of Solomon Mahlangu (MK cadre, who was convicted of murder by the apartheid regime), we were organising demonstrations in schools and in the community, getting the masses to rise up and demonstrate.
“We were infiltrated and arrested in Soweto. We found out when we there at the police station saying: ‘Ah, you are also here, and you are also here’.
“That was my first encounter with detention. We were tortured, and we were held under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act.
“I was taken to what we used to call John Vorster. I stayed there for more than 14 days, but was released because there were no charges. From there, it was a life in politics. I was in high school at Mapetla High School and then Lebone Senior Secondary School and got involved in Cosas.
“Some of us were also founders of the Soweto Youth Congress. Oupa Monareng, who’s the ambassador to Burundi now; Paul Mashinini, brother of Tsietsi; Duma Mlambo, who is an MP also and the provincial chair of the MKMVA.
“It was in the 1980s, immediately after Mahlangu was hanged, that our generation reached the stage that we wanted to go into exile, get arms and come back and fight.
“We listened to Radio Freedom, which was very dangerous at the time, but one of my friends had it, so we would go to his room and listen, even if the signal was bad and it was not for very long. It gave us morale. We’d say, when we heard the sound of AK-47s and Oliver Tambo speaking, it makes us more courageous to go and fight.
“I wanted to leave in the 1980s, but my brother, Joseph Maphatsoe, found out and he said: ‘No, you can’t go; let’s go home’. We were actually on our way to the bus to town to leave, but he wanted to leave before me, so I remained. Then he disappeared.
“But we kept the fire burning in the Youth Congress.
“I left in 1983 via Lesotho. When I arrived there, this old man who was our contact, Mr Mabandla, he encouraged me to go to Tanzania to school.
“He said: ‘Don’t go to the camps yet’ and because he was old, I just agreed with him, but when the time came to leave with the intake, I immediately jumped on board to Zambia.
“Once we got there, where they did the vetting and bios and so on, they allowed me to choose to go to school or to the army and because of our experience at home, we said: ‘No, we’re going to the army’ and we joined MK.
“The majority of us were very young. I was 19 when I went to training. There was a time when Oliver Tambo (who was ANC president at the time) said: ‘You must go to school’ and those who were very young, who called him Ntate, said: ‘We left school at home, we left classes; what we require from you is, give us bazookas and AK-47s to go and fight.’ He could not convince us.
“When we arrived in Angola, we met the generation of 76s and people from the Madimoge Detachment. We were so many the first time we came in, that we changed the life in the camps. We revived the morale of commanders there. When some of the others were released to go back to the country and fight, some were also released to further their studies. We remained as the relievers.”
You must have a profound empathy with the men and women who gave up their lives for the liberation of our country?
“Some cadres have passed on, some are not doing well. It’s very painful if you meet with them. I hope with my deployment here (to the department), we can try and make sure we change some lives.
“Some have traumatic stress disorder. They’ve survived helicopters and bombs, especially that very young generation of MK, my generation, who were pushing very hard.
“I really think that generation needs to be honoured. The Young Lions are really not recognised yet. Some battles have not been spoken about. So I will try and make sure these comrades are recognised in the same way that we’ve recognised the Luthuli Detachment of Chris Hani, the June 16 Detachment and so on.
“We think about people like Monty Motloung, who was with Solomon Mahlangu, and was tortured very badly until he became a cabbage. He was also going to be sentenced to death, but they gave him brain damage instead.
“We need to talk about these things, about what happened to people. These freedoms we have today did not come easy. People died.
“We are still working with the NPA with its missing persons task team to make sure those buried secretly are found. We’ve called upon former apartheid regime security police who were involved as agents in these kinds of disappearances, to come and tell us where they are, so families can at last rest in peace.”
What about the backdrop; those of your comrades who split with the MKMVA and formed a political party, South Africa First, last year? Are you willing and able to heal those rifts?
“The president, in his speech during his inauguration, spoke about reconciliation. There’s been no split in MK. It’s only people who were greedy, who wanted to be in positions of power, who decided to leave MK. But there were not more than six, and they started the South Africa First party for this election. Where is it now? It is nowhere. It is dead.
“But some of them were put on the EFF’s list in Parliament. I have two former comrades in EFF, so we are laughing in Cape Town with them to say: ‘But why are you doing that?’ At the same time, it’s part of the choice.
“Here, in the department, we treat all veterans equally before the constitution. And the constitution also says you have the right to belong to any organisation.
“So even if a veteran is now in the DA, I must assist.
“It’s an act of Parliament: all military veterans must be assisted. So we communicate a lot with them, we smile, all those things, even if we had tensions before, we come back and we smile. If people want to come back to MKMVA, we will welcome them.
“We can’t run away from where they come from, and sometimes emotions take people.”
What’s immediately on your agenda?
“The president has told us there’s no time to settle down. This is the second phase of transition, and we must hit the ground running. We don’t have time to say: ‘No, I’m still settling down, I’m looking for a PA.’ There’s no time for looking for a PA. The time for delivery is now.
“My predecessor Thabang Makwetla, another MK veteran, was pushing hard that we deliver benefits to veterans. We can’t be an office-based department. I am also going to be outside the office. People will rarely see me in the office. I’ll be on the ground with veterans, trying to resolve their issues and uplift their lives.
“That’s my priority, really. People are dying. Situations are very dire, so we can’t wait any longer. This includes the dependents of comrades. Or history will judge us otherwise.”