Professor Chitja Twala is an associate professor of history and vice-dean in the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of the Free State.
Professor Chitja Twala is an associate professor of history and vice-dean in the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of the Free State.

Remembering the significant role ’safe houses’ played in the Struggle

By Professor Chitja Twala Time of article published Apr 23, 2021

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In South Africa, the month of April is referred to as Freedom Month with 27 April known as Freedom Day. In celebrating and commemorating this day in 2021, it is important to acknowledge the role of the contribution of safe houses to the liberation Struggle.

The safe houses were sometimes referred to as “hosting or transit” houses. The relative dearth in academic research and the scrutiny of those houses cannot be left unattended. This academic investigation attempts to contribute to the South African historiography on cross-border politics and that of liberation struggle studies.

After the banning of liberation movements/organisations such as the ANC, the PAC and others by the apartheid regime in the 1960s, these movements established networks of safe houses inside and outside the country. However, in response to this, the regime stepped up its repression by targeting such houses to destabilise the underground activities of the liberation movements.

Therefore, it is against this background that this article briefly considers highlighting the significance of the contribution of safe houses to the country’s Struggle for liberation. In counter-acting the apartheid regime’s efforts, the liberation movements embarked on tightening security measures around safe houses for those using them. These measures amongst other things included, first, that the political cross-border activities were determined by a few individuals within certain “cells”. These “cell” leaders were responsible for masterminding the exile routes of those escaping the country.

Second, for security reasons, the owners of these houses and host families were not identified. The houses would mainly be known only to the “cell” leaders. The duration of staying in these safe houses was also determined by those in leadership. Third and lastly, in most cases the political activists who used these houses were not familiar with the territory; thus, tracking their location was not an easy task. Furthermore, the apartheid agents also battled to track their routes into exile because of the limited information of how and where they stayed in transit in the north of the continent. On many occasions, the safe houses were located in towns near the border of South Africa and the intended host country. Ronnie Kasrils remembers meeting Nelson Mandela for the first time in July 1962 in a small safe house in Durban. He recalls that the house belonged to a worker.

In Lesotho there was Maleseka Kena and her husband Jacob Kena who resided in the small village of Tsoelike in the Qacha’s Neck district. Jacob Kena was an influential member of the Communist Party of Lesotho. They used their house as a safe place for South African political activists coming into the area. Although Maleseka was not actively involved in politics, she was sympathetic to the ANC liberation cause. John Aerni-Flessner notes the following about her: ‘Maleseka Kena’s life story, child-rearing, border-crossing, refugee-smuggling, and political involvement as a woman in rural Lesotho turned out to be more compelling from the standpoint of understanding how apartheid and issues of local identity impacted lives in communities of the periphery of the apartheid state. She channelled her political work into groups on both sides of the South Africa/Lesotho border’.

As mentioned previously, the apartheid regime launched raids and attacks on some of the safe houses. For example, on 30 January 1981 the South African Defence Force (SADF) raided safe houses in Matola, a suburb on the outskirts of Maputo (Mozambique). These safe houses served as transit points for uMkhonto WeSizwe (MK) cadres. During the raid 12 MK members and one Mozambican citizen were killed. Another MK member, Mduduzi Sibanyoni, later died of injuries sustained during the raid.

On 9 December 1982 the SADF launched another attack in Maseru (Lesotho). The ‘Moscow House’ which was used as a transit camp in Lesotho became a target of the SADF. This raid was unofficially referred to as Operation Blanket. In this raid 12 Lesotho nationals and 30 South Africans were killed. Attacks on safe houses in neighbouring states showed the disregard by the apartheid regime for their sovereignty. This was to instil fear in the governments of neighbouring countries so they would desist from supporting the liberation movements. The raid in Lesotho was condemned by the Commonwealth as an infringement of the territorial integrity of the sovereign states.

Not only were the safe houses or camps targets, but also offices belonging to the liberation movements. The raid in Gaborone (Botswana) on 14 June 1985 was on the office of MK. This raid was dubbed Operation Plecksy. During this raid 12 people were killed and only five were members of the ANC.

In Manzini (Swaziland), house number 43 Trelawney Park, a four-bedroomed house belonging to Buthongo and Rebecca Makgomo Masilela provided shelter for ANC members. Masilela’s house was commonly known as KwaMagogo. The house was frequented by the likes of Jacob Zuma during his underground operations in Swaziland. Others who used the house during their operations were Thabo Mbeki and Glory September. In the vicinity was the “White House” which was established by John Nkadimeng on his arrival in the country in 1976. Another safe house in Swaziland was ‘Come Again’ in Fairview.

In Botswana, a kingpin in accommodating political activists crossing into the country from South Africa was Fish Keitsing. He was a Botswana-born ANC activist who was responsible for establishing The Road to Freedom. He came to South Africa at the age of 23 as a migrant worker and joined the ANC in 1949, later becoming the leader of the Newclare Congress Branch and was its volunteer-in-chief during the 1952 Defiance Campaign. He was charged along with others in the Treason Trial of 1959-1961 and was later deported to Botswana. Before he left South Africa, Walter Sisulu asked him to set up a safe house in Lobatse. Assisted in his task of controlling the Road to Freedom were other ANC activists, including Free State-born Dan Tloome, Michael Dingake, Mack Mosepeli and Mpho Motsamai.

Although this article samples just a few of these safe houses and the role the owners played in assisting South African political activists en route to exile, more is still to be academically recorded in this regard.

* Professor Chitja Twala is an associate professor of history and vice-dean in the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of the Free State and writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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