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Book Extract: Beyond Fear - Reflections of a freedom fighter

Ebrahim Ebrahim at an ANC rally with Terror Lekota, Harry Gwala, Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani. Photo: SUPPLIED

Ebrahim Ebrahim at an ANC rally with Terror Lekota, Harry Gwala, Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani. Photo: SUPPLIED

Published May 2, 2022

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Beyond Fear is the testimony of Ebrahim Ebrahim, a revolutionary among revolutionaries, whose poignant and inspirational account of his years spent dedicated to bringing down the apartheid state is told in ways we have not heard.

In this extract from Beyond Fear, Ebrahim Ebrahim’s long awaited autobiography, he describes his recruitment by Ronnie Kasrils as one of the founding members of Umkhonto we Size in Natal in 1961. He recounts their early sabotage acts against the apartheid state, with virtually no training and dynamite stolen from a nearby quarry. The attacks made headlines around the country and shook the apartheid regime to the core.

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In 1962, I was working in the New Age office when Ronnie Kasrils, who was a year younger than I was, popped in and suggested we go for a walk.

He was a frequent visitor there, though we seldom took strolls together. The timeline is of course important here because the ANC had been banned in 1960, eighteen days after Sharpeville – and not only the ANC, but also the SACP. This meant it was dangerous and illegal to talk about these things in the open in 1962. So if we wanted to discuss something confidential, we usually went outside.

Ronnie and I made our way down the main streets until we got to the bay area. We couldn’t sit down on any of the whites-only benches together in case we attracted attention. Always very security-minded, Ronnie was calm but careful, and I had a feeling from the time we left the office that what he was going to say would change my situation.

As we were walking, he told me the MK regional high command wanted me to join. It also wanted me to establish and lead an MK unit in Durban.

I suppose this was not unexpected, but I felt a huge sense of responsibility in the way I should reply. I was committed to the struggle, but I wasn’t in favour of violent resistance. It was complicated to move from years of peaceful resistance into armed opposition. I was also young – twenty-five years old – although I had already been in revolutionary circles for ten years. My comrades were like family; our common fight was the context of my life. There was no turning round and living some other life.

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There was also a realisation among us that the scope for non-violent resistance was narrowing because of the brutal determination of the regime. What would waging an armed struggle mean if I said yes? I would have to agree to organise and participate in sabotage, to hit back at the regime using explosive devices targeting government infrastructure. The instruction from the leadership was to avoid the loss of innocent lives at all costs. Most of us didn’t have the luxury of time to really think the issue through. We were certainly not able to discuss it far and wide, particularly not with our closest family members. Our decision had to be made largely on our own conscience. So I agreed.

My first task was to identify comrades in the Durban central area who I thought would be loyal cadres. We weren’t looking for many. We needed a tight group. Ronnie would then convey their names to the regional command, which fell under a national high command, for approval. As it happened, the first of them came to me. Sunny Singh, who joined the resistance movement in the early 1960s, arrived at the New Age office one morning and expressed a keenness to sign up for the NIC Youth Congress.

He had read about the Sharpeville shootings and the subsequent mass demonstrations.

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But there were challenges. None of us had any training in bomb- making or the handling of explosives. Our only ‘weapon’ at first was chilli powder, which we sprinkled on the ground to put off tracker dogs. We decided to steal dynamite from a government construction site at night.

There was a shed there with equipment inside and we went armed with a carrier bag, not knowing how big the dynamite was or how it really looked, only to find out it was contained in big boxes. It’s hard to believe that we threw away the detonators, as we had no clue of the function of the ‘little metal pieces’. Someone from ANC headquarters had to come and show Ronnie and me the correct way to use and store the dynamite. We found out that night how to pack it in tightly sealed plastic containers. Once we knew how to do that, we stole so much dynamite that we had enough to supply MK in other provinces as well.

It was challenging not to have proper factory-made timing devices, though. We thus had to solve the problem of how to ignite the fuse without blowing ourselves up. We understood from our basic lessons that if you pour a certain chemical onto sulphuric powder, you get fire, but of course, we had to delay the liquid from contacting the powder. We found that if we put it in a small capsule, it took about half an hour to eat through, in turn igniting the powder. To prolong the delay to about an hour, we put the small capsule into a bigger one. From beginning to end, our operations lasted about two hours each, including being picked up and getting home. Throughout, we had to follow the most stringent instruction: injuries were to be avoided at all costs.

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We sought out isolated places on the outskirts of Durban where we would dig a hole and bury the containers of dynamite. Ronnie and I memorably buried one in the Bluff region overlooking the sea on a sand dune. Thereafter, whenever we needed dynamite for an operation, I would take a bus to the suburb of Merebank on that headland, bearing a paper bag. I earned near to nothing in wages at New Age, and paid my own costs to fetch the explosives. I would walk up the hill to the viewpoint where we had sunk the container, and would dig around in the soft sand with my bare hands until I felt it. I would then remove the necessary explosives, put these into the bag, close the lid and once again hide the container. I then carried the dynamite back with me in the bus to meet Ronnie and hand over the packet. (1031)

Book cover of Ebrahim Ebrahim’s book “Beyond Fear: Reflections of a Freedom Fighter”

*** Join Shannon Ebrahim, partner of the late Ebrahim Ebrahim, and other panelists at any of the launches below. There'll be one close to you!

GAUTENG

AB Moosa, CEO of Avalon Group, in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim, Ronnie Kasrils, Former Minister of Intelligence Services of South Africa and MK Veteran, and Yunis Shaik, former trade unionist, member of uMkhonto weSizwe, lawyer and currently CEO of eTV Holdings

Date: Thursday 5 May

Time: 18:30

Venue: CineCentre Killarney, Killarney Mall, Johannesburg

Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim, Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Dr Naledi Pandor, Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria and Dr Sithembile Mbete, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences and Director of Programmes at Futurelect

Date: Monday 16 May

Time: 16:30

Venue: Future Africa Space, University of Pretoria, Pretoria

Siphamandla Zondi, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Johannesburg, in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim and Yasmin Sooka, Human Rights Lawyer and former Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa

Date: Monday 30 May

Time: 15:00

Venue: Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg

Joanne Joseph, broadcaster and award-winning author, in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim and Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs of South Africa

Date: Thursday 9 June

Time: 18:00

Venue: Exclusive Books Hyde Park, Johannesburg

KWAZULU-NATAL

Gcina Mhlope, activist, actor, storyteller, poet, playwright, director and author, in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim and Sunny Singh, Treasurer of the Military Committee in Maputo, Robben Island prisoner, member of uMkhonto weSizwe and ANC Representative in Holland

Date: Saturday 14 May

Time: 14:00

Venue: South Africa in the Making, Shop 7, Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban

WESTERN CAPE

Siraj Desai, Human Rights Lawyer and retired Western Cape High Court Judge, in discussion with Shannon Ebrahim, Albie Sachs, acclaimed author and former justice of the first constitutional court of South Africa, and Yunis Shaik, former trade unionist, member of uMkhonto weSizwe, lawyer and currently CEO of eTV Holdings

Date: Saturday 4 June

Time: 18:00

Venue: District Six Museum Homecoming Centre, Cape Town

To RSVP for one of the launches above, please contact [email protected] Please indicate the launch you are RSVPing for by including the venue in the subject line.

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