Ebrahim Ebrahim’s extraordinary memoir Beyond Fear has had me spellbound, and I am on my third reading of it.
I have asked myself why this story is so compelling. The conclusion I came to is that Ebrahim is actually a real hero - a person of extraordinary courage and admired for his brave deeds.
In this moment of extreme disillusionment with our body politic, he takes us back to a time when our struggle for liberation was glorious - he is the embodiment of what was so noble and just about our struggle for liberation.
Former Constitutional Court Judge and struggle icon Albie Sachs describes Ebrahim in his forward to the book as the ‘quiet hero,’ and asks the question: “How does a kidnapped freedom fighter who has knowledge of the names and whereabouts of the key combatants in the armed struggle against apartheid survive the most excruciating assaults on body and mind by the apartheid state’s most notorious torturers? The answer is, “One gets beyond fear.”
Ebrahim is known for having been one of the only comrades to have been sentenced to two lengthy prison terms on Robben Island, the first for 15 years, and following his trial for high treason in 1989, he was sentenced to a further 20 years.
“The judge said I had not learned my lesson the first time as I went straight back into the struggle, so he said he would give me a sentence so that by the time I got out I would be an old man,” Ebrahim recounts in his book.
Ebrahim grew up in poverty in Durban, without toys, and unable to secure a place in school until the age of 10. He would supplement the family budget by selling samoosas and popcorn made by his mother on Friday evenings.
Despite his humble beginnings, he exhibited amazing agency in his teenage years to change the injustice in society and joined the struggle at the age of 14.
After school, during evenings and weekends he would hand out leaflets at bus stops, taxi ranks, and at mass rallies. He would join other comrades at Red Square and every weekend they would march down to Berea Road Station, to the chants of ‘Mayibuye iAfrika’ to listen to their heroes address them.
Ebrahim was involved in mobilising the peoples’ demands for the Congress of the People and represented his area in Kliptown in June 1955 where the Freedom Charter was drafted.
Beyond Fear reads like a John le Carre thriller, starting from the time Ebie is recruited into Umkhonto we Sizwe by Ronnie Kasrils in 1961, and becomes a member of the Natal Regional High Command. The amateurish way in which the founding members of MK put together their bombs was almost humorous.
They initially manufactured home made bombs using dynamite stolen from a quarry at night and were so inexperienced that they threw away the detonators. But as they developed more sophisticated tactics, they managed to blow up three major electricity pylons, plunging the city of Durban into darkness.
Following the 1963 police raids, Ebie and Ronnie escaped the first raft of arrests, and were instructed by the leadership to go into hiding. Ebie’s description of having to move around daily to find a safe house without having the finances or transport was sobering.
Kasrils, the proverbial Scarlet Pimpernel, suggested that they move to Kloof, a predominantly white area. Eventually they moved into a house which had bathtubs. This was a luxury as Ebie had never enjoyed a bath as he had always bathed in a drum of water until the age of 25.
Ultimately his unit was compromised by Bruno Mtolo who broke under torture, and Ebie was captured at the Kloof station by the security police. He underwent horrendous torture, first at Midmar dam where he was repeatedly drowned with his hands cuffed behind his back.
He eventually lost consciousness and due to the beatings permanently lost the hearing in one ear. In detention he describes how he was kicked, punched and had his head banged against the wall repeatedly. “I was passed like a football from one to another,” he said.
Ebrahim was charged as Accused Number 1 in the Pietermaritzburg Sabotage trial, otherwise known as the “little Rivonia trial,” and sentenced to 15 years on Robben Island. The book depicts those years as ones of physical and emotional torment and deprivation.
Sleeping in cells of 80 men on scratchy sisal mats on the cold cement floor was torture in itself, as was the hard labour in the quarry where prisoners had inadequate clothing and were exposed to the icy cold Cape winds along the shore. Those who failed to complete their daily quota of chipped stones would go without food and be placed in isolation on the weekends. “I starved over many weekends,” he said.
After his release in 1979 he was deployed by OR Tambo to the ANC camps in Angola to do military training and then made the Head of the ANC’s Political Military Committee in Swaziland.
Ebrahim wanted to be based in Swaziland despite the fact it was a hunting ground for Eugene de Kock’s assassins, as he wanted to be close to the people at home. He was the most senior ANC leader to be infiltrated into South Africa in January 1985, to assess the situation on the ground and make contacts with the underground units in Durban.
When the apartheid regime became aware of his presence in the country, a manhunt was under way, and he went into deep hiding for some months before being exfiltrated back into Swaziland.
In December 1986, Ebrahim was kidnapped from Swaziland by South African Intelligence agents at his underground residence on the orders of the apartheid regime’s top brass and detained in John Vorster Square where he was severely tortured. “My torturer Nicolas Deetleefs said to me ‘if you survive what we are going to do to you, we will know you are not be human’," Ebrahim said.
Ebie’s extraordinary biography epitomizes the triumph of the human spirit. It should be required reading in all schools and universities.
*Yasmin Sooka is a leading human rights lawyer working on issues of transitional justice in South Africa and abroad.