Johannesburg - Joel Martins stepped into the room to find an AK47 aimed at his head. But the man holding the assault rifle in that small house in Dube, Soweto, wasn’t there to shoot Martins.
He was a friend who Martins knew only as Sipho and had been sent on a rescue mission by the Old Lady, the name used for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
In fact, Martins would later learn that the Mother of the Nation was the brainchild of this rescue mission and was waiting in a Kombi close by.
The street was swarming with undercover cops, who were staking out the house but Winnie had insisted on coming along on the operation that possibly would turn into a shootout between MK members and the then security police.
This was a time when many in the Struggle saw Madikizela-Mandela as the face and figurehead in the war against apartheid, while her husband Nelson Mandela remained imprisoned and the state had banned any images of him.
But on this day in July 1988 Martins was to see another side of the Old Lady who was willing to put her life on the line for an ANC comrade.
Sipho motioned with the AK47 for Martins to step aside just as the undercover security branch officer walked into the room. “I told Sipho that he mustn’t shoot,” recalls Martins.
Up until that moment, Martins had been preparing himself for either a long prison term on Robben Island or more likely death. He had been arrested on June 25, 1988, and it didn’t take long for the security police to realise they had a member of the ANC’s special operations unit.
Days of interrogation were to follow. While being tortured and shuttled between police stations, Martins worked out a plan to minimise the fallout of his capture. He decided he would give up Jabulani Khumalo, a courier who passed on messages between operatives in the South Africa and the ANC in Botswana.
“I knew that Jabu wasn’t involved in anything that might send him to Robben Island or the gallows,” recalled Martins, who believed this plan would give other MK guerrillas enough time to evade the police.
It was during one interrogation that Martins got a lucky break.
He was handed a pen and paper and was able to write a quick message. He wrote in tiny block letters: “Rachet has been caught. Johnson who is in the security has also been caught. Both are still undergoing interrogation. Behave normally when they are made to phone Botswana. I’ve been in detention since 88-06-25-Lele. Let Malanie keep the clothing, please. This is the leather jacket and tracksuit at Kagisong at Mgoditane.”
He then tucked the note into the hem of his jersey.
On July 23, Martins accompanied by an undercover police officer visited Jabu’s home in Dube village. Jabu wasn’t there but Martins was able to slip the note to his wife, Monica Mbuli.
The next day they returned to the house, hoping to find Jabu. Instead they found Sipho hiding behind the door with an AK47. “I told Sipho that the place was crawling with cops,” says Martins.
Sipho tucked the AK47 into a large paper bag and he, the cop and Martins stepped out of the house.
Close by, recalled Martins, was a Kombi, with “University of Witwatersrand, SRC” branded on its side.
The biggest surprise was when the Kombi door opened and there was Winnie in tears. “I said to myself ‘what the f*** is this guy doing? I said to Sipho, why is the Old Lady on this mission?
“She insisted on coming,” replied Sipho.
All Winnie wanted to do was hug Martins, still with tears in her eyes.
The Kombi sped off and it wasn’t long before the police realised they had been duped. They gave chase.
But according to a police docket, the cops soon lost them in the traffic.
Martins again protested, demanding to know why Madikizela-Mandela was on the mission. “She said to me, ‘Hey, look here, I planned this operation. Say thank you'.”
They later dropped the undercover cop off unharmed and Martins slipped away to continue his fight against apartheid. Months later, he would learn that Sipho had died in a shootout with security forces.
In a police docket it was suggested that Madikizela-Mandela be investigated for her role in the operation. But it appeared that nothing came of this investigation.
As for Martins, he later ended up working for Eskom, and from time to time would still see Winnie and reminisce.
Next week, Martins plans to pay his last respects to the Old Lady, who made sure he lived. “She risked her life to save mine. It was selfless sacrifice that Winnie was prepared to make,” he said.
The Saturday Star