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Two lives cut short in their prime

File photo

File photo

Published Jun 29, 2014


Petrus and Jabulile Nyawose were union workers who helped the banned ANC. They were killed while living in exile in Swaziland, writes Ivan Pillay.

Johannesburg - By the time I met him in the mid-1970s, Petrus Nyawose was short, round-faced and had a protruding belly. He clearly enjoyed his food and didn’t work out as much as he used to in the early ’70s when he had been a bouncer at The Paradise, a popular nightclub in Durban.

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He had six fully functional fingers on each hand, which made people believe he was an extremely lucky person. In a way he was. He made friends easily, and with people from all races. For example, he lived free of charge in the outbuilding of a white Pinetown family he had befriended.

Petrus was an affable, jovial, animated person whose face lit up in conversations. He got on famously with almost everybody. This served him well in his job as the manager of “Sudan herbalists”, a business that employed about 50 African female typists who sent out advertisements by mail and dispatched herbs to customers.

“Comrade” Petrus was treated with great respect by all these workers as well as by the owner, even though he spent most of his working hours at the offices of the Black Allied Workers Union (BAWU).

I first met Petrus and his wife, Jabulile, in 1975 through Menziwa Mbeu, then an employee of BAWU whose leadership supported the Black Consciousness ideology. Petrus chaired the workers’ committee that managed the Durban BAWU branch. But it was Jabulile who was the real unionist.

Jabulile came from an activist family: her father, a messenger for the Natal Witness, a daily newspaper in Pietermaritzburg, had been detained but never charged in the 1970s for ANC activities.

Jabulile had previously worked for the emerging unrecognised industrial unions in which Rick Turner, Eddie Webster and Alec Erwin, the former minister of Trade and Industry as well as Public Enterprises, played important roles.

Jabulile and Petrus worked long hours for BAWU, focusing on delivery to members and paying increasing attention to workers’ education. There was little time for a home life, so the youngest of Pat and Jabu’s three children, a little girl, grew up in the union offices. Her cot was two armchairs facing each other.

Gradually, BAWU moved closer to the Freedom Charter and Congress Movement. By then Petrus, I and my brother Joe, had been drawn by Sunny Singh into a unit of the ANC underground. Sunny had just been released from Robben Island after serving eight years.

Pat was tasked to be the contact between our unit and another one headed by Shadrack Maphumulo, also an ex-Islander. Judson Kuzwayo, another Islander, was also part of the underground.

Among our tasks was the escort to exile of two leading ANC members, Mac Maharaj and Steven Dlamini.

Maharaj, recently released after serving 12 years on Robben Island, and Dlamini, the first president of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu), were both banned and under house arrest at the time. It was Petrus who took them over the border into Swaziland.

As Maharaj recalled in his biography, Petrus introduced him to Kentucky Fried Chicken in a bucket!

We were also involved in distributing leaflets and painting slogans. In my brother Joe’s name we purchased a number of vehicles and a smallholding which we intended to use to accommodate trained MK cadres.

Unfortunately, our activities were disrupted by the arrest in 1977 of Shadrack Maphumulo.

When we read about the arrest in a daily newspaper, we feared that the police might discover the information about the smallholding and the vehicles.

It later turned out that we had been right: they did find documents pertaining to the purchases.

Therefore, that morning, a Saturday in June 1977, Petrus, Joe and I met in a secluded area in Chatsworth to discuss what we should do. We determined that Joe and Petrus would leave for Swaziland as they were both exposed to Maphumulo.

They left immediately, even though that happened to be the day Jabulile’s brother was getting married.

We knew she would be livid. Couldn’t they at least wait until after the wedding? Petrus had consented to being both best man and driver of the wedding vehicle. Where were they going to get another best man, another driver, at such short notice?

We felt the danger was too great to wait and Petrus and Joe should leave immediately. I was left to deal with Jabulile’s rage.

Moreover, I had to keep visiting and phoning her to find out whether the police had been pressurising her. It was vital to know whether “they” were on our tail. A week later, Jabu told me she wanted to leave and join Petrus.

After crossing into Botswana, Jabulile and her youngest child eventually moved to Swaziland to join Pat.

Their two other children also joined them there. Another child, a boy, would be born in their place of exile a few years later.

The couple became part of SA Congress of Trade Union (Sactu) structures in Swaziland.

Petrus also worked closely with Stanley Mabizela, the chief representative of the ANC in that country, effectively becoming his deputy. As had become Petrus’s trademark, he quickly gained access to high levels of the Swazi government, including the Special Branch.

This enabled the ANC to influence decision-making with regards to the ANC and to get early warnings of hostile activity. I linked up with Petrus in Swaziland about a year after the family settled there. As was the procedure, we were all renamed. He was now Nzima.

Petrus’s quick rise to important roles in MK raised some eyebrows among ANC stalwarts and MK cadres who could not understand how a person who had not gone for military training could have been given such demanding responsibilities.

The truth was that Petrus was an extraordinary person. He was a quick learner and always had a can-do attitude. He had been a manager, he could lead and he could deliver.

Not known to many, Petrus was recruited into the ANC’s Intelligence and Security.

During his tenure Petrus was the controller of the ANC’s most successful recruit among Swaziland’s notorious Security Branch.

From time to time, Petrus would brief us on the security situation, informing us of the activities of those who were informing the Security Branch about us and further attempts to infiltrate the ANC.

Using his network of informers, Petrus often protected us from attacks and kidnappings by giving us early warning.

One day I received a number of frantic messages from him.

When we met he told me that there was a squad of South African Security officers in Swaziland with the intention of kidnapping cadres.

They had 10 persons on their target list. Pat, my brother Joe and I were on it.

I informed my brother that afternoon when we met at the Manzini library of the impending danger.

Unfortunately he did not take the warning seriously and stayed where he was. That night, the squad – comprising South Africans and some Mozambicans, who were members of Renamo, a rebel army opposing the Mozambican government which was supported by South Africa – came for him.

There were witnesses to the kidnapping; and a South African ID (a dompas) was dropped.

Petrus worked tirelessly to pressure the Swazi government and the Swazi Special Branch to, in turn, pressure their South African counterparts for Joe’s safe return.

We also linked up with anti-apartheid movements in Western countries to start an international campaign for Joe’s release.

We struck luck when a witness to the kidnapping recognised one of the kidnappers, who was, without a care in the world, walking around in the Manzini area!

The man was followed by Swazi police; he and his band were arrested and negotiations for a trade-off began. Six weeks later Joe was released – the first kidnap victim to be returned by the apartheid government.

In the end, the agents of the regime got to Petrus and Jabulile.

They were killed when their vehicle was blown up on June 4, 1982, outside their flat in Matsapha, a suburb outside Manzini.

Petrus and Jabulile were only in their mid-thirties. They left behind Ntombenhle, Lindiwe, Nomzamo and Philani.

* Ivan Pillay is the acting Sars commissioner. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent

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