HONOURED: Members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association salute at the ANCs centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein earlier this year. MK soldiers will be honoured by the Department of Military Veterans in a final ceremony at Waterkloof Air Base in Pretoria today for founding members of MK, whose 50th anniversary was commemorated this year. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

The Star pulled the story out of the blood of the thorn bush and placed it quietly on Page 5 on August 15, 1967.

The headline was common for the time: Seven killed in Rhodesian guerrilla clash – terrorist toll now 23.

The report was standard.

“Five terrorists were killed and two African soldiers lost their lives in what is understood to have been one of the sharpest clashes yet between Rhodesian security forces and guerrillas.

“Last week the government announced that small groups of terrorists had infiltrated into Rhodesia from Zambia.”

It ticked over with the vocabulary of apartheid propaganda that was keeping white fear alive.

The Cape Argus went into more detail, quoting a Rhodesian security officer who revealed that “the majority of African terrorists who infiltrated into Rhodesia were trained in Tanzania, Russia, and Communist China and to a lesser degree in Algeria and Cuba”.

And the noon edition had even more menace. An “African group” was already “on the way to the Transvaal”, and all possible measures were being taken by the SA Police to prevent the “terrorists” crossing the border.

Security forces, it admitted, had clashed in two pitched battles with a “gang” of about 30. Eight had been shot dead in fighting concentrated in the remote Wankie-Delta area in the Zambezi Valley, and the fugitives were being hunted by soldiers, police, tracker dogs and spotter aircraft.

A week later, reports had become heavier with adjectives.

“A murderous game of hide and seek is going on in the thick thorn bush country of Matabeleland where security forces yesterday killed five more terrorists and captured one. The Rhodesian forces also had casualties: Three men were killed.

“Last week, two African soldiers were killed in the first clash with the tough band of Algerian-trained South African terrorists who were trying to make their way south to the Transvaal.”

It was clear from the stories that there were more South African fugitives than previously thought. Trains heading south from Victoria Falls were being stopped and searched before reaching Bulawayo.

But no ordinary person reading South African newspapers then could have known that “the tough band of terrorists” were being led by a young commissar by the name of Chris Hani or that they were members of the banned ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). They would never have known that the guerrillas were the elite Luthuli Detachment – named that way on the eve of the Wankie Campaign by Oliver Tambo – who had gone to war with Joshua Nkomo’s Zipra.

The ANC president had been standing on the banks of the Zambezi River in the deep darkness of a bush night, addressing the MK troops, when he named them after his late predecessor, Albert Luthuli.

Luthuli had just died, in July 1967 – only a couple of weeks before the detachment stepped secretly across the border for the movement’s boldest venture in its history.

Today at Waterkloof Air Base in Pretoria, those valiant freedom fighters who lost patience waiting and tried to fight their way home with Zimbabwean guerrillas will be honoured by the Department of Military Veterans. The ceremony is the final medals parade for founding members of MK, whose 50th anniversary was commemorated this year.

The government has been clear: it is a constitutional obligation to “honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land”, and the Military Veterans Act makes provision for the memorialising.

Two other parades have already dignified several heroes for bravery, including Nelson Mandela, Tambo, Joe Slovo, Andrew Mlangeni and many of the first generation of South Africans who took up arms against apartheid in 1961 when MK was established.

More than 400 ex-soldiers have so far been decorated and today, President Jacob Zuma will single out 43 outstanding members of the Luthuli Detachment, with more than 70 medals conferred posthumously.

There has apparently been some controversy inside the MK Military Veterans Association for the fact that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is on the list to get a medal, but in the interests of camaraderie, no official brouhaha is being made about this.

Zuma will himself be receiving a medal, as will former president Thabo Mbeki.

Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thabang Makwetla explained that Mlangeni, the most senior member of MK after Mandela, would give the medals to Zuma and Mbeki.

“This was a decision which was arrived at with the consent of the former president, who can’t make the awards himself.”

Many of the movement’s luminaries will be lining up, including Zola Skweyiya, high commissioner to the UK and Northern Ireland; National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu; and Josiah Jele, a former ambassador to the UN.

Among those to be honoured posthumously are Thomas Nkobi, a former treasurer-general of the ANC; Stanley Mabizela, a former high commissioner to Namibia; and MK hero Vuyisile Mini, a trade unionist who was among the first to be sentenced to death by the apartheid state. He courageously faced its wretched gallows in 1964.

At a parade this year, Zuma warmly edified Mini, who “symbolised the determination and valour of the Luthuli Detachment when he refused to divulge details that could have compromised the members of the High Command, even if for him it meant death”. The president related the story of how Mini sang loudly on his march to the noose, “with that deep voice… walking tall with his head high, [warning] the then-prime minister ‘nantsi indod’ emnyama Verwoerd, passopa nantsi indod’ emnyama Verwoerd’.”

Although soldiers who fought in the Wankie Campaign have been especially lionised, those who joined MK after its establishment in 1961 retrospectively also became part of the Luthuli Detachment – the first ANC military formation.

Those who joined MK after 1976 were called the June 16 Detachment. They were followed by the Madimoge Detachment in the 1980s – named for the BaPedi queen – and finally, there was the Young Lions Detachment, the last group to leave the country for military training in the 1980s.

It was a merciless challenge for the ANC operating outside the borders of its own land where repression was in full, dark flower. No voices from exile could be heard and no reference could be made to the people’s heroes.

The audacious story of the Luthuli Detachment was completely silenced, with only oral testimony quietly giving it life.

Nearly 20 years after the Wankie Campaign, Hani – writing in Dawn, the journal of MK – proudly reflected on the men whose job it had been “to build bridges, a Ho Chi Minh trail to South Africa”.

He said: “There was a spirit of looking forward to battle with the enemy. We had undergone… training in the Soviet Union and other places and had always looked forward to this historical engagement between ourselves and the forces of the enemy. There is nothing [so] scintillating and stimulating to a soldier as to test his whole reactions in actual battle, your responses when you are under fire.

“I think the biggest legacy of the Luthuli Detachment at Wankie was the sort of absolute commitment of our fighters to the revolution.”

Talking about the first firefight, Hani called it “a virgin victory… since we had never fought with modern weapons against the enemy”.

Writing about the second battle, he said: “The story was the same as in our previous battle. The enemy fled, leaving supplies, weapons, grenades, uniforms and communication radios.

“Another victory for our detachment. I want to emphasise the question of victory because the Luthuli Detachment was never defeated in battle.”

Tambo went back to the beginning of the 20th century to elevate his comrades.

Writing in the banned Mayibuye journal in 1981, he said the Wankie Campaign of 1967 was a moment as important as the Bambata Rebellion when the Zulu chief plotted an armed insurrection against a hut tax which had entrenched hardship during an economic depression.

White colonial police were ambushed and four killed before the cavalry and artillery moved in and thousands died.

“As we saw [Wankie] at the time, it was Sharpeville in reverse; a glorious reply to the massacre of our people. We are fighting in Rhodesia today; tomorrow we shall be fighting in South Africa.”

The ANC’s national executive committee has long used the triumphant language of revolutionary glory to bolster the Wankie legend. It released a statement in 1986, writing of how “in battle after battle, the racist forces were overwhelmed by the courage and firepower of our gallant fighters… who fell on the sacred fields of Zimbabwe with the warrior cry Victory or Death on their lips. How Wankie revived the spirits of our people inside our country, restored courage in the face of repression and revitalised the revolution! That indelible page in the history of our struggle is written in the annals of the Luthuli Detachment… whose members lie buried in many countries… and whose members even today serve in our front ranks. If the revolution survived… it survived to a significant extent because of our Luthuli Detachment.”

The military adventures of the 500-strong unit, which formed MK’s first generation of soldiers, included Rivonia, the Sabotage Campaign, the Rhodesian campaigns of Wankie, Sipolilo and Kalomo, establishing sea routes via Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, and recces into Botswana, the Caprivi, Nampula, Tete and Nyasa.