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James April a former MKA soldier and political activist who spent 15 years incarcerated on Robben Island. 260808 - Picture: Jennifer Bruce
1123 James April a former MKA soldier and political activist who spent 15 years incarcerated on Robben Island. 260808 - Picture: Jennifer Bruce

Honour for unsung heroes of MK’s military campaign

By Time of article published Aug 2, 2012

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Janet Smith

OLIVER Tambo was not dressed in fatigues. In his trademark spectacles, dark trousers and a jersey, he would have looked like any ordinary middle-aged man.

But he wasn’t an ordinary man. Standing under cover of night on the banks of the Zambezi, he was the supreme commander of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s military wing.

Tambo was a revered figure for the 80-odd men of the Luthuli Detachment who were waiting to cross the river into then-Rhodesia. They planned to take the liberation movement’s fight to get back home, right into the hands of the enemy – and he was there to encourage them. Who knew how many would return?

It was August 2, 1967, and the MK soldiers under the command of Chris Hani were to embark on the ill-fated Wankie Campaign. There would be many heroes in the many battles that went on for weeks as MK bravely crossed through the Rhodesian reserve. There would also be casualties, and at the end of it, Hani and a number of his soldiers would land up in prison in Botswana.

But today is a moment for celebration at the memory of a valiant attempt that made headlines all over colonial and post-colonial Africa. And that’s why the Department of Defence and Military Veterans is using this occasion to host its first medals parade for MK, in Bloemfontein.

Medals will be given to veterans of the original Sabotage Campaign, which includes the Rivonia trialists, as well as the Wankie, Sipolilo, Tete, Caprivi, Aventura, Botswana Recce, Kalomo, Nampula and other military adventures of the original MK leadership.

Different detachments will be awarded the same medal with the number of bars used to differentiate between them. Gold, silver and bronze medals will be given for bravery and merit, and there will also be platinum medals given out in three classes for the founding leaders of MK.

Class 1 will be made up of honours for Chief Albert Luthuli, Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Dan Tloome. Class 2 medals will be awarded to the first National High Command and those arrested with it at Rivonia, and Class 3, to the MK leaders who formed the regional command structure at Kongwa in Tanzania, where most MK cadres were held for training before 1965.

One of the recipients of a gold medal for bravery – the highest honour a soldier can receive – will be James April, who was on the banks of the Zambezi that night. April, who lives in Cape Town, hasn’t forgotten any of the details of August 2.

“Oliver had been with us for a couple of days in advance, together with (military commanders) Joe Modise and Thomas Nkobi, who was handing out money to various groups.

“We had slaughtered a cow, and OR made a speech about the hard task ahead where we must go and shed some of the blood they had been shedding for years. We were truly very thankful to have a leader like Oliver, who would listen to reason and was very soft about it. So this was not a rabble-rousing speech, but a sombre speech. We were having to prepare ourselves mentally, while the spotter planes kept going, high over the Zambezi.”

On August 21, 1967, April’s machine gun jammed in battle, but he drew his pistol and advanced deep into the enemy line, clearing the way for his unit by shooting at armed, but wounded enemy soldiers. Most fled.

Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thabang Makwetla says that the medals parade is an “outstanding obligation” as members of the other statutory forces have already been recipients of similar honours.

“These are long-deserving soldiers – people who should all be heroes, but many of whom are unsung. It’s very important that they do not become a forgotten story.”

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