By ambassador Carl ‘Mpangazitha’ Niehaus*
In June 1979, I travelled to Botswana to meet members of the ANC. On a koppie outside Gaborone, I met comrade Billy Matsetla and other members of the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). I joined not only the ANC, but also insisted that I must join MK, and that I wanted to be involved in the armed Struggle against the apartheid regime.
I think the comrades I met were taken aback by the insistence of the young Afrikaner to take up arms against what they considered to be my “own people”. However, my uncompromising insistence was allowed, and so it turned out that I became part of the armed resistance against apartheid.
In the years that followed, from 1979 to 1983, I helped bring arms into South Africa, established arms caches, planted several limpet mines at police stations in the old Western Transvaal (now known as North West). I also planted a bomb at the South African Defence Force (SADF) recruitment office in the Carlton Centre, and identified and carried out reconnaissance for targets such as the SABC, and the Johannesburg Gas Works.
There were many more actions, but I refer only to what became publicly known, because these are the actions that I was found guilty of, as activities that I carried out on behalf of MK, during my Treason Trial in late 1983. For my membership of the ANC, and the armed Struggle activities, I was found guilty of high treason, and given a 15 year sentence.
I was certainly not a bloodthirsty, crazy, young man when I embarked on this armed Struggle course that I had chosen consciously and deliberately. At the time when I took the decisions, I was studying theology, in order to become a priest, and was a member of the Church Council of the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa congregation in Alexandra township.
My ultimate, deliberate decision, to choose violence and take up arms against the apartheid regime, was something I agonised about for more than two years. I had long discussions with two of my closest comrades and political mentors, Dr Beyers Naudé and Mama Helen Joseph. Both of them introduced me to the writings of the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a leading member of the Confessing Church in Germany.
Initially, Bonhoeffer believed in peaceful, pacifist resistance against the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, which he abhorred. However, over the years, he came to the conclusion that the violent evil of Nazism was so overwhelmingly terrible that it could be ended only by counter violence. He developed the theological theory of the “lesser of two evils”, arguing that violence to bring an end to the evil that Nazism represented, was the only effective option. Bonhoeffer participated in no less than three attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler. One of the attempts was to smuggle a bomb in a briefcase into Hitler’s Command Bunker. The bomb injured and killed several of Hitler’s closest allies. Hitler was injured.
Some of Bonhoeffer’s fellow brethren in the Confessing Church betrayed him, and so it turned out that the Nazi’s apprehended and incarcerated him for more than two years. They executed him on April 9, 1945, at the Flassenburg concentration camp, in an extraordinary act of brutal vengeance barely a month before Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied forces.
During the period Bonhoeffer was incarcerated, he wrote a Christmas essay, “After Ten Years”, and numerous letters to his fiancé, Maria von Wedemeyer, which was published as, “Letters and Papers from Prison, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer”. I was introduced to the writings, together with one of his most seminal books, “The Cost of Discipleship”, by Mama Helen Joseph.
Every Christmas Day, Mama Helen would hold a poignant ceremony at her modest home at 35 Fanny Avenue in Norwood, Johannesburg, remembering all the political prisoners incarcerated on Robben Island, and in prisons throughout South Africa. Exactly at noon, Helen and all her guests would silently stand and jointly raise glasses of champagne, while Helen would say: “To our absent friends.” Only four words but they would speak louder than a long political speech could.
Among the guests at Helen’s regular Christmas parties would be Winnie Madikizela- Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Amina Cachalia, Ilze Fischer (the daughter of the legendary Braam Fischer), Ilze Weinberg (the daughter of Ellie Weinberg), and several other family members of political prisoners. I used to attend, not knowing that I would soon be imprisoned, and that from Christmas Day 1983 onwards, be one of the “absent friends” Helen and her guests would collectively be lifting their glasses to.
Immediately after the ceremony, Helen’s guests would depart, and she used to withdraw into her house to spend a couple of hours in prayer. Usually, she prayed alone but I was privileged to have been invited a couple of times join her. On a simple wooden table, she had a cross made of palm leaves, and a black and white photo of Bonhoeffer. (After Helen passed on, I inherited that photo, and it hangs above my desk in my office).
Every time she invited me, she asked me to read Bonhoeffer’s poignant prison poem, “Who am I?”, in which he described himself as walking out of his prison cell, accompanied by his Nazi wardens, asking himself: “Who am I? … Am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat … trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation, tossing in expectation of great events, powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making; faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?”
I got to know the poem off by heart, and later, when I was imprisoned, I would walk in the barren cement and brick courtyard at the Pretoria Maximum Security Prison reciting it. I would remember the immense courage of Bonhoeffer, who was executed shortly after he penned the words, and how in 1981, the day after Christmas day, what we sometimes, ironically, call the “Day of Goodwill”, I found Mama Helen, who was then 76 years old, crawling on her bleeding knees that had been cut by the broken glass all over her lounge floor. She was trying to sweep up the shards of glass.
The lounge and bedroom walls were puckered with bullet holes from several rounds from an R1 automatic rifle that had been fired at her house the night before. Helen was shaking with rage. When the attack had started, she had rolled off her bed and crawled underneath it. She had spent the night there, not sure whether her attackers had left. I remember her words, her voice trembling: “They can imprison us, they can shoot at us and even kill us, but they will never break and defeat us.” This is the kind of abuse and violence, and worse, we learnt to live with.
Exactly 11 years later, on Christmas Day 1992, Mama Helen passed on shortly after noon, in the then-Hans Strijdom Hospital, which was subsequently renamed the Helen Joseph Hospital. I was at her bedside when her last breath passed her lips.
Sadly, Mama Helen died an angry woman. She was angry about the way that president Nelson Mandela treated his wife, and her long-standing friend, Mama Madikizela-Mandela, and he had divorced and betrayed her. Mama Helen felt that the negotiations that the ANC was then engaged in, were going the wrong way. In her last days, she kept telling me: “Carl, Nelson is selling out! He is allowing the wrong decisions to be taken by these negotiators led by Ramaphosa. He and Joe (referring to Joe Slovo) are betraying us!”.
Looking back today, more than 30 years later, the prophetic last words of Mama Helen ring in my ears. Yes, indeed they have betrayed us!
Ultimately, the negotiations resulted in the terribly divided and exploitative country in which we live, where most black, especially the African poor, are worse off than ever before, and a small super rich black compradore class, led by the very same Cyril Ramaphosa in co-hoots with white monopoly capitalists and international imperialist exploiters, are looting and destroying our country.
Why is it important for me to narrate the history in an article titled “Why I support Hamas? Because the critical issue we need to address, the proverbial elephant in the room, is the issue of betrayal.
Bonhoeffer was arrested and execute, because he was betrayed by some of his closest associates in the Confessing Church. They had informed the Nazis that he was involved in the assassination plots against Hitler. I was imprisoned because I was betrayed by some of the comrades whom I worked the closest with in the MK underground. Mama Winnie was betrayed by her own husband. Mama Helen died on Christmas Day feeling deeply betrayed by some of the comrades whose memory she so courageously kept alive while they were imprisoned and in exile. As a South African nation, we have been betrayed by the same people.
The people of Palestine were betrayed, as long ago as November 2, 1917, with the Balfour Declaration, by the then-government of the UK, when it gave support to the establishment of an illegal colonial Zionist state. The consequences of the act of wanton betrayal continue to viciously and violently impact on the people of Palestine up to this day.
In order to understand why on December 16, 1961 the first acts of armed resistance against the apartheid state took place and the Umkhonto we Sizwe Manifesto was issued, stating: “The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight”. we have to appreciate the centuries-long history of violent colonial oppression and land dispossession (sheer land theft!) that the indigenous people of South Africa had been subjected to.
The armed Struggle was not suddenly conjured out of nowhere, there was a long history of non-violent failed efforts to address the injustices of colonialism and apartheid that led up to the eventual decision to take up arms. Similarly, the armed resistance against apartheid Israel had a long genesis. It finally came about, after more than more than seven decades of colonial occupation, land dispossession and violence by the Zionist apartheid Israel state.
Thus, it is historically incorrect to treat the armed resistance attack undertaken by Hamas on October 7, 2023 against illegal Zionist settlers on Palestinian land, as if it had no reason, or historical background. It was not unprovoked. It was most certainly provoked by the illegal colonial settlements of apartheid Israel on ancestral Palestinian land.
It is right-wing lies and propaganda, of the reactionary US and Western mainstream media, to call Hamas a “terrorist organisation”, similar to the lies and Stratcom propaganda that were deployed to call those of us who, as MK soldiers, took up arms against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, “terrorists”.
President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was correct when he told a massive pro-Palestinian rally, on Sunday, October 29, 2023, in Istanbul, that Israel was an illegal occupier and Hamas was not a terrorist organisation but a liberation organisation fighting to protect Palestinian land and the Palestinian people. He was also correct to say that the main culprit behind the terrible massacre in Gaza was the US and the West.
There is no substantial, legal or material difference between the inalienable right that we in South Africa had to take up arms against the apartheid regime, and the right that the Palestinians have, under international law and the numerous UN Resolutions, including the 1961 General Assembly Resolution in favour of the right to self-determination of all nations, to defend themselves.
Understanding the undeniable clear similarity between our liberation Struggle in South Africa, and the struggle of the Palestinian people, and the personal conversion that I went through in having decided that the armed Struggle was inevitable and necessary, clarify for me why I have to support the armed struggle of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian people in general.
Anything less would be inconsistent and lack moral integrity. It would be a betrayal of everything I have stood for, suffered for and was imprisoned for. If I turned out to be such a weakling and turncoat, Mama Helen, if she were alive, would have been correct to lump me in her outrage together with Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and the über sell-out, Cyril Ramaphosa, as a betrayer.
I would have stood condemned by the question of Bonhoeffer’s prison poem,, “Who am I?” I would no longer be “trembling with anger at despotisms and humiliation”. No, I would have been a spineless worm, a pathetic sell-out, betraying my whole life and the great icons of our liberation Struggle, people like Mama Helen, Mama Winnie and Oom Bey, who mentored me with the examples of their dedicated lives.
No, I could never do that! Like Bonhoeffer, I am prepared to say farewell to all the life that I love, and rather die!
This is the foundation of my outrage against the insincere sell-outs in the ANC who are pathetically personified by Ramaphosa. Not only have they betrayed our South African liberation Struggle but they make a sick mockery of their so-called support for the Palestinian people. Like the serpents they are, they talk with forked tongues about their so-called support for the Palestinians, while they support the discredited farce of a so-called two state solution. Neither do they close the embassy of apartheid Israel and sever diplomatic ties, nor do they stop trading with Israel. In fact, Ramaphosa’s Shanduka is known to have close business ties with several Jewish-owned companies, whose owners are professed Zionists, and who are some of the biggest donors to apartheid Israel.
Ramaphosa, and the ANC national executive committee, parading around with Palestinian keffiyehs, is a disgusting mockery of the struggle of the Palestinian people, and the terrible suffering and genocide that they are being subjected to. To add insult to injury, the perpetual blower of hot air and enfant terrible secretary-general of the ANC, Fikile Mbalula, had the temerity to denounce the armed liberation attacks carried out by Hamas against illegal colonial settlers. The people have no shame! Everything they do lacks integrity and is rotten to the core!
Dr Allan Boesak was correct to have denounced them in the strongest possible terms for hosting the US’s African Growth and Opportunity (Agoa) Forum scheduled for November 2 and 3. This above the fact that Agoa is a bad idea for our economic independence and international positioning with regard to our BRICS membership. In a fast-changing multipolar world, it is beyond comprehension that we will be hosting US President Joe Biden or one of his administration’s most senior representatives (most probably US Secretary of State Antony Blinken), who was just the other day meeting the butcher Benjamin Netanyahu, and who defended the genocide being committed in Gaza by apartheid Israel in the UN Security Council.
Dr Boesak is correct to ask why South Africa is going to play host to the US as the most ardent supporter of apartheid Israel, whose weapons and billions in military aid, have kept the occupation and wars of extermination going for more than 75 years.
After all, the US, since the beginning, has been the main funder and political protector of the Zionist project in the land of the Palestinians and is, together with Israel, responsible for the slaughter of children. Only a week ago, Biden’s regime vetoed a resolution at the UN, which called for the bare minimum: a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to get through.
While uttering insincere mealy-mouth “sympathies” for Palestine, the butcher of Marikana is eagerly readying himself to shake the bloodstained hands of the butchers of Gaza.
Together with Dr Boesak, I must ask: “Why are South Africans putting up with a president and government who would rather openly stand with racist occupiers, settler-colonialists, war criminals and those who commit genocide, than with the brave, suffering people of Palestine engaged in a struggle for the right to live with justice, peace and dignity? Is this spineless, unprincipled, shameless stand to be the reflection of the character of our people in Palestine’s darkest hour and greatest need?”
Why are we putting up with these horrible people?
As South Africans, we should rise up, and not allow the Agoa Forum to continue. Beyond that, we should also, for the sake of our own dignity and humanity, rise up in support of the people of Gaza.
Together with our true revolutionary ancestors, Mama Winnie, Mama Helen, Oom Bey, Commander Chris Hani and other true icons of our liberation Struggle, we must ask ourselves Bonhoeffer’s seminal question: “Who am I?/Who are we?”
How will we be able to live with ourselves? How will we be able to get up in the morning and look at ourselves in the mirror when we allow this outrage to continue not only in Palestine but also in our own country?
It is in this context that I support the armed struggle of Hamas against the genocidal butchers of apartheid Israel and draw my clear conclusions for what it ultimately means for the butcher friend of the butchers of Gaza/Palestine, who leads the neo-apartheid regime in my own beloved country.
As I have said, I have long ago figured out what is the lesser of two evils … Ay’khale!