Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS
Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS

This is an extract from A Simple Man - Kasrils and the Zuma Enigma', by Ronnie Kasrils, published by Jacana

 

Their vision impaired by soft rain and mist, two shadowy figures lurk in the bush, peering through binoculars into the descending gloom, as they scan the border fence.

"Just the weather for violating the frontier, eh Baba [Father]," one mutters to the other, and they quietly chuckle (as lads do) at the sexual connotation.

The cover of 'A Simple Man - Kasrils and the Zuma Enigma'
The cover of 'A Simple Man - Kasrils and the Zuma Enigma'

"Yebo, mFana'kithi [Yes, Homeboy]," agrees the one addressed as Baba, "like amaRussia used to say: bad weather is the guerrilla's best friend."

"Some would rather be in bed with the 'blanket'," Homeboy responds; and the two chuckle at the army slang for the comforts of a sweetheart.

"Let's hope the Swazi men are doing the 'thing' on a night like this," says Baba, "instead of sniffing around the border," which gets them chuckling again.

"Sniffing the blanket!" and they struggle to control their laughter.

There was no sign of the dusk patrol along the frontier strip, a formidable no man's land some 20m wide cleared of vegetation, flanked by two parallel lines of strong, high fencing along the Mozambique-Swaziland border.

They were on the Mozambican side, where their movement, the ANC, had a relatively secure base in the capital of Maputo. They were in a particularly dangerous area, for the South African border was but a few kilometres north of where they stood, and by daylight a listening post with gigantic satellite dishes was clearly visible on a prominent koppie, monitoring radio traffic across a vast area. As a result they literally operated in the dark, without any form of radio communication: if they had any, it would instantly give their position away and be tracked down by a South African reaction unit.

Despite "Baba" being the respectful Zulu term for "Father", he was the younger of the two. But he had a tribal air of authority about him and enjoyed the deference, whether from his equals or underlings

They had been dropped off an hour before dusk near the border village of Namaacha, where they avoided the local Frelimo troops, and slipped away into thick bush. Both men, in their early forties, were well clad for the weather, in waterproof anoraks with hoods, jeans and boots, armed with Makarov pistols tucked into their belts.

They were well-built and in good shape. Baba was bearded and wore a balaclava cap. Homeboy was of lighter complexion, bearded too, the hood of his waterproof coat covering his head. Despite "Baba" being the respectful Zulu term for "Father", he was the younger of the two. But he had a tribal air of authority about him and enjoyed the deference, whether from his equals or underlings.

To be sure, he used the term when addressing others with an air of levity, a chuckle and flashing smile that showed his fine white teeth. One never quite knew whether he was serious about affected patriarchy or simply wryly patronising, for he loved to joke.

The frontier posts had shut down for the night; the villages astride the boundary were silent; there was no traffic, no sign of patrols. The border was enveloped in the kind of atmospheric hush that only fine rain and mist can produce. It was time for the crossing.

NAKED AND VULNERABLE

Crouching low, they moved swiftly and silently into the open, Baba to the fore, Homeboy running close behind, hefting his knapsack onto his back. The first man clambered quietly up the fence, slipped dextrously over the top, and sprang lightly down.

The second man followed and, despite the knapsack, was over the top in agile fashion and leapt into no man's land. As he landed, his foot came down on a rock, twisting viciously and propelling him headlong. He hit the ground with a thud and a stifled groan.

He had taken the knapsack, filled with arms, and was surprised at the weight. No wonder Homeboy had fallen so heavily

Baba turned with a start, and came back to assist his comrade writhing in pain.

Homeboy cursed through clenched teeth, struggling to stand up.

He stood gingerly on his foot, both men looking anxiously around to see if they had been spotted. Leaning on his companion's shoulder, he staggered across the 20m of open ground, where they felt naked and vulnerable, to the second barrier. There was no question of retreating into the safety of Mozambique.

"I'm OK, it's not broken, let's keep going," Homeboy whispered, but he could not hide the pain.

Baba, his face tight, helped his partner ascend the second fence, this time much more slowly and with greater difficulty, and guided him down the other side into the uncertainty of Swazi territory.

He had taken the knapsack, filled with arms, and was surprised at the weight. No wonder Homeboy had fallen so heavily.

Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils and Jacob Zuma in exile days.
Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils and Jacob Zuma in exile days.

They moved slowly, one leaning on the other. After a couple of kilometres of slow going, cloaked in the dark damp, they found the road without trouble, and halted at a rendezvous point.

Homeboy was grateful to sit down, which he did slowly, back against a tree, to examine his aching ankle, while Baba went about the business of placing two empty Coke cans alongside the road, 10m apart, as a stopping signal for the car that would be coming.

"How's the ankle?" he enquired.

"Probably no more than a bad sprain. I'll manage."

JOINED AT THE HIP

They had not lost time, for the pick-up from the distant Swazi town of Manzini, 150km away, had been arranged for nine o'clock. That meant an hour's wait.

They stared and stared, anticipating the sound of an engine and the hoped-for sight of a car travelling with lights dipped. But the long, empty road just stared back at them

It began to rain harder. They were grateful for their anoraks and the two plastic sheets that Homeboy produced from his knapsack.

He laid one on the ground for them to sit on and the other they propped over their heads to keep as dry as possible. They were close together, breathing in tandem, their body warmth generating heat, a musky aroma in their nostrils, "joined at the hip", a phrase Baba liked to use about close comradeship.

Homeboy's ankle was throbbing. It was well past nine o'clock and the rule was never to remain at a rendezvous point such as this for longer than half an hour. The rain had turned gentle again, but the mist was thicker and cold seeped through their bones. There had been no traffic on the road whatsoever. They stared and stared, anticipating the sound of an engine and the hoped-for sight of a car travelling with lights dipped. But the long, empty road just stared back at them.

By 11 o'clock they decided to give up waiting. It was clear their lift was not coming. They braced themselves for the trek back to the Mozambican side, a good hour's distance. Again Baba supported Homeboy, who leaned heavily on him, wincing every time he stepped, no matter how gingerly, on his injured ankle.

The pair then brazenly made their way, as though they were a couple of late-night drunks, along the national road, veering around the desolate Swazi frontier post and, with difficulty and huge relief, successfully surmounted the two fences that separated the Kingdom of Swaziland from the People's Republic of Mozambique.

Namaacha on the Mozambican side, with its small cantinas and stores, was as quiet as the village of Lomahasha on the Swazi side. They made their way down narrow lanes, crossed an alleyway, and knocked on the door of a house. It was opened by a woman who looked at them in surprise. She was Isabella, one of Baba's women from Maputo: half- Zulu, half-Mozambican. "Boa noite [Good evening]," Homeboy, ever the polite one, greeted her. She ushered them in and sat them down in a tiny lounge, with pictures of Jesus and Samora Machel, Mozambique's president, on the wall.

'IS HE REALLY A ZULU?'

Homeboy struggled to untie his boot. The ankle was hideously swollen and purple in colour. Isabella brought him some aspirin and a glass of water and found a bandage, which she wrapped tightly around his ankle. "It needs support," she said with a Portuguese accent. She and Baba disappeared into the kitchen where she began to prepare coffee. "Rest a little," they suggested.

Baba had pointed to the 12 disciples in turn as they sat with Jesus at the centre of a long table. "This one here," he pointed out, "you can imagine this disciple thinking of Jesus: 'Is he really a Zulu?'"

Homeboy tried to relax on an overstuffed couch, propping his injured leg up on a cushion. The pain was excruciating, and he was lost in thought about getting to hospital in Maputo first thing in the morning. Baba would be organising a car to take them back that night. He tried to focus his mind on something other than his ankle and studied the religious picture of the Last Supper. He had seen a similar print in Isabella's Maputo home, where Baba had once given a hilarious interpretation of the scene.

Baba had pointed to the 12 disciples in turn as they sat with Jesus at the centre of a long table. "This one here," he pointed out, "you can imagine this disciple thinking of Jesus: 'Is he really a Zulu?'" At once he had engaged Homeboy in the game. "See these two whispering to one another," he pointed. "This one is confiding to the other: 'But he doesn't look like a Zulu.'" Homeboy was mesmerised, and Baba, enjoying the attention, continued: "Likewise the two over here, clearly gossiping, 'If he can't prove he's a Zulu, he can't lead us.'"

The two guffawed. "This one here, looking directly at Jesus, I think he's looking quite slyly, he is thinking, 'I'll watch how he eats. It will show whether he is Zulu or Shangaan.'" Homeboy by then was in stitches. And then the denouement: "See this one here," Baba commanded, and Homeboy, totally captivated, watched closely: "This one is Judas. Judas Iscariot. You know, the Zealot! What's he say?" Homeboy was all ears: "Judas is thinking: 'Is he selling us out to the Romans? If he is not true, I will turn him in.'"

'STUPID WHITE MAN'

As Homeboy lay there, looking at the picture, the words "umlungu" and "mampara" filtered through in undertones from the kitchen. He was at once attentive, thinking he was mistaken. But it was clear. Baba was complaining about him to Isabella, referring to him as a "stupid white man" who was responsible for that night's setback.

He felt momentarily ashamed at the thought of having let his colleague down. He reflected again on his mishap. Was that really cause for him to be regarded as stupid; as a stupid white man, at that?

Homeboy was shaken and worried, in a way that went deeper than the pain in the ankle. Could Baba be a two-faced Judas?

And this in stark contrast to Baba's engaging manner, his empathy - "joined at the hip" indeed! Was "stupid white man" what Baba, when irritated, really thought of him? Did it come down to that? Was comradeship that skin-deep with him?

Baba was back in the room with a mug of steaming coffee. "Have the aspirins helped my brother?" he enquired with a generous smile.

"The coffee is good," Baba continued rapidly, "Car's coming now-now ... we'll get back to our beds in Maputo very soon."

Ah, this was the Baba known to all in the movement: trustworthy and considerate.

Except that Homeboy had heard the unkind tone, whispered behind his back, whispered in a tongue he was not proficient in, but the words "umlungu" and "mampara" were unmistakable. Homeboy was shaken and worried, in a way that went deeper than the pain in the ankle. Could Baba be a two-faced Judas? Did his middle name Gedleyihlekisa really mean what Baba had once explained to Homeboy: "He who stabs you in the back while smiling"? Whatever the literal translation, that's how he has come to be regarded.


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