Two extraordinary events left an ineradicable mark in my life, all in one year. One had to do with matters of the heart and the other, grief, sorrow, sadness, and a resolve to throw my all in the struggle for national liberation.
It was in the year 1982 that I married my girlfriend whom I first met at high school in 1972. Girly Majola became Mrs Pikoli in that year. I was two years in exile in Lesotho, at the National University of Lesotho when our people were massacred in Maseru.
I was studying against my will. However, I had to follow political instructions from comrades Chris Hani and Thozamile Botha. You see, Thozi Majola, Sizwe Kondile, Phaki Ximiya and I had secretly and under the cover of darkness climbed the hills of Matatiele and illegally went through a thin worn out fence meant to be the border between South Africa and the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.
It was a cold wintry night, 14 September 1980. The fact that Steve Biko was murdered by the brutal apartheid security police on September 12 1977 was still fresh on minds. On crossing the border, we looked back at apartheid South Africa and vowed to return as freedom fighters. It was victory or death! Only Sizwe Kondile had a junior degree (B.Juris) and I was doing my fourth and final year B. Proc at Fort Hare University. Thozi Majola and Phaki Ximiya had earlier dropped out of university ( Fort Hare).
Earlier in September, two of our comrades in our unit were arrested in South Africa by the security police. Comrades Thembi Mbiyabo and Gomi Nzube were later sentenced to five years which they served in Robben Island for being members of a banned organization the ANC and promoting the interests of the African National Congress. This was the main reason for our flight into exile.
On arriving in Maseru via rough bus rides from Qacha’s Nek, Quthing, Mohaleshoek and Mafeteng, and eager to join Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in Angola, we were disappointed when comrade Chris Hani firmly told us that we must first go to the National University of Lesotho to complete our studies.
Simultaneously we were to build an ANC underground network in the Eastern Cape with the centre being in Port Elizabeth. Comrade Chris said in no uncertain terms should it be that that the underground was very weak in PE whilst very strong at the mass levels through open resistance and worker militancy.
We also ended up working very closely with the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU ) with comrades like the late Phakamile “ Mavimbela” Mpongoshe (he was also killed on 9 December), Slumber, Thozi Botha and Gazi among others. We were still not happy with this arrangement because we wanted to undergo military training so that we could go back home and fight.
It was all the more so because some of our friends and fellow rugby players from the University of Fort Hare had been allowed to undergo
military training like Dumisani Mafu, Siphiwe Mazwai, Mzwandile Vena, Pieces Maqhekeza, Phumzile Mayaphi, Sisa Ngombane and others.
They had arrived earlier than us in Lesotho, it was just a sheer coincidence that we found ourselves together at the same time in that country. However, we obeyed the political instructions. As a compromise, comrade Chris Hani organized a crash course in firearms, including light semi-automatic weapons including RPG 7 (Bazooka) by comrade Mbumba, Military Combat Work(MCW) by comrade Boy Njongwe ( Thabiso) and political classes conducted by the late brilliant Gene Gugushe (a brilliant fellow, also killed during the Maseru massacre).
When the South African Police (SAP) commandos descended in Maseru in the still of the night, aided by some apartheid agents in the Lesotho Mounted Police and the Lesotho Para-military force who were helpless and powerless in the face of that aggression, I was writing examinations at the university.
Also at the university at that time were other ANC comrades like Thozi Botha, Ngoako Ramathlodi, Tito Mboweni, Hlubi Radebe, Girly Pikoli, Phaki Ximiya, Shakes Mkhonto, Barry Pule and Nkululeko Jomo Kambule. When we heard the chilling news, we abandoned the exams and rushed to Maseru from Roma. It was very early in the morning at around 06h00.
We could not have been prepared for what we saw! In one house in Lithabaneng, we found comrade David dead, with his eyes wide open, with a big gaping wound where was once his forehead, with his brains
and blood splattered over the walls. Comrade Mazwi Yako was supposed to have slept there but for some reason had not returned to that house on that fateful night.
The same fate befell comrade Gazi (Mafutha). He was shot in front of his family that was spared the same fate. In another residence which was occupied by young comrades who were supposed to go for military training while others were en-route to the ANC’s Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College(Somafco), we found about five bodies that were charred beyond recognition.
Some of the bodies were still smoldering, with skulls having exploded from the intensity of the heat and brains oozing. We also went to Comrade Mpongoshe’s house (Mavimbela). I think there were about four bodies in his house including elderly comrades who had just come back from Robben Island who had come for a debriefing. They were expecting to be joined by their wives who actually arrived on the same day and were not aware that the boers had, in the early hours of that morning, attacked ANC houses including the house were their husbands were cold bloodedly killed.
In the Florida area, they had attacked and killed the ANC Chief Representative in Lesotho, including one of our political instructors, comrade Zola Nqini. They also shot and killed Dr. Norman Bantwini Ngciphe from Somerset East, a friend I was with at St Johns College in Mthatha. Mthobeli “Trinity” Zokwe survived the attack by dashing naked and running for dear life. A survivor in that house was a woman who is now a very close family friend, Baba Mkangisa.
Our brilliant political instructor, comrade Gene Gugushe, was also attacked in his flat. His Markarov was no match for the superior firepower of the apartheid murderers.
It was only in one residence where the apartheid security forces were successfully repulsed. This was the residence of comrade Mathabatha Booker T, Sexwale and Sis Bunie where they stayed with their two young daughters, Matsubane and Kananelo. Booker T came out firing with his AK47 and in the ensuing skirmish his daughter Kananelo who was a nine-year-old girl at the time was hit by the flying shrapnels. Fortunately, she survived and was taken out of Lesotho via Mozambique to receive treatment in the then German Democratic Republic(GDR).
By the end of that fateful day, we were exhausted and emotionally drained. We were scared and angry but had the steely resolve to be free and avenge the blatant murders of our comrades by the killing machinery of the apartheid regime. We had lost the cream of the crop, including young lives whose sin was to dare dream of freedom and dignity.
On that day, when the guns fell silent, 42 people were murdered by the PW Botha regime. In all, thirty ANC cadres and 12 Basotho nationals. We had to take the bodies to the mortuary at King Moeshoshoe II Hospital in Maseru. It was a hot summer of 1982. The lingering smell of death in my nostrils lasted for weeks and long after the funeral. The day before the funeral we dug 30 graves for our fallen comrades, singing freedom songs well into the night.
On the day of the funeral our spirits were lifted by the unexpected appearance of, and a eulogy by Cde President OR Tambo whose visit had been kept a tightly kept secret.
He had defied the ANC leadership and his family. He insisted on attending and speaking at the funeral. As leader and Commander-in-Chief, he refused to spare himself and in fact exposed himself to the dangers that members of his organization were daily exposed to.
He delivered a rousing speech which consoled and motivated us. He said: ”… sulani ezo nyembezi, nithathe izikhali zenu siye phambili.” Also at the funeral were the King of Lesotho and the Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan at the National stadium of Lesotho.
We took turns standing behind those 30 simple coffins with the unpleasant smell of death from coffins. Some of the bodies had started decomposing and it was a very hot day in Maseru on that day. The presence of the brave and fatherly figure of Comrade President Oliver Tambo was a great inspiration to us and the people from South Africa who defiantly attended that funeral, knowing fully well the consequences of being in the presence of the ANC leadership and general members.
As I watched the coffins being lowered and we started filling up the graves, I thought to myself: Who knows? I could have been the thirty first, had it not have been the fact that comrade Chris Hani had sent some of us to university for another mission. We were students by day and guerrillas by night! I salute all the fallen heroes of our struggle who made our freedom day -April 27 -1994 possible.