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Uganda’s role in liberating South AfricaPublish Date: Dec 09, 2013
Uganda’s role in liberating South Africa
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Nelson Mandela shaking hands with Gen. Moses Ali and other Ugandan dignataries on arrival at Entebbe Airport.
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By Robert Kabushenga, Vision Group CEO

In 1990, Africa handed Mandela over to the world. But as the world turned him into an icon, what was quickly forgotten is the sacrifice of those who made it possible. Take the Germans, for example. Their intelligence picked up word that the white political establishment was determined to hang Mandela and his Rivonia group.


So they contacted the judge with advice not to go for the death sentence. Their rationale was that one day, they might need someone to talk to. And so Mandela lived to see another day.

But as we celebrate his life and acknowledge the role of international support, let us remember that Mandela was the product of Africa’s liberation politics to which Uganda has contributed immensely.

I first learnt about liberation politics in my high school history class about African Nationalism and New States. Later on while studying for a teaching diploma, I got involved in student politics that led to the formation of the Uganda National Students Association.

I met exiled South African students resident in Uganda and got involved with their propaganda wing on voluntary basis. This is how I came to discover Uganda’s deep involvement in the liberation struggle of South Africa and subsequent release of Nelson Mandela.

One of the people I worked with in the ANC publicity told me an interesting story of how most of them wound up in Uganda. One night in 1989, ANC cadres in Angolan camps were woken by heavy gunfire and loud command in Afrikaans. Later they would learn that this was an attack simulated with the full authorization of the MK high command.

It was meant to create the impression of an actual South African Defence Forces (SADF) military incursion so that everyone would be compelled to evacuate. They fled their camps in the dark and on foot to locations where they were trained to assemble in the event of an enemy attack.

After a head count, they were told the military situation required evacuation to another location. They were loaded onto Russian-made transporter planes and flown out under cover of total darkness.


The freedom icon with President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda.

ANC base in Uganda

They disembarked at what seemed like a disused airport but was obviously under military control. A tall soldier of fair skin complexion and a patch of grey hair now took over command, herded them into the back of waiting trucks and they drove off.

They woke up in the morning in a strange location where people spoke a language that was similar to Zulu. It was in Kaweweta, Ngoma in Luwero district, a base formerly used by NRA during the guerilla war in the early eighties.

Today, it is where the UPDF’s Oliver Tambo Leadership Institute is located. The commander who took them there was to be as revered in ANC military legend as he was in Uganda’s own liberation struggle. He was called Major General Fred Rwigyema and the disused airbase was the Old Entebbe Airport. But this story had started much earlier in the 1960s.

In the late fifties, the white minority regime in South Africa embarked on a violent implementation of apartheid. In response, Mandela and his generation of ANC leaders formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) an armed wing of the party to undertake an armed struggle.

In order to provide leadership for this form of struggle, Mandela had to undergo military training. Only Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria and Haile Selassie of Ethiopia were willing to provide this opportunity. After Mandela’s arrest and conviction, the ANC shifted its activities to exile. But first they needed to find a home.


One day after his release from jail, Mandela takes a stroll with his wife Winnie in the garden of Archbishop Desmond Tutu's residence in Cape Town. PHOTO/AFP

Formation of OAU

At about the same time, leaders of newly independent African states formed the Organization of African Unity (OAU) whose cardinal principle was to rid the continent of all forms of colonialism.

To this effect they set up the OAU Liberation Committee chaired by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania, whose capital of Dar es Salaam became the headquarters of African liberation movements. Most of southern Africa was still under colonial/settler administration so the liberation movements from this region, including the ANC, set up in Tanzania and received military training and formal education for their cadres.

In addition, Tanzania organised further assistance from friendly countries like China, Scandinavia and Communist Europe.

Dar es Salaam was also attracting an endless stream of radical left wing intellectuals. That is how, in the late sixties, the future leadership of Uganda’s liberation movement, who had opted to study at the radical University of Dar es Salaam, linked up with their counterparts from southern Africa. When Idi Amin took power, the former students fled his brutal regime back to Tanzania where they found solidarity with the southern liberation movements.

International profile of ANC

By the mid seventies, the ANC was for all practical purposes finished as a force in the internal political dynamics of South Africa. Internationally, however, it was building a high profile diplomatic operation and a government in exile based in Zambia.

This gained momentum with the defeat of the Portuguese in Mozambique and Angola, and the end of white minority rule in Zimbabwe.

While Zambia provided a home, Swaziland offered an intelligence forward base for the Mozambican clandestine operation.

Botswana provided an escape route for blacks heading into exile while Angola provided military bases for the armed wings of the ANC and Sam Nujoma’s SWAPO, the liberation movement seeking to remove white minority rule in Namibia.

Obasanjo’s military administration in Nigeria provided much needed financial support to the ANC and tertiary education for South Africans.

Even Amin provided some solidarity by lending diplomatic support, refuge and education opportunities. During Obote’s presidency, Uganda used its time as Chair of the UN Security Council to give prominence to UN Security Council Resolution 435 calling for South Africa’s withdrawal from Namibia.

By the mid eighties, ANC was a formidable political force internationally. They came up with a very clever and effective campaign that combined the quest for freedom and democracy in South Africa with the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners.


Anti-apartheid activist and close friend of Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada (L), talks next to Mandela's fellow Robben Island prisoner, Laloo 'Isu' Chiba, during a tribute to Mandela at Gandhi Hall on December 8, 2013 in Johannesburg. PHOTO/AFP

In spite of this, the apartheid regime had also managed some successes of its own. It exported the violent conflict to neighbouring countries either directly or through proxies or both as the case was in Angola. In addition, it maintained the robust diplomatic and economic support of the West.

To counter this state of affairs, the Frontline States and ANC turned to the Russians and Cubans for support. By the late eighties, a combination of contradictory occurrences conspired to force a resolution. An international campaign of sanctions against the apartheid regime was beginning to have severe economic consequences for South Africa.

Spread of violence

Moreover the policy of exporting violence to neighbouring countries was haemorrhaging resources.

Their international supporters had lost moral authority because of the violent crackdown on dissent. The Cold War had ended and the international order had changed so the bogey of the ANC as a communist threat was no longer persuasive. The situation in southern Africa was now viewed as an international human rights problem. The Frontline States, who had taken on the burden of shouldering the South African liberation struggle, began to face their own problems.

Tanzania and Zambia, faced with near economic collapse, had to reassess the level of commitment to such causes. Mozambique was fought into submission and its charismatic leader Samora Machel assassinated by the apartheid regime. Zimbabwe, Lusaka and Botswana with economic challenges of their own, could not take the routine bombings that were carried out by the South African Defence Force (SADF). The only remaining theatre of full-scale war was Angola.

Towards the end of 1975, South Africa invaded Angola in support of Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA. They had hoped to install a puppet regime that would be an ally of the white minority regime. The MPLA government of Agostinho Neto turned to the Soviets and Cubans for military assistance.

The final chapter in this contest was written in a little known place called Cuito Cuanavale. Between March and June of 1988, a combined force of Angolans and Cubans with technical support from the Soviet Union defeated the SADF offensive.

In a clever manoeuvre, a force of 40,000 troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Orlando Ochoa Sanchez (a brilliant military tactician) cut off the SADF from possible retreat into their rear base in Namibia. Meanwhile, about 30,000 Angolan troops mounted a valiant defense of Cuito Cuanavale under the command of legendary Angolan fighter N’Geleka.

It is this incident that led to the arrival of ANC cadres into Uganda in 1989, and then the independence of Namibia and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.

Uganda offers home to ANC

By now, it was becoming obvious to the white establishment in South Africa that they would have to reach a settlement. They agreed to grant Namibia independence and stop military support to UNITA in Angola.

In return, they demanded the withdrawal of Cuban forces and closure of ANC military bases in Angola. The Cubans packed and left for home. The MK fighters had to find one and as they soon found out, only Uganda was willing to offer a sanctuary.

The South Africans insisted that the MK fighters had to be relocated north of the equator. Kenya, Sudan and Zaire (now DRC) were not an option.


Nelson Mandela is welcomed by his host President Museveni back in the day.

That left only Uganda and Ethiopia but for strategic reasons the latter was ruled out. So I am told that O.R. Tambo dispatched a high-powered delegation consisting of Alfred Nzo (ANC Secretary General), Thomas Nqobi (ANC Treasurer General), Chris Hani (then Commander of MK), Joe Modise (the Secretary for Defense), Jacob Zuma (Head of Intelligence) to ask Uganda to provide a base for ANC cadres.

President Museveni then took a proposal to the cabinet seeking approval for Uganda to provide such support as the ANC required to carry on the liberation struggle. He ran into fierce opposition from many of his minsters (led by Samson Kisekka and Kawanga Ssemogerere) who argued that he was placing Uganda at risk of attack and destabilisation by the apartheid regime. Others were simply allies of the South African white establishment.

Thanks to the links established in the sixties and seventies in Dar and Lusaka, persuasive pan-Africanist arguments from powerful figures like Eriya Kategaya, Amanya Mushega, Ruhakana Rugunda, Kahinda Otafiire, Kiiza Besigye, Chango Machyo helped to bolster the President’s position. And that’s how Uganda’s involvement with the anti-apartheid struggle deepened.

For a start, Uganda allowed the PAC and ANC to set up offices in Kampala at the expense of the Ugandan taxpayer with full diplomatic status.

The PAC was based at Silver Springs Hotel while the ANC operated out of a rented residential house at Tank Hill, Muyenga, just before the stone quarry. PAC was run by an elderly man called Mtantala who seemed more occupied with the social pleasures of Kampala and his assistant, a wild and volatile young activist called Phosa, a product of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement.

I later learnt that he was a brother of Mathews Phosa, a senior cadre of the ANC. At the time, he was also a perennial medical student on a Uganda government scholarship at Makerere University.

The ANC outfit was more serious. It was managed by Ms. Thenjiwe Mtintso, a senior ANC cadre who had worked with Steve Biko and fled South Africa after his murder. Apart from setting up and managing the office, she oversaw the relocation of large numbers of young black South Africans into Uganda.

She coordinated with the Uganda government to make sure they were put up in Ugandan high schools and tertiary institutions mainly in Bushenyi, Luwero and Kampala. Uganda also made sure that the social welfare of the cadres was fully catered for.

After a few short months, Mandela was released and ANC was unbanned. Mtintso left as part of the advance party returning to Johannesburg to help re-establish the ANC on the ground. She was replaced by Andrew Masondo who later became a General in the SANDF, the military of post-apartheid South Africa.

During his time here, Uganda was a clearinghouse for many black South Africans transiting back and forth. Most of them were facilitated with Ugandan travel documents to be able to move freely and access opportunities.

Uganda’s assistance was not just limited to the liberation struggle, it was also forward looking. By providing extensive military and security training, professional exposure and diplomatic experience to ANC cadres, it prepared them for effective participation in state institutions like the army, security and the civil service.

In 1994, the government arranged for their repatriation to South Africa in time to participate in the first democratic election of their country.

In this exercise, Muammar Gaddafi’s role and the generosity of the Libyan people was crucial. They provided the bulk of the money to fund the ANC campaign machinery and as such contributed to their electoral victory.

Prior to all this, Museveni had made contact with De Klerk to establish his commitment to the democratisation process and that it was irreversible. He also sought reassurances that Mandela and the other political prisoners would be released unconditionally. He met with the military commanders of the apartheid army to assess their sincerity.

In so doing, Uganda became one of the key guarantors of ANC interests in the transition to a democratic South Africa.
 

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