Farewell Rashakalimphani Ratshitanga, a lifelong political activist of the real left, a film producer and an orator of note.


AROUND 1984, former deputy minister of finance and ANC intelligence operative Jabu Moleketi, who was heading the Zimbabwe office, sat with an internal based source doing a debrief.

After a while, Moleketi raised the issue of recruiting new operatives into ANC underground structures inside South Africa, particularly from police and soldiers serving in the socalled independent bantustans such as Venda, Transkei, Bophuthatswana and Ciskei.

The reason was that these possible sources were low hanging fruit, if properly sourced and trained. The man that Moleketi was speaking to was one Rashakalimphani Ratshitanga, and the latter dismissed the proposition out of hand stating that the black cops and soldiers were “heartless”.

When Moleketi pressed Ratshitanga for a better reason why he was rejecting the idea out of hand, the reply was: “They don’t have balls, they wouldn’t be able to do this.”

Moleketi, speaking this week following the death of Ratshitanga on Monday from prostate cancer complications, said although Ratshitanga had been skeptical of his suggestion, he was satisfied he had made an impact on Ratshitanga and that the idea would be evaluated.  

“That was because even though the debrief we were doing was also supposed to be some training by myself for the internal operative, it was clear to me in the interaction that Ratshitanga knew what he was doing and saying. He was no novice and was very calm. Even the report he gave me and throughout our discussion, his inputs were philosophical and poetic.

“After he left, we could see after some time a clear improvement in the quality of the intel(ligence) he was sending. It was clear the information was not hearsay but coming from inside state structures. We realized he would have set up a network inside the system operatives,” Moleketi said.

Moleketi was right that he was not dealing with a novice. For Ratshitanga was a seasoned underground operator, who had seen it all. From operating a cowhide and mopani worms business that allowed him to legitimately go into Botswana and bring back more than the declared cargo, to housing guerillas in his field at Ngovhela from where serious military operations were made, Ratshitanga knew his story.

As they sat with Moleketi, he had just come out of his fourth detention, where he had been put at Masisi police cells in the far north of the country, not far from the border with Zimbabwe. The cells were made of corrugated iron and extremely hot in summer.

 Ratshitanga himself told me: “I would be dripping sweat but the police would not give me water. I ended up licking my own sweat which made it worse because of the salt in the sweat.”

In all those detentions, he had not been charged because they could not break him. The calmness that Moleketi spoke of was real but could change if he felt he was being undermined.

John Rees, who was Secretary General of the SACC in the 70’s faced Ratshitanga’s wrath when he refused to release money for detainees in the then Northern Transvaal.

He tells the story this way: “I went and met with John Rees who was the Secretary General, in his office. I explained to him and he just simply told me there was no money. I was very angry and stood up and grabbed him by the neck and pinned him against the wall telling him he was going to give us the money or I would beat him up. He realized I meant business and he gave us the money. It emerged later he was actually stealing some of the money for himself”.

His death closes another chapter of the beautiful and committed freedom fighters of our time. Ratshitanga was a committed member of the ANC but he was not dogmatic about it at all.

He interacted with and helped other liberation movements and their members even at the height of the internecine violence of the early eighties that saw ANC supporting cadres fighting with and even killing members of the Black Consciousness movement in Soweto and the Eastern Cape.

With his trademark long hair and long beard, Ratshitanga was however more than just a political animal.

He was an all rounder: a published poet of note whose work became the subject of a thesis for a Masters degree, a lifelong political activist of the real left, a film producer, and an orator of note.

He was also steeped in Africanist approach to life, from spirituality to medicine, and many a time when I visited him at his house in Ha Madamalala, Ngovhela outside Thohoyandou, I would leave with herbs of various descriptions that were supposed to aid in fighting different ailments.

He was fearless of the notorious Venda security branch, the white establishment, and of late even of the leadership of his own movement whom he felt have gone astray.

It was at the funeral of Josias Ratshilumela Madzunya in 1988, having passed numerous police roadblacks to reach Tshifudi, and surrounded by other armed policemen intent on intimidating mourners, that Ratshitanga took to the podium to heap praises on Madzunya, a founding member of the Pan Africanist Congress who had been banished to the Bantustan.

“Hoyu o vha e muthu. Hu si haya magwitha are hafho Gammbani ane na musi of fa ra hana na u lila”. (This was a human being. Not these owls that reside at Sibasa who when they die we refuse to cry). Flowing from the October 19 1977 bannings of black organisations and two newspapers, when the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) was formed in 1978, Ratshitanga was part of the interim committee elected at Wilgespruit, Johannesburg. He went under the name of Makhuge Manenzhe.

Together with the late George Negota, Saul Raphalalani and myself, Ratshitanga ensured that the 1977 detainees in the north of the country were looked after. We would use the SACC money that Rees was forced to give to buy food that would be dropped at a detainee’s home. School fees and even baby formula milk and other school necessities were organized through the funds raised by Ratshitanga.

On September 24 1977, a bus was organized to ferry activists from the entire north to Biko’s funeral. Police and army roadblocks were mounted near each town that we passed and reasons for our travel varied from a soccer match to a funeral in the next town.

At one roadblock, when the police wanted to see the team’s coach, Ratshitanga was pointed as the coach. When the cops wanted to know where the team’s uniform was, Ratshitanga quickly said they were in a kombi still coming which had other non-technical leaders of the team. We passed.

And all the while he was an underground operator of the then banned African National Congress(ANC) and its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe. Youths were recruited and smuggled out of the country through Zimbabwe, using his relatives from Ha Manenzhe near the Zimbabwe border. The surname in the Azapo executive committee came from that association.

He housed and cared for guerillas on missions in the country. The group that attacked and bombed the Sibasa police station in 1981 was one such beneficiary of the hiding place. He also sourced cowhides locally, and created a grassroots network some of whose members doubled as couriers of both MK arms and information.

He was detained with his wife, Tshililo, and the field helper Vho Mudzunga and tortured severely following the 1981 bombing. Another detainee, Tshifhiwa Muofhe, died from the torture during that swoop.

Ratshitanga, who only went to formal school up to Grade 10 or Junior Certificate as it was known then, believed in the power of education. Thus he improved his qualifications and obtained matric through correspondence before doing his degree in Political Science and Literature at Wits University.

After working in Johannesburg for a while Ratshitanga returned to Venda where he got involved in a number of community development initiatives including Rural Development Collective. This organized seminars grappling with envisioning how a post-apartheid SA would deal with rural development. This initiative included a library with overtly political content. The library was burnt down by suspected government agents.

The passion for education saw him team up with a number of academics from the University of Venda, including Professor Melanie Donald, to establish a private school Liivha Combined School, in Thohoyandou to offer alternative curriculum to Bantu Education. He believed in the marriage of theory and practice and students and learners at the school helped to build the school as it expanded.

A literary man of note, he published a number of poetry books, including Tsengela Tsiwana (Defender of the Poor) and Pilgrimage. His poetry became the subject of a Masters Thesis by Dr Ntshavheni Milubi who was an academic at the then University of the North, now Limpopo.

A believer in co-operative work,  he teamed with the renowned late theatre guru, Matsemela Manaka, Eddy Wes and Mark Newman, in writing the script for a movie The Two Rivers, which was a political look at what Thabo Mbeki later called SA’s two nations, one white and rich, and the other black and poor. Ratshitanga was also the narrator in the movie. He was an avid reader and was busy with his autobiography, which remains incomplete.

He became a member of the Limpopo Legislature in 1995 where he served in various committees including agriculture and also served as a whip. He retired in 2014 and went back to farming, raising goats and sheep at his homestead in Ngovhela.

He received the National Order of Baobab in Bronze in 2009 for his immense contribution to the struggle for freedom.

He never tired of his first passion of the well-being of the people. When the rot within the ANC began, Ratshitanga was pained by what he called “the takeover of our movement by sellouts who used to work for the system and have now wormed themselves into positions of leadership.”

At first, when Cyril Ramaphosa came into power, whilst skeptical because he saw him as a capitalist, he was still hopeful, arguing that Ramaphosa had money and would not need to steal “like the thugs that have just vacated office”. But soon Ratshitanga changed and was extremely critical of what he saw as tolerance of “wrong things by Ramaphosa simply because he wants the vote and a mirage of unity.

“He is too weak. He should toughen his hand, but I don’t think he can, both because of the need for votes and also because he has always been just like that. He doesn’t want confrontation and when you are where he is and confronted by that magnitude of rot, you have to be tough and confront the thieves head on. That so-called leaders of the ANC were responsible for the VBS scandal and the pain of the very poor caused by this is unthinkable”, he once told me.

One of Ratshitanga’s last public political acts was as part of a delegation of the ANC Veterans League from Vhembe region in Limpopo which went to Luthuli House to protest about the corruption within the ANC and how this had led to the VBS scandal. “Those guys just listened to us but nothing happened”, he said of the Luthuli House visit.

On their return they went to the Limpopo Provincial offices of the ANC and a “rent a crowd” of youths disrupted their press conference insulting them using crude language. He was immensely hurt by this and each time we met he would bemoan what had become of the results of painful struggles. “He inwi wa hashu mara ngoho ngoho ro vha ri tshi lkhou lwela zwezwi” (Hey my brother, can it be true that this is what we were fighting for).

A few years ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent surgery and his situation seemed to improve. But the cancer recurred and spread, leading to a deterioration of his health.

He died on Monday morning at a Thohoyandou private hospital. And with his death the number of genuine political activists and leaders is reduced, whilst those who won’t mind drawing guns and knives and throwing chairs to ensure their possible future meal ticket is elected, grows by the day.

He departs as his organization is preparing for a make or break conference where the lines are drawn not between different ideological positions, but merely between groupings vying to be the ones feeding at the trough. His rhetorical question about what the struggle was about, looms large over his death.

He ran his race admirably, contributed immensely to the achievement of political freedom, and deserves the peace that is supposed to come with the separation of the soul from the body. That is why it is fitting to say to him:

Tshimbilani zwanu Ndou ya ha Manenzhe, Mutavhatsindi musina ndevhe  a tshi vhona.

Muduhulu wa Nyadamba thi fi Nwambale, Damba thi fi ndi a enuwa, ndi muroho wa vhakegulu wa mikutu ya vhakololo

Zwikashule zwa ha Manenzhe zwi sa dali nga mvula u na, zwi no dala nga mavhilivhili.

Muthu a sa divhi Manenzhe u swifhala a vhone nga swiswi la mvula

Manenzhe wa Gono, murema na vhana, tshivhala o nea Netanda.

  • Ratshitanga ‘s funeral will be held on Saturday at Ngovhela. He leaves three children, Talifhani, Mukoni and Mutshinyani.

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