Mzondeleli Nondula – ‘One of the real heroes of our struggle, a star in our firmament, a brick in the wall of honour for the beautiful ones,


I arrived quite early at Pretoria Central Prison. When visitors were allowed in I was amongst the first. My destination, Death Row, had no other visitor that day at that time. I was escorted through a maze of prison grill doors that were opened and locked as soon as my escort and I had passed.

Death Row was a far away place within the vast complex of this maximum prison. I had read a lot about Death Row: the desolation, the still quietness of the place, of the anguish of the night before those final 52 steps before reaching the noose, of the screams of fear of the awaiting rope, and of the chants of defiance by the brave.

I was in the belly of the beast and despite the fact that I had myself spent enough time behind prison walls to understand the routine and the smells, my heart was racing with each step. I had last seen Mzondeleli Nondula and Mthetheleli Mncube the day they were sentenced to multiple death sentences in the then Messina (Musina) Circuit Court in May 1988.

There had been sobs of fear, anger and hatred for a system that wanted to hang two young men in their 20’s for fighting for the freedom of their people. Mzondeleli’s mother Nosidina Nondula, gave one of his sobbing sisters a glance that said “stop it.”

 “Why are you crying infront of these dogs. These children aren’t dead,” she said. The sisters blew their noses and the sobbing stopped. It was not as if anyone would have expected a different outcome to the case that had gripped the attention of the nation for months.

Mzondeleli, the senior of the two in their military ranks, had been responsible for the planting of landmines in the border area around Musina going to Weipe and Allday between 1985 and 1987. It was an area known as the Zoutpansberg Military Area. The army was there in full force, and all farmers were part of the commando system which made them permanent reservists of the defence force. Hence that song of “Kill the boer, the farmer….”

Some of the landmines were detonated by military, police and civilian vehicles killing a number and injuring some, including black people. He had been captured in 1987 at a roadblock near the Botswana border on one of his missions and was horribly tortured. Askaris were brought in to identify him and confirm they had trained with him in Angola.

Mthetheleli’s team was ambushed and the others were killed but he was captured. Such was the cockiness of the security police to whom he was handed that they tied him with shoelaces at the back of a van where they also put the loaded AK 47 rifles that had been found with the guerillas. The sight of the AK ignited a superhuman will to break free and Mthetheleli tore through the shoelaces, grabbed one AK and sprayed the inside of the police van, killing both cops.

He then ran away, naked and disoriented but determined to find the river and cross back into Zimbabwe. One of the biggest manhunts followed but they could not find him until days into the escape, thirsty, still naked and hungry, he stumbled into a black homestead and asked for help. The young girl raised the alarm and within no time he was rearrested.

The torture that followed, described in detail in court evidence, included making him eat his own excrement. That from the hands of people who always claimed they came to civilize Africans.

The case went on for months in the sweltering heat of the Mopani and Copper mine town. The two accused were transported daily in an escorted  Casspir to Makhado, 100 km away where they were being held. They were in leg chains throughout, in and outside court.

In the nature of journalism, extended cases and the affinity that one had towards the cause they were being tried for, a friendship developed. First with the lawyers, mainly defence lawyers, and even with the State Prosecutor because they held much of the information a journalist needed.

In this case, the instructing attorney was Azhar Cachalia, now Judge of the Supreme Court of Appeals. Cachalia had been a student activist and we knew each other well so through him a relationship developed with Mzondeleli and Mthetheleli that went beyond accused and journalist.

After the drama of the sentencing, I kept in touch with Cachalia and through that started corresponding with both of them as they sat in Death Row. Mzondeleli was a poet and would send me a number of moving poems he was writing and I have never forgiven myself for losing the file I had made of those because I had planned they could be published.

It was through this correspondence that I was added to the list of approved visitors. The process was that once you were an approved visitor, you applied to visit and was given a date and time. Which is why I was walking through the clanging never ending doors that cold morning in early 1989.

I was ushered to a window where I found Mzondeleli seated on the other side. Broad smile, clenched fist on the window pane which I reciprocated. We were smiling in the cold semi dark condition of the place of death. I picked up the phone and we spoke. He wanted to know about a number of people who frequented the trial and I gave updates. He told me the appeal had been lodged but added matter-of-factly: “I don’t expect any miracles, but you know how the lawyers are like. Sometimes I think they use these applications to just lengthen our lives or delay the inevitable”.

I asked if he needed anything, and he replied that he had run out of money to buy stationery so he could no longer write letters. That hurt. After seeing Mthetheleli, I went to the area where you deposit money for the prisoners. Mzondeleli’s account was left with 15 cents,  Mthetheleli’s account could not take anymore as it had reached the ceiling of what he was allowed to have. I put all the money I had for them into Mzondeleli’s account. At least he would be able to write letters and send me more poems.

In the court hearing, neither of them denied any of the charges. They instead defined themselves as members of the ANC and soldiers in a people’s army fighting for the freedom of all oppressed people and that if that was a crime for which they should be punished so be it. Even people called to testify in mitigation such as Prof Fatima Meer and Reverend Frank Chikane were not allowed by the accused to grovel for mercy from the system.

The appeals led to only one of seven death sentences against Mzondeleli being commuted, and part of the further  “delaying tactics” were now to petition then President FW De Klerk for clemency.

I was not surprised to read later that Mzondeleli had said the most painful thing throughout his imprisonment had not been the torture by the police but rather being made to apply to De Klerk for clemency.  “De Klerk has said that the release of political prisoners was the most difficult decision in his career. The most difficult decision I have ever made in my life was to petition him for clemency. He did not deserve that from me. The leadership persuaded me to do so”, Mzondeleli is quoted in the ANC publication Mayibuye of November 1992.

The pain for Mzondeleli was not to end there, when Mandela had negotiated the release of all political prisoners in 1990, Mandela personally went to Pretoria Central to communicate with Mzondeleli and others. On seeing Mandela and hearing the news of his imminent release, he indicated he wanted to write a letter to his mother and tell her he had finally met the man who had inspired him throughout his life.

It was in this moment of ecstasy and joy that the prison officials saw it fit to only then tell Mzondeleli that his mother, Nosidina, had passed away four days earlier. He was devastated, but worse was to come. After his release and the dawn of democracy he found out that the plea to De Klerk was not enough to remove his “criminal record”. He still needed to go to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC) to justify his actions as a member of the ANC and a soldier.

And so, like a disciplined and loyal cadre, as instructed, he went back to Musina and appeared before the TRC to seek forgiveness for having waged the struggle whose fruits included the establishment of that commission. We never discussed this, but knowing him, it must have stuck in his throat just as it did in mine.

A man who is appalled at requesting clemency from an oppressor can not but be supremely galled by a decision of his own party and government to equate the struggle for freedom with the struggle to keep racist subjugation of the majority in place. For that indeed is what the TRC amounted to.

But Mzondeleli, trained politically in Angola by the likes of Thabang Makwetla, now Deputy Minister in government swallowed his bile and moved on, joining the new SANDF where he attained the rank of Colonel.

Mzondeleli died this week after a short illness. And with that ended a chapter of one of the real heroes of our struggle, a star in our firmament, a brick in the wall of honor for the beautiful ones who lived, fought, sacrificed and suffered for us all, demanding nothing in return but a chance to serve even more honourably.


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