In this new series, we will feature excerpts from Dr Tlou Setumu’s biography, The Life and Struggle of a Commander, of ANC and MK freedom fighter, stalwart and veteran, Isaac ‘Lesibe’ Maphoto, also known as Bra Ike
IT WAS a warm autumn early evening of 6 April 1968. The place was in the deep forest jungle, in the Kwanarazou Game Reserve along the mighty Zambezi River, in the territory of Southern Rhodesia.
The Zambezi River is the fourth largest river in Africa after the Nile, the Congo and the Niger. The river covers 3,540 miles and rises in Zambia and flows through eastern Angola, along the eastern border of Namibia and the northern border of Botswana, then along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe to Mozambique, where it crosses that country to empty into the Indian Ocean.
In that deep Kwanarazou forest the young Ike Maphoto sneaked out of his forest hiding place and walked towards a sparsely-populated rural village of farm workers of the Zambezi valley to ask for food.
That was for the third time that he had gone to those farm workers’ houses to ask for food. On all the two previous occasions, the impoverished villagers welcomed him, and gave him food. They knew him and they also sympathised with his mission of fighting for freedom. On that very third day, he was also welcomed. When he was inside one of the huts, he heard a loud, violent noise outside.
The noise was as if people were pelting sticks and stones on top of the hut he was in. As a guerilla fighter, Ike thought that because they were in a war situation, the owners of those huts had decided to capture him and hand him to his enemy.
He quickly made up his mind and readied himself for a fight. Because on two previous occasions he came there and was given food, he did not suspect anything sinister with the owners of the houses on that small village.
Because he had not suspected anything, on that day he had left his weapons hidden in the bush, hanging on a tree. Ike soon realised that the violent commotion was not of pelting sticks and stones, but in fact it was gun shots! Shots were fired all over the hut he was in.
Ike immediately related that attack with the dream he just had when he was asleep the previous night. In that dream he saw one of his comrades, George Tau, kicking him into the Zambezi River when he tried to cross. Things were so quick when he just suddenly related that dream to what was happening to him then. Now that he was in a hut, gunshots flying all over, what was he supposed to do?
It was like a person in the desert facing a roaring lion and there is no tree. What would you do? Would you plant a tree to climb? No, because it will take time to grow or even not grow at all. So, what do you do? There must be a tree. The only weapon he had was a three-star Okapi knife. He immediately took out his knife and thought to himself, “With my knife experience from townships, I am going to die with two or three of them”.
As he thought like that he heard a voice shouting from outside: “Come out!” On his part, Ike shouted back, “Stop shooting!” The voice from outside asked, “Are you Ike Maphoto?” By shouting his name, Ike suddenly knew that he had fallen into an ambush, and the obvious fate was that he has fallen into his enemy’s hands.
Putting up a brave face, he asked, “Who told you, my name?” At that point Ike was instructed to lie down, which he did. He still had his Okapi knife in his hand. Indeed Ike was being captured by his enemy – the Rhodesian troops of the rebel prime minister, Ian Smith. One thing which Ike confidently emphasised to his captors was that he was a freedom fighter and also told them that he was a commander, and that he should not be harassed and tortured.
Among his captors was their senior, apparently, their commander, referred to as Colonel Jones. Ike requested him, “Please tell your boys never to try and kick me, I am a commander”.
He said that while he was still lying flat on his face, with his Okapi still in his right hand. He continued, “Don’t kick me because I am going to face my case alone. I know I am going to be hanged”.
His captors were shocked by what they heard from their captive. One of them asked, “How do you know that you are going to be hanged”.
Ike defiantly replied. “In a guerilla war, you win or you lose. And if you lose, your enemy captures you, and kills you”.
At that point, Ike was not feeling any fear. Instead, his enemies appeared to have been filled with fear, especially by his lack of fear and the prophetic words he was saying, especially the fact that he seemed to have been prepared for any eventuality, even death.
After his feet were tightly tied, Colonel Jones continued to cross-question him. One of his questions was, “Why are you South African guys fighting alongside these bloody communists here in Rhodesia?”
His enemy‘s commander tried to explain to the captured Ike that they, the South African freedom fighters, were stupid and that they were wasting their time and effort by fighting a lost course of the communists. Ike stunned his captors with his reply. His reply confirmed to his captors that he was in fact a guerilla fighter who had an extensive understanding of what they were involved in.
He demonstrated clearly that he understood issues of politics and military, especially those of southern Africa. He was not just an ignorant foot soldier. He showed them that he understood South Africa’s national politics as well as southern Africa’s sub-regional issues.
He also showed that he even had knowledge of Africa’s continental and even international dynamics and he clearly understood who was an ally and who was an enemy, and why? He therefore knew and understood whom he was fighting against and with whom he was fighting, and most importantly, why?
Ike replied to their alleged blind communist support by explaining why they were fighting side by side with freedom fighters fighting against the Rhodesian white minority regime of Ian Smith.
He indicated that he did not mind even if he was fighting against his people’s oppression and racial domination side by side with whoever, including communists.
He indicated that he would fight side by side with communists if they supported the advancement of his struggle against racial domination and oppression of his people.
He shocked his captors by giving them an example in which during the Second World War, when the Nazi leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, was on a rampage, the western powers approached the communist leader, Joseph Stalin, for assistance.
The leaders of the western world, Winston Churchill of Britain and Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States of America, approached Stalin, the leader of the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union) and they formed an alliance that eventually defeated Hitler in 1945.
Ike further argued that if Churchill and Roosevelt could fight side by side with the communists under Stalin to defeat Hitler’s Nazism and Benito Mussolini’s Fascism, what was unusual when his African National Congress (ANC) and Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAPU) formed a fighting alliance with the communists to fight the white colonial and minority governments in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa?
The ANC of South Africa and ZAPU of Southern Rhodesia had agreed that their military wings, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and Zimbabwean People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) would fight side by side against the white minority regimes in both countries.
With that comprehensive explanation, Ike’s captors were convinced that they had to treat him with the respect he deserved. Indeed, for the rest of his capture, Ike was never beaten or tortured. His knowledge and understanding forced his captors to treat him with utmost respect.
Dr. Tlou Setumu is Author and Researcher of History, Heritage and Culture. His books include: Biographies of Bra Ike Maphoto, TT Cholo and Max Mojapelo; His Story is History; The Land Bought, the Land Never Sold; Ideas with no Space; Footsteps of Our Ancestors; etc. Books are available on www.mak-herp. co.za; and also in Polokwane – Academic Bookshop (opposite CNA Checkers Centre); and Budget Bookshop (c/o Rissik and Landros Mare Streets).