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Politics of Betrayal

Using historian and author Jacob Dlamini’s latest work as a backdrop, Bongani Kona juxtaposes acts of defiance and acts of betrayal in the protracted struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He questions, as do Dlamini and many others, if the very act of betrayal – of collaboration with the enemy, of selling out and condemning close comrades – is woven tightly into the fabric of post-apartheid society and responsible for our inability to “reckon” with an authoritarian past.

On 13 June 1963, mid-winter in the Highveld, the apartheid police raided Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia and arrested members of the High Command of the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). In the landmark Rivonia Trial which followed, Nelson Mandela delivered one of the most widely quoted speeches in the history of the South African anti-apartheid resistance movement. Standing in the dock, Mandela concluded his speech with the now often repeated statement: ‘I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

It was an astonishing act of defiance. Mandela’s refusal to quiver before his jurors, even while facing the prospect of the death sentence, distinguished him as a true revolutionary. A person who was willing to lay down his life for the cause. There are countless other such heroes in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle, brave men and women for whom death was not a high price to pay. Harold Sefolo, for instance, who stood before Paul van Vuuren and his colleagues from the Security Branch and asked if he could sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika one final time before they shot him. Or John Harris, sentenced to hang for detonating a bomb at Park Station in Johannesburg during rush hour, who went to the gallows singing “We Shall Overcome”.

There are others still, whose deaths register only as minor footnotes in the larger history of the struggle, but who were as gallant in the face of death. In his plaintive memoir, Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship in the time of the South African struggle, Hugh Lewin recounts the story of a young warder who had been posted to death row at Pretoria Central Prison and in 1997 appeared before a special hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) into the role of prisons during apartheid. (The apartheid government instituted a ban on reporting on prisons, especially about hangings, and so what went on inside remained largely secret.) Here is how the warder described the final moments of the prisoners who had been sentenced to hang:

“It was deadly quiet. They still sang and prayed, then we moved to the gallows room, through the various gates until we were in the reception room before the gallows. They would then stand against a wall with their faces towards us. They were then identified again against their photographs and the executioner would come to them and ask them about their last wishes. They sometimes thanked us, sometimes said God bless you.”

In his book Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in Anti-apartheid Struggle – which forms the epicentre of this reflection – the historian and political journalist Jacob Dlamini writes that “death is valourised often in the descriptions of South Africa’s freedom struggle”. But like most historians, Dlamini is interested in the blind spots and fissures in the stories we tell about the past. If death is given as the ultimate guarantee of one’s commitment to the struggle, what of the comrades who trembled with terror at the prospect of their own mortality? These are the stories Dlamini is interested in telling. Of the cadres in the resistance movement who, faced with a choice between collaboration and death, chose the former and betrayed their comrades.

The state’s star witness in the Rivonia Trial was one such man: Bruno Mtolo, a founding member of the ANC’s military wing and among its first saboteurs when MK launched its operations in 1961. “Mtolo’s testimony,” Dlamini writes, “helped condemn many of his former comrades to long terms on Robben Island.” Eight of the co-accused were convicted to life imprisonment. For his treachery, the ANC in turn condemned Mtolo to death and he was assassinated sometime in the 1970s. But what made people such as Mtolo turn from revolutionaries to collaborators? “Sometimes it is easy to say ‘this guy was an askari’ But have you ever asked yourself: what makes an askari?” Gregory Sibusiso Radebe, a former collaborator, asks Dlamini. This is the question at the heart of Askari.


Three weeks after the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial in June 1964, the apartheid state set about raiding everyone, countrywide, suspected of opposing the regime. Adrian Leftwich, a 24-year-old activist in Cape Town, was among those whose homes were ransacked by the Security Branch. The raid happened at dawn. Leftwich was still in bed with his girlfriend when suddenly his small flat seemed to bulge with security policemen.

About two years prior to this, Leftwich, a rising star in white liberal circles, had been recruited into a small underground “protest sabotage” group known as the African Resistance Movement (ARM). Originally named the National Committee for Liberation (NCL), the group’s main purpose was to sabotage public installations such as railway lines and electricity pylons and cables, as a means of protest against the regime. As a golden rule, they took care not to harm anyone.

Leftwich had popped up on the radar of the security police as a “troublemaker” and they had come that morning to search the flat for incriminating material that might connect him to any illegal political activity. “So far as I knew, the flat was ‘clean’, apart from a few academic journals and books that were probably banned. But I was wrong. I had made a fundamental error which was to set in motion the events that followed,” Leftwich writes in his Granta essay, “I Gave the Names”.

Paging through the books on the shelf, one of the policemen stumbled upon an incriminating document – no more than two or three pages in length – which had been given to Leftwich by a man who had been training ARM members in the use of explosives. “I suddenly became aware of the cold. There was cold without and cold within,” Leftwich writes. “‘Cold hey? I see you feel it,’ said [Lieutenant] van Dyk. There was both menace and understanding in his words. Men like that, hunters of other men, seem to be able to smell fear.”

Leftwich’s confessional essay – which took him 15 years to write – chronicles his journey from an anti-apartheid activist to a collaborator with the regime. An askari. He spent five months in solitary confinement but his capitulation before the officers of the Security Branch happened within days. He sold out his girlfriend, colleagues, members he had helped recruit and his best friend in the movement, Hugh Lewin. But Leftwich was to do worse: he gave evidence against his comrades in court which sent most of them to prison for lengthy terms. So damning was his testimony that one of the judges at the Cape Town trial said to refer to him as a rat would be hard on rats.

Held in disdain by the regime and ostracised by the movement (askaris were often punished by death), collaborators led pitifully lonely lives. Leftwich was no different. After the state had wrung him dry and there was nothing left to betray, he boarded a plane for the UK on 1 January 1965 and never returned. The historical value of Leftwich’s essay is that, in part, it helps us answer Dlamini’s question about the comrades who switched sides and collaborated with the regime. What went on in their minds?   Reflecting on his collapse in detention, Leftwich writes:

“Looking back, it would be easy to blame my collapse on the roughing up, or the detention in solitary, or the interrogations and the fear they generated, or on my short stay in the former death cell. But it wouldn’t really be true. It was much less what was done to me in detention, and much more the encounter with myself that brewed the acid that stripped me. I very quickly realised – almost as soon as I was arrested – that what lay ahead was the possibility of twenty years or more in prison, perhaps something even more terrible and final, and that I could not take it. I felt the uncontrollable inner hiss of a deflating capacity to resist. By and by, I was exposed: shameless, self-ignorant, terrified and miserable. I gave the names. I betrayed my comrades.”


Though similar in focus to Leftwich’s essay, the scope of Dlamini’s book is much wider. Drawing on Jean-Paul Sartre’s reflection on life in Paris under German occupation, Dlamini argues in his introduction that “apartheid generated an ‘unwanted intimacy’ between people that built an insidious complicity into daily life. The complexity of apartheid as a form of government and a system of social control was such that one could not simply exist in innocent opposition to it.”  For the majority of black people in South Africa, Dlamini says, the outward face of apartheid – the policemen and women, the clerks who staffed its bureaucracies, the government officials in the township, etc. – was black. Dlamini, however, treads this line of argument carefully. There is after all a world of difference between complicity and collaboration, and his book examines the lives of black comrades – one in particular, Glory Lefoshie Sedibe – who broke the bonds of solidarity and betrayed the movement.

When Bruno Mtolo testified in court against his former comrades during the Rivonia Trial, he was given the alias Mr X to protect his identity. Similarly, when Glory Lefoshie Sedibe appeared in the witness stand in 1988 to testify against three of his former ANC comrades in a treason trial the presiding judge, Justice Henry Daniels, ruled that he should only be referred to as Mr X1. The resemblance between the two men is uncanny. Like Mtolo, Sedibe had been a high-ranking member of the ANC’s military wing before he defected in August 1986.

He was born in a small mining town, in what was then the eastern Transvaal, in May 1953. His father, Ephraim, trained as a school teacher but later found employment as a clerk in a mining company, and his mother, Lillian, was a housewife. The two central events in Sedibe’s political life both happened in the mid-1970s. The first was the arrest of his older brother, Gilbert, a law student and SRC president at what was then known as the University of the North. He was arrested for organising a student rally to celebrate the collapse of Portuguese rule in Africa, and sentenced to five years on Robben Island in 1976. The second was the 1976 student rebellion. Both events had a profound impact on Sedibe. The following year, at age 24, he abandoned his studies and joined the military wing of the outlawed ANC.

Until his defection Sedibe had a stellar career in the resistance movement. He rose quickly through the ranks and twice the ANC sent him abroad for specialised intelligence training, first to East Germany, then to the Soviet Union. He was only 31 when he was appointed head of military intelligence for the Transvaal, the economic heartland of the apartheid state. Dlamini speculates that if Sedibe had lived out the rest of his life on the right side of history, if he had made different choices, he might have become an influential government official or a powerful businessman in post-apartheid South Africa. But after nine years in the ANC Sedibe switched sides, and he died an alcoholic, depressed and alone in his suburban home in Pretoria, at the age of 40.

The question remains: why did Sedibe switch sides? The answer takes us into apartheid’s torture chambers. The other seminal moment in Sedibe’s political life came when he was captured and tortured by the psychopathic Eugene de Kock – the man who would later become his handler – and his colleagues from the Security Branch in August 1986. MK took it for granted that most operatives would “break” during torture, but it was hoped that they would hold out for at least 48 hours to give their comrades a chance to go into hiding.

Sedibe’s interrogation lasted three months, and Dlamini recounts in graphic detail how he was tortured. Like Leftwich, Sedibe felt that “uncontrollable inner hiss of a deflating capacity to resist” within days of his capture, but Dlamini cautions us against judging him too harshly for switching sides. “To ‘hear’ in the stories Sedibe told his ‘betrayal’ of himself and his world would be, in the words of Elaine Scarry, ‘to turn the moral reality of torture upside down, to blame the victim.’”

Certainly, as readers removed from his time and circumstance, we cannot judge Sedibe for breaking under torture. But surely it would be hard to forgive the man that he became afterwards. As a member of Eugene de Kock’s Vlakplaas unit, he was responsible for the death, torture and imprisonment of many of his former comrades. Sedibe was no mere victim, Dlamini reminds us, blown this way and that by the tides of history. He had agency and he could have chosen not to collaborate, as so many people did.

But why tell Sedibe’s story now? On the surface Dlamini’s book sounds pedestrian, but to read it as such would be to take too much for granted. The askari project – using turned ANC and Pan Africanist Congress members as part of a campaign to improve South Africa’s domestic counterinsurgency capabilities – was established by the Security Branch in 1979. By 1993, when the project came to an end, the number of collaborators on the apartheid state’s payroll was somewhere between 100 and 300. Two decades after the formal abolition of apartheid we still don’t know the identities of everyone who collaborated with the regime. And perhaps we never will – 44 tonnes of the apartheid state’s security archive was torched in 1993.

Askari is an attempt to open up that history. Dlamini’s anxiety is not that we don’t know enough about our past, it’s that we’re not aware of how much it continues to shape our political life. One of the most startling claims he makes in his book is that the late charismatic youth leader, Peter Mokaba, was an askari, but for reasons to do with political expediency the ANC chose to keep that fact hidden. How many other such political and business leaders have similar histories?

“To talk about collaboration under apartheid is to probe the nature of the post-apartheid political settlement,” Dlamini writes. “It is to ask why, beyond the fact that South Africa had a negotiated transition, the country did not have the type of reckoning with the past, apart from the TRC of course, that could have led to the purification of the public sphere and the purging from public office of those tainted by collaboration with our authoritarian past.”

The question is why indeed.


chronic cover rsized

This story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

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