Lekota is wrong about Ramaphosa

It is hard to know exactly what Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota was thinking when he launched his premeditated attack on President Cyril Ramaphosa as a “sellout” in parliament this week.

The paths of Ramaphosa and Lekota crossed in the 1970s as a result of their shared participation in black consciousness politics. Lekota, however, was four years older, and already a part of the national leadership of the movement. Ramaphosa was a young student whose contribution to the struggle was at that stage mostly confined to the backwaters of the University of the North.

When security police rounded up more than 200 black consciousness activists in a countrywide sweep in September 1974, Ramaphosa was too junior to be targeted. Ultimately just 9 senior leaders, including Lekota, Gilbert Sedibe, and Saths Cooper, would be prosecuted in the “black consciousness” or “Saso” trial that dragged on from January 1975 to December 1976. Displaying bravery and resilience in the face of isolation and torture, the trialists became heroes in the eyes of their followers.

Ramaphosa, meanwhile, was arrested at the police station in Turfloop under section 6 of the Terrorism Act, while he was leading a march to protest against just such detentions. He spent the next 11 months behind bars in solitary confinement. Detention was used to collect intelligence, to remove the leadership tier of anti-apartheid organisations, and to spread divisive rumours about collaboration.

They were not in this case successful instruments for getting activists to testify against their jailed leaders: in the Saso trial, almost nobody testified against the 12. For those who were detained without trial, meanwhile, the experience was dominated by fear, confusion and uncertainty. For the first months of solitary confinement Ramaphosa was allowed absolutely no reading material, not even a bible. He could hear the opening and closing of doors when others were released, and every day ended with shattered hopes of freedom. He retained his sanity by naming the insects that crawled across the floor of his cell.

Those who were detained but not charged, such as Ramaphosa, became the victims of security police strategies to sow confusion and mistrust. One tactic was to list detainees as potential state witnesses against the accused. Once listed, a prisoner could not be released on bail, and his detention was likely to drag on for further months.

Listing drove a wedge between a detainee’s family, allies and friends, and those of other detainees. The paranoia that was to mark the internal struggle of the 1980s — where everyone was a potential spy — was reaching its zenith. Locked away and disoriented, a detainee could also quickly come to believe that his friends doubted him.

Cooper was held in a neighbouring block to Ramaphosa at C-Max prison in Pretoria. The prisoners would pass messages from cell to cell, using code names and words to keep information safe from informers. In this way, Cooper became aware when Ramaphosa had arrived.

The black consciousness leadership was sceptical of claims spread by the security police about turncoats. “Most of us in the leadership were fully aware of who was and who wasn’t going to testify,” Cooper later recalled. “For us it was clear all along that Cyril was not going to testify … The purpose of listing someone as a potential state witness was to prevent any communication between that person and others.”

Political activists in the 1970s learnt very fast that the psychological mind-games of the secret police must not be allowed to destroy the humanity of their victims. They also learned that no detainee could hold out indefinitely against interrogation, especially when solitary confinement, or torture, were used. Prisoners would often sign affidavits that were not strictly true.

As activist-teacher Tom Manthata later recalled, “I never allowed myself unfounded suspicion that people were ‘sell-outs’ or whatnot. You are a sell-out only if you testify.” These were all hard-earned lessons, which Lekota in his advancing years seems to have completely forgotten.


• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town. This piece draws on a new edition of his biography of Cyril Ramaphosa, which will be published by Jacana in April.

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