26 April 2019 | Story Opinion article by Dr Chitja Twala | Photo Sonia Small
Dr Chitja Twala
Dr Chitja Twala is the Vice-Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of the Free State.

This opinion piece is to reflect on the sacrifices and roles played by the Twelve Disciples in the Liberation Struggle in honour of #Freedom Day.

To the majority of South Africans, the struggle for liberation centres around high-profiled political leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, and others. Less known is the experience of a generation of young men who left South Africa clandestinely to build the ANC and spread its liberation message in places abroad. These young men became known as the Twelve Disciples of Mandela. Like many other youngsters who became political activists elsewhere in the country, this group received its political conscientisation at school at the then Bantu High School (later known as Sehunelo High School).

This group of youngsters came from the Mangaung township in Bloemfontein, although it is not clear why they were referred to as the Twelve Disciples of Mandela. When they left Bloemfontein, they were destined to join MK in exile. The formation of MK was announced on 16 December 1961. At the same time, MK began a sabotage campaign against strategic installations throughout South Africa. In a leaflet issued on 16 December 1961, the MK high command made its political allegiance quite clear by stating: “Umkhonto we Sizwe will carry on the struggle for freedom and democracy by methods which are necessary to complement the actions of the established national liberation organisations. Umkhonto we Sizwe fully supports the national liberation movement and calls on members, jointly and individually, to place themselves under the overall political guidance of the movement”. During the initial stages of its formation, MK avoided openly mentioning the ANC for tactical reasons. MK sought to protect the leadership of the ANC from reprisals by the South African government, in particular those who had nothing to do with the decision to take the route of armed struggle.

It is clear from interviews conducted with the surviving members of this group that nobody knew exactly why they were called the Twelve Disciples, except that there was a plan conceived by Mandela, called the M-Plan, calling for the total restructuring of the ANC to enable it to operate underground should it get banned. However, although several authors such as Edward Feit, Karis and Carter, Nelson Mandela, and Bruno Mtolo and a number of court records provide information on the M-Plan, details are sketchy.

The group of young men from Bloemfontein were Billy ‘Marakas’ Mokhonoana (left the country earlier than the others and allegedly died in London); Selebano ‘Tlhaps’ Matlhape (left for Tanganyika and later studied in Yugoslavia and East Germany); Theodore ‘Max’ Motobi (left for Tanganyika and underwent military training in Cuba); Moses ‘Dups’ Modupe (left for Tanganyika and later studied Economics in Yugoslavia); Benjamin ‘Lee’ Leinaeng (left for Tanganyika and later studied journalism in East Germany); Joseph Shuping ‘Coaps’ Coapoge (left for Tanganyika and later attended Lincoln and Temple Universities in the US); Elias Pule Matjoa (worked in the Ministry of Communications in Tanzania and underwent military training in Cuba. He later studied dentistry there); Percy Mokonopi (received military training in Cuba and later served on the Helsinki World Peace Council); Mochubela ‘Wesi’ Seekoie (left for Tanganyika and underwent military training in Cuba. He later studied Chemistry in the USSR); Matthew Olehile ‘Beans’ Mokgele (left for Tanganyika and became a professional boxer in exile. Following an injury, he went to East Africa and joined the MK); Bethuel Setai (left for Tanganyika and later obtained a PhD in Economics from Colombia University. He taught at the University of California Santa Cruz, and Lincoln University in the USA) ; and Peter Swartz (was an active member of the ANC from the coloured community in Bloemfontein. He met with the group in Dar es Salaam, following his arrest on his way to Tanzania. He attended Kivukoni College and later went to the UK where he attended the London School of Economics. He went missing in London in 1965, never to be seen again).

In honour of many of these unsung heroes, the history of the Twelve Disciples needs to be told to reflect what one could refer to as a ‘bottom up’ kind of history. Without doubt, this kind of history will add value to the country’s historiography about the liberation struggle and demystify the one-sided narrative that the (Orange) Free State played little if no role at all in the struggle for liberation.

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