In “Tales from the armed struggle: There were heroes in MK but villains, too” and in reference to Joe Modise, Shaun de Waal asks: “How did he ever get the job of MK commander, and how did he keep it? Allegations against him continued throughout the ANC’s period in exile, but no one seems to have been able to rein him in or get rid of him.”

These questions are answered in my detailed review of Amin Cajee and Terry Bell’s book, Fordsburg Fighter: The Journey of an MK volunteer, at, but because De Waal repeats the same unfounded claims in his article, I have tried to extract a few relevant points from my text.

Cajee’s book begins with an extraordinary scene in which he is sentenced to death by a panel comprising Joe Modise as chair, Chris Hani, Basil February, Boycie Bodibe and Jack Gatiep. According to Cajee, their crime was one of high treason, because he and others had allegedly plotted to overthrow the leadership of the ANC with the help of a foreign power.
Interestingly, Cajee’s view is that the tribunal was actually set up in order to allow Modise to deal with two cadres, Pat Molaoa and Vincent Khumalo (Mntungwa), whom Modise allegedly saw as threat to his rise to power because both were well known in the movement in South Africa before the banning of the ANC and were also among the earliest recruits to MK when it was decided to embark on armed struggle.

This claim is dubious, given that a wealth of literature (including official court evidence and submissions) exists detailing Modise’s rise to the position of commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the official title Modise held in September 1966, the time at which the tribunal described by Cajee was held. For example, we know that in 1947 Modise was a driver for Putco and other transport companies before he was recruited into the ANC Youth League in Newclare by Nelson Mandela and others to help organise the people’s movement (see Heidi Holland’s book 100 Years of Struggle: Mandela’s ANC). He was a key organiser of the 1950s Defiance Campaigns and, as a leading figure in the campaign for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter, was one of the 156 activists charged with treason in the 1956 Treason Trials. In fact, in Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recalls Modise as “one of the most dedicated of the local ANC leaders” during the campaigns against the 1950s Sophiatown forced removals.

Thula Simpson’s book, uMkhonto we Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle is brilliant at laying out events and actions carried out by both prominent and less known members of MK. From that thick volume, we are reminded that as one of the founding members of MK (and a member of the high command), Modise was personally involved in and led the planning and execution of numerous successful sabotage operations. As a result of this, he was officially named as co-conspirator (unindicted) during the Rivonia Trial.

One would have been tempted to consider that Cajee was incredibly ignorant of the history of the movement which he claims to have served were it not for the fact that other parts of the book present profiles of other members of the 1950s Defiance Campaigns, while the work also includes a picture of the 1956 treason trialists such as Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada and, probably unwittingly, Johannes “Joe” Modise. This leaves the reader wondering if the book is an attempt to rewrite history, settle old scores or both. Interestingly, Simpson’s book also covers Joe Modise’s involvement and leadership in the transport of cadres into exile, his role at Liliesleaf farm, and his personal involvement in activities on the Rhodesian side of the border during the Hwange and Sipolilo campaigns

In Cajee’s chapter 11, we learn that as one who could not understand “vernacular languages”, Cajee relied on hearsay to gain his view that Modise had been appointed commander-in-chief of MK in order to placate him and so he could agree to a Xhosa domination of Kongwa camp. This is a strange take on this critical event, because other personal accounts confirm that a power struggle ensued but recall different reasons for this. For example, Gerald Lockman, Walter Sisulu’s nephew, recalls that he strongly supported Modise’s elevation because he was the best-trained cadre and he knew him from the time Modise and Sisulu attended the treason trial.

Consistently with the rest of the text, in his chapter 15 Cajee repeats a long-refuted claim that Modise called for Chris Hani to be sentenced to death for the so-called Hani memorandum. Unfortunately, the same claim is repeated by De Waal in his review. But we already know from Hugh Macmillan’s essay on the memorandum in Transformation 69 (2009) that “It was widely believed in exile that Hani and the other signatories were sentenced to death, though there is no evidence to confirm this and the balance of probability suggests that they were not”. In fact, the former chair of Corruption Watch, Walter Mavuso, on October 9 2014 remarked: “I was part of the military leadership – there was never, to my knowledge, an instruction from Joe Modise to shoot anyone. There was never an official or organisational decision that someone had to be shot”.

In relation to the incident of January 8 1989, just after the NEC meeting in Lusaka, described by De Waal, it is clear that the discontent was levelled at the leadership in general: the soldiers argued that the “whole leadership” should resign. In addition, Simpson’s book includes Hani’s explanation of the challenges that led to the discontent – the basic question of non-deployment . It seems a bit odd for anyone to blame all of MK’s alleged “failures” on Modise, because he didn’t decide on the organisation’s strategy, tactics or issues of deployment all by himself. In fact Oliver Tambo, Joe Slovo, Hani, Mac Maharaj, Ronnie Kasrils and many others were intimately involved as outlined in numerous texts, including the biographies of these individuals.

The apartheid government’s institutional, financial and technical capacity to crack down on MK units operating internally made the leadership more circumspect on the issue of deployments. In addition, because of the ending of hostilities between the West and the Soviet Union, as well as the pressure from the apartheid government, frontline states were tired of supporting MK and by 1989, Angola worked with the Soviet Union to relocate MK combatants to Uganda, which was even further away from the front line.

Oxford academic and historian Jocelyn Alexander recently reminded conference participants that even the most honest personal stories by former MK rank-and-file reflect the fighter’s restricted range of vision. These accounts often reflect the narrow views of the fighter’s own small sub-group (defined by rank, ethnicity, and so on) and reflect a world in which rumours run rife and both information and misinformation are commonplace. Given South Africa’s current political climate, Cajee’s book is certainly thought-provoking, although much of it appears to be revisionist history, heavily informed by rumours and conspiracy theories. It is certainly a memoir burdened neither by basic facts nor a balanced consideration of context, although it might be attractive to some in this “post-truth”/”fake news” world we now live in.

In answering De Waal’s article, one is tempted to ask whether the reason why Modise was MK commander and Tambo trusted him enough to have him stay on for the full duration of the armed struggle was because Tambo and many others simply did not believe the slew of conspiracy theories. As it turned out, Modise’s long-time comrade and friend Mandela also had full confidence in him, declaring: “He presided over one of the most important facets of transformation in our country, the integration of the various statutory and non-statutory armed forces into one single SANDF. He led a process that laid the solid foundations for stability in the new South Africa – a disciplined defence force, loyal to the Constitution and the new democratic order.”

Finally, Modise’s role in the arms deal has been the subject of heated debate for years and many books have been written about the deal. The package was unanimously supported by Parliament’s defence review process and two subsequent and independent commissions, involving the auditor general, the public protector, the National Prosecuting Authority and Judge Willie Seriti have cleared Modise and others of any wrongdoing whatsoever. Even though some may have different views on the credibility of the investigations, the legal fact is that no one has ever proved alleged corruption on the part of Modise in the arms deal. That De Waal’s analysis fails to make any mention of these decisive rulings is cause for great concern and draws to our attention a saddening trend in South African journalism, which shows insufficient regard to truthful and fair reporting.

Fidelis Hove is an economist and historian