by Bantu Holomisa and Roelf Meyer
Chapter 1: Leaving Mqanduli
Harrington Bantubonke Holomisa was born the son of Tembu Chief Bazindlovu Holomisa on 25 July 1955 in the Mqanduli district of Transkei. By dint of his mother’s lineage and seniority, he is outside the line of succession to the chieftainship. After attending the Upper Ngqungqu Primary School in Mqanduli, he proceeded to the Jongilizwe College for the Sons of Chiefs and Headmen in Tsolo, Transkei, where he matriculated in 1975. Here, Holomisa says, he encountered the strongest formative influences of his life.
Apart from the usual matriculation subjects, he obtained an additional Diploma in Leadership, with the subjects of current events, conduct of public affairs, public administration, English, African law (then called Bantu law, using the university-prescribed textbook by Seymore on the subject), typing and office routine.
“We read daily newspapers and magazines such as Time and Newsweek and had to give our own opinions and critiques on local and world events. A great influence here was Dumisa Ntsebeza (latterly of Truth and Reconciliation Commission – TRC – fame), who taught us English, history and current events. As students at Jongilizwe we were also required to receive and conduct visitors to the school, including political figures and visitors from abroad. We learnt the basics of proper social conduct and protocol. We had an annual orators’ competition which were often attended by public figures such as ministers of education and the then commissioner-general of the Transkei ‘homeland’, Mr. Hans Abraham.
“Above all perhaps, self-discipline and self-confidence were inculcated in us. Our heads were opened up. We were being trained as leaders to face the world on our own”.
The ethos of personal discipline is an integral facet of the Holomisa personality:”I first learnt the value of self-discipline and accepting personal responsibility for one’s conduct as a herd-boy. Without these values, the sheep and cattle could not be properly tended and brought home safe in the evenings. It was a lesson learnt early in life and strengthened by all my subsequent education and experience.”
Born into a religious family, he is a life-long Anglican and did duty as a server in the Mqanduli congregation of the Reverend Mr. Bacon, another strong influence in his formative years. Bacon placed a premium on Christian duty and the social value of disciplined personal conduct. As a student, Holomisa was a member of the Students’ Christian Movement:
“I have a very strong background in do’s and don’ts, in what is wrong and what is right. In practical terms, this means that you simply do not do a thing, which is wrong according to your upbringing and personal convictions and values, without any further explanation being necessary. By the same token, you do the thing that is right”.
This attitude has had a life-long and far-reaching effect on his political fortunes in different eras of South African political history. Bantu Holomisa is a passionate fan of the game of rugby. After school, his main aim in life was to become a Leopard – the Transkei national team at the time – and ultimately a Springbok. His prowess as a left wing indicated that this was quite feasible. After matriculating, he did a brief stint with the Post Office, until school friends introduced him to the Transkei Defence Force (TDF), which he promptly joined as a private. After basic training he elected to join the military band, calculating that the generous opportunity this would afford him to practice and play rugby far outweighed the fact that he could not play a musical instrument! Within a week, however, he was yanked out of this cosy comfort zone by his disgusted infantry instructors – then still largely under the direction and control of the South African Defence Force (SADF) – who told him that the band was just a hiding place for “slapgats” (the weak-kneed).
He was returned to the infantry where he attended an instructors’ course in 1977. Before being awarded the non-commissioned rank for which he had qualified, he was selected for an officers’ course in 1978, at the completion of which he was awarded the commissioned rank of lieutenant. In 1978-79, he did a combat team commanders’ course (the equivalent of company commanders in- infantry terms, but in a mixed/balanced combat formation) in the army of the then Zimbabwe-Rhodesia of Abel Muzorewa and lan Smith. In 1981-82, he completed a parachute course with the TDF Special Forces at their training base at Port St. Johns, still under the auspices of the SADF. Having risen steadily through the ranks, he was selected to attend the elite South African army senior command and staff course, which he completed at the Army College, Voortrekkerhoogte, in 1984 at the rank of colonel.
Holomisa recalls his experiences on the staff course with affection – but also with reservations:
“It was a tremendous experience to be taught to command large military formations by officers who were by and large very able – and, at that stage, among the most experienced in the world in waging conventional as well as counter-insurgency warfare. It was a challenge to put across your own views – which was an absolute requirement on the course – without being so radical as to jeopardise your chances of success. It was a fine balancing act. For instance, we in the TDF had never been brainwashed into referring to the liberation movements as ‘the enemy’, as in the traditional military training phase of ‘know your enemy’ (the ‘red forces’ on training maps and in manuals).
“In 1982, when I was the colonel in charge of training in the TDF, the commanding officer of the TDF, Major-General Ron Reid Daly (formerly commanding officer of the Selous Scouts in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia), instructed me to introduce a ‘know your enemy’ phase in TDF training. I obstructed this by insisting that as the subject was politically loaded, he should first obtain the approval of Prime Minister George Matanzima, whom at the time I knew to be critical of Pretoria.
Reid Daly agreed to my request, which gave me the chance to speak to Matanzima confidentially beforehand. As a result, the general’s request was refused. I think this lack of indoctrination made the later incorporation of the TDF into the new South African National Defence Force (SANDF) easier and smoother than in the case of the other so-called statutory forces.” An aspect, which troubled Holomisa on the staff course, was the presentation of the phase dealing with revolution and revolutionary warfare:
“The instructors had a misinformed and simplistic view of the South African revolutionary situation, its underlying causes and dynamic and how to combat it. They had obviously read some carefully selected books, either theoretical or derived from experience mostly inapplicable to South African and African conditions.
“We were required to research the views of people like Bishop Tutu, Winnie Mandela and the Rivonia accused, whereas Dumisa Ntsebeza had already at Jongilizwe College required us to try and work out for ourselves what Henry Kissinger would do regarding the Arab/Israeli war in 1973. The South African Army was in 1984 still not telling us to ‘get into the enemy’s head’ but to find proof for its ideological preconceptions from the utterances of a few selected players on the revolutionary scene. They either had no appreciation of the extent of the mounting resentment and anger of black South Africans, or were not allowed to air such reservations as they may have had.”
In April 1987 Bantu Holomisa became the chief of the TDF, with the rank of major-general. In May of that year, the TDF forced the prime minister of Transkei, George Matanzima, to resign. In December, they ousted the successor government headed by Ms. Stella Sigcau. A military council took over the government of Transkei. After allegations and rumours of corruption and maladministration in the Transkei government under President K. D. Matanzima had been rife for many years, pressure from South Africa eventually led to the appointment of various commissions of enquiry into these and other matters. In 1986 some of the findings of these commissions had implicated senior politicians and civil servants – among whom Prime Minister George Matanzima – in corruption and the embezzlement of funds intended for a housing project. Many instances were exposed of political leaders having given instructions to accounting officers in the civil service to spend funds for corrupt and other inappropriate purposes. Large amounts of money were illicitly spirited out of Transkei to South African and overseas banks.
Dossiers were referred to the attorney-general by the commissions and a number of prosecutions of senior politicians followed on counts of, inter alia, corruption and theft. After the findings of the commissions became known, Holomisa and other officers of the TDF – including Brigadier T.T. Matanzima, Colonel Craig Duli and others – went to see the prime minister. They went unarmed and put the question to Matanzima whether, in the interests of the Transkei state, government and people, he did not consider it appropriate for him to resign. At the time members of parliament were openly rejoicing in the revelations of malpractices and self-enrichment by the prime minister and others.
These had been an open secret for some time. Rumours were rife that Matanzima was about to have the revellers “dancing on (his) supposed grave” arrested and the mood in opposition quarters was turning ugly. Bloodshed and general chaos was feared. Matanzima told the deputation he would consider resigning and “let them know” of his decision. They did not hear from him. Holomisa and the military again spoke to the prime minister about his resignation, this time more insistently. He indicated that he would be going to Pretoria to inform South African foreign minister Pik Botha that he was resigning. The military then drafted a letter of resignation for signing by George Matanzima and other cabinet ministers, but could not trace them in order to have the letters signed. Roadblocks were set up in an effort to apprehend the politicians. It had become clear that Matanzima had by then either not returned from South Africa or had again skipped to that country He obviously had no intention of returning to Transkei. Holomisa relates:
“Our demand to South Africa for the return of George Matanzima to face the commissions was met by a lot of bluster from Pik Botha, but we insisted. Botha must have felt the pressure because Matanzima then fled to Austria, where he had the so-called ‘tractor scandal’ connection.
“The former Transkei government had bought a large number of tractors from Austria which were not suitable and for various reasons could never be used for their intended purpose. George Matanzima and others had reportedly received huge kickbacks on this transaction. Our government still owed the Austrians R100 million for the tractors and we told them: ‘No George, no pay’. George came back after the South African government had given him the assurance that he would not be arrested. They still refused to extradite him to face our commissions and the courts. He eventually did make himself available for trial by court of law, was found guilty of fraud and corruption and sentenced to nine years in prison. After serving two and a half years, he was pardoned and released.”
A new civilian cabinet with Stella Sigcau as prime minister, took over the government. President K.D. Matanzima had already stepped down towards the middle of 1986 to be succeeded by President Tutor Ndamase.
Through intelligence sources the military then also learnt that the former government had received R2 million from the leisure and gambling magnate Sol Kerzner for exclusive gambling rights in Transkei. They came into possession of Bank of Transkei documentation, including statements and cancelled cheques, which directly implicated Sigcau of having received some of this money. Holomisa says that intense debate followed among the military:
“The debate centred around the question of whether we should also act against Sigcau – as we had done against George Matanzima – and this time take over the government. Sigcau was merely a continuation of the old order, the same people still governed. It would not help to put someone else of that ‘family’ into power again. They would just carry on in the same way. The ruling Transkei National Independence Party was obviously corrupt to the core.
“At first we were divided. Some thought that what we wanted to do had never been done before and carried a high risk – for example, what would South Africa, and especially the SADF, do? Others felt that we should have taken over the government when we got rid of George Matanzima. Eventually we decided unanimously that Stella and her government had to go. The risks would simply have to be calculated and accepted.” There were five prime movers of the coup: Holomisa, Brigadier T.T. Matanzima (today a lieutenant-general and chief of staff personnel of the SANDF), the late Colonel Craig Duli, Colonel Mgwebe (now a major-general in the SANDF) and Colonel Ndzwayiba. Holomisa relates:
“The planning had to be meticulous. There were still many supporters of the regime in the TDF and they would have to be convinced of the correctness of our action. We decided that all members of the TDF had to be briefed. We called almost everyone in the TDF to Umtata on 31 December 1987, when the politicians were sunning themselves on the beaches. The cover story for the muster was to plan the deployment of troops to protect tourists by patrolling the highways, etc. We made thousands of copies of the bank documents and distributed them so that all soldiers, from top officers down to the most junior ranks, could read them for themselves.
“It is still a source of pride that not a single member of the TDF leaked anything to anyone before our action. Even those with close family ties to the ruling group were loyal to the cause from day one. These included Brigadier T.T. Matanzima and even George’s son, Colonel Q. Matanzima. Of all the people involved it was only Colonel Craig Duli who, out of sheer blind loyalty to the Matanzimas, later connived with South Africa in an abortive coup attempt against our military government. This tight security enabled the military council to take over the government cleanly and without opposition on 31 December 1987 – and on 1 January 1988 we began governing the country”.
In 1988, Stella Sigcau went to Pretoria with a delegation and asked the South African government to remove the military council by force. When they returned to Transkei, they were detained and had statements taken.
“Pik Botha called and pleaded with me not to arrest the people,” says Holomisa. “He said he had advised the group to go back and discuss matters with us. He had told them that the South African government recognised the military government, as he had informed President Ndamase when the latter had visited him earlier in 1988. They had now told Stella that they could not intervene. I agreed not to arrest Stella’s party. On Botha’s undertaking that his government would not intervene militarily in the affairs of Transkei, I told him I was glad to hear that but that only time would tell. We knew that they were still talking to K.D. Matanzima, who was telling them that we were a bunch of communists’.
“The upshot was the abortive coup against us which South Africa attempted with the connivance and collaboration of Colonel Craig Duli in 1990 and which led to his sad death in November of that year, when he was killed by soldiers loyal to the TDF. The authorities tried to incriminate me for his death, with which I had nothing whatsoever to do. The investigating policeman, a Captain Neethling, fully exonerated me by saying, inter alia, that ‘… Holomisa is not a suspect. We can prove nothing against him … investigations … suggest that Mr. Holomisa did not order the shooting. Nor did he have knowledge of the order prior to being told that Duli was dead.’ ” Many further tribulations followed in Holomisa and the military council’s relationship with South Africa.
In the course of 1988 and 1989, 33 organisations which had been banned in Transkei by the Matanzima government – among them the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) – were unbanned and all political prisoners were released on 26 October 1989. On 10 January 1990, President de Klerk and Pik Botha flew to Umtata and told Holomisa to return to barracks and hand Transkei over to a civilian government. He was further to refrain from holding a referendum which had been planned to decide on whether the country should return to the South African fold or not. De Klerk and Botha also expressed unhappiness that the banned organisations had been unbanned.”
“At a joint press conference afterwards,” Holomisa relates, “De Klerk said that they had ‘instructed’ us to return to barracks, etc. I repeated in public what I had told them in the meeting – that, if they had not been joking, Transkei was an independent country and would decide its own future. We had not asked for permission to topple George and Stella and we would certainly not return to barracks on Pretoria’s instructions. We would, in fact, not take any instructions from them.”
“Furthermore, I said that free political activity would henceforth be allowed in Transkei and that all its people’ would be free to speak their mind. I also gave the assurance that although political attacks would be in order, Transkei would not tolerate being used as a springboard for military action against South African targets. The extradition of Sol Kerzner was also raised in the meeting, but Pik ducked and dived and no progress was made.”
De Klerk’s announcement of 2 February 1990 overtook events but the coup attempt in which Duli was to be involved still proceeded later in the year.
During these turbulent times, Holomisa remained conscious of the principles and standards of personal conduct instilled in him by the powerful influences of his formative years – especially those of the Reverend Mr. Bacon of the Anglican Church at Mqanduli and Dumisa Ntsebeza at Jongilizwe College in Tsolo:
“My personal life had been consciously modelled along the lines taught by them and others since my earliest youth. If you know something to be wrong and you accept personal responsibility for your conduct, what remains of your integrity, of your self-esteem, of you as a human being, if you go ahead and do that wrong thing? On the other hand, what remains when you know the right thing to do and you don’t do it? When confronted by such clear and gross wrongs as I was in Transkei and later in the ANC, I am incapable of acting contrary to these very deep convictions – and never will be. Of course you have to survive in life and especially in political life. You need to be flexible where flexibility is required, when it is possible. But the ultimate test for survival in human terms is whether you can live with your conscience. So far, I have managed to survive.”
Holomisa says he was never a political activist as the term is generally understood:”I have always thought it better to use whatever constructive means you have at your disposal to achieve whatever you can for the good of your ideals and for that of your people. I have never been comfortable with toyi-toying, although I have sometimes pretended to participate. I don’t think it is dignified or that it can achieve anything. Above all, it has become symbolic of the culture of entitlement which has done so much damage to our society, is frustrating the noble aims of our new democracy and is still being encouraged by top politicians in the government for political gain. Hard work, coupled to personal and national discipline, is what is needed to address the demands that face our country.”
As head of the government of Transkei, Holomisa says that he and his military council did their best to maintain the appearance of being politically non-aligned in their efforts to sort out the governmental, administrative and financial mess they had inherited. They were also sensitive to the problems a politicised military had created in other countries. Holomisa again: “There was never any question that we were anything but fully behind the liberation struggle and that we would give it all moral and other support within our means. But these means were limited. We had a huge task on our hands – in the interests of the people of Transkei – to root out corruption and rehabilitate our region. Essential services, such as education and housing, were all suffering greatly from a shortage of funds, which was worsened by the theft and misappropriation of public money by the previous rulers. If we wanted to achieve anything, we needed to keep receiving our annual budgetary support from the South African government and at the same time keep the South African military and police off our backs as far as possible.
“The trigger for a switch in this approach was an incident in 1988. At the time, there was considerable tension between the military council and the Transkei police, who were strongly under the influence of – and effectively still controlled by – the South African police. At that stage we limited military assistance to the police to supporting their cordon and search operations only. They were gods unto themselves who did the bidding of their Pretoria masters and we seldom knew what they were doing. We later cleaned up this situation, but it took time.
“Two young ANC activists, the Sangoni-brothers, were cold-bloodedly assassinated by South African and Transkeian policemen while sitting in a car in the North Crest suburb of Umtata. The policemen involved in the killing escaped to South Africa. This led to another intense debate in the military council, mainly around the question of what our so-called independence and sovereignty meant if the South African authorities could still do as they pleased in our territory.
“The upshot was that we resolved to resist such interventions more vigorously in future and in general to adopt a more confrontational approach in our relations with South Africa. This was to include more outspoken support of the liberation movements – but not, for reasons already mentioned, military support to them in any form. That would have been courting disaster. We did, however, allow them to maintain underground structures in Transkei and later issued them with weapons for self-defence, as armed South African incursions into Transkei were continuing.”
These circumstances led to increased tensions in the military council’s relations with the South African authorities and an increasingly close association with the ANC. Holomisa’s personal standing with both was, of course, also affected. He swiftly became even more of a bugbear to South Africa, which kept up the pretence of regarding Transkei as an independent country and dealing with it through its department of foreign affairs. Holomisa’s now outspoken approach to them was that if that was the case, they could not prescribe to him how to run Transkei’s affairs or who its friends should be. Budgetary and other support to Transkei by South Africa was in the event never suspended – although funds for certain projects were withheld. And mercurial Pik Botha’s apoplexy at times knew no bounds!
Holomisa was later a member of the Transkei negotiating team which was firmly in the ANC camp at the convention for a democratic South Africa (Codesa) and its successor, the multi-party negotiating process (MPNP). An Interim Constitution was produced by the MPNP in 1993, in terms of which the first fully democratic general election in the country was held in 1994. After the election, Holomisa was appointed deputy minister of the environment and tourism in the first ANC-dominated government of national unity (GNU) under President Nelson Mandela. At the ANC’s congress in December 1994, he was elected to the number one position on the organisation’s national executive committee (NEC). He was riding the crest of a wave of popularity and was in impeccable standing with the ANC.
But that was before his upbringing yet again complicated his life.