Subtle message in common heritage


On December 23, 2021, the remains of Corporal Tebogo Radebe, a member of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), were returned to the country from Mozambique. Radebe had been deployed to Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique as part of the SADC military mission to combat terrorists in the area who are attempting to destabilise the democratically elected government of Mozambique and in turn, the economy and the stability of Southern Africa. May the gallant soldier’s soul rest in peace. 

This act of regional solidarity contrasts with the presence of the South African Defence Force(SADF) on Mozambican soil on January 30, 1981. This was, as observed later by Oliver Tambo, the president of the then-exiled African National Congress (ANC), completely unjustifiable, violating international law and above all undermining the government of Samora Machel, the revered hero of his country’s struggle for freedom.

On that fateful morning, the forces of the apartheid regime descended on Matola, Maputo’s largest suburb, in an attempt to destabilise the ANC and kill members of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) the organisation’s military wing. This tragic incident came to be referred to as the Matola Raid. 

The direct attack on ANC members in Matola by the apartheid state was the beginning of an era of cross-border raids. During the 1980s, the regime used its forces in neighbouring countries including Mozambique, Botswana and Lesotho to maim and kill members of the liberation movement.

This was an escalation of the apartheid state’s aggressive policy. It was no longer enough to send its agents provocateurs to infiltrate and sabotage the ANC in exile, or to send parcel bombs to exiles, as when, on February 1, 1974,Onkgopotse Tiro, a leading figure of the South African Students Organisation (SASO)was killed in Gaborone.  Now, the aggression moved to the next level through cross-border raids of which Matola, deadly and devastating, was the first. 

That morning, ANC safe houses in Matola were attacked by the apartheid security apparatus. The regime had clearly identified its targets in advance. Several members of MK were killed during that raid. Amongst them were Mandla Daka, Steven Ngcobo and William Khanyile. During the raid, the apartheid forces kidnapped an MK cadre, Vuyani Mavuso. They later killed him when he refused to divulge details about ANC operations. 

Jose Ramos, a Portuguese national, mistaken for Joe Slovo, was also killed on that day. The regime celebrated, believing that they had finally disposed of one of their most hated and feared enemies, the legendary militant Slovo. Their disappointment was palpable when it transpired a few days later that it was not Slovo who had been killed.  

But the regime did strike a terrible blow at Slovo the following year on the 17th of August when they brutally killed his wife, Ruth First, another major figure in the resistance in her own right. She received a parcel bomb whilst stationed at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo where she was Director of Research at the Centre of African Studies.

A funeral for the fallen ANC cadres was held in Matola on February 14, 1981. Tambo attended in person, side by side with Machel. His presence was undoubtedly reassuring to the ANC rank and file in Mozambique. Also, attending the funeral sent a message to the apartheid regime that, despite the killings, he was not shaken and the movement remained defiant.

The victims of the Matola raid did not die in vain. In the new democratic era, following the fall of apartheid in 1994 the Matola Memorial Monument and Interpretative Centre was erected in their honour. This project was a joint initiative between the South African and Mozambican governments. It was opened jointly by the two governments on September 11, 2015. 

This monument and centre are symbols of unity between the two countries both of which have long histories of struggle against colonialism and, in the case of South Africa, apartheid. It was, after all, Tambo’s wish during the anniversary of the Matola raid on February 14, 1982 that relations between the South African liberation movement and Mozambique be strengthened.

Importantly, this joint initiative demonstrates that it is possible for the two governments to work closely on heritage issues affecting the two countries. There is already the Samora Machel Museum in South Africa. Machel died on South African soil when his plane crashed, mysteriously, at Mbuzini, Mpumalanga on October 19, 1986. Today, the Museum has been established at the site of the crash. Joint commemoration events are held yearly at the site to commemorate this dreadful tragedy.

There are additional possibilities. Consider, for instance, that the founding father of the Mozambican Liberation Front (FRELIMO), Eduardo Mondlane, studied at Wits University for a year until expelled from the institution in 1949. It would be appropriate to locate his accommodation whilst he was in Johannesburg and to see how this space could be jointly memorialised by Mozambicans and South Africans.

All this considered, a liberation heritage route encompassing such sites, including the monument at Matola, is not far-fetched. It would of course require investment of time and resources. Such a liberation heritage route could serve as a model for further similar initiatives between South Africa and other countries such as Tanzania, Angola and Zambia which played a pivotal role in the liberation of the country. 

Thus, heritage can serve to emphasise the ties that bind us together as Africans particularly as we seek to unite South Africans and the people of our region in the face of the fight against the triple scourge of racism, xenophobia and tribalism. We should ponder this as we commemorate the 41stanniversary of the Matola raid on the 30thof January.  

Dr Ndivhoniswani Lukhwareni is CEO of the National Heritage Council 

Previous International Mother Language Day – 21 Feb

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