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A Tale Of Two Presidents And One Phone Call To Freedom

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A month before South Africa’s elections, one of the country’s leading political figures exposed a number of his former comrades for corruption with evidence to the Zondo Commission on State Capture. It was box office material, yet just another eventful period in the turbulent life of Robert McBride – guerrilla fighter, policeman and death row prisoner.


Robert McBride has one of those faces full of character that looks like it has endured life as much as lived it. A glance through his tough years of struggle yields a list of reasons why: five years on death row to screams and tears of the condemned; scores of beatings over decades; shooting his way out of hospital; years of the shadowy and violent life of an underground guerrilla fighter.

McBride was born in Wentworth, just outside Durban, in 1963, and grew up amid racist insults and violence. It swiftly politicised him and he was taken into the military wing of the African National Congress where he carried out sabotage with explosives.

Even by the standards of the desperate days of the gun in South Africa, McBride’s political activity is remarkable. In 1986, McBride fought his way out of an intensive care ward in a bizarre rescue of his childhood friend and fellow fighter Gordon Webster. It happened at Edendale Hospital in Durban where Webster lay, with tubes in his body, under police guard.

McBride posed as a doctor, with an AK47 hidden in his white coat; his father, Derrick, was dressed as a priest with a Makarov pistol under his cassock. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard, in 1999, that hospital staff cheered them on and held back an armed policeman as the McBrides shot their way out, pushing the wounded Webster to freedom on a trolley.        

Thirty-three-years on, McBride went into battle again for his beliefs, this time with words and documents, against a more insidious and formidable foe than armed police – corruption. He gave evidence before the Zondo Commission, in Johannesburg, springing from his days as head of IPID, the independent police investigators.

He spent more than four days on the stand – longer than most cricket matches last these days. He told of missing police evidence, claims of sinister moves to remove corruption busters and the misappropriation of money, under a cloak of secrecy, by the crime intelligence agencies.    

“People don’t like me because of my anti-corruption stance, their dislike of me I wear as a badge of honour. Those who dislike me for other reasons, it is a free country and you are entitled to your likes and dislikes. I have no problem with you. But wherever I am, I will do my work and will always be against corruption. I understand how corruption affects the ordinary man and means there is so much less to go around,” he says.   

To give a little more context, McBride’s erstwhile job went with unpopularity. The head of IPID is a post that politicians, plus probably more than a few disgruntled policemen, wanted him out of. They ended his contract and he assures me he is going to court to get his job back. His stance may give clues as to why some wanted to see the back of him.

“I have spoken loudly every time I have seen something wrong and raised unpopular issues. Some of the issues we picked up early on was police involvement in cash-in-transit robberies… The looting of police funds, the corruption, the wastage and the leverage, we then began to understand it; the leverage that some policeman have over politicians… Any criminal syndicate that is operating requires police to help them otherwise they will be found out in the normal course of events,” says McBride, the month before the hearing.

“Rogue activity by certain elements in the prosecuting authority, the willingness to prosecute people for non-criminal acts and unwillingness to prosecute when there is a pile of evidence…We will also speak about the abuse of state funds, the abuse of power by the police by negating investigations. Most of our evidence is backed up by court papers, evidence and affidavits,” he says.

Many activists who saw the nasty, ugly, side of the struggle often are the first to come down, hard, when they feel freedoms they fought for are being abused. You could argue McBride, an intelligent thinker, is very much one of them.

You could also argue that McBride has been cut adrift by many former comrades and demonized as the Magoo’s Bar bomber – the 1986 car bomb on the Durban beachfront that killed three and wounded scores. Others, on both sides of the South African struggle, who issued orders, or did worse, are undisturbed and anonymous by their swimming pools. Any regrets? I ask.

“It’s like asking me ‘do I regret living in a free and democratic country’, the answer can’t be yes… We would have preferred that things went differently. If you are in an armed struggle, you are the cause of hurt to other people and as a political activist, as a revolutionary you can defend that and justify it.

“But as a human being, you know that when it concerns other people, it is not the right thing to do to cause the hurt of other people. I have expressed myself as a human being on this, not because I was trying to elicit any sympathy or anything; I have never asked for redemption, I have never asked for forgiveness. Those who know me know what I am about and those who understand the circumstances in the early 1980s when we became active; those who are old enough to remember that was what the circumstances were.”

Those circumstances recede further into the darkness of memory of democratic South Africa every year, yet, in the minds of those who suffered, it stays pin sharp. McBride spent five years on death row, in Pretoria, after being sentenced to the gallows for the Durban bombings.

He reckons the prison hanged more than 300 prisoners in this time. Through the cell door, he heard the condemned screaming and crying as warders dragged the condemned along the passages to their fate. The hanging warders used to bring back the bloody hoods from the gallows and force the next batch of condemned men to wash them.

In May 1990, the sun shone as hope visited death row in Pretoria. The prison management summoned McBride and a group of fellow condemned activists, to the main office at the maximum security prison. Each were given green prison jackets – the garb of special occasions. Warders drove them, in a van, to a distant part of the prison and all feared they were either going to be executed or allowed to escape and shot in the back.

“We were told not to talk and then we were put in this big room with a steel of security around the room and after about 45 minutes the former president (Mandela) walked in and it was the most beautiful sight on earth; the greatest feeling ever and when he walks in, he says: ‘Ah, Robert! How are you!’ As if he knew me forever. It was the most important meeting I had in my life. It was like a God-like environment. He gave us a rundown of negotiations and what can be expected and that we must not worry, we must be patient and sit tight, he knows all of our backgrounds and will do his utmost to get us released and we will never be forgotten.”

It took more than two more years, in the shadow of the noose… until a fateful Friday. September 25, 1992. McBride will never forget the date.

“Round about half past four in the afternoon, I got a call to come to the office, I didn’t know what it was about, and when I came there, the head of the prison said: ‘You have a phone call’. It was my first phone call in prison. On the other end of the line was comrade Cyril Ramaphosa and he says: ‘Hi chief’. I keep quiet and then he says: ‘Monday’. I say: ‘What’s happening Monday chief?’ He keeps quiet, then he says: ‘You are going home!’ There was a bit of a smile you could feel in his voice,” says McBride with a huge smile on his face.

Long after Mandela had completed his long walk to freedom for his country, McBride was to yet again hear the click of a prison key and feel the pain from a warder’s boot.

It was the summer of 1998 and in Maputo, the sea was warm and the prawns were hot. The police in Mozambique picked up McBride, then a high-ranking official in foreign affairs, on alleged gun running charges that appeared to be trumped up to us journalists. We scoured the streets of the capital, for weeks, in search of witnesses.

McBride argued that he was on an undercover operation for the National Intelligence Agency trying to uncover gun runners who were flooding neighbouring South Africa with illegal weapons and fuelling crime; a counter that eventually set him free.

Despite this, McBride spent six months in the capital’s notorious, grim, Machava maximum security prison, where he told me violence was meted out.

I covered that story for many months and came within a split ace of interviewing McBride in his cell. We spent hours plying the Portuguese-speaking warders with beer and the story, through an interpreter, that we were friends visiting from South Africa and we just wanted to say hello. We told them our friend was a big man in South Africa.

“He is a small man now,” smiled back one of the warders icily.

We convinced the guards and as they moved towards the prison doors, keys in hand, our cover was blown. One of the not too bright colleagues from our TV station strolled into the prison waving his press card.

“Hello Chris!” says he. The none-too-pleased prison guards threw us out.

I had to wait more than 20 years for my interview with McBride.

A phrase I always remembered from those many hot, crazy, days in Maputo was a quote we got from the late presidential spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa when McBride went behind bars yet again.

“He is a tough guy who can look after himself,” said Mamoepa.

The Zondo Commission and scores of corrupt policemen last month found out how tough.  

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Heroes & Survivors

The Test, Trial And Triumph

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Motlabana Monnakgotla on an assignment for FORBES AFRICA

After 14 days in isolation as a Covid-19 patient, this FORBES AFRICA photojournalist recovered to see the world with new eyes and realize he had the gift of life.

It was around 3PM on June 24 when a nurse called to tell me that I could now officially end my 14-day self-isolation period at home. I had tested Covid-19 positive three weeks before and now was in total disbelief that I had survived this particular physical trial and mental ordeal.

Before testing positive, I was like any other ordinary South African, pursuing my work from home, and as a FORBES AFRICA photojournalist, recording the impact of the coronavirus.

I had thought my face-mask and hand-sanitizer were my armour against the virus, but I guess one can never be too careful.

The first 72 hours of knowing that I had confirmed positive for Covid-19 came with its own set of emotions and experiences. Some friends, and even family, criticized and judged me for carrying the virus, but I also came to know about the ones who cared.

A group of doctors visited me at home to check if I needed hospitalization. They were young and not cloaked head-to-toe in PPE as I had thought. One of them was wearing a camouflage top and sported a few tattoos on his left arm. After his consultation with me, he spoke excitedly about the baby he and his wife were expecting, due later in the year.

There was hope in the world.

I was confident my health was getting better until a nurse called me a few days later. She was the pin that burst my bubble, as she stated things I didn’t want to hear at the time. They were facts, she clinically warned, as she sees people dying daily of the virus.

My mind raced to the previous two nights, when I experienced mild short breaths and thought how the attack could have been worse. I could have died at night all by myself, just trying to breathe. I shed tears as she spoke.

Soon after that, an old friend of mine, who had been shot (and injured) in the spine during an armed robbery attack, called. His timing was perfect. He encouraged me to live on and smile, and told me that the nurse was only doing her job, in advising me to keep to a healthy diet during this time. He brought a smile to my face.

A week later, it was my mother’s birthday. Every year, I visit her with a gift and a cake. This time, all I could do was video-call her; she was both happy and sad not to be able to see me. Two days later, it was my own birthday. I felt low and lonely, but was glad to be alive as my two weeks in self-quarantine was going to be over soon.

“I asked if I would be added on as a statistic to the official recovery numbers, and she laughed.”

I was reluctant to leave the house, but on June 24, the call by a lady who identified herself as “Nurse Nomsa from the Department of Health” liberated me. She was following up on my health status for the previous two weeks and I had ticked all the right boxes. I asked if I would be added on as a statistic to the official recovery numbers, and she laughed. She told me I had recovered, but should continue maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Today, I can stand outside my home in Soweto and watch the neighbors’ kids play, shout and scream, asking from their yards, “Malume (uncle), are you okay?”

With a gentle laugh and nod, I acknowledge my story of survival to them.

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Current Affairs

Sustainable Development In Africa Can Be Amplified By The Media

The COVID-19 pandemic has struck the world like a bolt of lightning exposing the contours of deep inequalities. Media reports have helped reveal the interwoven threads of inequality and health, with poorer people suffering a strikingly disproportionate share of the fallout from the virus, either through infection or loss of livelihoods.

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In 2018, the United Nations Secretary-General Mr António Guterres, launched an SDG Media Compact to leverage their resources to advance the Sustainable Development Goals. By disseminating facts, human stories and solutions, the Compact is a powerful driver for advocacy, action and accountability on the Sustainable Development Goals. Photo- UN

When 17-year-old high school student Darnella Fraizer filmed the last minutes of George Floyd’s life under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin, she could not have imagined that her footage would reignite the explosive global question of racial inequality and the subsequent clamour for reforms in policing.

This act of filming validates the force of the media globally, we need a similar drive for urgent action in Africa. We need the continent’s media to help ensure the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are achieved and the life of every African afforded the opportunity they deserve.

“Around the world, success in achieving the SDGs will ease global anxieties, provide a better life for women and men and build a firm foundation for stability and peace in all societies, everywhere,” said the UN Deputy Secretary General, Amina Mohammed

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a wave of demonstrations from Lebanon to Chile, from Iran to Liberia, was sweeping across countries. This was a clear sign that, for all our progress, something in our globalized society is broken.

The COVID-19 pandemic has struck the world like a bolt of lightning exposing the contours of deep inequalities. Media reports have helped reveal the interwoven threads of inequality and health, with poorer people suffering a strikingly disproportionate share of the fallout from the virus, either through infection or loss of livelihoods.

The global sweep of protests due to years of disenfranchisement and racism has made it clear that the world must change to offer equal treatment to all people.  

Media can do the same for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Achieving the SDGs, and so improving the lives of millions of Africans, depends heavily on increasing public awareness, and on the focused action and funding that such awareness ignites.

One major shortcoming of development progress is the lack of widespread knowledge about the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. We must look to the media to push the SDG discourse; what is reported and how it is reported helps shape policy and has implications for the millions of people whose lives are affected. Knowledge is power and if citizens are aware of the issues, they are empowered to help determine the national response.

Traditionally, development experts have failed to explain the relatively new concept of sustainable development to influencers such as educators, politicians, and the media. Doing so is key, so that easily understood narratives are developed to raise public support.

We are already a third of the way towards the 2030 Agenda deadline which 193 UN member states committed to. But at the current pace of change – notwithstanding the global pandemic – Africa is likely to miss out on the time-bound targets in key sectors – including health, education, employment, energy, infrastructure, and the environment. 

Improved public awareness of the SDGs themselves, and of the actions needed and the bodies responsible for such actions is essential. By stepping up to address and explain the global quest for social justice and equality which the SDGs represent, the media can help galvanise civil society, business, international bodies, regional organizations, and individuals.

Pressure from an informed public, pushes policymakers into action, offering hope to millions of poor people.

Development is never far from the media agenda in Africa, so the opportunity to build understanding of sustainability is there. Sustainable development experts must explain why the SDGs are important, and why ‘business as usual’ in development is no longer viable in the face of increasing populations and climate change. Then, news outlets, who would then be able to develop compelling narratives to make the concept understandable by all can help raise the SDG profile, thereby raising public support.

We must “flip the orthodoxy”.

What is reported, how it is reported, and on what channels helps in shaping policy and has implications for the millions of people whose lives are affected.

To this end, the media must be brought into the conversation and be made to understand the role they can play towards the greater good.

The SDGs pledge that “no one will be left behind” and to “endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.” In practice, this means taking explicit action to end extreme poverty, curb inequalities, confront discrimination and fast-track progress for the furthest behind.

The media can shine a spotlight on those left behind, for example by using COVID-19 to examine the wider issue of universal health coverage, the subject of SDG 3.

It also plays a critical role in holding governments to account for their Agenda 2030 commitments. Though these commitments demand that countries have clear reporting and accountability mechanisms, most nations still have no reliable data on their progress towards specific goals. This matters because countries can only unlock financing for the SDGs by disaggregating data to understand where resources are required. In Africa, where national commitments are rarely backed by adequate investment, this is particularly important.

Rapid mobile penetration in Africa offers unparalleled opportunities for content sharing on digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Though lack of affordable internet connections and poor connectivity remain a challenge, mobile technology is a powerful enabler across many sectors.

One in every six people on Earth lives in Africa; its problems are the world’s problems and solving them is the world’s responsibility. If Africa fails to achieve Agenda 2030, the implications will be felt across the planet through conflict, migration, population growth and climate catastrophe.

The media in Africa is a stakeholder in the achievements of the SDGs. Let us support the media and enlist their help in the quest for economic, environmental, and social justice across the world.

Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya. He has served in various parts of the world with UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP, UNOPS, UN Peacekeeping and the Red Cross Movement. A decorated Special Forces veteran, he is an alumnus of Princeton University. Follow him on twitter-@sidchat1

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.​​​​​

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From The Singing To The Shooting: ‘Will Never Forget For As Long As I live’

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Oupa Moloto poses in one of the classrooms at Morris Isaacson High School where the protests started; image by Motlabana Monnakgotla

Forty-four years ago on this day, bullets tore through a peaceful school protest in South Africa ending in bloody riots and an uprising that got the world’s attention. Two of the students from the time shudder as they reflect on that cold, dark morning in June.

Forty-four years ago on this day, ‘Soweto Uprising’, South Africa’s famed student protest, led to bullets, fire and tears and an iconic photograph the world came to associate with the country’s brutal apartheid regime.

On June 16, 1976, a day etched in blood in South African history, 13-year-old school student, Hector Pieterson, was shot dead in the police firing that ensued, a moment captured for posterity by photographer Sam Nzima.

Even today, there are those who distinctly remember the coldness of that dark day, when all that the students protested was being taught in Afrikaans, a language they felt was oppressive.

Oupa Moloto, now 63, who was then a student at the Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto where it all started and who was thrown into prison after that horrific day, recalls it vividly. He thought it was going to be a peaceful protest, but it turned out to be a day filled with bullets, police dogs, burning tyres and angry students.  

Moloto had first spoken to FORBES AFRICA in 2016 when he had shared all the details. The memories of that day will never fade away.

“Finding ourselves singing in the streets as young people, challenging the government of the day, it was just excitement. The sadness that is going to remain with us and going to be indelible in our lives is when the police started shooting at young people, that is the one incident that one will never forget for as long as I live,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

The protests started in Soweto and quickly moved to other townships in South Africa such as Alexandra and Tembisa. Towards the end of the week, the whole country was standing up against the government and everybody got involved; even adults and children in Bulwer, a small town in the KwaZulu-Natal region where Duduzile Dlamini-Ndubane was a student at Pholela High School.

Duduzile Dlamini-Ndubane in KwaZulu-Natal

She says they were told not to go to class by a group of male students on that Wednesday morning, and she was not too sure how they had received the information on the nationwide protest against teaching in the Afrikaans language.

“We made our way to the school grounds, we started singing, some students didn’t even know what was happening but nonetheless stayed with the group. We were then chased out of the school grounds and told to go back home. It was a noisy protest but no police came and there were no injuries,” remembers Dlamini-Ndubane.

Today, she is a professional nurse based in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa and Youth Day to her is a constant reminder that unity is key.

“When we unite behind a great cause, we change not only the current situation, but we make history. Youth need to unite and fight the right causes to change the world for the greater good,” she says.

Back in Soweto, Moloto says the struggle of today is an economic one for young people.

“Students are looking for economic freedom, hence #FeesMustFall; they want to get into the institute of learning without being in debt because they believe education can help them to be part of the economy of the country,” he says.

“When Hector died in 1976, he belonged to no party, he was just a student who died for all political affiliations of the time.”

However, going back to the Soweto Uprising, Moloto disagrees on how the commemoration of it has changed from then to now.

“In 1977, when we were commemorating, it was more of a unity, all political parties would gather at Regina Mundi to celebrate, today, the fight is no longer in a unified fashion. The municipalities and organizations have their own way of commemorating like AZAPO visits the Tsietsi Mashinini grave and the City of Johannesburg visits the Hector Pieterson Museum. That lack of unity is what concerns me. As long as we are not united when we commemorate, this day does not have an impact,” he says.

“When Hector died in 1976, he belonged to no party, he was just a student who died for all political affiliations of the time; we need to unify.”

After that eventful day, the liberation movements benefited because thousands of students joined political parties inside and outside of the country. June 16 was a catalyst in South Africa’s struggle for democracy, and scripted by the students in the nation’s history books.

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