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A Night To Remember As Uganda Was Born

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It had been a day of noisy celebration, but you could have heard a pin drop just before midnight on the cusp of October 9, 1962, when the independent nation of Uganda was born.

Sixty thousand people stood in respectful silence at the poignant ceremony at the Kololo Stadium, in Kampala. The British flag, which had fluttered over Uganda for 68 years, was lowered to the strains of God Save the Queen; seconds later the black, yellow and red of Uganda was raised to the country’s new anthem. The crowd roared its approval and applauded the birth of Uganda; overhead fireworks crackled in the skies, bonfires blazed from the hilltops and across the city people sang and danced in the streets.

After decades of colonial rule Uganda was to join the growing club of free and independent nations in Africa. A nation that was to decide its own destiny under the authority of its own leaders in Kampala, rather than that of detached civil servants in London.

It was the climax of a day where all roads led to Kampala. From the break of dawn, thousands flooded into the city. As they arrived, many were handed free food and drink in celebration of a day to remember.

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From London, through the skies, arrived the Duke and Duchess of Kent, who were Britain’s representatives, at Entebbe Airport. The new government made the Duke of Kent the first ever Freeman of Kampala.

A glance at the grainy newsreel of the day is a peek into Africa’s long-lost colonial past. The Duke of Kent wore a white uniform and ceremonial sword on his hip; there was a 21-gun salute as he left the plane and a company of soldiers from the King’s African Rifles to inspect before he left the tarmac. Waiting for him was the governor general, Sir Walter Coutts, in a cocked hat with feathers. If you took the plane and the tarmac away, it could have been a scene from the 1860s instead of the 1960s.

As the bars and streets of the city filled up, 20,000 people turned out to watch a regatta on Lake Victoria, featuring races between long canoes. An annual event that began more than 100 years before the British arrived and survives until this day.

In the heat of the Kampala afternoon, there was a genteel garden party for 4,000 people complete with a brass band, tea and cakes. Strolling through the party, as slim as a reed, was Milton Obote, then just 37 years old, the man who was soon to become the first Prime Minister of Uganda. Later, the Prime Minister opened the new Independence Pavilion of Science and Industry at the Uganda Museum.

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As the sun went down, crowds poured into Kololo Stadium for the midnight handover. A military tattoo, that could have been in Edinburgh, saw British soldiers and Ugandans dance step for step.

First, the world-famous Acholi dancers from northern Uganda, who set the pace with a routine to the pulse of beating drums, then came a group of soldiers from the Scottish infantry regiment, the Gordon Highlanders, resplendent in kilts, who danced a Highland reel.

It was a night of military might to the sound of fife and drum; the Fourth Battalion of the Kings African Rifles, soon to become the First Battalion of the Uganda Rifles, performed a perfect slow march before the cheering crowds.

“Our independence shall mean great responsibilities for all of us without exception. Collectively, we shall all be responsible to safeguard our independence and to ensure peace and stability within our country. In addition, the government in whose name I now speak offers to you a firm determination to protect your life and property and opportunities for your advancement,” said the new Prime Minister Obote in his speech.

“It is in this ensuring of peace and stability and this determination for the protection of life and property coupled with opportunities for advancement as individuals and combinations and as a country that I now call upon all to pass an irrevocable resolution marking our new status and guiding us into the future. Let us add to that resolution that we are of Uganda and Uganda is ours. Let us recognize that and pay our tribute to these friends from inside and outside Uganda who have helped us on our way to independence. Let us remember the best we have received and now inherit from the British administrators. I also ask all to give the missionaries past and present a special praise for the light they brought and do still maintain.”

As the black, yellow and red flag flew through the dawn, Ugandans woke up to a new world where they were, at last, masters of their own destiny.

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Politics

May Will Be Gone In June Ending Months Of Political Battering And Speculation

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British Prime Minister Teresa May – just under three years into the job – says she will step down on June 7.

This follows a hammering, from both sides of the house, over her clumsy handling of the Brexit process. She has lost countless votes in Parliament over a Brexit deal and was seen by many in politics as weak and dithering. It is ironic that May herself voted to keep Britain in Europe, only to see her career expire as she struggled to make the opposite happen.

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Her heartfelt farewell speech on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street concluded that she had done her best to make Britain a better place not merely for the privileged few, but also for the whole population.

The supreme irony is that her shuffling off of the Prime Minister’s job will see the shuffling in one of Britain’s best known members of the privileged few. Eton and Oxford educated Boris Johnson is likely to step in as leader of May’s Conservative party ahead of what surely is going to be a snap election.   

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Poll Position: The South African 2019 Elections

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May 8, a landmark day for Africa’s second biggest economy. South Africans will cast their votes for the country’s sixth general elections since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

In the run-up to the polls, the country saw flagrant protests in some parts, as disgruntled citizens expressed disapproval of their stifling living conditions. 

In this image, a resident of Alexandra, a township in the north of Johannesburg, squats in the middle of a busy road leading to the opulent precincts of Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile.  

The dichotomy of socio-economic circumstances is an accelerant in one of the country’s poorest communities filled to the brim with squatter camps and the restlessness of unemployment.

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Current Affairs

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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