Thu, 23 Jan 2020

President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared that the national flag will be flown at half-mast from Wednesday to mark the death of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) soldier Isaac "Ike" Maphoto.

A special official funeral will also be held for Maphoto who died on July 13 at the age of 88. Ramaphosa will deliver the eulogy at Maphoto's funeral in Polokwane, Limpopo, on Sunday, and the SA National Defence Force will provide its ceremonial honours to him.

The octogenarian was previously a member of the provincial legislature in Limpopo, but for former MK soldiers and battle historians he was among the first to be recruited into the ANC's military wing.

As such, he was part of what is described as the Wankie-Silopilo campaign - a two-pronged strategic alliance between MK and the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (Zipra), the military wing of the Zimbabwe African People's Union.

It was intended to form a corridor for military trained MK exiles who had been languishing in Tanzania waiting for further instructions to return to South Africa.

According to the oral history project, The South African Democracy Education Trust (SADET), the first part of the campaign was to get the MK soldiers, who been trained abroad, from a camp in Kongwa, Tanzania, to the South African border so that they could cross into the country.

From there they would fan out into smaller units inside South Africa, according to information gathered in a document produced by the trust.

They had battled to find a route because they initially could not go via Mozambique due to the political atmosphere there at the time, and Botswana was initially reluctant to be at the receiving end of punitive economic sanctions by Western powers for allowing them passage.

However, although apparently well-trained for bush warfare, they had little equipment, food, and outdated maps.

The Luthuli Detachment, as it was named, eventually left Tanzania, led by the late Chris Hani, and made it into then-Rhodesia, via a risky crossing of the Zambezi River, and to an area then named the Wankie nature reserve (now Hwange), at the "nose" of Zimbabwe, and planned their next move. It was at a crucial juncture between several countries that might have provided through routes.

While scouting the area and also trying to find water and food to stay alive, the under-armed, under-resourced MK and Zipra forces battled Rhodesian security forces as the police were sent from South Africa to flush them out via aerial and ground support. At the time, colonial-era governments were either toppling or on the brink of being toppled.

Known as the Western Front, the Wankie part of the Wankie-Silopilo campaign was led by the late Hani.

Some made it back to Zambia, some eventually to South Africa, and Hani and a small group of soldiers were arrested in Botswana.

The Eastern Front Silopilo campaign was intended to establish a camp to receive recruits, to train locals to assist them, and also as a diversion from the corridor the Luthuli Detachment had found. Hiding again, but also suffering from malnutrition because they were running out of food, the footprint of a "guerilla" soldier's boot in the extremely remote tribal trust land was understood to have given the Silopilo Eastern Front away. Patrolling Rhodesian security forces had spotted it, and before long, the Eastern Front also turned into a battleground.

Maphoto was among a group of "guerilla" soldiers who were "captured" and then sentenced to death in the then-Salisbury High Court.

However, the judge in what is now known as Harare, recommended that their sentences be commuted to life because they had conducted themselves as soldiers and had not targeted civilians or been "murderers".

Maphoto was jailed in 1969 and was released in 1980. After his release, according to the oral history project, he rejected a substantial offer of money to spy for Zimbabwe.

According to the SADET, there were various interpretations of the Wankie-Silopilo campaign.

Some say it was a failure, some say it was a distraction to keep the trained MK soldiers busy, and others say it boosted the morale of other anti-apartheid movements who felt that this showed that it could actually be possible to fight back.

After Hani's release from prison and the apparent failure of the Wankie-Silopilo campaigns, he was among a group of seven people who had raised concerns over the ANC's leadership and its strategies at the time. Hani was suspended from MK for a while, but was later reinstated in 1969.

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