Research uncovers deaths of ANC’s freedom fighters in Zambezi

By Staff Reporter

Ishuwa floodplain with Ivilivinzi in the background in Zambezi region

RECENT academic research has uncovered  the killing  and disappearance of the four (4) members of the African National Congress (ANC)’s armed wing, called  Umukhonto we Sizwe (MK) guerillas by SAP at Ishuwa, a floodplain between Ivilivinzi and Ihaha.

Ms.Lieneke de Visser, a lecturer in Conflict Studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who has been conducting research in the Zambezi region since 2012 to 2019 has investigated the uncovered sobering and little–known tragedy in the history of the Caprivi now Zambezi Region.

Ms.Lieneke de Visser, a lecturer in Conflict Studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands

In her research paper, De Visser stressed that August 20, 1970 the Umukhonto we Sizwe’s freedom fighters consists of the four  men, Flag Boshielo, Castro Dolo, Victor Ndaba and Bob Zulu who left South Africa in the early 1960s to go into exile were brutally killed by the ambushed  South African Police (SAP) at Ishuwa in the eastern Caprivi.

This tragedy happened when the four men attempted their secret journey in returning back from exile in Lusaka to South Africa. They did not reach their destination as planned , and they all died when crossing the Zambezi River into the Eastern Caprivi (now known as the Zambezi Region) of South West Africa. Speculation and rumours surrounded the men’s disappearance until recently new information has surfaced.

The leader of the four, Katlego Flag Boshielo, was born in Sekhukhuneland, South Africa, in 1920.

While in exile, Boshielo was part of a group that set-up Kongwa camp, some 400km from Dar es Salaam, where ANC and SWAPO members in exile were accommodated.

“By 1970, Boshielo was one of the most senior ranking members of the ANC. He had been appointed to the ANC’s National Executive Council, and was elected as Chief Political Commissar of MK. He was tremendously popular among the MK cadres, and he was remembered as evangelical in his political commitment.”

Mr Benjamin Chika–Matondo Mabuku

Mr Benjamin Chika–Matondo Mabuku , a resident of Ngoma in Zambezi region and a retired Namibian diplomat who was closely involved with the research studies conducted by Ms. De Visser, confirmed to Caprivi Vision that the tragedy happened at Ishuwa when he was 17-years-old and some of the indigenous inhabitants have now passed away. He remembers that his political inclination racked , and he  went in exile in 1978 , though he was expelled from SWAPO and returned to the Caprivi Strip in 1981.

However, Villagers living in the eastern floodplains of the Zambezi Region confirmed a story about ‘foreign fighters’ who came across the river many years ago, and that the strangers had been betrayed to the South African Police (SAP) and led into an ambush.

Among  the village historians  who told the true story are Mr. Simataa Nelson Musipili now deceased, village headman of Ivilivinzi, and his wife Anna Mwale Kachilombwa.

Others who contributed were Mr. Dominic Mulenamaswe, Mr. Luckson Mulenamaswe , Mr. White Masule, Mr.Altar John Mofu of Ihaha, and Prince Gilbert Muhongo Mutwa.

Other sources who revealed the information on the four men’s journey was found in an inquest dossier in the National Archives of Namibia, in Windhoek. This contained reports by SAP officers, a doctor and a magistrate, and provided details of the ultimate fate of the men.

Former members of the ANC’s MK and the SAP Security Branch (SAP-S) in South Africa also shared their side of the story

ANC bitter struggle

According to Ms. De Visser,  the ANC leadership in exile was aimed to send MK units back home to continue the domestic struggle, and Flag Boshielo was determined to return to South Africa. Therefore, since there was no safe route from Tanzania to South Africa, Oliver Tambo, leader of the ANC in exile, was against the plan. When he agreed, it was on condition that adequate preparations be made. The mission should not be a suicidal ‘leap in the dark’.

Unfortunately the  SAP leaked the information through their intelligence about  the ANC combatants who planned to travel from Zambia through the Eastern Caprivi to Botswana. This resulted to patrols of policeboats in the Zambezi River visiting the fishing huts on the banks of the river.

In this process the South African Police co-opted with a fisherman , Shamunihango Liswaniso now deceased,  who  spied information with them. He had a fishing hut at Nantungu, a small island in the Zambezi River.

Mr. Simataa Nelson Musipili (now deceased), Historian and village headman of Ivilivinzi

Mr. Liswaniso was then approached by a Zambian informer who asked him to escort a team of strange soldiers through the Eastern Caprivi to the Chobe River, and the South African police bribed Liswaniso with a sum of money to lead the journey of Boshielo and others into a trap of death.

Later on the agreed (appointed)  day, Liswaniso led Boshielo and his men across at Mamboba and brought them to his hut at Nantungu. He promised to escort them across the floodplains the following day. From Nantungu they would walk to the Chobe River, where Liswaniso would help them to cross into Botswana secretly . He however made different plans with the police.

“Before daybreak the next morning Liswaniso and the men left Nantungu and walked until first light. Liswaniso stopped at a clump of trees and vegetation known as Gofue, where he told the men to stay hidden while he surveyed the area. Liswaniso proceeded to Ivilivinzi, where later that morning headman Mr. Musipili found him at his gate.”

Liswaniso informed headman Musipili that he was escorting four foreigners – ‘criminals from another country’ – through the area. He said that he was on his way to arrange transport to Katima Mulilo. Liswaniso claimed that the strangers were armed and dangerous, and warned the villagers to avoid Gofue, since they might be fired upon. He then departed on a borrowed bicycle. Musipili and the villagers were left speculating that one of their own sons might be among the foreigners, perhaps having secretly returned from exile. It might even be Richard Kapelwa Kabajani,now deceased, former cabinet minister in the Namibian government the well-known resistance activist from Ivilivinzi who was sought by the South African authorities. They were concerned that Liswaniso might be assisting the police. They heeded Liswaniso’s warning and stayed away from Gofue. Only later did it become known that a few school boys had passed Gofue that day, and had spent some time playing soccer with the strangers.

“ From Ivilivinzi, Liswaniso went to the Ngoma police post to finalise plans for the capture of Boshielo and his men. Instead of heading directly south, Liswaniso would lead the men parallel to the Chobe River in a westerly direction (see Figure 1 – Map). This would bring them to a crossing place called Ishuwa, situated on the open plain halfway between Ivilivinzi and Ihaha villages. Each year when the Zambezi River comes down, the floodplains become inundated and travel between the villages is made treacherous by submerged channels that cut across the landscape. Ishuwa offers a safe place to ford one of the deeper channels. It also offered the police a good location for an ambush. However, as the floodplains are virtually flat and treeless and offer few places to hide, the ambush had to take place after dark. The policemen ordered Liswaniso to wait until sunset to bring the men to Ishuwa. That afternoon, a police team left for Ihaha, where they hid their vehicles in a clump of trees. They walked the rest of the way to Ishuwa and were in position before dark.

Leader of the Umukhonto we Sizwe (MK) guerillas, Mr. Katlego Flag Boshielo, born in Sekhukhuneland, South Africa, in 1920 and died 20 August 1970 in Eastern Caprivi

Meanwhile, Liswaniso had collected Boshielo and his companions from Gofue, and was leading them across the marshy landscape. They reached the crossing just after nightfall and found that the water ran knee deep. Liswaniso cautioned the men that it would be extremely slippery and told them to follow in his exact footsteps. He also offered to carry their weapons for them, which three of the men accepted. Liswaniso then started wading through, with the four men strung out behind him, following in his steps as best they could in the dark. Halfway across, Liswaniso suddenly broke into a run and put some distance between himself and the other four. At that moment the police switched on their spotlight and opened fire.”

In the villages at Ivilivinzi and Ihaha the shots were clearly heard, and from the near side of Ivilivinzi people were able to see the spotlight in the distance. Headman Musipili remembers saying: ‘Listen to that, those people must be dead by now’. Later that day, after the police had departed, villagers examined the site. They found spent cartridges, reeds that were damaged by bullets, and blood. Clearly, people had been killed, but no grave was found. Headman Musipili heard later that the bodies were taken to Katima Mulilo and that some people were shown the bodies. Footprints at Ishuwa also indicated that there had been a survivor.

The police filed their own version of the events of that night in an inquest dossier. A first statement, by Captain Schalk Visser, stated that on 20 August 1970 he and his colleagues were on duty five miles east of Ihaha, after having received positive intelligence that a group of terrorists had infiltrated the Eastern Caprivi on their way to South Africa.

Interviews with former South African Police who served in Katima Mulilo during the 1960s and 1970s

According to Captain Schalk Visser, at about 7 p.m. the police encountered the men and ordered them to surrender, but that instead they tried to run, upon which the police opened fire to prevent their escape. Captain Visser reported that, although the aim was not to kill the men, three of them died of their wounds. He listed them as ‘Faldini Mziwonke @ Castro Dolo’, ‘Theophillus Makalipi @ Victor Dhlamini’ and Joseph Mgomane.

Presumably, these names referred to Castro Dolo, Victor Ndaba and Boshielo respectively. A second report was filed by SAP Detective Warrant Officer Izak Bosman. He recorded that during the night of 20 August 1970 he arrived at a scene five miles east of Ihaha and there found the bodies of three black men.

Bosman stated that in the morning he transported the bodies to the mortuary at Katima Mulilo hospital and identified them to the district surgeon Frans Blignaut, who performed the post-mortem examinations that same day. His report indicates that each of the men had been killed by a single gunshot. Flag Boshielo had been shot in the right buttock, Victor Ndaba was shot in the back, just to the left of the spine, and Castro Dolo was shot in the back of the head.

Thereafter the incidence,  Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Joe Modise and John Pule Motshabi, they all travelled to the Zambian side of the Zambezi River to investigate, but they were unable to establish what had happened with any certainty.

In late October 1970, the Bantu Administration Commissioner and resident magistrate at Katima Mulilo, P.N. Hansmeyer, held a formal inquest into the deaths of Katlego Flag Boshielo, Castro Dolo and Victor Ndaba. He found that no offence had been committed. To the South African authorities this marked the end of the matter. They did not report the event to the media, and with no credible information forthcoming, the ANC’s attempts to establish the fate of Boshielo and his companions eventually stalled.

The disappearance and the failed mission of Katlego Flag Boshielo and his companions had a long-lasting effect on South Africa’s counter-insurgency strategy in the Eastern Caprivi. A week after the men had been intercepted, the South African military issued warning of a ‘spectacular attack’ by a joint SWAPO, ANC and ZAPU force of 2,000 men.

The Eastern Caprivi was considered as a credible objective of this offensive, possibly with the aim of establishing a ‘Republic of Namibia’ that would be supported and protected by the OAU and the UN. The report warned that capture of the Eastern Caprivi required no sophisticated weaponry, could be achieved with three hundred well-trained men, and would have enormous propaganda value for the liberation organisations. The report further claimed that secret weapon dumps had been established in the Eastern Caprivi and Zambia, and that in August four terrorists – clearly a reference to Boshielo and his companions – had entered Caprivi. An immediate reinforcement of the police and military in the Eastern Caprivi was ordered.

Map of the Eastern Caprivi of South West Africa

The Eastern Caprivi saw a surge in security measures and the local population came under increasing pressure to collaborate with the South African forces. A month after the events at Ishuwa, Major Jaap Bekker, who had led the ambush, addressed a meeting with members of the MaSubiya. He announced plans to increase security in the Eastern Caprivi and to establish three more police stations in the region. He also promised good payment for information about any passing strangers.

Moreover, People deeply mistrusted the police and administration, and collaborators and informers were not tolerated. Liswaniso, whose role in the death of Boshielo and his men was an open secret in the villages, was fortunate to be friendly with Chief Joshua Mutwa Moraliswani of the MaSubiya tribe. To protect Liswaniso, Chief Moraliswani arranged for him to relocate to Kasika on the Chobe River.

Although the final journey and fate of Boshielo and his men has become clearer, there are further questions. Foremost is the question what happened to Bob Zulu. There is a complete absence of any reference to him in the archives. It raises the possibility that he survived the ambush, as footprints at Ishuwa possibly indicated. The inquest dossier also raises questions about the shooting of the three other men. They were all killed by a single shot from behind. Visser’s report says that they were unintendedly killed while trying to escape. Equally, it could have been an extrajudicial killing, which would not have been unusual at the time.

The interviews and archival records have not led to the recovery of the men’s bodies. A former SAP-S member mentioned a secret burial in an unmarked grave, but this information has not been corroborated.

This is similar with the cases of deaths and graves of Tobias Hainyeko, member of SWAPO’s PLAN Fighter and Brendan Simbwaye, President of CANU and Vice president of SWAPO still unknown unless perpetrators agree to talk, they may take their knowledge to the grave.

Possibly, residual questions regarding Boshielo’s mission may never be answered. However, their contribution to the struggle has been recognised. In 2005 the South African government posthumously awarded Boshielo the Order of Luthuli in gold, while in 2012, all four men were awarded a campaign medal for the mission that led to their disappearance.

For more read the following link : “A Leap in the Dark: The Disappearance of Flag Boshielo, Castro Dolo, Victor Ndaba and Bob Zulu in August 1970.” Journal of Southern African Studies, (2024), 1–20.
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03057070.2023.2330238

Ends…


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