The Umkhonto WeSizwe shebeen in Extension 12
by Bashi Letsididi
There is a story, possibly true, that one of the questions Special Constable candidates are asked during their job interview is to name the main shebeen in the policing district they would work in.
Had that been the case in 1974, the correct answer for Central Police Station in Gaborone would have been Mannenberg in Extension 12. If the follow-up question was, “Who owns the shebeen?” the correct answer would have been Umkhonto weSizwe - or MK, the armed wing of the liberation-struggle era African National Congress.
This is the story. When Onkgopotse Tiro, one of the founders of the South African Students Association, was killed in 1974 by a parcel bomb courtesy of everybody knows who, comrades from his homeland came over for the funeral. As Meisie Pilane recalls, the funeral ceremony was held at the Gaborone Secondary School playgrounds. It was during this funeral that she made the acquaintance of some ANC members who were staying in Gaborone. Some time afterwards, the South Africans asked her to open a shebeen at her house and were quite forthright about the reason.
“They said that they wanted a secure place where they could discuss their liberation struggle business far from prying eyes and out of earshot of spies,” Pilane says.
Being a shebeen queen was not on Pilane’s bucket list and her gut reaction was to decline. However, the ANC men persisted until she gave in. Giving in meant freeing up some space in the Botswana Housing Corporation house she rented to keep the stock and entertain the patrons. (Who owned that house is an important aspect of this story.) The deal sealed, the ANC men bought the first stock: two cases each of Prinz Brau and Prinz Lager beer, a 750 ml bottle of Limousine brandy and a one-litre bottle of ginger ale. To provide the other staple of shebeens - music - an ANC man rigged up a sound system around the house, putting the loudspeakers between the ceiling and the roof for maximum acoustic effect. This also had the effect of drowning out conspiratorial voices discussing military operations. The first LP record they bought was Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg.
“For the first three to four months following the opening of the shebeen, the Mannenberg LP played 24 hours; that is why the shebeen was called Mannenberg,” Pilane says.
On account of being a round-the-clock shebeen, Mannenberg became a beehive of underground MK activity. Pilane says that the cadres would divide themselves up into two groups. While one group was inside the house dancing and drinking, another would be out in the backyard, burying or digging up weapons or planning covert operations. Along the way, Pilane also came to be an MK courier, delivering messages and parcels to and from South Africa.
When he came over last month, somehow Thabo Mbeki forgot to mention swinging by on his way to the ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia but Pilane says that the former South African president is supposed to have done that. At a time when members of parliament were more feared than respected, Botswana People’s Party leader, Phillip Matante, himself a liberation-struggle stalwart, would also stop by. Then, Pilane says, she would play the more sedate Jim Reeves or Brook Benton.
Following the 1976 Soweto Uprising, Gregory Botlholo, one of the MK cadres, told Pilane that a certain boy would be coming to spend a couple of nights at Mannenberg. When the boy called, she noticed that his face looked familiar and soon realised that this was the same boy whose picture had been plastered on the front pages of newspapers, carrying the slain Hector Pieterson and was still wearing the same pair of Wrangler jeans in the picture. What she recalls of the boy, Mbuyisa Makhubo, was that he was still traumatised.
“He was jumpy, restless and his eyes were all over the place. He would spent the night at Mannenberg and in the morning would be taken away to sleep at a safe house somewhere in town. He was here for more than a week, stayed in Mochudi for some time, then disappeared for good,” Pilane recalls.
That is still the whereabouts status of Makhubo and appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, his mother said that she last received a letter from him from Nigeria in 1978.
For all the excellent liberation work it was doing, Mannenberg was also a national security threat and after four years of operation, the police stepped in. Then Central Police station commander and future cabinet minister, Lesedi Mothibamele, sent two of his officers, one being Tymon Katholo, the future head of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime, to close down the shebeen.
Afterwards, Pilane was charged with operating a liquor outlet without a licence. When the case came before the Village magistrate court, she was represented by one of her customers, Jama Mbeki, Thabo’s now deceased younger brother. Katholo’s raid was on July 14, which just happened to be Pilane’s birthday. Momentarily re-enacting Mbeki’s theatricality in court, Pilane says that the argument he presented in court was that she had merely been celebrating her birthday, not selling alcohol as the prosecution alleged. Case dismissed. However, the curtain was closing on Mannenberg. Understandably fearful of what could happen to them, neighbours complained to BHC about the house’s ANC links and the Corporation responded by evicting Pilane.
What she has now to remind herself of Mannenberg is a stack of LP records with dog-eared covers that she played back in the day. Somehow Mannenberg disappeared and Pilane is understandably none too pleased about this.
“Ga ke itse gore e tserwe ke ngwana wa ga mang,” she says resignedly.