With as much time as has passed since he walked Johannesburg streets and the prison grounds of Robben Island, Michael Dingake tends to quote dates in approximate terms. Of the age the South African president might have been when they first met, he estimates it to be “19 or 20.”
The “semi-secret” meeting between the two men happened at Dingake’s house in Johannesburg. The year was 1963 and Dingake had just acquired that house through a fellow Bechuanaland Protectorate Motswana, Anderson Tshephe, who had returned home to Francistown. At this point, Dingake was knee-deep in the liberation struggle. To stay off the radar of the hawk-eyed apartheid security forces, he kept the house in Tshephe’s name while using it for clandestine umkhonto weSizwe (MK) activity. MK was the armed wing of the African National Congress and according to Kopano Lekoma, the late Vice President of the Botswana National Front, the decision to form it was taken at a meeting held in Peleng, Lobatse. Dingake worked with a group of MK cadres who spirited recruits abroad for military training.
It so happened that one fateful Friday in 1963, all the safe house in Johannesburg were full and Dingake’s comrades decided to bring a group of 10 boys to his house. Among this group was a boy from KwaZulu called Jacob Zuma. Dingake says that at first he wanted to refuse the request to accommodate this lot on the security consideration of having so many people staying in one house. Ultimately he gave in but made it very clear to the boys that they were to stay indoors and “observe security.” Doing the latter came with one complication. The toilet was set off a few metres from the house and having 10 people take turns using it would have aroused suspicion. Dingake’s solution was to provide a water bucket for his visitors to use as a chamber pot during the day.
Before he left for a meeting in town the next day, Dingake reiterated his point about staying indoors and observing security. To his horror however, when he returned in the late afternoon he found one of the boys (who turned out to be Zuma) crouching outside the house thus compromising security. He remembers remonstrating with the croucher: “Heymonna [boy]! What the hell are you doing?”
The response: “You know what Comrade? In the morning, MK brought somebody else who appeared to be tipsy and he is outside greeting and telling everybody that he is leaving for Dar es Salaam.” That was a little too much detail. The Tanzanian capital was where President Julius Nyerere was hosting liberation struggle movements which, in turn, were raising guerilla armies to go back home and seek independence through the barrel of the gun. At the moment of Dingake’s arrival, Zuma had been trying to coax the little drunkard back inside but was having a tough time with him. The host did better, tongue-lashing the boy and ordering him to “stop this nonsense.” The nonsense stopped, Sunday appears to have passed without incident and on Monday morning, the 11 boys continued their journey to Tanzania. They never reached their destination. Along the way, Zuma’s group was joined by 34 other recruits and all were arrested near Zeerust which is 90 kilometres away from the Tlokweng border post. At the subsequent trial, Zuma was convicted of conspiring to overthrow the South African government and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment which he served on Robben Island.
Having been tipped off about police interest in his house, Dingake stayed away from it. Neighbours helpfully told the police that they didn’t know him and helpful “MK fellows” put the house under surveillance to study the pattern of police visits. At a point when he determined it was safe, Dingake made arrangements for two trucks to move his belongings at night, leaving the house empty but for the hanging curtains.
At that point, Zuma was just another one of the recruits that Dingake had come into contact with but would move to a different category when the men were reunited three years later. In December 1965, Dingake was working as the external contact with the ANC underground machinery in Johannesburg, organising infiltration routes for MK guerrillas from Zambia through the then Bechuanaland Protectorate. He was arrested in Rhodesia on 8th December and subsequently deported to South Africa where he was tried and sentenced to 15 years which he also served on Robben Island. Dingake was put in Zuma’s cell which could accommodate 60 or more inmates. Their acquaintance renewed, Zuma “approached me and asked if I could teach him politics and academics.” Dingake agreed and Zuma became part of a group of “seven or eight” learners who drank from the former’s well of knowledge. Dingake’s knowledge of Zulu would have come in handy when he instructed Zuma.
Say what you will about Zuma but there is no denying that it takes some kind of genius for one to be able to interact with world leaders, to participate in World Economic Forum panels and to hold one’s own in the South African parliament without formal education. Dingake confirms this by saying that as a student, Zuma proved to have very high natural intelligence.
Dingake’s Robben Island school didn’t operate for too long because soon thereafter, the teacher was transferred to another cell where Nelson Mandela was held. Here each inmate had a cell to himself and there was virtually no interaction with inmates in the cells where Zuma was held. In the rare instances when Dingake would “catch a glimpse” of Zuma, the latter would be serving punishment in an area where the former was held. Even then, the two were not allowed to talk each other but Dingake, who was in the prisoners’ communications committee, says that they found ways to do so clandestinely.
Zuma was released in “1973 or 1974” whereupon he immediately went to Swaziland, Mozambique (“that’s the story I heard”) and later to the ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
“He continued with his education and did well enough to become the ANC’s intelligence chief. That was very remarkable for someone who is semi-literate and I’m not surprised now that he is president,” says Dingake who was himself released in 1981 having serving out his term.
The two men would be reunited for the second in Zimbabwe much later (“end of 1989 or beginning of 1990”) and naturally they reminisced about their Robben Island days. One of the issues they discussed was Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his Inkatha Freedom Party. At this time, Mandela had been corresponding with Buthelezi, who was advisor to King Zwelithini of the Zulu – South Africa’s largest tribe. While he frowned upon the ANC’s tactics, Buthelezi was also resisting the homeland independence that the apartheid government was offering. Dingake describes this as “half-cooperating with the government.” He remembers asking Zuma how the ANC was handling the Inkatha problem and a calm Zuma responding by saying it would be contained.
“I am convinced that Zuma did handle the issue well and did manage to calm down Buthelezi because he [Zuma] is also Zulu and knows Zulu protocols. In the end, everybody applauded Zuma for the way he had dealt with Buthelezi,” Dingake says.
At independence in 1994, Inkatha had become more than a nuisance of a tribal movement led by a leader half-cooperating with the apartheid government to being a full-blown national security threat.
Without providing too much detail, Dingake, who is the former and first Gaborone Central MP, says that he remains in touch with his MK colleagues and has attended ANC and South African Communist Party meetings. He attended the ANC’s 50th national congress in Mafikeng where Zuma was elected Deputy President. At the 2010 state of the nation address which occurred exactly 20 years after Mandela was released from Robben Island, Dingake was invited as a special guest.
“We are celebrating this day with former political prisoners who we have specially invited to join us. We welcome in particular those who have travelled from abroad to be here: Helene Pastoors, Michael Dingake from Botswana, Mr. Andimba Toivo ya Toivo of SWAPO in Namibia,” said President Zuma.
It had indeed been a long journey. The Zulu boy who had crashed at Dingake’s house in Joburg for the weekend, in the process grinning and bearing all the inconveniences and indignities that came with his visitor status, was now president of the most powerful African nation.