On Sunday February 11, 1990, from the balcony of City Hall, Nelson Mandela made his first public speech hours after his release from imprisonment on Robben Island.
As a member of the so-called Luthuli Detachment of Umkhonto We Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing, Mandela and his comrades were part of a unit that consisted of operatives active in the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Zambia, Mozambique, and other frontline states. They became famous for their heroic battles in 1967 against the Rhodesian and South African armed forces near the Wankie Game Reserve.
Fast forward 32 years, to Friday February 11, 2022, at the Castle of Good Hope, a mere 600 meters from City Hall, one of Madiba’s former comrades, Alfred Sipheto “Jumbo” Willie, shared his memories of the experiences in battle with, among others, Nelson Mandela, Chris Hani, James April, Sandi Sijake and Wilson Nqose – all former members of this first military formation during the anti-Apartheid struggle.
The memories are shared in Who is Jumbo? Memoirs of Alfred Sipheto Willie, edited and published by the Castle Control Board, which was launched on Friday, and included an informal discussion by Mr Willie, General James April, and the deputy minister for defence and military veterans, Thabang Makwetla.
Generals Wilson Nqose, and Sandi Sijake, who were also part of the discussion, were unable to attend the launch.
Calvyn Gilfellan, CEO of the Castle Control Board, said it was rather ironic that Parliament had been compelled to move to the place where Nelson Mandela addressed the “People’s Parliament” with close to a million people in attendance and billions watching 32 years ago, and “changed history”.
His reference was to the State of the Nation Address taking place at the City Hall after a fire engulfed the roof of the National Assembly Building at Parliament last month.
Mr Gilfellan continued: “By honouring one of the struggle’s unsung heroes (Mr Willie), to coincide with the day and space where Mandela made his release speech is historically significant.”
He said it was also fitting that the first people who took up arms against Apartheid – two of the living members of the first formation – are re-living memory the moment at the Castle’s Centre for Restorative Memory, officially opened by the the then Minister for Defence and Military Veterans, Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula last year.
He said the aim had been to get the untold stories told, and to get the conversations out into schools and communities in an attempt to rebuild South Africa’s history.
Delivering the keynote address, Mr Makwetla said as a former member of Umkhonto We Sizwe, he was amazed that he could sit with Mr April and Mr Willie, who fought so that South Africans could have peace. “This is a rare moment – one that we celebrate the unsung heroes of this country.”
These veterans, he said, “unleashed violence in order to secure peace for our country”.
During the discussion, Mr April and Mr Willie reminisced about the times they trained in neighbouring countries, and how they hid from the enemy.
“We used to get up in the evenings, march for hours hours through the night till the early hours of the morning, and then we need to look for shelters to cover ourselves from the enemy because there were spotter helicopters everywhere,” said Mr Willie of their journey back to South Africa.
“We faced many difficulties. We were bombed at, we lost many soldiers and we just had to cover the dead and move away from the battlefield. We went for days without food and water.”
Asked if he had any regrets, Mr April said: “If I had to face the same conditions we faced then, I wouldn’t refuse it.”
The launch ended with the unveiling of a bust of Mr Willie at the entrance of the Centre for Restorative Memory.
The book Who is Jumbo? Memoirs of Alfred Sipheto Willie is free and can be requested from the Castle Control Board at firstname.lastname@example.org
The book can also be requested from the Castle of Good Hope’s Facebook page.