Liberation struggles: Why Tanzania’s legacy lives on in South Africa

TANZANIA: Tanzania’s contribution to the liberation struggle was well highlighted at the commemoration ceremony of the Battle of Mutale River held recently in Vhembe district, Limpopo province South Africa in June, this year.

The ceremony, which was organised by the Provincial government together with the Department of Military Veterans, was also attended by the envoys from Tanzania and Cuba embassies.

The Battle of Mutale ceremony remembers the fallen and surviving members of the battle heroically fought between the greatly outnumbered small section of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK forces) against the Local Venda Defence Forces and the apartheid forces (SADF), 35 years ago, at the height of the liberation struggle. Five out of nine members of the field section of the MK lost their lives during this epic battle. The ceremony included a visit to the actual scene of the battle.

The Limpopo provincial government has embarked on the task of establishing liberation routes to preserve the history of the liberation wars and struggle and have declared the Battle of Mutale as a provincial liberation heritage. The ceremony is held on a yearly basis.

During this year’s ceremony, speaker after speaker paid tribute to Tanzania’s contribution and sacrifices during the liberation struggle not only to South Africa, but to the whole region. Many recalled how Tanzania became a haven for the freedom fighters and a transit point to other friendly countries in and outside the continent for training and in search of other forms of logistical support necessary to advance the cause of the liberation struggle.

Tanzania was also the headquarters of the former OAU liberation Committee. Most speakers at the occasion also expressed satisfaction with the current deep rooted and all-weather cordial historical relations between Tanzania and South Africa.

The Battle of Mutale River is said to constitute one of the many heroic battles that were fought by the MK forces during the struggle. These fighters, young at the time, heroically showed selfless efforts to free their country, thus fitting well with the Late President Nelson Mandela description of those “… who endured the pain so that we can experience the joy of freedom…”

When asked how they were able to do that at a young age, the survivors of this battle, some of them now in their late 50’s responded by saying: “We were united, determined, and hungry for action to liberate our people and fear of death did not arise to us.”

Another survivor said: “Yes, we were young but not naïve.”

According to one of the survivors, this group was part of the group of special forces which also received training in Cuba, had a short combat experience stint in Angola before being deployed for active duty in the liberation zone. He paid glowing tribute to Tanzania and Cuba.

In his remarks, the Cuban ambassador spoke at length on the Cuban participation in the liberation struggle and in particular the Cuban forces participation in the Angolan war focusing on the decisive battle at the Cuito Cuanavale on 23 March 1988 which culminated in the defeat of the apartheid SADF forces. Instructive to mention here that 23 March every year is a SADC liberation day in remembrance of the Cuito Cuanavale decisive battle.

Tanzania’s remarks at the occasion focused on the importance of continuing honouring all the remaining and those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the noble cause of liberating their countries. Also reiterated Tanzania’s position of continuing with the efforts of consolidating the hard-fought gains of liberation to ensure meaningful socio-economic development and unity of our people in the continent echoing the late President Nyerere’s words that “…without unity, Africa has no future…”

Tanzania also reaffirmed its unwavering commitment of preserving and taking care of all liberation history sites used by the former freedom fighters in the country.

The ceremony included visiting the actual scene of the battle on the bank of Mutale River. One of the survivors provided a blow-by-blow description of how the battle unfolded. It was quite a chilling experience.

Listening to the survivor’s story, one concludes that these young men at the time, had both physical and moral courage. One military General during WWII (Gen William Slim who served in the Burma campaigns) once defined physical courage ‘as the ability of a person to take up danger and face any kind of physical danger’.

But he thought moral courage is much rarer than physical courage because it’s more about the courage to do what you think is right. He insisted on people, and especially soldiers, to have both types of courage.

No doubt these ‘boys’ had demonstrated both courage. Physical courage by showing bravery in the face of physical pain, hardship, even death or threats of death. And moral courage by acting rightly in the face of a strong attacking enemy. It was a sheer demonstration of heroism, bravery and heroic acts by these well trained and battle-hardened young men.

This group made up of independently operated a field section of special forces were tasked to infiltrate the rural area of former Venda homeland and crossed into South Africa from Zimbabwe on 25 March 1988. But once inside they realised they had been sold out when they found their guide had suddenly disappeared.

What followed then was this fierce skirmish which lasted for seven days including the days that the SADF employed ground and aerial assets in hot pursuit of this formidable MK section.

The fight first started against the local Venda Defence Forces who later called for reinforcement from the SADF and the fierce battle intensified. These brave young men managed to hold ground for some time despite being encircled and overwhelmingly outnumbered.

Some of the notable heroic acts by the group include crawling under the enemy fire, enduring the napalm bombs thrown at them, crossing the overflooded strong current river in their boots and backpacks, using machine guns as an anti-aircraft weapon when their more effective portable shoulder launched missile (SAM-7) malfunctioned  (they suspected it was a sabotage though still  believed they manage to down one light recce aircraft). These are some of the heroic acts by these brave young soldiers who indeed gave the enemies a run for their money.

And at the height of the fog of battle, even after seeing their colleagues lying dead and others injured while administering first aid on them, they kept on encouraging each other saying, “we can’t die without fighting.” And they continued fighting a good fight worth being remembered.

In conclusion, one can safely say the commemoration ceremony of the Battle for River Mutale organised by the Limpopo government is important and has also shown that Tanzania and other countries’ contributions to the liberation struggles of our region is still remembered and very well recognised.

The ceremony has also brought to light again the importance of instilling a sense of patriotism among the youths of the current generation as that demonstrated by those of the yester years. It is also very encouraging to note that the bond created during the liberation struggles continues to be the centre of gravity for the bilateral relations between countries involved in the struggle.

The writer, Major General Gaudence Milanzi (rtd) is Tanzania’s former High Commissioner to South Africa. 

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