When we were expelled from Zambia in 1970, I feared the ANC would implode, given the tensions and corruption that existed. And when, following the 1976 rebellion in South Africa, the ANC announced the establishment of a school for exiles, I ideally added two and two together – and made a quick six or seven.
My assumption was that since the ANC was able, of course, to begin to prepare properly for a liberated South Africa, it had become a united, effective and egalitarian movement. So when ANC President OR Tambo asked us to start the primary division at Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco), we immediately accepted. The school was located on an abandoned sisal plantation in Mazimbu, north of the Tanzanian provincial town of Morogoro.
But, from the moment we landed in Dar es Salaam, it was obvious that the lack of organization that we had experienced in the past persisted: there was no one to welcome us and we were rescued after six hours by a friendly Tanzanian official who phoned “one of your comrades that I know” to rescue us.
Later, after checking in at the ANC office, the transport promised to take us to the bus station did not arrive and we managed to get to Morogoro in the afternoon, partly via a commute. in partnership with a local accountant. But the local ANC office was closed. A few hours after dark, we finally managed to find a taxi driver who knew where Mazimbu was and who took us there.
It was hardly an auspicious start, but the enthusiastic welcome to Mazimbu that evening by school secretary Hettie September and, in the morning, by secondary school principal Winchi Njobe and his teacher wife , Markho, helped ease a growing sense of disillusionment and concern. . We also knew that in August 1980, the ANC’s third national education council was to be held at Somafco: it was then that the school’s policy would be decided, based on the democratic principles set out by the ANC. . Barbara and I set about preparing a draft curriculum for the model primary school we had envisioned.
But we soon became aware of an undercurrent of tension that, at the time, we did not understand. A construction staff member called one night to warn us “in confidence” not to trust Njobe. The principal was, he said, “really PAC” (Pan Africanist Congress) and had, in 1976, attended the Transkei independence celebrations. None of these allegations bothered me too much at the time, but resurfaced later when we too were caught up in an atmosphere of paranoia that developed.
It was also only much later that we realized we had entered the middle of a long battle between ANC nationalists and communists. In our simplistic analysis of the time, it was just us and the enemy of apartheid. Anyone who is not for Us must work for “the other side”. Thus, the stage was set for a series of battles, most of which would be lost, although we based our arguments on the policies expressed by the ANC and on the published decisions of that 1980 board of education.
The main figures on the council were education ‘heavyweights’ from abroad, such as Caroline Mogadime from Canada and Harold Wolpe and Mohammed Tikly from Britain. They tended to be delayed and enthusiastic about our program.
A worrying factor was that Wolpe and Tikly approached me at the start of the meetings to suggest that I propose that the primary division be separated from the secondary school. They never said why and I found the suggestion ridiculous, so when our program and the overall – “progressive” – policies of Somafco were adopted, I argued that we were one entity. And so it was that Barbara and I unknowingly volunteered to become a minority in Somafco’s rival hierarchy.
These ANC policies applied, inter alia, to discipline and specifically to the prohibition of the use of corporal punishment. But, once the council was over and the dignitaries left, the policies and principles were ignored. At a mass meeting on the use of corporal punishment, I cited various studies and historical precedents on the harmful nature of corporal punishment. I was castigated, among other things, for having “read too much”. But the then regional commissioner and future deputy general secretary of the ANC intervened to insist that “as the conscience of the ANC” I had to be listened to. The public complied, listened – and rejected me.
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This issue of beatings was in a series of protests written by Barbara and me. But we also pointed out, for example, how counterproductive it was to use farm labor as a punishment for male students held responsible for pregnancies of female students. Women, in turn, would also be taken out of school. As punishment, they spent their time caring for babies in the then newly established Charlotte Maxeke crèche.
Protests were also made against unfair rations: teaching staff received preferential rations for students (this even extended to toilet paper – when available. Four rolls for teachers, one for students). The fact that much of the flood of ‘solidarity donations’, particularly clothes and shoes, were ‘fried’ (stolen and sold to Tanzanians in Morogoro) was also worrying. And the egalitarian “mia moja” (100 shillings “pocket money” per month) also passed through the council, with teachers being paid 2,000 shillings and more each month.
Although Barbara and I focused daily on primary school, I also became directly involved at the secondary level when, at the request of the students, I set up a weekly and nightly journalism class. From this grew the Somafco Newspaper produced by students. But they had to use the primary school facilities after I refused the requirement that any content first be ‘approved’ by the administration.
A similar demand existed for any “cultural production” such as plays. And when a student and young former touring actor, Kush Mudau, fell ill, his play, Dear Sir, was the subject of a night workshop in primary school. It was produced as a “surprise event” in the newly constructed school hall – and received acclaim. He then – shortly after we left Somafco in 1982 – toured the Netherlands and Scandinavia, raising the profile of the ANC.
The lead actor, the late Gandhi Maseko, was also among a group of students suspected of smoking dagga who were taken to a remote classroom at midnight and tortured into confessing and revealing the names of other smokers. This was another protest that we didn’t lose so much, but was simply dismissed. However, the almost final straw came when three women, seen in Morogoro talking to PAC students from a nearby medical facility, were arraigned in an overnight ‘court’ in the carpentry shop , tried and condemned to a particularly vicious sjambokking.
Barbara wanted to resign immediately from Somafco, if not from the ANC. And when a Danish volunteer who was then helping us in primary school heard about the case, she quit the school, considering us part of the system for not telling her about the beatings. As usual, we responded with a letter of protest to the administration (cc: HQ in Lusaka). He called the act “where barbarism was surpassed only by stupidity” in that such treatment alienated otherwise loyal members of the movement. Taken out of context, this comment circulated within the ANC because “Terry Bell described the leadership of the ANC as barbaric and stupid”.
In this context, the straw that broke the camel’s back for us arrived. It came in the form of a highly respected senior student, who suggested to me, as a member of the administration, to lead the students in a revolt to “take control of Somafco”. In this way, and by calling on Tambo in Lusaka, we were able to eliminate the rot that had set in.
Fortunately, at this stage, the awareness of reality, not to mention the pessimism of the intellect, had set in. Furthermore, I was also aware that the ‘rot’ extended far beyond Somafco and that any perceived mutiny could be dealt with by the Tanzanian troops stationed next door. outside Mazimbu. We submitted our resignations from Somafco and the administration offered us plane tickets to London.
Footnote: Last month, speaking of those Somafco moments to a former student who was at the resort at the time, she noted, “I think you kept things under control. It got worse after you left. The administrator’s official report noted that it was a good thing the Bells left because I was “a very influential plotter, snooper, provocateur and anarchist“. DM