Opinions

Memorialising a barbarous act of aggression: the first Maseru raid (1982)

  • Posted on August 8, 2014


The month of June commemorates and honours heroes and heroines who fought selflessly to change the face of racist South Africa. This article explores those who died in that battle against apartheid with a focus on those who lost their lives outside South Africa’s borders. The focus here is on Lesotho and specifically the ‘Maseru raid’ (or ‘predawn raid’) of December 1982.

The 1982 Maseru raid, unofficially referred to as ‘operation blanket’, can be linked to the South African 1981 attack on a congress base in Maputo, Mozambique. Subsequent South African Defence Force (SADF) raids in Maseru (the capital of Lesotho) in 1983 and 1985 highlight some of the detrimental effects the apartheid regime had on neighbouring countries, where the integrity of the states of southern Africa were violated. The raid, planned by the same Special Branch officials that organized the Matola Raid, took place in the early hours of 9 December 1982 between 0:30-05:30. Helicopters were used to deliver arms and ammunition (including firearms, grenades and explosives of Russian origin and rifles of Chinese make). Scores of South Africans (whom the South African government referred to as well trained ‘terrorists’) and Basotho were mercilessly killed in this barbarous act of aggression. Homes were destroyed, houses gutted by fire and bombed from the air in this cold-blooded massacre. (See the TRC Report and summary)

The target was African National Congress (ANC) residences, including the Moscow house, which were apparently being used as a transit camp for ‘terrorists’ to and from South Africa. There were more than 11,500 South Africans staying in Lesotho at that time, most of whom were registered as refugees. With the Maseru raid, the apartheid government wanted to shock other neighbouring states where the ANC had a presence especially in Mozambique, which was believed to be the main rear base for ANC insurgent operations. Among the widely known ANC members based in Lesotho was Tembi Hani, (labelled as the ‘most wanted’), ANC chief in Lesotho and a reputed member of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Siswe and his wife, Limpho Hani, who was the secretary of the ANC Women’s League in Lesotho. The aim of the raid was not only to get the ANC members out of Lesotho but also to kill them: twelve Basotho and thirty South Africans died.

The 1982 Christmas spirit quickly dissipated. Maseru residents were in a state of shock and disbelief. The city centre took on a new shape: bullet holes marked the walls of houses, homes were ransacked, windows broken, frames charred, and smoke emanated from debris comprised of a mixture of built fabric and human remains. During the attack, some people were wrapped in blankets by SADF officials and set on fire.  Houses were devastated by incendiary devices. This happened at the same time as the raid in Harare where 21 of 29 South Africans were killed and dozens hospitalised. The SADF’s mission was to destroy strongholds of the ANC and kill as many rebels as possible. Scores of people were wounded.

This was the period when South Africa was heavily engaged in an onslaught on the rest of the sub-continent and Lesotho was on the top of South Africa’s hit list. During the raid, 12 separate sites were targeted. The majority of those killed had come to Lesotho as refugees after the 1976 Soweto uprisings. While the South African government called them terrorists, the Lesotho government and Basotho referred to them as refugees and the raid was referred to as the ‘murder of refugees’.

South Africa claimed that during the raid several weapons were seized from ANC members and further claimed that the target was ANC operatives who were planning to carry out sabotage and terror in South Africa, Ciskei and Transkei over Christmas 1982. The raid was described, by the SADF General Constand Viljoen, as a pre-emptive strike against ANC members grouping in Lesotho from other southern African states.  for a series of 1982 Christmas raids on targets in South Africa. In his justification of the massacre, Viljoen further alleged that the South African government had repeatedly warned the governments of neighbouring countries not to allow terrorists to use their territories as springboards against South Africa. Viljoen explained that the buildings targeted served as headquarters for the terrorist action against the Republic of Transkei and Ciskei.

The sovereignty of South Africa’s neighbouring states was violated because the SADF had an approval to conduct ‘cross-country pursuit’ upon receiving information of any ANC units in a bordering country. At this time, none of the states were more than a couple of decades into independence, and all of them were woefully weak, economically and militarily. With the Maseru raid intended to be a lesson for other states housing ANC members, similar events followed in states like Swaziland, where large numbers of refugee neighbourhoods were cordoned off, refugees arrested and removed at gunpoint to waiting trucks. States like Angola were also penetrated in an effort to attack black insurgents seeking to free Namibia from South Africa. Southern Africa and neighbouring states were no longer safe with the monster ravaging on all sides. Without embarking on any form of diplomacy, ANC cadres in the neighbouring states were ransacked. In the view of some people, the real reason why South Africa invaded Lesotho was Lesotho’s rejection of apartheid.

The raid was condemned by the Commonwealth as an infringement of territorial integrity of the sovereign states. It was also deplored by the Reagan administration in America, who called for a settlement in Southern Africa through “peaceful negotiations”. Religious organizations, such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in South Africa, damned the raid and the killings of people on the eve of Human Rights Day. The entire world condemned the act, including the UN, which even called on South Africa to compensate Lesotho for the raid that resulted in loss of life among nationals and damages to property. PW Botha, then Prime Minister of South Africa, strongly rejected this appeal. Zimbabwe labelled the raid an unprovoked and cold-blooded massacre. The act was described as barbarism personified and incomparable, and a violation of the United Nations’ charter. Internationally, demonstrations were held, outside the South African embassy in London as well as in Washington, in protest against South Africa’s raid in Lesotho. Then General Secretary of South African Council of Churches, Desmond Tutu led a prayer service for the victims and relatives of those killed in the SADF attack on Maseru in Soweto. He called the attack a naked act of international terrorism. He compared it to the act of King Herod of the Bible, who felt threatened by the advent of Jesus and ordered that any male children aged two and under should be massacred.

While the raid raised world anger, there was a tremendous sense of self-congratulation among the South African authorities on a brilliantly executed pre-emptive strike against the ANC bases in Maseru. South Africa continued to claim that Lesotho was solely to blame for the killings because it allowed the ANC to hide their military targets in the middle of Maseru. This cruel act was considered the final warning to all South Africa’s neighbours – the message being that ‘the sooner they rid their countries of these terrorists, the sooner peace and stability will return to southern Africa’. This was considered a retribution that was ultimately to befall Lesotho and Lesotho was compared to Israelis that encountered the same problem in Lebanon, where civilians were used as shields to protect fleeing terrorists. Others ask why, if the raid was justified, they then hid under the umbrella of the king of darkness? That is why they called it a dastardly, cowardly and barbaric act.

With all flags set at half mast, ten days after the raid, a mass funeral was held at Maseru cemetery for twenty-seven of the thirty South Africans. The day of the funeral day was declared a national day for mourning. Three South Africans were buried in South Africa while twelve Basotho were buried in various parts of Lesotho. Dignitaries that attended the funeral included ANC President Oliver Tambo, General Secretary of the Organisation of African Unity, a delegation of the UN Security Council and representatives of the Pan African Congress. The ceremony was punctuated by the singing of ‘Nkosi sikelel’iAfrica’, shouts of ‘Amandla’ and Black Power salutes. The burial took place under banners proclaiming ‘the blood spilled shall water the tree of freedom’.

Besides a commemoration service convened by Freedom Park Trust in 2004 very little has been planned to preserve, commemorate and memorialize those who died as a result of cross-boarder raids. How can these memories best be archived for generations to come? An annual commemoration and a commemorative or interpretation centre could help with commemorating this traumatic event whilst educating or informing youths about the past. The establishment of memorial sites connecting the places (for instance the houses that were raided and graveyards where bodies were laid to rest) where these incidences happened could animate the story of the 1982 Maseru raid. Most of the structures where the raid took place are still standing. Many of the survivors are still traumatised and some are still bedridden. Telling their stories might help them to find closure and, their oral testimonies will greatly contribute to an untold part of South Africa’s traumatic past. Current developments are limited, though houses are being constructed for some of the victims of the raid in Maseru by the South African government. However, this gesture does not seem to be enough to memorialize the lives of men and women who died in the struggle in Lesotho. An initiative similar to the Matola Memorial and Interpretive Centre in Mozambique could be another option.

Sebinane Lekoekoe is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Lesotho. He is currently reading for a Masters degree in World Heritage and Cultural Projects for Development at the University of Turin, Italy.

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