It was in the early hours of the morning of the December 9 December, 1982, when we heard what sounded like machine gun fire and explosions, we all woke up, unsure of what could be happening.
Dec. 9, 2019
By Pumlani Kubukeli
7 min read
The 1982 Maseru Massacre remembered
Tito Mboweni, then studying at the NUL, leads a protest march in Maseru 1982 following the massacre
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We convinced ourselves that it was probably Ntsu Mokhehle’s guerilla forces which sometimes attacked the Lesotho army.
It was now at about 05h00, we couldn’t go back to sleep and so we decided that Hlathi Delakufa (Mbulelo Mhlana from Umtata,) who was the eldest among us, must go to Cuba (ANC residence) to investigate.
Although Cuba was about a kilometre away from us, we couldn’t believe when Hlathi came back so soon; he was hysterical, crying uncontrollable, we just had to wait for him to get control of himself.
When he had finally spoken, myself, Cde Rasta (Coolman Zondi from Cape Town) and Cde Kirro from Mdantsane just stood up in disbelief, we put on the nearest clothes, closed the door and left our flat without anyone speaking to the other and when we were approaching Cuba, we could hear the locals saying refugees have been killed.
We had been summoned to a meeting by Lambert Moloi (Comrade A) about two months before this incident, where he warned us of a likely attack by the regime and instructed us to disperse and find alternative accommodation elsewhere, by that time we were more than fifteen staying at the Cuba residence.
The three of us who were now rushing to the scene had found the flat we were sleeping in when we heard these tragic news, we were in fact four (4) because we later accommodated in our flat, a very tall Comrade, Kirro/Themba from Mdantsane who had arrived from home during this state of alert.
It was difficult to get to Cuba as hundreds of locals were there already to offer their support, almost everyone was crying because we were like brothers and children to them.
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Inside the house there were the comrades’ lifeless bodies riddled with bullets, you could see that they were swollen as if they had been injected with poison. Cde Vuyani Zibi (Bra Vido from Mqanduli), Cde Vasta (Sipho Notana from Mdantsane), Cde Nqwaku from Port Elizabeth, Cde Arra from Cape Town and others; their bodies were lying there but there was one comrade who was missing, comrade Santos; a government bakkie arrived and we loaded the bodies.
The walls which had pictures of ANC leaders, OR Tambo, Chief Albert Luthuli, Mandela had bullet holes, (NB: That time in the ANC, those were the only leaders you could sing about, we were always cautioned when singing about leaders who were still alive, as for OR Tambo and Mandela, it was obvious that the struggle was their life).
I thought about Bra Vido (Vuyani Zibi from Mqanduli, eastern Cape) who had been in Lesotho when those comrades with whom he had arrived had already been sent for military training but due to his ability to instill discipline among the comrades, it had been decided by the ANC officials (Linda Mti – Cde Rich, Thenjiwe Mthintso - Cde Thenji, Sokhupha - Cde Soks) that he should be left behind to assist those still to come, like myself.
We learnt from the neighbour, a Lesotho national that Comrade Santos was shot and pretended to be dead, so the SADF left him, in fact as they counted the dead comrades, they piled them on top of him, he crawled to the neighbour’s house and remained at the fowl-run until the morning when he got help.
We also heard that, a helicopter was standing on the road infront of Cuba with searchlights illuminating as if it was during the day.
This time around, we had to go to those residences we had never visited; we boarded on one of the government bakkies and moved from house to house, finding the same killing pattern.
Some houses which were raided are those which used to stay our comrades, who had already left Lesotho, there they killed Lesotho citizens.
At a house about 300metres from Cuba, some old men from the Engcobo in Transkei were killed and their bodies burnt beyond recognition when the gas stove they were using was deliberately exploded. That is where Comrade Gazi was also killed.
At a house in Florida, we heard that some of those killed were visiting from South Africa.
We also went to the government mortuary to wash their swollen bodies, and we counted forty two in total, these were mainly harmless and innocent people who had run away from the brutality of the apartheid system, while others were innocent Basotho nationals who were giving sanctuary to their South African brothers; the situation there was unbearable, the stink, the thoughts rushing through a 15-year old like I was, eish! I couldn’t bear the thought of the very same cadres with whom we were sharing jokes only the day before, Bra Vido whom I knew from home in Transkei who had just left before me with Ntsikelelo Mkheti (MK name - Cde Mvumeleli) who was killed in a shootout in PE during 1986 and buried in Umtata.
All their bodies were swelling every minute, (they were just lying on the floor because the fridges were full) as I was to learn later that the SADF shot them with poisonous bullets which were banned by the Geneva Convention.
When we finally went back to our place, residents were standing outside waiting for us; apparently they noticed during their visit to affected houses that we were also refugees and they wanted us out of their yard because they feared being killed by the SADF.
They reasoned with us, telling us that they had children to secure and that they can’t risk keeping us because they don’t know who will inform the Boers; it was best if we don’t set our foot there again.
We only asked them to keep our stuff as we had no place to take it to. We took jerseys, jackets and a blanket each and moved out at dusk. We didn’t know where we were going but ended up at Cuba where we spent our first night - the stench of blood was still there and we also used some of the blankets and sponges left at the scene - we knew that we had to wake up very early before anyone sees us.
We also knew that the boers will never think that anyone can sleep in these dilapidated bullet riddled houses.
We woke up early as planned, took our blankets back to Lower Thamae, we couldn’t risk cooking anything, anyway we had only maize meal and (Holsum) fats left in our groceries.
We went to look for other comrades around the location, at the breweries and fortunately we found some of them like Mzondeleli Nondula (nom de guerre – Cde Gaba Mkwabayi) from Mdantsane.
Some Basotho families offered us food as they heard us relate the situation we were facing.
As night began to fall, we arranged the following day’s meeting place with other comrades, which was to be a house at Qoaling belonging to one of the South African families who now had a Lesotho citizenship.
We found our way back to Cuba where we spent the night yet again.
The following day came and we went to our meeting place and most of the refugees who had survived the massacre were there. Arrangements were being made for us to be able to continue receiving communiqués from the ANC and in order that we could be notified about funeral arrangements.
We were to utilize the house in Qoaling, but only one comrade should represent each group/unit in a gathering, as for food, we continued to survive on Lesotho community hand-outs.
Our group decided to change our sleeping place and we went for a church on the far end of Lower Thamae, there was a revival outside in a tent, we slept there and fortunately the Priest who saw us invited us inside the church and it was our first peaceful night, after the massacre.
It was clear to us that life would never be the same again in Lesotho. The funeral followed, and the President of the ANC and Commander in Chief of Umkhonto weSizwe, OR Tambo was there and addressed the mass funeral. It was emotional, the bodies had decomposed because the government morgue was never meant for so many bodies.
Tata OR Tambo also addressed the masses who came from back home, the mourners.
This memory of 34 years ago left me a broken man and changed the whole course of my life. I had geared myself to further my studies in exile but I ended up bitter and ready to avenge my fallen comrades, I just wanted to fight back!
After the ANC was banned in 1960 thousands of its members went into exile, joining its military wing Umkhonto weSizwe in camps in several African countries – former hitman and guerilla commander, Pumlani Kubukeli, was also known as Iron/Ntsimbi/Yster/Ferro Nxele.