A Warrior’s Witness
Silently he leopard crawled through the undergrowth. Hunting hyenas cackled in the brush, but he wasn’t concerned since he was downwind of them. Phillip was intent on getting to the camp, whose lights were before him. He shuffled quickly forward another foot or so, before pausing to wipe his stinging, sweat-filled eyes.
The emotional toll of the last 36 hours had played havoc with more than just his body. I’m going mad, that’s it! But what about all the others? They all saw the same thing. What’s going on?
Balling his fists, he dug into the red dirt that pervaded everything in this remote location. Yesterday, Phillip had mixed that dirt with his spit, creating a camouflage by smearing it on his face. The lumps still stuck to his dark skin.
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. He grinned idiotically as the song lyrics raced through his mind. He bit his parched lips, pounding his fists against the ground. The mission yesterday was so unlike all the others —no torture, no raping, and no spilt blood.
The lights of the base camp below him glowed and twinkled in the dark, velvet softness of the African night. There was no movement, except in the main tent, where one silhouette moved against the canvas, setting up a table and chairs. It looked the same as it did yesterday. His train of thought trailed off as he remembered…
“Dumêlang, Men. Are you ready?”
“Dumêla, Phillip. We’re ready.” Phillip stared with pride at his men. They were in fine form, well honed, not an ounce of fat on any of them; not even Sipho, who came in six months ago, overweight and spoilt from too many days spent at the local bar. Phillip and the team soon straightened him out. These men were all warriors now, filled with a hatred that starts with a quest for justice, and is honed by training.
The men stared unblinkingly back at him. That had been part of their schooling too. Don’t flinch, no matter who’s in front of you. Don’t give in, no matter what ‘they’ to do you. Don’t let ‘them’ in: be strong.
Each one of them carried their dikôtsê, leather straps tied to their left arm, protecting their chests. Many of them were handmade, tooled out of the finest animal skins, stretched over pummeled metal, to make exceptional shields. In their right hand, they held the famous assegais, lovingly handmade. Phillip had supervised the creation of these beautiful weapons, the phakabarwa.
Phillip knew the men would fight with fervor if they were involved in the construction of their weapons. His men were effective warriors — good at full frontal assaults, skillful at night raids, and machines when it came to killing — no emotion involved, they did what they were taught to do, and did it superbly.
He recalled his recruitment into the covert wing of the African National Congress, four years earlier. For as long as he could remember, he wanted revenge for the SeSotho nation, his people. Anger seethed within him, looking for an outlet. His hatred was deep and passionate, but he didn’t know how to channel it. He was only one man. His pent up frustration found him sitting at the local para, sipping the indigenous brew, keeping to himself, when a man, only slightly older than Phillip’s eighteen years, slid onto the neighboring stool.
“Dumêlang, Wena o kae?”
“Fine, thanks.” He turned his back to end the conversation.
“Phillip, we’ve heard good things about you.”
Phillip swung around, spilling his drink on his bare legs. “How the hell do you know my name?”
“We know all sorts of things. We know a white farmer raped your sister, and your mother works for a cruel man who beats her, and doesn’t pay her. You can’t find work because your papers aren’t in order. But we can change your life — give us an hour of your time.”
I’ve nothing to lose. And if this guy turns out to be a tšhiwi, a loser, I can hold my own against him.
“OK. But don’t mess with me.” Phillip spewed as he set down his empty tankard, and followed the man out into the blazing sun, bright after the dimness of the bar, to an old green Datsun, covered with the ubiquitous red dust. The driver’s door swung open, revealing a man with grizzled gray hair. “Thank you Ayize. I’ll take it from here.”
“Yes sir.” Ayize moved away, and Phillip drank in the sight of the driver. He stood tall, imposing, with a military bearing, unusual in South Africa where blacks were not allowed to undertake any military training.
“My name is Luthando, and I represent the ANC.”
“I’m already a member of the ANC.”
“Do you really think the ANC can make changes just by talking?”
“Well…” Phillip trailed off.
Ever since boyhood, he’d been told equality was obtainable. He longed to see it in his lifetime, but the way things were going it would never happen. The illegal ANC was the only party able to make change, but even they seemed to have reached an impasse.
“The ANC has two sides. The side shown to the white government, the one that plays their games. Then there is other side, the one I represent.” Luthando’s voice dropped. “We are looking for a man to head a department here in Lebowa, and we think you’re the one.”
“Me? Why?” Phillip asked incredulously.
“Because you have passion, and you want justice. Mostly, because you believe. You believe the only good white is a dead white.”
Phillip smirked, “You’d better believe it! They tore my family apart. My father is a Zulu, so they made him live in Natal, 800 miles away. We’re not allowed to see him.”
Luthando’s features creased into a grin. “See! You have passion. Let’s channel it for you.”
“How?” He asked, shuffling his feet in anticipation of a new challenge. “What do I do?”
“I’m glad you asked. Come with me.” Luthando ordered.
First there was the military education in a clandestine camp — infiltration methods, assassination training, hand-to-hand combat — where he proved he was a natural. He became adept with handguns, assault rifles, and the more traditional assegais used for special operations, mainly to intimidate the white farmers.
The next four years brought huge success. The small white farming community saw more intimidation and murders than in the previous thirty years. Phillip handpicked each recruit. More importantly, his instincts were never wrong…until now.
He continued creeping toward the camp, pushing out yesterday’s events as he spotted the place where IT happened. A handful of white missionaries had the audacity to come to Lebowa (who cared they had the king’s permission?) to preach about that Jesus — the white man’s god. They had to be stopped before they influenced those too weak or too stupid to know better.
Why couldn’t the whites leave them alone? Why did they insist on bringing in their god? It was all his fault! The whites killed the blacks and said it was in the Bible. They enslaved his people, and they said it was in the Bible — something about the sons of Cain, whoever he was!
They had to die. It wouldn’t be the first, nor the last time his men attacked a camp of missionaries, you’d think they would’ve learnt by now. On the last raid, his men took the women, raped them, and circumcised them before letting them go. It was meant to deter the idiots. It didn’t work. Instead the women were hailed as martyrs, and the efforts of the missionaries were re-doubled.
He decided to use the traditional method of killing these missionaries. The phakabarwa’s and shields would be the first and last thing they would see. It should send a message to other groups to stay away from his region.
The two hundred warriors stood on the ridge 500 meters away from the camp, watching it intently. Every morning before they drove off in their trucks with food and Bibles, the missionaries gathered to pray. The warriors would strike at that moment, when the group was vulnerable, and all together — easier to kill that way.
“Take no prisoners.” Phillip commanded. “Kill them all, even the children. We’ll make an example of them.”
Finally, the missionaries moved into the middle of the camp, about 30 of them, women, children, and men. They grabbed hands and stood in a large circle, eyes closed as they prayed.
All the prayer in the world won’t help you now!
“Now, men, NOW!” Phillip yelled. The air filled with the cries of war chants. Phillip ran alongside his war-painted men, assegais waving and thrusting, some running ahead and others lagging behind. The missionaries looked up as Phillip thrust his phakabarwa in the air, as though jabbing a wild pig.
Why aren’t they running away in fear? They should be screaming! What’s wrong with these people, don’t they know danger when they see it?
Without warning, he slammed to a halt. Sipho, who was trailing behind, ran headlong into him, narrowly avoiding piercing Phillip with his assegai. The men running alongside Phillip also slid to a halt, causing a huge pileup behind them.
“Haai kona! What’s going on?” protested Sipho. His voice trailed off as he caught sight of what arrested Phillip.
“Thušang! Help!” He dropped shield and assegai with a clang onto the hard red earth, and dashed away in fright. Most of the warriors dropped their weapons and took to their heels, back to the sanctity of the mountains.
Ahead of Phillip, and the few who remained, were the tallest, broadest, men they’d ever seen. ‘Men’ was the wrong word. They were more like giants, huge, well over nine feet in height, or so Phillip guessed. They stood in front of the missionaries, who seemed oblivious to their presence. Instead, they stared and pointed at the warriors who were fleeing, screaming up the ridge that just a few moments before they’d flown down.
Phillip was not so easily intimidated! “Follow me!” He yelled and charged again, but tumbled to the ground face-first. It felt like he’d hit a wall, but there was nothing there! He spat out the red dirt and looked dazedly around. Once again, his attention was drawn to these men, only now, they were holding swords, easily four foot long, and what was that? Flames! The swords were on fire!
Phillip sprang to his feet, wiping spit and dirt from his slackened mouth. What the hell was this? Who were these giants?
Picking up his dikôtsê and assegai, Phillip looked again at these ‘things’, which blocked his way. They stared back, not letting their guard down for one second. Aside from their threatening size, they looked impenetrable, as though an armoured truck, or a tank, would be unable to get through.
He tightened his grip on his shield, and glanced at the remaining men, “Come on. We can get the damned missionaries another time.”
“Yes, Phillip.” They needed no urging. They formed a cohesive unit and ran up the ridge once more.
As they climbed, one of the men, Lebo, glanced back and yelled, “Look at that!”
Phillip spun around. The giants were gone. The missionaries were climbing into their trucks as though nothing had happened.
“They must be crazy!” Lebo shook his head. “Didn’t we make them the least bit scared?
Phillip stared in disbelief.
“We’re a legend here! Are they stupid? Didn’t they realize the danger they were in?”
Phillip shook his head. “I don’t know. We’ll talk about it later. Let’s get to safety.”
Arriving at the hideout, Phillip found the troops staggering around aimlessly. One of them had gone to the pub for a keg of local beer, and now at nine in the morning they were swigging and swilling the brew.
“Haai, Phillip, what the hell happened out there?” Sipho slurred, already three sheets to the wind.
“I don’t know,” Phillip spewed, throwing his assegai spear-first into the ground.
Lebo approached him, “What should we do next?”
“Yes, Phillip, what do we do?” Other voices pressed in, clamouring, looking for leadership and an answer.
“Damn it! Leave me the hell alone! I don’t know!” Phillip spat out, reaching for his gun. Holding it at arm’s length, he swung it from the left to the right as though daring the men to come closer. The men looked at each other and hightailed it to their tents. Phillip sunk into a stupor, and the troops left him alone. He realized he needed answers he couldn’t find within himself.
Through all his musings, he had slithered a fair pace, and was at the camp’s perimeter, close to the largest tent, where the shadow moved. Phillip plucked up his courage, stood up, and unsheathed a knife from his waist. He stealthily moved to the entrance of the tent, brushed the canvas aside and stepped in, brandishing the knife.
“Dumêlang.” The man who cast the shadow said with a smile. He continued in Phillip’s home language SeSotho, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Phillip dropped his hand for a brief moment, surprised by the man’s matter-of-fact tone. But then, raised his knife again. “Waiting for me? I don’t understand.”
“Won’t you sit down? No, you prefer to stand. That’s fine. My name’s Lester, by the way, but my friends call me Les. I hope you’ll call me Les.”
“Do you know who I am?” Phillip demanded, trying to regain control of the situation that by rights he should dominate. He had the knife for God’s sake! No one treated him like this! Lately the most he’d heard from white people was the death rattle as he killed them. This pudgy, white man with bifocals was different though, and commanded a presence that was at odds with his appearance. I can take him right now, and he’d never know what hit him.
“I don’t know your name, but I know your mission is to kill me and all I represent. And from what I hear, your group has done a pretty good job. But son, let me tell you, there’s a better way to get the equality you’re fighting tooth and nail for.”
“‘Son’. You dare call me son, you white piece of rubbish.” Phillip snarled, thrusting the knife forward.
“Calm down there. Why don’t you tell me what happened yesterday morning? Relax. At least tell me your name.”
“Well, Phillip, I believe I can guess what happened, but why don’t you tell me, and I’ll see if I can help you.”
“Help! I don’t need your help.”
“Please. Just tell me what happened.” Les’ voice remained calm.
Phillip paced back and forth, still wielding the knife as Les plopped in a chair, and crossed his legs. It was disconcerting; he wasn’t in the least bit afraid of Phillip, which threw him off.
“My troops and I saw tall, broad-shouldered men wielding flaming swords. They stood in front of your people. They didn’t say a word, but we couldn’t get past them. I tried, and it was like I hit a brick wall. Look, my hands are even bruised.” Phillip held up his empty palm to Les. “What’s going on? I need answers.”
Slowly Les rose from his seat, raising his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Can I see?”
Phillip extended one hand for Les to examine, grasping the knife in the other. “What’s happening here? Why couldn’t we touch you?”
“I think you saw barongwa.”
“Angels? You think we saw angels? What kind of lunatic are you?” Phillip spat in Les’ face, watching in satisfaction as Les wiped the spittle off with the back of his hand.
“I know you hate the Jesus we preach about. But Phillip, Jesus is not just for the white man, despite what you have heard, or seen or been taught. Jesus is the God for all people, no matter the colour of their skin.”
Les moved back to the chair he had just vacated. “There is a man in the Bible called Saul. He was in charge of killing all the Christians, kind of like you; and one day Jesus appeared to him. Saul had to make a decision — was this apparition really Jesus, and if so, what was he going to do?”
Phillip grabbed and straddled a chair. Of course, he knew about Jesus, but he’d never heard anyone talk about this God with such drive, passion and love. Forgetting himself, he leant forward, relaxing his grip on the knife.
“Phillip, you have killed in the name of justice, and equality. These are noble things, good things. God hates the racism that’s tearing this country apart. He’s not pleased with those who have come against you in the name of Christianity. That’s why my group, and others like us, have come to Lebowa. We want to work with the SeSotho people, to teach them about the real Jesus, not the façade that has been used to satisfy the demands of greedy farmers and landowners.”
Phillip raised his eyebrows in disbelief. Les responded with a grin. “I know. This is all new and weird for you. And there’s a lot to take in. But believe me Phillip, when I tell you I know God chose you. You’re an incredible young man. You’re a legend, everyone around here knows about you. You’ve created fear in the hearts of all the white farmers, and plenty of their labourers too. It’s not just whites you’re scaring. Is this what you really want?”
“The ends justify the means.” Phillip shouted out defiantly, pounding his fist on the table.
“Do you really think you can bring justice to this country by killing all those who differ from you?”
“Well, it’s a lot better than the alternative; talking is no bloody use, not to those white stiffs in the Union Building in Pretoria! They want to hold onto all the power they’ve stolen from us!”
Les reached over, and grasped Phillip’s dangling hand. He started at the touch; a white person had never touched him in his life. “Listen to me. There is a better way.”
“Yeah, right.” Phillip sneered.
“You have a choice. You saw how the angels protected us yesterday morning. I’m here to tell you no matter what you do, your men will not be able to touch this camp. We are under the protection of the Most High God. He demonstrated His power clearly to you yesterday. You can walk away from this camp and carry on the way you are; or you can take time tonight to investigate this very real, very alive God who got your attention in the most unusual way. Let me tell you, I am kinda jealous of you.”
“You, jealous of me? Why?” Phillip pointed to his chest in puzzlement.
“Because, son I’ve never seen an angel in my life, and you have! God wants you really badly. Are you prepared to listen to Him?”
Phillip rose suddenly to his feet knocking the chair over. “It’s all so unexpected. How do I know He’s real? And if I accept that, how can I bring justice for my people?”
Les smiled. “God is a god of new beginnings, a God of total love. Turn that drive and passion towards Him, make Him your purpose, not the equality you desire with all your being, and I guarantee, He will give you the desires of your heart.”
“But what about my men?”
“Why not go and get them, and we can talk to them together. Let’s forge new ties tonight.”
Phillip nodded slowly. “I will go and get them.”
True to his word, Phillip returned that night with about 50 of his men who were interested. All of them were saved, and baptized in water. Phillip and Lester formed a strong bond; Phillip went to Bible School and became one of the most effective preachers of the Word in the Lebowa area, never losing sight of his newfound purpose, to bring justice and equality for the people of Lebowa, through the gospel and the love of His Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
This account is based, in part, on events that occurred in July 1987, in the mountains of Lebowa. Thirty missionaries were indeed the intended target of a secret, unofficial branch of the ANC. Their leader returned to the camp, to tell of what he saw. I was one of those thirty missionaries.
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