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Mandela in Lobatse (Part 1)

According to the Border Register, the motor van had reached Pioneer Gate at 11:15 on Thursday morning, January 11, 1962.

Its Indian driver registered himself as “M. Ismael of 10, Main Road, Fordsburg, Johannesburg, en route for Kanye visit.” In the back of the van the underground leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), Nelson Mandela, stayed out of sight.

For both the driver and his passenger it had been a long and stressful morning. Having said goodbye to his anxious wife Winnie, at just after midnight Mandela had set out for Soweto, where he was to have rendezvoused with Walter Sisulu, Duma Nokwe and Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada. The trio had been tasked with bringing Mandela his transport and travel credentials, along with final instructions.

But only Kathy arrived at the appointed hour, as both Sisulu and Nokwe had been arrested.

As it was getting late, it was decided that alternative arrangements would have to be made to get Mandela to Lobatse for his scheduled flight to Tanganyika, from where he was to proceed to the meeting of the Pan African Freedom Movement for East, Central and southern Africa (PAFMESCA) in Addis Ababa.

With the assistance of John Kgoana Nkadimang, it was thus arranged at the last minute for Mohammed Amien Cajee to drive Mandela in a borrowed van, which had been previously identified by Bechuanaland Protectorate [BP] authorities as having been used by Joe [Vincent Joseph Gaobakwe] Matthews.

Mandela would later describe the drive to Bechuanaland as having been “trying”, further observing that: “I was nervous both about the police and the fact that I had never crossed the boundaries of my country before.”  

From the border gate, the two drove directly to the office of Bechuanaland Air Safaris to check on Mandela’s flight arrangements. Conscious of the presence in the room of Andrew Rybicki, who had months earlier been identified as a South African Police (SAP) Security Branch (SB) informant, the receptionist/company secretary Mrs. Elsie Bartuane denied any knowledge of the flight, merely confirming that “Captain Bertie”, her husband Herbert Bartuane, would be returning from Ghanzi the following morning.

In fact, Mrs. Bartuane had already received a telegram on the same morning from [Frene Noshir] Ginwala of the ANC office in Dar-es-Salaam, stating that Mandela’s flight, which had been scheduled for departure on the 12th of January, had to be postponed due to the late arrival of “Ben Motlahifia”, who was listed as the flight’s incoming passenger.

On January 10, 1962 the Lobatse branch of Barclays had received a telegraphic advice from London that R 830 was credited to the account of Bartuane at

the order of Motlahifia, being payment for a return flight between Lobatse and Mbeya, Tanganyika.

Although during their encounter with Mrs. Bartuane, Cajee and Mandela had stuck to their alias – Mohammed Ishmael and David Motsamayi - Rybecki immediately knew Mandela’s identity from the photograph he had been given by his SAP-SB handler Sergeant Pio.

Rybecki then shadowed the pair to the Lobatse Hotel, where Mandela like Oliver Tambo amongst others before him, was refused accommodation at the then racially segregated establishment. The slight was in fact fortuitous as the Hotel was not a safe space for political refugees.

Mandela then had Cajee drive him to the Peleng home of his old friend and Treason Trial comrade Ntwaesele Thatayone “Fish” Keitseng. For his part, Rybecki had broken off his pursuit in order to contact the SAP.

In the months following the 1960 State of Emergency in South Africa, which had led to the banning of the ANC and other anti-Apartheid resistance movements, Keitseng had become heavily involved in the underground “pipeline” that secured the onward transport of refugees through Bechuanaland. He was thus busy expanding his home to better serve as an ANC safe house, when Mandela unexpectedly arrived at his door.

He would later recall:

“One day [i.e. January 11, 1962] I was in my room, plastering the walls in the afternoon, and I had not been contacted by the ANC about any people coming. Then I saw Mandela stopping by my house in a car, driving with an Indian chap. He says, “Hey man, I’m looking for you. I tried to book at Lobatse Hotel, but they refused. So now I’m looking for you.

“I said, ‘Come in.’ I left my tools, and gave him one of my small rooms. By this time, I was starting to extend my place to accommodate the people who I was putting up.

Mandela’s room didn’t even have a real door, just a piece of wood hanging from the wall. After discussing things with Mandela and [BP Police Corporal] Kiba, we agreed we mustn’t take Mandela to see the D.C. He had already been underground a long time, and they were calling him the ‘Black Pimpernel’”.

For his part, Cajee returned to the Lobatse Hotel, were his excessive drinking had by the early evening resulted in his detention for drunk and disorderly conduct. At the Police station he was questioned by the local Commander, Bail, in the presence of a visitor, Sergeant Pio.

(to be continued)

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