Amin Cajee is so softly spoken, you have to lean in close to hear him. Every movement is gentle, every word carefully chosen. But the story Cajee has to tell, and which he has recorded in a fascinating book, Fordsburg Fighter, is frenetic and often brutal. "It was painful [to write]," he says. "I had to double-check that I was doing the right thing here."
In 1961, at the age of 19, Cajee, who lived in the Fordsburg area of Johannesburg, became one of the first Indians to be recruited by the African National Congress (ANC) party in South Africa and sent abroad to train with their military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
Within a year of joining the ANC, he was in Tanzania with the MK. Cajee, who is now in his seventies, expected a swift return to South Africa, where he hoped to take up the fight against apartheid. This, though, is not how things worked out.
Cajee and his friend Omar Bhamjee endured a gruelling seven-year odyssey that took them to Dar-es-Salaam, Mombasa, London, and a brutal training camp in Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), where Cajee was taught to use anti-tank guns and howitzers.
In 1966, at the age of just 24, he was accused of high treason and threatened with the death penalty by a senior representative of the ANC called Joe Modise. In the end, he was not charged but the episode was symptomatic of the ruthlessness of the regime. "The movement had control over every aspect of our lives," writes Cajee.
Furious about the lack of MK leadership and frustrated that he and his fellow recruits were stuck in exile and not confronting South Africa’s repressive and racist regime, Cajee eventually escaped to London, where he still lives today. "I found myself serving a movement that was relentless in exercising power and riddled with corruption," he writes.
Cajee’s escape came just in time. Prior to his departure, he was due to be sent on what he describes as a “suicide mission” across the Zambezi River from Zambia into Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). Other MK fighters who made this journey had, it was understood, been ambushed and slaughtered by pro-apartheid soldiers.
“My main concern was that no records appeared to have been kept of comrades who were sent on the [previous] mission, so there seemed little likelihood that there would be information about those who gave their lives,” writes Cajee.
On the back cover of Fordsburg Fighter, there is a quotation from South African author and journalist Jacob Dlamini. It reads: "Some will no doubt denounce Cajee as an MK defector. He accepts the charge. But, as he points out in his defence, he chose life over certain death. We should be grateful to him that he chose to live. Dead men can tell no stories." During his time with the MK, Cajee saw many other recruits try to escape. Most were rounded up and put in cells by MK leaders, who accused them of treason.
Fordsburg Fighter, which Cajee wrote in collaboration with the journalist Terry Bell, is as much a recollection of Cajee's time with the MK as it is an exploration of the ways in which a thirst for power can undermine a political or military campaign.
Cajee is adamant that he still supports the ANC and when he first arrived in London, he continued to disseminate articles and leaflets championing their cause in London. “My heart was still in the struggle,” he says.
His concern was with those in charge of the MK in exile from South Africa. “The leaders of the MK surrounded themselves with people who were loyal, ‘yes’ men,” says Cajee. “As time drew on, they became complacent and when complacency sets in, that’s it.” In short, high on their own authority, they lost sight of what was being fought for.
One leader, however, is spared Cajee's scorn. In a memorable scene from Fordsburg Fighter, Cajee recalls the moment in 1961 when Nelson Mandela, who was known at the time as "the Black Pimpernel", turned up unexpectedly at his home, where a political gathering was taking place.
“All the police were looking for him,” says Cajee. “I was sitting in my bedroom and this giant figure walks in. There were 20 of us in this small room and nobody utters a word. We then had a fascinating two hours with him. It was the highlight of my time in the movement.”
But it was Mandela’s treatment of Cajee’s mother and sister that most impressed the young freedom fighter. “I took him to meet my mother,” Cajee tells me. “And the humbleness with which he spoke to my mother and my sister showed the stature of the man.”
A few months later, Mandela was arrested. “My mother remembered the meeting so well, even though she hardly spoke any English, she said a prayer for him,” says Cajee, who tells me his mother also sent food to the prison for Mandela.
So what would Mandela make of the current political situation in South Africa and the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa? "I think he would be turning in his grave," says Cajee. "There is blatant corruption that is taking place there.
“Ramaphosa is a very rich man. If he had come in and said, ‘I won’t accept a salary as president of this country,’ it would have made such an impact to the people. It didn’t happen, which is another disappointment.”
Cajee’s experience with the MK was not what he expected and the political situation, to his mind, remains desperate. Does he regret signing up to fight all those decades ago? “I have no regrets,” he says. “The learning process was my compensation.”
Fordsburg Fighter is out now, published by Face2Face