Joe Modise

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The Independent Online

Johannes Modise, military commander, political activist and politician: born Johannesburg, South Africa 23 May 1929; Minister of Defence, South Africa 1994-99; married Jackie Sedibe (two daughters, and one son deceased); died Pretoria 26 November 2001.

If Nelson Mandela came to symbolise the ideal, transcendental plane of South Africa's liberation from apartheid, Joe Modise – the commander of the African National Congress army in exile, and the country's first black Minister of Defence – represented a grittier and more sordid praxis.

Following the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960, Modise became a founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the banned ANC and the South African Communist Party, leaving the country illegally two years later. He received military training in the Soviet Union, in Czechoslovakia and – with a high-level delegation, at a more advanced theoretical level – with the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam in 1978.

In Angola in the 1970s, he was one of the principal architects of the system of prison camps by which the ANC and the SACP suppressed dissent within the ranks. He had the indignity, as army commander, to suffer a mutiny in Angola of the overwhelming majority of his trained troops in 1984: a protest directed largely against his leadership. Troops called him an "imperialist agent" – accusations repeated 10 years later, after the return to South Africa, in a stormy march of discontented Umkhonto troops on the capital, Pretoria.

Despite his rank, Modise was excluded from detailed planning of the secret infiltration of top-level ANC/ SACP personnel into South Africa in the late 1980s, the so-called "Operation Vula". Precise circumstances of his arrest, detention and trial (as army commander!) in the early 1980s in Botswana, on the frontline with South Africa, have also still to be fully investigated. This was a time when South African military intelligence kidnapped and killed at will beyond their borders. (The Umkhonto colleague with whom he was arrested, Cassius Make, was later assassinated by the regime.)

Growing up in Sophiatown, one of the oldest black settlements within Johannesburg, and working as a van driver, Modise had prepared for violent resistance – ultimately disbanded – to the government's demolition of the township and its forced removal of the people in 1953. Three years later, along with Nelson Mandela, he stood trial as one of 156 people charged with treason (the trial collapsed after a number of years). The year after the massacre at Sharpeville he tried to stop trains running from Soweto to Johannesburg in an effort to enforce a general strike.

Thirty years later, following the unbanning of the ANC and the SACP in 1990, Modise was in the first batch of returnees to South Africa, and played a central part in the earliest negotiations with the apartheid state from within the country. The harmony of his subsequent relations with the heads of the white military apparatus was extraordinary: a central structural beam upholding the transition from apartheid, to a degree exceeding Realpolitik.

In an historical article circulated widely within South Africa in 1990, former guerrillas in Umkhonto described Modise as someone seen above all in the ranks as "engaged in corrupt money-making ventures, abusing his position in the army". His former batman gave evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1994 that Modise had sent him surreptitiously over the border into South Africa during the guerrilla struggle to buy expensive shoes and clothes.

In an internal ANC inquiry in 1993, Modise was specifically cited as responsible for human-rights abuses during the exile, in the context of a "code of brutality that nearly all deemed to be the order of the day". The commission found that the great majority of complainants had been "treated in a cruel and inhuman manner" while in detention or prison.

While never a member of the SACP, and a Tswana-speaker in a leadership characterised mainly by Xhosa-speakers, Modise commanded Umkhonto we Sizwe for nearly 30 years before becoming South Africa's first post-apartheid Minister of Defence in May 1994 under President Mandela, a post Modise held until 1999, supported over most of that time as Deputy Minister by a white SACP colleague, Ronnie Kasrils, former head of Military Intelligence in Umkhonto in exile. By the time of his retirement, Modise had become a rich man, embroiled in allegations of corruption and nepotism.

Very shortly before his death, an official investigation into a £5bn arms-purchase programme for his ministry described his personal shareholding in a company with a stake in provision as "extremely undesirable". A loan to Modise of £5.6m for purchase of shares in the company was alleged to have been routed through a company run by the wife of the head of the Defence Ministry's arms procurement committee, an official who has since been suspended. Nelson Mandela subsequently criticised the "mindless careerism" of some ANC office-holders. Modise had also appointed his wife, Jacqueline Sedibe, former head of communications in Umkhonto, as a major-general in the South African National Defence Force.

On his deathbed, Modise received the country's highest civilian honour, the Grand Cross (Gold) of the Order of the Star of South Africa, presented in person at his home by the South African President Thabo Mbeki, Modise's former comrade from the exile. It was a suitably Ruritanian finale.

Paul Trewhela