A British diplomat in the Thatcher era who visited him at his office in Pietermaritzburg hit upon a stratagem to defuse what he anticipated would be a tricky reception. He arrived with a pile of video-recordings of recent Arsenal games. The two got on famously.
I took a similar approach the one time I interviewed Gwala, lulling him into a sense of security which later he regretted. The year was 1992. Gwala was the ANC's top general in Natal's Zulu war - ANC Zulus against Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Zulus. "The Lion of the Natal Midlands", his adoring foot-soldiers would call him. His bearing, however, was far from martial. He was a tiny man who had been suffering for years from motor neurone disease. His arms hung limply by his sides, lifeless as a rag doll's. But his eyes burned when I walked in; his expression was severe.
"Mr Gwala," I said, "what I would like you to talk about is the dialectic, taking in the objective contradictions, that accounts for the demise this season of the Arsenal football team?" Puzzled, he suddenly got the joke. He hurled back his head, body otherwise inert, and laughed till he cried.
Then I asked him about the conflict with Inkatha. The general view among black South Africans was that Buthelezi was the aggressor, that he was working hand in hand with sinister elements in the security force to destroy the ANC's Zulu base - a perception which history has since amply demonstrated to be true. But by fighting back, was Gwala not simply fuelling the war, was he not delaying progress towards democracy?
His response was the same as that the Bosnian government army might give today to those who counsel a cessation of hostilities against the Bosnian Serbs. "It's all very well for outsiders in Johannesburg and Cape Town to talk peace but here people have no choice but to defend themselves by fighting back." Then he said what got him into trouble later, with the ANC as with all other political parties. "Make no mistake. We kill Inkatha warlords."
Gwala was the aged enfant terrible of the ANC, a man who continued to preach the message of war, no compromise and insurrection even after Mandela had initiated talks for the transfer of power with F.W. de Klerk. He was a hell-raising orator, a shameless populist, who in private conversation would pepper his conversation with allusions to Napoleon, Dickens, Shakespeare, the Bible and the Anglo-Zulu war. He was one of those really clever Marxists. No one in the ANC was more erudite than he. Yet no one was less in tune with the reconciliation times.
If history passed him by in his later years, Gwala remained a lion-heart all his life in his resolve to fight the injustice of apartheid, paying the price of 15 years in jail on Robben Island, where he fought with Nelson Mandela about the strategies required to bring about liberation. He kept on fighting after the crushing death three years ago of his daughter, his nurse and constant companion. And even if South African history will tell that he contributed little on the last mile to democracy, the Zulus of Pietermaritzburg, the majority of urban Zulus who support the ANC, will always venerate his memory.
Harry Gwala, political activist: born 30 July 1920; died Pietermaritzburg 20 June 1995.Reuse content