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ISBN 978 1 77022 841 2

People died for this freedom.

This cliche finds currency in this book. Almost each and every one of the 591 pages you’d flip through will carry reference to death or the name of the fallen.

It is also a book of names.

Many books that have seen print before it huffs and puffs around names. Not Thula Simpson here - he gives even the nom de guerre of the Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK) cadres.

It is ostensibly the story of MK - it’s formation, missions and leaders, but in telling it, Simpson unwittingly narrates the evolution of the South Africa that rose from the rubbles of Apartheid.

A friend who earns his living from deployment between government departments took offence when I suggested those whose names were not in the book need to justify their struggle credentials anew. He singled out John Gomomo, the late founding father of the trade union federation Cosatu.

You will not find Gomomo’s name in the book but this is more an exception than the norm of the writer’s pen.

Simpson, a historian who teaches the subject at the University of Pretoria, has made this into a seminal work on the subject of the ANC’s military wing. Something better is still germinating inside the head of the prospective author, if at all.

He goes into the ANC camps - wherever they were set up, on the continent and abroad, to look into the lives of the combatants and their leaders. The persona of those like the late Joe Modise who behaved like tinpot despots already before Uhuru come to the fore through his pen.

MK had a plethora of obstacles strewn in the path of it turning into a formidable army of the people. Tribalism and rank alcoholism tore into the fabric of the army. These do not escape Simpson’s eye.

If an army is made up of its foot soldiers, the strength of this book lies in the author finding out and naming these soldiers, many of whom had previously remained nameless in other half-baked offerings that came before it.

He names names.

Perhaps what has worked to his advantage is that his vision wasn’t confined to the camps - he cast his net wider, even back home as the war of liberation was being fought from the Frontline States and beyond.

Every MK mission in the country is accounted for, from the disaster known as the Silverton siege to the triumphs of the Sasol bombings in Secunda and Sasolburg.

The men of MK are not faceless; Simpson takes the reader by hand into the profiles of these flesh and blood humans.

As the MK leaders lived off the fat of the land in faraway lands and their proteges often mutinied or threatened such, the author brings us back home from time to time, either to look at the aftermath of the ‘terrorists’ bombs or remind the reader of the news of the day through newspaper reports.

Simpson the scholar would have failed if he’d not been this meticulous in compiling this book.

It is readable. It is thick. It will almost take up permament residency on your bedside table. It is a great offering that does justice to the life and times of the men and women who sacrificed their lives for a better South Africa.

Whenever the story of MK comes up as a dinner table conversation, those who have read Simpson will come up trumps.

He has made the story of MK his own.

And, yes, people laid down their lives for this new South Africa. The body count is in the book.



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