Benson Tsele died on 21 March 1968 in combat against the then white supremacist Rhodesian army.
The Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) guerrilla was part of the Luthuli Detachment, an elite group that had undergone years of military, political and physical training to return to South Africa, train recruits and help revive the underground structures of the African National Congress (ANC).
This was no mean feat at a time when any political activism was interpreted by the apartheid government as treasonous and spelled either a lifelong sentence in apartheid jails or a death sentence.
Tsele deliberately entered military activities of the banned ANC with a clear knowledge that there were no shades of grey; he would either die at the hands of apartheid forces or conquer, for a society free of racial injustices.
Tsele and his comrades had to go through Rhodesia first – a strenuous journey littered with dangers from the ever alert patrolling Rhodesian army – to reach South Africa. Oliver Tambo, the exiled ANC acting president and supreme commander-in-chief at the time, personally saw the group off as they crossed the Zambezi for the first time. About 50 or so MK cadres mingled with roughly 30 guerrillas from the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu).
Zapu commander John Dube was in charge, with MK's Chris Hani as commissar. Hani was to take up the command of ANC guerrillas once the joint force split up later, with Zapu guerrillas going further into Rhodesia and most of the ANC cadres going south heading for a route through Botswana to South Africa.
The joint plan involved crossing the Zambezi River at three different points, near Livingstone in the west, near Lake Kariba in the centre, and near Feira in the east. The forces had established bases near the Zambezi valley as part of the guerrilla assaults they were planning to launch against Rhodesian and South African forces, who were also working together. However, as soon as the liberation forces entered the area, South African Buccaneer fighter planes wasted no time in starting reconnaissance.
Tsele died on the night when he was standing in for his unit's commander, Archie Sibeko. Writing in his memoirs, Sibeko says he had to go to the Zambian capital of Lusaka 'to deal with some logistical problems', when he appointed Tsele to take over the command of the unit.
According to Sibeko, Tsele led the guerrillas into Rhodesia that evening where they were caught up in a bitter exchange of gunfire with the Rhodesian forces. The liberation unit suffered serious casualties, and Tsele was killed in the ensuing battle. Yet, Tsele died heroically, withstanding the might of the Rhodesian army, drafted in the forefront and facing the line of fire with grit. As the senior commissar and a stand-in for his commander at the time, he had the option of backing off until their forces couldreach safety deep into Zambia but Tsele appreciated the reason for his military involvement and continued.
The bullets of the Rhodesian army killed a man who had dedicated his life to freedom from apartheid rule. However, in the eyes of Tsele, this was a cause worth paying the supreme price for, because there was no other way of uprooting the horrors of racial oppression in South Africa, which saw racial segregation as 'a natural order of things', except through the barrel of a gun. To eradicate apartheid, Tsele realised the only effective means available, since the Government was not prepared to come to the negotiating table, was to either succumb to the status quo or take on the military machinery of the regime.
Born in 1932, Tsele received his secondary schooling at St. Peter's in Rosettenvile, Johannesburg, where one of his teachers was the man who later became his supreme commander in chief, Oliver Tambo. Tsele went on to receive his university education at Fort Hare, where he was active in the ANC Youth League. Upon his permanent return to Johannesburg, he taught at Alexandra High School.
This was followed by a decade of activism, during which Tsele joined protests and campaigns against a slew of apartheid legislation such as the Bantu Education Act in 1954. He also participated in the 1955 campaign for the adoption of the Freedom Charter, the 1957 Alexandra Bus Boycott, the 1959 Potato Boycott as well as the subsequent campaign against pass laws. The campaigns catapulted key activists such as Tsele to the political helm, exposing them to the system, the attendant harassment and the possibility of death inherent in such risky political activism.
Benson Tsele was involved with the ANC's political education unit when the liberation movement was banned. He skipped the country in 1961, and went on to receive military training in the former Soviet Union.
On his return he joined MK, becoming the commissar that he was when he met his death in that notorious field.