In the 1970s, Petrus Nyawose worked as a bouncer at The Paradise, a popular nightclub in Durban. Nyawose spent most of his working hours at the offices of the Black Allied Workers Union (BAWU), where he chaired the workers’ committee that managed the Durban BAWU branch but it was his wife Jabulile who was the real unionist.

Jabulile and Petrus Nyawose worked long hours for BAWU, focusing on delivery to members and paying attention to workers’ education. There was very little time for a home life, so the youngest of their three children, a little girl, grew up in the union offices. Her cot was two armchairs facing each other.

Gradually, BAWU moved closer to the Freedom Charter and the Congress Movement. By this time, Nyawose, Ivan Pillay (presently Acting South African Revenue Services Commissioner) and his brother Dhaya ‘Joe” Pillay, had been drawn by Sunny Singh into a unit of the African National Congress (ANC) underground. Singh had just been released from Robben Island after serving eight years.

Nyawose was then tasked to be the contact between the Pillay’s unit and another one headed by Shadrack Maphumulo, also an ex-Islander. Judson Kuzwayo, another Robben Islander, was also part of the underground.

Among this cell’s tasks was the escort into exile of two leading ANC members, Mac Maharaj and Steven Dlamini. At the time, Maharaj, recently released after serving 12 years on Robben Island, and Dlamini, the first President of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu), were both banned and under house arrest at the time. It was Nyawose who took them over the border into Swaziland.

The underground cell was also involved in distributing leaflets and painting slogans. In Joe Pillay’s name, the underground cell purchased a number of vehicles and a smallholding which they intended to use to accommodate trained uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) cadres. Their activities were disrupted by the arrest of Shadrack Maphumulo, in 1977, which they had read about in a daily newspaper.  The members of the cell feared that the police might discover the information about the smallholding and the vehicles. It later turned out that they had been right as the police had found documents pertaining to the purchases.

In June 1977, Nyawose, Joe Pillay and his brother Ivan Pillay met in a secluded area in Chatsworth, a township south of Durban, designated under the apartheid Group Areas Act for Indians only, to discuss what they should do. They agreed that Joe and Nyawose leave for Swaziland as they were both exposed to Maphumulo and may be at risk of arrest, following Maphumulo’s detention by the Security Police.

They left immediately; even though that happened to be the day Jabulile Nyawose’s brother was getting married. Petrus Nyawose had consented to being both best man and driver of the wedding vehicle. However, the danger was too great to wait and the cell decided that Petrus and Joe should leave immediately.  

A week later, Jabulile informed Ivan Pillay that she wanted to leave the country and join Petrus. After crossing into Botswana, Jabulile and her youngest child eventually moved to Swaziland to join Petrus. Their two other children also joined them there. Another child, a boy, was born in their place of exile a few years later.

In Swaziland the couple became part of Sactu structures. Petrus also worked closely with Stanley Mabizela, the chief representative of the ANC in that country, effectively becoming his deputy. As had become Petrus’s trademark, he quickly gained access to high levels of the Swazi government, including their Special Branch.

This enabled the ANC to influence decision-making with regards to the ANC and to get early warnings of hostile activity. Ivan Pillay linked up with Petrus in Swaziland about a year after the family settled there, when Pillay himself was forced into exile. As was the procedure, all exiles were renamed. He was now known as Nzima.

Nyawose’s quick rise to important roles in MK raised some eyebrows among ANC stalwarts and MK cadres who could not understand how a person who had not gone for military training could have been given such demanding responsibilities. Unbeknown to many, Nyawose had been recruited into the ANC’s Intelligence and Security.

During his tenure, Nyawose was the controller of the ANC’s most successful recruit among Swaziland’s notorious Security Branch. From time to time, Nyawose would brief the ANC’s Intelligence and Security on the security situation, informing them of the activities of those who were informing the South African Security Police about those in exile and further attempts to infiltrate the ANC. Using his network of informers Nyawose often protected ANC members from attacks and kidnappings, from the South African security forces, by giving them early warning.

Nyawose informed Ivan Pillay that there was a squad of South African Security officers in Swaziland with the intention of kidnapping cadres. They had ten names on their target list. Nyawose, Dhaya ‘Joe’ Pillay and his brother, Ivan’s name were on the list. Ivan informed his brother that afternoon when they met at the Manzini library of the impending danger.

Unfortunately Joe Pillay did not take the warning seriously and stayed where he was. That night, the squad – comprising South Africans and some Mozambicans, who were members of Renamo, a rebel army opposing the Mozambican government which was supported by South Africa – came for him. There were witnesses to the kidnapping; and a South African identity document was dropped.

Nyawose worked tirelessly to pressure the Swazi government and the Swazi Special Branch to, in turn, pressure their South African counterparts for Joe Pillay’s safe return. They also linked up with anti-apartheid movements in Western countries to start an international campaign for Joe’s release.

They struck luck when a witness to the kidnapping recognised one of the kidnappers, who without a care in the world, was walking around in the Manzini area in Swaziland. The man was followed by Swazi police; he and his band were arrested and negotiations for a trade-off began. Six weeks later Joe was released – the first kidnap victim to be returned by the apartheid government.

On 4 June 1982, Petrus ‘Nzima’ Nyawose and his wife, SACTU representative Jabulile Nyawose, were killed in a car bomb explosion outside their flat in Matsapha near Manzini, Swaziland. Two passengers in the car, Thokozane Mkhize and Siphiwe Mngomezulu, were seriously injured. The explosion and the murder of their parents was witnessed by the Nyawose’s children.

Intelligence-gathering and surveillance for the assassination was done by Dirk Coetzee, Almond Nofemela and David Tshikilange for which they applied for amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). According to a statement to the Commission by Eugene de Kock, and further oral evidence at a Commission amnesty hearing, the murder of the couple was authorised by Brigadier Willem Schoon, then head of C section. The operation was performed by the then commander of Vlakplaas, Captain Jan Coetzee, assisted by Colonel Paul Hattingh of the South African Police (SAP) Explosives Department and Captain Paul van Dyk of the Ermelo Security Branch. For this operation, the three perpetrators received the SOE medal, a high police decoration.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that the murder of Petrus and Jabulile Nyawose was sanctioned by the South African Government, authorised at senior management level of the security police and carried out by the operatives named above. 

• Ivan Pillay (2014). "Two lives cut short in their prime", From The Sunday Independent Online, 29 June. Available at . Accessed on 30 June 2014.
• Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Volume Two Truth and Reconciliation Commission  of South Africa Report , p106.  Available at . Accessed on 30 June 2014.

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