Part 3 of 3 – History of The Matlous in Exile
March 4, 1966: xIn the yard of the Bureau of African Affairs, Freedom Fighters stand sweating in the noon sun, waiting for the army officer who has summoned them. They talk quietly to one another, South Africans, Zimbabweans, Angolans, Mozambicans, representatives in Ghana of nationalist movements, exiles from countries still in the grip of colonialism or apartheid.
The officer arrives and immediately mounts a platform. The other ranks in his escort finger their weapons and eye the casually dressed aliens.
“Gentlemen,” the soldier says, “My message to you is brief. My government fully supports your struggle for independence. However you have all been compromised in one way or another by your relationship with Kwame Nkrumah. I regret that you will all have to leave Ghana. Before you leave these premises, you should tell us where you intend to go. We shall then issue to each of you, at our own expense, a one-way air ticket to the destination of your choice. Now, any questions?”
Jo Matlou, official representative of the African National Congress in Ghana, is about to raise his hand when he feels a tap on his shoulder.
“Mr. Matlou?” the young man asks.
Jo turns and nods.
“I’ve been asked to give you this message. Your wife and six children are at the airport, waiting for you to collect them. They have just arrived from Dar es Salaam.”
In the early hours of the morning of February 24, the noise of distant gunfire woke me. I guessed what it might be. The economy was in a poor way. There was much discontent. Three days before, Osagyefo the President had set off on trip to Vietnam, hoping that his intervention would bring the war to an end. I turned on my radio and then remembered that it wasn’t working. I went back to sleep.
At the usual time I rose, showered and made myself breakfast. I didn’t have a telephone. There was no way I could find out what, if anything had happened. Then I went to work. As I passed 37 Military Hospital, a squad of armed soldiers were running through the grounds heading God knows where. There was little traffic, just one car ahead of me. It stopped at a roadblock before the entrance of Flagstaff House. A soldier opened the door car and pulled the driver out. I did a double-quick u-turn and beat a non-military retreat.
As soon as the curfew permitted, I went to look for Jo. He had a small ground-floor apartment in the Kanda Estate, one bedroom, one living room. Diagonally opposite, in a first-floor apartment in a similar block, lived Bettie du Toit. Bettie worked for the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. I passed her block. In the parking area there was a small car, its windscreen smashed, its bodywork riddled with bullets. This was a sensitive area: the GBC, essential property for coup makers, lay just over the high security wall behind Bettie’s block.
Jo was OK. He had spent the day of the coup prudently lying on the floor. There were some bullet holes in the outside walls. We checked up on Bettie. She was OK too. Jo commandeered my car and I drove him into Accra on some urgent business of his.
A week later, Violet and the six children had moved into his tiny flat.
In the meantime, Bettie had persuaded me to give my spare room to an Iraqi friend, an exiled member of the Iraqi Communist Party. Back home, he had been rounded up and brutally tortured before his family had been able to pay the necessary bribes and smuggle him over the border. In Prague he had earned a PhD, something to do with international trade. Then off to socialist Ghana to teach at the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute at Winneba. Now Ideology had been shut up and he was waiting for his back pay and an air-ticket. He was, perhaps understandably, a man without a sense of humour. Unable to make any progress, he eventually obtained an audience with General Ankrah and told him that it was he, Ankrah, not Nkrumah, who was the tyrant.
The four Matlou boys moved in with me, sleeping on the floor in the living room. Patrick thought my Iraqi guest was the spitting image of a character he had seen in a movie and promptly named him Sharif. Sharif had enough problems without being teased by an obstreperous six-year old. And then there was the matter of Kankan Nyame. This was the Guinean priest whom the Ghanaian press alleged that Nkrumah had been consulting. Patrick loved the sound of that name and every one became Kankan Nyame to him.
Jo somehow managed to avoid deportation. Perhaps the NLC’s budget could manage one ticket, but not eight. The Ministry of Health gave Violet a job and she started nursing at Ridge Hospital. My late father-in-law was one of her patients.
I had been working in Nigeria in 1960-61 and had become friendly with Tai and Sheila Solarin, who had in 1956 established Mayflower School at Ikenne in the Western Region of Nigeria. Tai agreed to take four of the children as boarders, if the U.N. could be persuaded to give them scholarships. Maggie and Marcus stayed behind in Accra.
It seems that the Matlou children found it difficult to adapt to the Nigerian cuisine. I was moving to a new job in Lusaka and Violet and Jo asked me to stop over in Lagos and pay a visit to Mayflower. I left on New Year’s Day, 1967, with a valid Nigerian visa, issued by the Nigerian High Commission in Accra, in the Ghana Travel Document that I was using. The Nigerian Immigration officials at the airport sent me back to Accra on the same Ghana Airways plane. The Matlou children survived their encounter with gari.
Some time later, the ANC transferred Jo to Lusaka. I was active in the ANC’s fund-raising activities (which resulted in some great parties) but Jo was living in camp outside of town and was an infrequent visitor. Once, he joined my wife, Akua, and me on a trip to the Copperbelt. I was driving and Akua was sitting in the back with Jo. An old Zambian man stood by the side of the road, seeking a lift. I stopped and he got in beside me. Jo discovered that they had sufficient Swahili in common to conduct a simple conversation. The hitchhiker was puzzled: a black man and woman sitting in the back seat, being driven by a white man. Jo explained gravely that I was his chauffeur. The old man just shook his head in disbelief. We had a good laugh when we dropped him at his destination.
In 1961 I moved from Nigeria to Ghana. I was working in Cape Coast and only rarely visited Accra. On one of these visits I met Tennyson Makiwane who was the ANC representative. He was having a hard time as the PAC, represented by Potlako Leballo, had the ear of CPP, who regarded them as more militant. I had met Tennyson previously in London. I was staying at the Yusuf Meherali Afro-Asian Socialist Students’ Hostel. Tennyson’s sister Daisy had a room there and Tennyson used to visit her from time to time, sometimes in the company of Mazisi Kunene, who was then the ANC’s official representative in London
I returned to Ghana in 1965 after two years spent working in India. I am not sure whether Jo or I was first to arrive in Accra. My guess is that it was Tennyson who put us in touch. What I do remember is our first (or, at least, an early) meeting at the Ambassador Hotel. That was a favourite meeting place in those days. Bob Cole often provided the music and the beer flowed. No doubt we sat and solved all South Africa’s problems. I was a bachelor in those days and often spent a Saturday night at one of Accra’s many lively open-air nightclubs, making a selection from the small ads in the Graphic. Sometimes I managed to persuade Jo to join me. One evening I particularly remember because the place we went to was Asiedu’s Night Club and all the chairs had ANC boldly stenciled on them.
In September 1966, Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated. I called on Jo to see whether he had more news than I had. We went to Ghana National Trading Corporation (GNTC) supermarket together. There was little enough on the shelves but we found a bottle of whisky to help us celebrate the death of the ideological architect of Apartheid.
In December 1975, Jo and seven others were expelled from the ANC. I have no knowledge of the circumstances, other than what I have read. Apart from Jo and Tennyson, I had met only one other member of the group, Alfred KgoKong (Themba Mqota), when he addressed a private meeting in Accra in the early seventies.
Jo returned to Accra. He registered at the Ghana Law School as a mature student and eventually qualified as a lawyer.
We saw each other less often in those years. Jo’s problems with the ANC might have been an unspoken wedge between us. As far as I know, his political plans, whatever they were, made little or no progress. He had spent all his adult life in the ANC. In the days before the Treason Trial, he and Walter Sisulu had been business partners. Now he was triply exiled, from country, from Congress and from old comrades. He continued to tap away at his enormous typewriter; but my guess is that these were sad and lonely years.
Jo and Violet moved to Botswana in 1985, joining Peter, their first son, who was working there as a doctor.
The life of a refugee is not easy. It is something of a miracle that Jo and Violet succeeded in giving all their six children a decent start in life.
Apartheid was a cruel and callous system. It ruined countless lives. Perhaps the greatest of its sins was the deliberate destruction of family life through the medium of the pass laws and the constant humiliation of African fathers in the sight of their sons. This in turn placed intolerable burdens upon mothers and daughters. Some of the psychic wounds are passed from generation to generation. Most of the principal perpetrators have gone scot free, without as much as acknowledging their guilt. And many of those whose lives were damaged by exigencies of the struggle, remain unrewarded. There are many stories that still need to be told, and much healing.
Jo and Violet held their family together and eventually brought them back home. Jo, Violet, Boshigo (Rosina), Peter (Shoma), Solly, Marcus, Patrick (Matlotleng) and Nkope (Meggie): old friends, I salute you all.
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