Letlapa Mphahlele has had much to ponder since his days in Apla

Through our presence at the Cape Town supreme court in November 1994, and through the advancing technology of the media, we were there even when they left their homes in the Transkei.

This trip, which was not an ordinary one by any stretch of the imagination, would, on completion, send a grieving nation into an emotional tailspin and move a grieving mom to write this poem for her dead daughter:

Gracious Parent, Great Spirit

You gave your only Son

.to bring healing for every soul on earth.

Depending on which side of the political fence one stood, we joined them in singing freedom songs and cheering their heroism - or our blood curdled in shock and fear for the country as they headed for Cape Town.

Thank you for your only daughter

May healing come through her death

.to each person she touched

especially those who murdered her.

We were there when they glued nails to the grenades to increase the lethal effect of their explosions. With murder in their hearts, they entered the Heidelberg Tavern on the evening of December 30 1993.

Father forgive them (for) they do not know what they do

We gave her bed and board and some love

You gave her forgiveness and love that was:

Honest, pure, selfless, colour and gender-free.

Then the symphony of violence began.

We could smell the gunpowder and roasted human flesh. We could see the carnage. Skulls cracked like ripe watermelons. Brains splattered on the walls like watercolours from a mad painter. We heard cries, loud and muted. We heard groans. Silence.

Horror. Sabre-rattling. Obfuscation followed from a numb nation.

When it was over, the conductors of this orchestra of death, Humphrey Luyanda Gqomfa, Vuyisile Brian Madasi and Zola Prince Mabala fled into the night and obscurity.

The nation was in shock. The attack had been one of the single deadliest acts of terror ever in this country.

The shock was compounded by the fact that it was carried out when all the political formations concerned, the government, ANC and PAC, had agreed to a cease-fire.

It was blood chilling because it happened on the eve of negotiations that would usher democracy into the blighted, bleeding, wounded land.

From out of the shadows, a figure appeared. Letlapa Mphahlele's name entered the South African lexicon of terror.

He owned up to the massacre, accepted responsibility for having, as the high command of the Azanian People's Liberation Army (Apla), ordered the attack.

He broke the cessation of hostilities because the South African army had previously killed children in Umtata.

Violence begets violence.

He had earlier ordered a similar attack. This one even more gory in its intent and more callous in its execution.

He would later meet Ginn Fourie, mother of Lindy-Ann, one of the three people murdered while sipping their sundowners in the comfort of the tavern.

They forgave each other and he would later pen his own poem, simply titled Lyndi Fourie, in memory of Lindy-Ann, the young woman whose death he had plotted:

Forgive our deafness

Our ears are modulated

To hear voices of the dead

Counselling us from your tomb

We leap at your still command.

I recently met Letlapa in his 10th floor apartment in the seedier part of Johannesburg central.

I did not have to circle around him to check if he had horns on his head. I was satisfied he did not.

We met some four summers ago when I interviewed him for a profile published days after his first book, an autobiography, Child Of This Soil, was hot off the press.

Hands that unleashed thunder on you

Nine summers ago

This summer tremble before your throne.

Letlapa is a Sotho word for stone.

So what happened to the heart of stone to tremble before "thy victim's throne"?

In one of his earlier interviews, he had explained this change of heart:

"I believed terror had to be answered with terror."

As an atheist, he nevertheless believes "absolutely" in reconciliation, meeting soul to soul, person to person and as human beings, to face each other and mend relationships.

Just like he did with Ginn, mother of Lyndi.

The handshake is firm. The hand that is dripping blood reduces mine into the hand of a doll.

The cracking, mighty laugh is hearty and without restraint. Long time no see, we both agree. He tells me he still keeps a copy of my profile on him. I'm glad.

He's no longer an Apla cadre, living precariously, as his publishers say, moving from crevice to crevice across Africa in his quest to wrench his land from the lethal jaws of apartheid.

No, sir. No, ma'am.

He's now the president of a movement for which he went into exile.

Unlike living in the shadows for most of his life, he now lives among his own people. Hundreds of thousands of them.

Throngs of them mill about in the streets outside his apartment from as early as when Joburg kicks into life until late at night when workers are replaced by rubbish collectors, street sweepers, revellers, pimps and hookers reclaim the city.

From opposite his place, the Noord taxi rank, the cacophony of noise, crime, grime and sporadic taxi wars, laughter and wails, are magnified inside the building.

Once a magnificent hotel that housed luminaries such as the former heavyweight champion of the world, John Tate, the place is now almost a derelict relic.

Letlapa has been staying in these digs for almost five years now. And despite calls by his party members to move out, he won't hear anything of the sort.

PAC presidents, he said, have a house purchased for them by the party, but he won't move in.

"I'm a bachelor and that house is too big."

Besides, he says, there is "someone" presently living in that house.

"Moving in will mean displacing someone. That would run contrary to my principles."

He refuses to take his rightful place as leader of the opposition in parliament because to him parliament is more of a talk shop than anything else. Neither does he care about generous salaries and perks dished out to MPs.

He's actually appalled by the "pigs with their snouts in the trough". A member of the hoi polloi at heart, he's contemptuous of the people he was with in the "bush" less than 14 years ago. The people who are now among the richest on the planet.

How did they do it?

He reckons that's the politics of greed and contempt for the masses of this country. An elitist system fueled, abetted and aided by the ruling party.

He also accepts that he would be stepping in as leader of the party at its worse time in history. When infighting, skullduggery and incompetence have caused the PAC to haemorrhage on the altar of expediency.

"I accept that politics is a numbers game," he says, "I want to help rebuild the PAC, to the point where we can attempt to wrestle power from the ANC by 2011."

We choose the leaders we deserve.

Forgive our idiocy

Our souls are tuned

To head prophecy

By the graveside of the prophet

Whose blood we spilt.

n To see the video of this interview please log on to www.sowetan.co.za