A humble servant of the people

Eric Naki

Eric Naki

The ANC-led tripartite alliance and the military fraternity are still shocked by the tragic death of SANDF secretary for defence and the highly respected former Umkhonto weSizwe cadre January Masilela.

Masilela, 53, a former MEC for local government and later for agriculture in Mpumalanga, died on the scene when his vehicle rolled at Ekandustria off-ramp on the N4 highway near Bronkhorstspruit on Sunday.

He was serving his second term as secretary for defence, after taking over from Pierre Steyn in 1999. His task in the secretariat, the SANDF's civilian command structure, entailed running an effective and cost-efficient organisation and acting as the principal policy adviser to the defence minister.

Born in Mhluzi township outside Middleburg, Mpumalanga, Masilela left the country for exile in 1975. While in exile he trained in Angola, the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, and Cuba. He later became commissar at the MK headquarters in Angola and chairman of its regional political military council in Botswana in 1987.

Both Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota and SANDF chief General Godfrey Ngwenya have expressed their condolences to Masilela's family.

The Presidency director-general, Reverend Frank Chikane, said Masilela left a legacy of hard work and sound ethics.

Affectionately known as "Comrade Che", Masilela served in the SACP provincial structures in Mpumalanga as secretary, deputy secretary and deputy chairman and at the same time as the ANC's provincial secretary.

"Comrade Che dedicated his life to fighting injustice and bettering the lives of our people. He was indeed a humble servant of the people. The SACP dips its red banner to this hero of our struggle," the party said this week.

The party described Masilela as "an educator" and a "soldier of liberation par excellence".

"The ideals that he lived for continue to inspire us today as we deepen the struggle for socialism. Our condolences to his family, friends and comrades," said the SACP.

ANC Youth League spokesman Floyd Shivambu said Masilela represented excellence in the combination of theory and practice, and showed relentless determination to not only fight for freedom and total liberation, but to protect it.

"We had expected a lot from him as a person who served our people with loyalty and discipline, but we will continue with his legacy," said Shivambu.

In 2001, the army's corporate journal, Salvo, described Masilela as "arguably the best qualified available person ever to head the secretariat of the SANDF".

"The SANDF could not have appointed a better person to take over South Africa's military affairs and guide the organisation on a road to transformation," it said.

Masilela was deployed as MK's political commissar in Botswana in 1987. His tasks included strategy planning, sending military missions into South Africa and monitoring deployed cadres.

Masilela spoke proudly about the success of SANDF integration between former apartheid and homeland forces and non-statutory forces of MK and the Azanian People's Liberation Army, the PAC's ex-military wing.

Defence department spokesman Sam Mkhwanazi said details about Masilela's funeral would be announced later.