By Cde Nkutsoeu ‘Skaap’Motsau

Anyone who has conversed with Nick Bell (Twana’s Chimurenga name in exile) would go away with the impression that he was a product of some prestigious university of law. Yet Nick went as far as Standard Nine with formal education. He was a precious product of the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA). What is the BCMA? To put it simple, the BCMA was Azapo in exile. Nick was a soldier, a member of highly trained commando fighters of the BCMA. What is a commando fighter you might well ask? Well, that is the highest military training the BCMA could give. And in that, he acquitted himself with distinction.

The BCMA received all sorts of personalities in its ranks. On day one of joining the BCMA you would be shocked. The BCMA didn’t take into account anyone’s learning. Everyone had to go through its apprenticeship programme. That is to say, even doctors had to go through the first-aid programme of the BCMA. You can just imagine what this meant to a qualified doctor. The BCMA believed that such a doctor had to apply his skills and knowledge according to the practical conditions prevalent at the time in the field. What is the field? The battleground.

Anyone who came with nothing had to learn everything. But no one came with nothing. Everyone came with some baggage. Having lost loved ones, some came with the baggage of revenge, and others came with adventurous ideas. It was the duty of the BCMA to mould all these people into a disciplined fighting force because the BCMA believed that discipline was the first line of defence in the struggle for independence, freedom and democracy. As it were, armchair politicians do not understand all this.

I will not waste your time by telling you all about the BCMA, of which Nick Bell, was a member. Let me tell you about a few things about him so you can know him better. He was born on the 27 July 1958 in Walmer, Port Elizabeth. He grew up here, in Walmer. He was not interested in politics. What brought him into politics were the peoples’ popular struggles against the elimination of A9ZAPO. He became quite involved in that. He couldn’t find what was wrong with Azapo, and he was totally opposed to the burning of people in what was then popularly known as the necklace, that is, the burning of people after they were doused with petrol and then set alight with a car’s tyre hung around their necks.

He was involved in the military training of many people in exile. Many of those came back into the country to lie low and wait for the right moment to strike. Most of his activities took place in Botswana. He was in the leadership of the squads or battalions that were formed at the time. He was a keen learner and good marksman. He would never miss a target. In map reading he excelled. Map reading is about learning how to read and draw maps of places. To be honest, this is a very difficult subject for most people including the schooled ones. But with him, it was as simple as peeling a banana. I am talking about contour map reading and drawing. That is to say, you must be able to look at a place and draw it such that those who have not been there before must see it and recognise it the moment they come upon it. This was not difficult for him.

As a result he became one of our most valued trainers in the field. With a compass and a map in his hands we knew that no one could get lost. He could go anywhere unaided. For that reason he was in the logistics department of our army. Those are the people who knew where the food and weapons were cached. And they alone knew exactly where. Such a responsibility you could not entrust upon just anybody. But Nick was a man who carried such responsibilities on his shoulders. And, yes of course, you could not read it off his face. He was a well-trained man. He always had a cover story to fit the occasion.

Once he was arrested in Botswana for activities relating to South Africa. The waiting for the trial took such a long time that we decided we should break free from prison. Batswana were wasting our time. It was more than close on two or more years that we had waited to be tried. But the trial never seemed to be on the cards. So we decided we were going to go one Sunday afternoon. We had studied the situation well. Once the warder who took the people who were awaiting trial back to their cells from church we would pounce. That we did with precision. That warder’s epaulets, belt, whistle and cap were taken from him and he was led into the cell and locked up after he was politely informed to co-operate. He cooperated very well.

The mission to escape from prison was executed very well. But little did we know about the presence of another warder who was to spoil our game. He watched our every move from the prison kitchen and when we were about to open the door to the weapons room he dashed to the lookout tower with his all. Our chaps tried in vain to catch him before he locked himself in the tower. He pressed the alarm button and the siren went off. That sealed our failure. Nick brought all the prison’s keys to me. They were all put in his rolled-up T-shirt. I told him to throw them away, that the game was up.

We went back to our awaiting trial prisoners’ courtyard. In no time the main prison gates were opened and in poured all sorts of personnel. The maximum prison of Botswana is situated in the midst of the quarters of prison warders, the police and the army. The prisoners who worked in the kitchen wasted no time in pointing us out as the culprits. It is these personnel that surrounded the prison cells when the alarm went off. They beat the hell out of us. As we were being pointed out, we had to go past their guard of honour to the opposite end of the prison, that is, the cells of those who were condemned to death. These people were armed with whatever they could pick up before they entered the prison gates; hosepipes, steel bars, bricks, bottles and stones, and whatever you might think of that they could lay their hands on. Once through the prison gate, they surrounded the cells in a disciplined formation.

From the gate of our courtyard, on the one side of the prison, to the entrance of the condemned part of the prison, on the opposite side of the prison, we were treated to all types of assault imaginable. We were kicked, tripped, and molested by the guard of honour. None of us reached the other side untouched. My ear was cut and bled profusely. My whole body was covered in blood and I was in pain from the blows and bruises. I do not know how I got to that section of the prison. We shouted and screamed. That seemed only to increase the brutality of our tormentors and assailants. They tore our clothes and stripped us naked. Even the heavens took pity on us, for out of the blue it rained that night. 

As we entered the cells of the condemned, those of us who still had some clothes on had them savagely ripped off and thrown into the shower. Those who were in the front pushed their way to the back so they could be out of reach of the blows that continued to rain on us. Some warders took buckets of water and poured it into the cells that we were going to sleep in.

Much later, when our wounds had healed we were charged with strangling warders. We defended ourselves in court and we were finally discharged and acquitted of all the charges. That is when Nick bell took to law as a duck to water. He so liked law after that that later he opened a law clinic right there in prison. The prison authorities approved of that law clinic. He became an expert in bail applications. That expertise he used as a trade unionist. When he came back to the country from exile, he joined Bawusa and later Nalhrrwu where he excelled as a trade unionist. His interests in matters of security saw him form Nasgawu and Segewu to look after the interests of the security officers. His resolve and commitment to AZAPO and struggle never wavered. He served AZAPO with distinction at different leadership levels and positions in the Eastern Cape. Few will forget his contribution to the successful organisation of the 25th Anniversary of Steve Biko in Port Elizabeth. At the time of his death, he was Azapo’s Provincial Secretary of Labour in the Eastern Cape.

I am telling this story, there are many more to be told about him, in an effort to explain the saying “baptism by fire.” Monwabisi Twana is a fine example of political self-cultivation. He was a proud black man and fighter. He was not a beggar. He was steadfast and determined. He challenged hardships in order to overcome them. Hardships strengthened his resolve to fight till victory. Hardships didn’t scare him he withstood hardship with a smile. This man had a short but full life.