Major General Lekoa Solly Mollo is the South African High Commissioner in Uganda.
A professor of political science, Mollo was part of African National Congress army that trained in Uganda on course to attaining the South African independence. He talked to Capitial FM’s Simon Kasyate on Desert Island Discs about his life story.
Your Excellency, good evening!
Good evening Simon and good evening to the listeners.
You are a couple of months old on the job, one can’t say you know Uganda from a diplomatic angle, but what do you find in Uganda a couple of months into your office?
I understand why Uganda is referred to as the Pearl of Africa; because of its beauty. It is a green country. I don’t know how to describe the beauty of this country. And I have also learnt to appreciate the hospitality and the humanness of the people of Uganda…
Uganda is a beautiful country, with immense potential which I don’t think has been harnessed to the full. The opportunities are there. I guess this country, given its climate, can also be the food basket of the region, and many parts of the world.
You are the high commissioner from South Africa to Uganda, how do you rate the relationship between our countries at the moment?
The relationships of the two countries were not born out of the boardroom by decisions and resolutions and memorandums of understanding, agreements, etc. The relationships were defined by struggles of our people for a better life. When you look at South Africans against the mighty apartheid regime, when many countries could not welcome us, this country welcomed us.
Our relationship at a political level has been defined in the trenches of battle, by sweat and blood. And therefore, they are more than cordial relations; it’s like family relations. However, you see a level of an imbalance, because of certain levels of development in industries. However, that is why we are here; to ensure that at an economic level, opportunities are availed, to both Ugandans in South Africa and South Africans in Uganda… to facilitate opportunities for Ugandan business people in South Africa.
You know there are different levels in this relationship, some of them, for example at a knowledge creation level, you have a business school of Makerere having a firm relationship with a business school in Johannesburg… we have also Utamu which also has relationships with the University of Johannesburg and the University of Limpopo where there is exchange of lecturers, students, research programmes… So, culturally, at tourism, there is an immense potential.
Your Excellency, at Desert Island Discs, we find out who you are. Interesting name, Major General Solly Mollo; what kind of name is this?
The first part, major general, is a military rank. My real African name is Lekoa. In South Africa, one of our biggest rivers is called the Vaal River, but its original name is Lekoa. It is our biggest river that gives water to the whole of Gauteng, especially Johannesburg.
Also the municipality in the area is called Lekoa… But Legwa also means listen… Mollo happens to be my second name, which means fire, moto in Kiswahili. But for Solly, it is a short [form]for Solomon. So, I am Legwa Solomon Mollo.
Plays Emilina by Elly Wamala, dedicated to South African women for their courage in fighting apartheid.
Your Excellency, one would have expected you to run for one of these popular South African songs; but you went for Elly Wamala, that tells us that you are not just two months old in Uganda.
I came to Uganda in 1988… I was a freedom fighter. We were a leader group that had to come to Uganda and establish a military base to continue training so that they can fight for freedom in South Africa.
And this was at the invitation of the government?
Yes. Hence, as I have said, when you don’t have anybody to accommodate us, we found courage in Uganda. So, we came in 1988. And in the [United Nations Security Council] resolution 435 for the Namibian independence, one of the decisions was that the Cuban troops that were fighting in Angola had to withdraw.
The liberation army of ANC [African National Congress] also had to get out of Angola. So, when we withdrew, I was among the first group that came to Uganda; the other group went to Tanzania. We went to, I think, Luweero province in the north. I remember that time there was a challenge with Kony. So, we went to those bushes.
Is that the place now referred to as Kaweweta?
Yes. So, those are the years I came here and I tell people I might not have known Kampala very well. I have seen Kampala when we came to buy some goodies. But I know the bushes of Uganda better…
When we left Angola for Uganda, we had this impression that at least for the first time we are going into a military barracks. And I remember…we went to the airport in Angola and we boarded a Russian aircraft that flew us into Entebbe. I think we arrived early hours of the morning, around 2am. The first thing we were greeted with, if you remember…Entebbe were these buildings with shells and bullet holes and as we landed there, people just emerged from the bushes, holding AK47s.
Then we were packed in a truck, were suffocated almost, and then we drove, we realized the azimuth was pointing us to the North. And… we thought we were going to Sudan. Then we learned that in this place, there was no barracks, it was a bush. We had no food, we were tired. We just pushed the grass and slept. At some stage, I think, the UPDF gave us a bag of beans.
I must say the peasants in the neighborhood who had gardens suffered from us because we had to go and help ourselves with anything we could get; and of course nature provides a lot of food. But they can now be grateful. We cut that bush; built a clinic which was accessible to them, built a school and [provided] access to water. We became part of the community.
Are you saying what we see as Oliver Tambo Leadership School in Kaweweta, you guys built it?
Yes, from scratch. You know the film of Eddie Murphy called Trading Places. From that bush, we transformed it. We got an old engine of a truck, we started generating electricity… I saw Eddie Murphy’s Trading Places in that place. We started building bunkers; we built our town underground. You know it was a military base, as guerrillas.
Plays Umqombothi by Yvonne Chaka Chaka
Your Excellency, let’s go back to your early life; where were you born in South Africa, how was your childhood like and how you ended up with ‘illegal’ rebel ranks.
… I don’t think it was illegal at all. It took brave nations to make those decisions. But don’t forget that at that time, Apartheid was declared a crime against humanity by the UN.
So, those countries that had relations with the apartheid government were hiding those relations because that was what was illegal… You know that at that time, because we got weapons from the Russians, then we were bad guys, terrorists; but we were fighting for our own freedom! Because countries from the West, many of them went into business with the apartheid, supported apartheid, and never wanted to support the liberation movement.
Although, many people in those countries, US or UK, they formed anti-apartheid movement groups and supported the cause of a free South Africa, a free Nelson Mandela.
But let’s go back to the question. I was born in Alexander, Johannesburg. Alexander is a township outside Johannesburg. A township is a peri-urban area which is basically a labour reservoir.
Don’t forget that the government at that time came with segregation laws. But the essence of a township is where black people were taken from rural areas, placed in those labour reservoirs, having permits to go to town during the day and work and if you are in town later than 9 o’clock, you were arrested unless you had a special permit to be in town…
In all this, were you subjected to an education?
I think what becomes relevant is my grandfather, the role he played in all this. He was from Limpopo and he was a soldier during the Second World War. When the war ended in 1945, he did not come back. He was captured… he was a prisoner of war. They thought he was dead and they started bequeathing his estate. So, when he came back, he had nothing.
He was so angry that ‘I am alive and I have nothing’. So, he decided to move to Johannesburg. He took his family, my mother who started school in Johannesburg and I was born in Johannesburg. During that time, because of the anti-apartheid movement, the activities of the ANC, when I was young enough to start school, my grandfather and grandmother felt like you know what, it might not be conducive for a child to go to school yet.
So, they moved my grandmother, who actually is the mother that took care of me, to outside Pretoria in a place called Malabiani. I started school there. I later went to Mpumalanga.
Did you have siblings?
I was the only child. And later in life I have brothers. They were twins, one passed on. I have got one left and I have a sister from my father’s side. But I had to fend for myself everything. It was tough days; we used to fight a lot. I had no brother, nobody but myself.
Was there much interaction with your father, a father figure around you?
Not really. I had a very tough grandmother who actually needed a tone of men to shift around; she was a very strong personality, a matriarch. My father was in Johannesburg while my mother at that time started training as a nurse and went to far hospitals. But basically, my very strict grandmother took care of my everyday life …
I get the sense that this whole apartheid existence, for the most part affected coexistence of family. ..
The whole system of apartheid destroyed families. It was based on migrant labour. People would be taken from rural areas, as long as you are fit, you can work, you are taken away from your family to go to town.
They introduced tax systems that forced you to leave your dependence on agriculture in the rural area… land was taken… So, you had to find a way to go to the mines to work. The social fabric, that basic unit, was broken and affected South Africans across the board.
But as a young kid, I loved reading. Those times we had magazines like Druma. I would read those stories. And whenever I read those pictures of Nelson Mandela and my grandmother was there, they would beat me up. It was like a crime. As a child, I was curious. I didn’t understand why each time I read something and talked about it, I would be beaten. So, that exposed me to politics as a child.
You talked about the curiosity that probably led you into the struggle. You may need to break it down for us how it progressed.
It is a seed that is planted at that early age. So, as I grew up, went through school, a lot of things were happening in the world. You remember the Frelimo rallies in Mozambique; people were being arrested by the apartheid regime of that time.
My mother, she was a nurse at the hospital called Philadelphia, and I went to a secondary school in, currently, Mpumalanga. There were guys that were in the area from the universities who would come and share with us… but you can’t talk about it because you will be arrested… you have no choice if you are a South African at that time, it tickles your conscience. You say, I go to church, this is how we pray. But the same time, I am being discriminated against, what is happening?
Did you pray with those discriminating against you?
Noooooooo. It was not allowed, even in shops, you would buy from a window because you are black. Black people were not even allowed to walk on the pavement. They were supposed to walk among cars and the cars could bump into you, because pavements were a preserve of white people!
So, when you see Mandela say let’s forgive and build this nation and you hear people say but where we come from, how do we forgive? That is the reality of the thing, it is an evil system, obviously based on the philosophy of Nazism where people are killed, some of them burned in furnaces alive. It is the same theory that we are superior as the other people are nothing… I must mention that I am a 1976 generation.
What is a 1976 generation?
Students at that time rebelled against the system… I was in high school. Actually, I was expelled months before June 16, 1976. They wanted to administer corporal punishment on me and… I told them, this is a barbaric system which cannot be allowed in education.
That was in 1976, nobody had ever challenged corporal punishment … a month later, the whole country was in flames because students rebelled against the system. We had reached a tipping point. I remember one time I was planning to go and just put fire on a filling station and hopefully those things underneath would explode. I wanted to cause chaos, because of the system…
Then I was introduced to an old man, who was on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. He was banished, I trained underground with the liberation movement… we could secretly meet… I registered in a certain rural school, private.
We would meet at 10 o’clock; he would go and buy bread at the shop and I would go at the same rural shop as if I am going to buy something and that is how we would exchange the underground communication…Then I went to Natal, where I went to university, we started to rebel against the system.
All this you were doing, you maintained your education?
Yes, yes. We were then arrested and placed in solitary confinement.
At what time were you busted?
When I went to university, in a number of occasions, the place would be surrounded. But they wouldn’t know who is who. They would know these are the wrong elements… but I remember we were arrested on Natal; we went on a hunger strike. The university students actually rebelled and the university was forced to release us and later we found out that my name was among those that were banished from attending university.
But I went to another university in the north using other connections; we were really underground, many of these people you would know them. Some of them are ministers.
In those underground, we created cells, we had AK47s but as you know…against the regime, we involved in some shooting. They killed some of us… we had no choice but to leave the country. I then went to Botswana, to Lusaka. I went to Cuba, trained there and went back to Angola. I trained people, preparing them in the underground. It was a life of a revolutionary, it was an interesting life, not an easy type of life but I don’t regret it and I would still do what I did.
At what point do you meet Nelson Mandela?
The story I am relating is not the story of Solomon the revolutionary; it is actually a personification of the lives of many South Africans who went through this. It was taboo to talk about Nelson Mandela. But I became exposed to that name Nelson Mandela at those earlier ages where then I would be reprimanded for talking about the man.
Therefore, the name stuck in my mind. But as we grow along with the Frelimo rallies, the struggles then we are exposed to this man in jail. So, he personifies resilience in the South African struggles… I got to read the literature of all those… then we started recruiting … .
Where were you on that day Mandela walked out of jail?
I was in South Africa. I returned to South Africa in 1990.
You are now a professor, what academic credentials have you gathered over the years?
After the negotiations, I was a colonel in the military. Then I went to the organization and said, but guys I was at school… I want to go back to school. I had a law degree… So, I went to my bosses and they said we know you were in school, we will support you.
And then I was sent to California to do a master’s degree in civil-military relations. But while my colleagues registered for one master’s degree, I registered for two. I had another in national security, but with focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Basically, it is a master’s degree in military science and another in political science.
Did you even have a girlfriend… ?
Under those moments of fighting, where do you hide yourself without a woman? Women are brave; they are the ones that would harbor us. Police looking for me all over, there was this young woman, Mami, who stayed with me, mothered my first kid.
While I was in exile, she was there. She went to the university at the medical school to become a physiotherapist; I come back, she was still there; I go with her, we get the second kid, we marry and she is the mother of my two kids. But unfortunately she was not to be, we parted ways. That is life but this particular woman has been special, we parted ways not long ago.
So, you have two children?
I have three, two boys and a little girl. The little girl has a separate mother.
Away from the struggle and all that, what could one say gives you a good laugh.
A good joke. I love humour. When I relax, I need company where we can talk, for lack of a better word, good nonsense. Because sometimes people treat you as high commissioner, general… it is like you cease to be a human being.
You must love local Ugandan dish or two.
I like goat meat a lot. I also eat matooke, peanut (groundnut) sauce and sukuma wiki.
How would you wash down that goat’s meat?
A glass of red wine would do but I rarely drink. I love water. I used to enjoy my whisky which I have taken some operational pause.
Is this your first posting as a diplomatic head of mission?
I have a feeling you won’t leave Uganda?
Who knows? We are here to serve our country. I was the commander of the north academy. I was retired as a major general. At some stage I headed the strategy department of the defense forces of South Africa and I became a permanent secretary, a director general. So, today I am serving in a diplomatic position. You don’t know what the future holds.
Your Excellence, we have a quintessential question: if you were marooned to Kaweweta and asked to take one thing or one person, what or who would that be?
Let me put my response differently to the question. Because I believe peace is like our weather. The places [like Kaweweta] should not be places of history. These are places where we need to expose our current youth because if you don’t know where you come from, you will never know where you are going.
If anything is to happen, it is to ensure that the story of the Kawewetas of this world should not die in Kaweweta but we should take our youth down there… Our comrades that are lying down there, who have paid the maximum price, somebody must pick up that spear and continue with the fight because humanity is not yet equal.
The world is not yet a better place; people are still divided. Unfortunately, we have seen a generation that has emerged as very greedy, full of self-interest… not the values that we learn from the great Mandela.
Plays a Mafikizolo song
TRANSCRIPT: JOSEPH KIMBOWA