From the Frontline to the Bottom Line

Today’s slide show: A Radical Readjusts

Dipak Patel chats on his cell phone over cappuccino
Dipak Patel chats on his cell phone over cappuccino

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—There was a time when Dipak Patel’s “will” was scribbled on a piece of paper sealed inside a tattered envelope. The list contained instructions for the distribution of his worldly possessions—a few hundred rand (about $150 at the time), his beloved motorcycle, and a handful of sentimental items—should he be killed. Before heading out on a clandestine mission, he handed the envelope to woman he calls “F,” a fellow fighter in the struggle against apartheid.

“That’s why my current position is so bizarre,” Dipak, now a successful bank executive, told me over a cappuccino in a trendy cafe in Johannesburg’s bohemian Melville neighborhood. “We were prepared for death. It became a ritual, giving this grubby envelope to F, but she wouldn’t ask where I was going, and I would do the same.”

Today, Dipak, formerly a Soviet-trained commander of the MK (the nickname for Umkhonto we Sizwe, “Spear of the Nation”), the African National Congress’ armed wing during the liberation struggle, would need a much larger envelope.

Ten years ago, South Africans peacefully voted the white regime out of office, and his life changed forever. Dipak is now armed with a constantly buzzing cell phone and an overstuffed day planner instead of an AK-47 and a mandate to overthrow the government.

“I’ve had to pack and unpack and then repack it all many times,” Dipak explained, alluding to emotional and historical baggage from his past life. “Someone once said to me, ‘You’ve lived two lifetimes already and probably have another one ahead of you.’ “

Dipak is a weathervane of sorts, gauging which way the political and socio-economic wind is blowing in South Africa. In his current role, he reflects the previously disadvantaged, now wealthy non-white class that has emerged over the past 10 years.

“He was a socialist, but now he’s a socialite,” a friend mused during one whiskey-drenched evening in Melville.

The 40-year-old bachelor works hard and plays harder. His duties at the office include escorting groups of predominantly white bank managers who work for him on Mediterranean cruises and other luxury getaways.

Yet despite political and financial gains made by blacks, coloureds (the apartheid-era term for people of mixed race), and South African Indians like Dipak, not everyone has fared so well, including countless numbers of his old comrades.

“Many [ex-combatants] have a profound sense of betrayal; they feel forgotten and dumped by their superiors and by society,” said Sasha Gear of Johannesburg’s Center for Violence and Reconciliation. “Those who can’t find work especially feel they have no identity at present and feel enormous impotence.”

Gear interviewed scores of former combatants, including MK fighters and white soldiers under the apartheid government, for her in-depth report Wishing Us Away: Challenges Facing Ex-Combatants in the “New” South Africa. Her findings reveal that enormous numbers have been left out of the transitional process.

Dipak realizes he has been lucky. He wants me to understand that he doesn’t represent the average citizen or the typical former liberation fighter in South Africa, where the income gap between rich and poor is second only to Brazil.

“Although there are a minority who seem to have made it through the transition easily, they often have feelings of aloneness, trauma, stress, and sometimes turn to substance abuse to cope. They have little understanding of what’s going on inside them,” added Gear.

Dipak, however, seems to have cruised through his own personal transformation with relative ease.

His fight against the apartheid regime began at a young age as a student activist, fueled by a serious bout of teenage rebelliousness. He was detained for the first time at the age of 15 in the coastal city of Durban, home to much of South Africa’s ethnic Indian community.

At 16, Dipak was already on his way to a bright career in the ANC’s struggle against apartheid. Working and studying for an engineering degree by day, he was a revolutionary by night. After four months of “boot camp” in Angola, his real life as an MK operative began.

Taken in by a Catholic parish, he spent five years in a coloured community near Durban, where he mobilized local residents to resist stringent apartheid policies. On the side, he held the occasional Molotov-cocktail-making workshop in neighboring townships.

“I got drunk at midnight mass and carried an enormous cross across the community during holy week,” Dipak, who was raised a Hindu, laughed.

Initially, Dipak’s MK duties involved logistical support and delivering messages across the border into neighboring countries where the members of the banned MK and ANC were located. Eventually,he was promoted to the post of regional commander and took a crash course in sophisticated bomb-making techniques in the Soviet Union.

As South Africa entered the 1980s, Dipak’s life became more intense as the MK’s attacks against the apartheid state escalated. The MK unleashed a wave of bombings on strategic military and economic targets, including a string of attacks on shopping malls and fast food joints, culminating in a national state of emergency in 1986.

“For a period of about seven years I got about three to four hours of sleep a night,” said Dipak, who was taking on more responsibility both at his job as a chemical engineer for South African Breweries and as a commander sneaking large amounts of weapons into the country. “I switched between my two identities with ease, but it was becoming more and more difficult living a double life.”

Much of that stepped up responsibility was due to Operation Vula (“The Way Out” in Zulu), the ANC and MK’s plan to overthrow the government.

Dipak was one of a handful of MK fighters heavily involved the top-secret operation. He was assigned to protect one of the armed group’s most senior leaders, Mac Maharaj who clandestinely crossed the border into South Africa from MK headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.

“We didn’t know when [the operation] would take place. I said 20 years, and Mac said, ‘In five. I want to be alive when it happens.’ “

Everything was turned on its head on Feb. 2, 1990, when President F.W. de Klerk un-banned the ANC and 53 other verboten organizations. That morning, Dipak was sprawled on the floor of his safe house finalizing plans to smuggle one and a half tons of weaponry into the country.

“I thought, ‘Fuck, what do I do now?’ But in the absence of orders, I carried out my duties, and a very confusing period began,” Dipak said.

Later that same year, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, while the MK stuck to their posts.

“It was weird, because we had the strongest capacity to cause mayhem at that time, but we were saving it for the day when absolute mayhem would be ordered. We had visions of cities being taken, tanks commandeered, and the whole country coming to a standstill.”

Just as change engulfed South Africa, Dipak was arrested along with three of his comrades. Two died in custody. His computers, containing detailed information about Operation Vula, were seized.

Initially, Dipak spent several months in the company of interrogating officers who had a penchant for violent beatings and psychological torture. In time, he was charged with terrorism, but he was released after spending a little over a year in jail through a general amnesty, as Mandela and other top ANC officials continued to negotiate a peaceful democratic transition with President de Klerk.

After Mandela was elected president in 1994, Dipak was integrated into the new armed forces as a brigadier, and in less than a month he retired, pocketed his 16,000 rand (about $10,000 at the time) pension for services rendered, and joined the Ministry of Transport.

“It was symbolic, because it marked a turning point in my mind [when I realized] I had been militarily involved due to historical circumstances rather than by choice.”

Dipak cleaned up a corrupt and violent taxi industry, and Mac, his MK mentor and then his boss as Minister of Transport, promoted him to director general of the ministry in 1997.

“It was tough, at 33 being propelled into a really senior position. I suddenly realized that very little of what I’d done in my life was my own choice, except making the decision to join the ANC. It was time for myself, and I couldn’t do it in South Africa.”

So, in 1999 Dipak left. He sought refuge in London, working as an investment banker and earning a masters degree in economics and development. In between his work and studies, Dipak, at the age of 35, went backpacking in Latin America. His travel buddies were twentysomething college students he met in youth hostels. They parted ways when a friend in London arranged for him to be delivered blindfolded into a southern Mexico jungle, where he shared his revolutionary expertise with Zapatista rebels.

Back in South Africa since early 2002, Dipak has shaken the past—at least ostensibly. His life had become considerably more domestic, and he’s enjoying a month off from the bank so he can potter around his yard with a landscape artist.

“This is the first time in my life I have personal freedom and material well-being,” Dipak said as he gulped down his second cappuccino, late to meet a friend. “I just want to be a normal a person in as normal a society as possible.”