Somewhere out there in Bulgaria, if they are still alive, are two interpreters who meant much to a young South African exile called Thabang Makwetla – and now that he is in this country, three decades from those days, he would love to meet them again.
It is a personal connection that epitomises what many in South Africa’s anti-apartheid liberation movement still hold dear – the strong meaning of the solidarity that they experienced from then-socialist bloc countries in the struggle against the Pretoria regime of yore.
It is trite to point out that the world has changed vastly since the days when Makwetla, then 24, arrived in the summer of 1981 as part of a group of 10 members of the African National Congress’s (ANC) military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) for political training at the then-Sofia Academy of Social Sciences, the political school of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
Makwetla, now South Africa’s deputy minister of defence whose visit to this country is part of celebrations of 20 years of bilateral diplomatic relations (new-era relations founded in the post-Cold War, post-apartheid world), was commissar of the group and had previously had military training at ANC camps in Angola.
Being deployed for political training in Bulgaria or the then-Soviet Union was a matter of prestige to which members of the liberation movement aspired. It was a sign of confidence and, Makwetla recalls, completion of the training and the diploma that it brought him advancement. His training here, he says, was a privilege.
At the academy in Sofia, there were students from many fraternal movements from around the world – from Grenada, Uruguay, Ethiopia, Cuba, Greece, Namibia (the latter then called South West Africa during South Africa’s illegal tenure of the former German colony).
The political training, Makwetla says, involved an intensive series of lectures, five days a week. "Our programme was very tight".
Life in Sofia was a sea change from the rigorous conditions of MK camps in Angola.
Dormitory life was very comfortable. The Bulgarian capital city’s regular public transport, free and convenient, impressed him.
Without mastery of the language, he concedes, going around – to the cinema of the time, for instance – was no easy thing, but he also recalls with relish the trips to visit other students in Plovdiv and in the Bulgaria’s Black Sea cities of Varna and Bourgas.
He smiles that the young comrades spent a certain degree of their leisure time in the beer gardens – the camps in Angola were dry. Like any foreigner, he also was introduced to rakiya, Bulgaria’s signature distilled spirit.
Another bonus was that given that two members of the South African exile group were – Makwetla says modestly – "not bad" football players, he spent time on the pitch, competing in the students’ league.
For someone who has never been in exile, the emotional implications are impossible to gauge. This makes the reception given by the Bulgaria of the time all that much more meaningful. The year in Bulgaria was, for Makwetla, one of 14 in which he had absolutely no contact with his family.
News from home came via the ANC office in London which sent exiles clippings from South African newspapers – any and all political stories were faithfully forwarded (this journalist, who shares a passport with Makwetla, silently wonders if those 30 years ago a certain byline passed under the exile’s eyes; reflects again for an instant how different the experiences of any two South Africans of similar generations can be).
In looking forward to this May 2012 return to Bulgaria, Makwetla has been keen to link up with those he knew, to hear from them their perspectives on this much-changed country.
It is put to him that there are many Bulgarians who would have no nostalgia for the Bulgaria of the 1980s, but in contrast would recall the system then largely with loathing (which is not to forget that there are those Bulgarians who precisely do have nostalgia for those times).
Makwetla reflects on the context of the question.
"I have seen things that I believe were incontestable solutions, but there were subsequent developments that proved me wrong." Life is much more complex that people would like to see it as being.
The Bulgaria then, he says, during the time that, as he puts it, socialism as a project was attempted here, was a country with low levels of crime and criminality. Today’s burglaries would have been unthinkable then. The free public transport was an example of the social services provided to all.
Now, Bulgaria has liberties – multi-party democracy, a free media – material and also spiritual freedoms, he says. Choices of clothes, choices of cars; an open economy, as Makwetla puts it, adding that there is also a question of how much people can afford in this different life.
This is why he is so keen to hear the perspectives of people about how things have changed.
Socialism, he says, has not gone away and its vision retains a place in world politics today.
"We have the South African Communist Party that believes that the problems can be resolved through that vision." (The SACP is part of a sometimes fractious tripartite alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the ANC, which has close to 66 per cent of the seats in parliament, and which since 2004 has described itself as a social democratic party; the ANC is a long-standing member of Socialist International.)
Apart from his role at the opening of South Africa’s Week of Culture, May 7 to 15, and attending the country’s reception in honour of its national day and the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations, Makwetla wants to track down those interpreters.
He hopes for help from contemporaries in the Bulgarian Students’ Association in South Africa, one of the country’s most active associations of former exiles – those still around, not forfeit to age or death in the 1980s in skirmishes with South Africa’s then-security forces.
Makwetla sees an opportunity in the role that the students’ association could play in further developing bilateral relations. Some of the veterans retain a good command of Bulgarian as well as some people-to-people contacts with Bulgaria. It is a resource, he believes, only awaiting the initiative to use it to the benefit of both countries.
Bulgaria is hardly in the forefront of South African awareness. There are a number of reasons for this, not only the Cold War era but also the post-Cold War era in which South Africa – preoccupied with its own transition to democracy – hardly had its interest sparked by what was happening in the former Eastern bloc countries as they made their own transitions.
Asked what single thing stood out as South Africans and Bulgarians having in common, Makwetla answers, "their love for social progress".
"It is this that made it possible, during the struggle against apartheid, for Bulgarians to want to offer a helping hand because social development is what they have been legendary for being associated with."
He names Georgi Dimitrov (head of the Comintern from 1934 to 1943 and the first communist leader of Bulgaria, from 1946 to 1949) as a statesman authoritative in his vision for the struggle against fascism.
Dimitrov, Makwetla says, provided the definitive theory of building a united front to defeat Hitlerism and fascism.
The value which the world accords to South Africa is because of the prolonged period in which its people fought against human injustice. In the context of global politics, apartheid in South Africa endured as a system that ensured inequality on the basis of race – while its people dedicated themselves to social progress and to justice.
"That is what we have in common with the Bulgarian people," Makwetla says.