In 2016, Andrew Mlangeni, as chair of the ANC’s Integrity Committee, called then president Jacob Zuma to a meeting and said to him: “We are appealing to you, Comrade, to step down.”
“We did not want to publicly condemn him. We said let’s take a different approach.”
So, Mlangeni told me in a series of interviews in 2018, he began by praising Zuma “for the contribution he has made. I said, ‘You did very well… But now things have completely changed… You are now under the influence of the Guptas.’”
The “economy of the country has gone down badly… everything is disorganised. Please step down quietly.”
Andrew Mlangeni, the last remaining Rivonia trialist, who died this week aged 95, has never taken the easy road. As one of those convicted with Mandela in the Rivonia trial, he served 26 years in jail, most of it on Robben Island, under harsh conditions that drained the men both physically and emotionally.
He cast himself in an almost self-deprecating way as a “backroom boy”, which is also the title of his biography penned by Mandla Mathebula.
He told me this in several hours of interviews I did with him in 2018 for a podcast series on his life. When I had asked him why he was not arrested in the Treason Trial of 1956, which saw 156 leaders of the Congress movement detained and 91 eventually charged, he chuckled: “I’m a backroom boy. I operate from behind. I was a person who did not want to hold leading positions in the organisation. I helped those who wanted to become leaders get elected.”
But in truth, the decisions he took in his life put him at the centre of the struggle not only against apartheid but for a workable democracy.
For instance, three decades before he tried to persuade Zuma to go, in 1986, he and his fellow political prisoners rejected an offer Nelson Mandela had brokered that they should be released. Mandela had recently been discharged from hospital, where he’d been treated for tuberculosis, back to Pollsmoor prison.
“We were all excited and happy that he had recovered.”
Mandela told them he had been approached by then Justice minister, Kobie Coetzee, with an offer that the government release them but not himself, “the reason being that they fear that if we are released together, the country will go up in flames”.
Mlangeni replied: “‘Madiba, tell them we don’t accept the offer. All of us who were in the so-called Rivonia trial were sentenced to life imprisonment. If the government wants to release us they must release us all at the same time, otherwise we are not accepting the offer.’ Madiba was terribly disappointed.”
And, 25 years before that, Mlangeni had been the first person who’d been recruited for military training in the then newly formed armed wing of the ANC, Umkonto weSizwe, established at a time many ANC members thought foolhardy.
He never chose the easy road, not when he joined MK, nor refused an early release from prison, and not when he told a powerful president, supported by his own party, that it was time to go.
When I’d asked him in 2018 what he thought had “gone wrong” in the country in the past 10 years, he replied with one word: “Zuma”. And then explained: “He was captured by the Guptas … he disappointed us terribly.”
Zuma had told the slightly incredulous committee that it was only “certain Western powers” that wanted him gone. But Mlangeni did not leave the matter there. A few months later, he called him and the other “Top Six” of the ANC before the committee.
“It was on a Monday,” recalled Mlangeni. “Again we are saying he must step down but we wanted to say this to the entire leadership of the ANC.”
But only Zuma and then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa arrived. They said that as they had not been given an agenda, nor a report on Zuma’s supposed wrongdoing, the other officials would not attend the meeting. “That was the mistake we made.”
But in another way, it was just one of those hard decisions Mlangeni had taken throughout his political life. The respect he enjoyed came not from trying to be popular, but from trying to do the right thing when the times demanded it.
Mlangeni was born on a farm just north of Bethlehem in the Free State on 6 June 1925. His parents were labour tenants, which meant that in return for some land, they had to work for the farmer. It also meant that when his father, Matia, died when Andrew was six, the family had to leave the farm.
His mother, Aletta, had borne 10 children, including two sets of twins, of which Mlangeni and his twin sister Emma were one. According to custom at the time, his father’s brother took on Aletta as a second wife and she had another set of twins.
In 1935, the family moved to what he called the location, outside Bethlehem. There he lived with an older brother who worked for the railways, until he was about 12, when he moved to Kroonstad where another brother had a house. It was here he started school.
There had been no schools for black children near the Bethlehem farm, so his father, Matia, had used his “spare time to teach his sons to read and write so they could read the Bible and letters from friends and family”, writes Mathebula.
In 1940, when he was about 15, he moved to Pimville in Soweto to live with an older brother. He enrolled at St Peters Secondary School (where Oliver Tambo was a teacher) and soon became involved in local politics.
There is a widespread but mistaken belief that Mlangeni was born in Prospect township, east of Johannesburg. This was partly his own doing. In Soweto, he joined in quick succession the Pimville Youth Organisation and then the Young Communist League. By 1949, after the National Party had taken power, they began to banish political activists to “where they came from”.
“If you were born in the Free State, they would send you to the Free State… In other words if you get arrested .. after you serve your sentence they banish you.”
So his official birthplace was Prospect township. He knew he could not be sent back there because “it ceased to exist in 1938”.
It had been a mixed area – “all colours of people living there” – before, but was demolished as a slum.
By the time the Communist Party was banned in 1950, Mlangeni’s activism had temporarily waned. He had got married that year to June Ledwaba; their first child – a daughter, Maureen – had been born the year before. In quick succession, they had a second child, Sylvia, in 1950 and a boy in 1953, whom Mlangeni named after his father, Matia (also known as Aubrey). A second son, Sello, arrived in 1956.
He had also joined the ANC and by 1954 was the branch secretary in his region of Soweto. At the time he worked for an engineering company, which had obtained one of the first duplicating machines in the country. He used the weekends to print ANC leaflets. He was fired after 10 years – he said he did something “very stupid” but would not tell me what – and then drove buses for Putco.
He led the ANC’s Dube branch to the Congress of the People in Kliptown, which drew up the Freedom Charter, a “bible”, as he would describe it later, for the ANC’s vision, and was recruited into the resuscitated communist party – the SACP – in 1955.
By this time he had met Mandela and Walter Sisulu and was soon to become what he called a “functionary” of the SACP – a paid official.
When the ANC (and SACP and PAC) were banned in 1960, the leaders decided there was no point forming another organisation as it too would suffer the same fate.
It was then that Mandela began to talk about an armed underground wing.
“And we would say, you are crazy; we have no knowledge of operating underground in the first place. Only the Communist Party has knowledge and it’s a small organisation, unlike our organisation. We can’t go underground with so many people, we’ll be committing suicide. And where are we going to get weapons to fight such a powerful government? You are crazy, Mandela.”
But Mandela was “very persuasive” and soon got the nod to establish MK.
Mlangeni was never one to overstate his importance, but he did quietly boast that he was the first to be recruited into MK by Mandela. The leader had taken him to a “safe house” in Johannesburg and asked him to do push-ups so he could see how fit he was.
But it was Joe Slovo who recruited him to go to China for military training, instructing him not to tell his wife – an instruction he disregarded. He was one of six recruits, who left at the end of 1961. He travelled with Raymond Mhlaba in a circuitous route through Africa, Prague, Moscow and Irkutsk before arriving in the far north of China. He spent a year there – during which he met Mao Tse Tung who visited the camp, a highlight of his life, according to Mathebula.
When he returned, he recruited scores of people for MK, travelling around the country disguised as a priest, the Reverend Mokete Mokoena. He made some blunders though, writes Mathebula – such as when he stayed with a real priest and began eating without saying grace, or when he lit up a cigarette.
But one winter’s night in 1963 he made the fatal error of returning home. He was supposed to pick up recruits from Krugersdorp the next morning and was too tired to go to his safe house. He was soundly asleep when the police broke down the door, entered his bedroom and shone a torch in his face. It was the last time he was to see home for more than 26 years.
He was first charged with trying to get particular recruits – including a then 22-year-old Jacob Zuma – out of the country from Zeerust. But as he had not been there at the time, he was acquitted, then immediately detained once more, and charged as part of the High Command with the other Rivonia trialists.
The trial changed South Africa. It was the first major crackdown on the ANC; it was also a time of reckoning. One of those he had trained with in China, Bruno Mthembu, turned state witness. “He was tortured, he couldn’t withstand the torture. We were all tortured, but he failed.”
The tragedy of Mthembu was that he’d been arrested earlier. The police could find no evidence and released him. He was advised to leave the country but didn’t. When he was arrested the second time, he turned state witness.
At first, the Rivonia trialists’ lawyers were not optimistic. Even though the charge was sabotage, not treason, they feared they would get the death penalty. Then they thought Mandela, Sisulu and Mbeki were at greatest risk; Mlangeni may get 12 years.
The prosecution had no idea Mlangeni had been in China. “They took everything that Joe Modise did and put it on me [Modise was out of the country by this stage]… I could not say I was in China when these things happened. All is said was that I was in Botswana where I was helping my mother-in-law to look after her cattle. The judge said, ‘well, that did not stop you from crossing into SA and doing something’.”
When the sentence was handed down – life – “it was a relief, a great relief, because nobody was sentenced to death. We were very happy.”
But there were times in those long nights on Robben Island that he wondered about the decisions he’d made. His children were young and his wife June was persecuted by the police; each time she got a job, they would harass her employer to fire her.
“When you are alone in your cell – when we’d come back from working in the (lime) quarry – it’s then that you start to think, did I do the right thing? You think of your family, you think of your wife and children; our children were still young, some of us were still also young with our young wives.”
But his doubt never lasted long. “In my case, I agreed to go to China for military training, and to come back and fight and destroy this terrible apartheid policy. So I did not regret it. But what was most difficult for me was not to see my children grow up.”
The greatest emotional pain though was to come just a few weeks before his release in 1989 when his twin sister, Emma, died. Mathebula explains how important it is in Sotho culture that a surviving twin be at the graveside. He writes that Emma’s death was “devastating” for Mlangeni. “I cried more than I had cried for all the other deaths. I felt like a part of me had been taken away, that my other half had died and that I was no longer myself.”
He applied to go to the funeral. Pretoria refused permission.
Throughout the years on Robben Island, political prisoners had lobbied to be jailed closer to home where they could see their families. And so one night in 1982 when they had returned from the quarry and had their dinner – “if you can call it that” – and the metal doors opened and they were told to pack, they thought this demand had been met.
But instead, after hours on a boat and then a bus, they arrived in Pollsmoor. Compared with Robben Island, Mlangeni said, it was a “five star hotel”: for the first time they had fresh water, not the brackish water of the Island, and fresh bread.
Three years after rejecting the first offer of release – in 1989 – a new agreement was brokered. Certain this time that Mandela would be released within a few months, Mlangeni and his fellow trialists were freed together with the PAC’s Jephta Masemola and trade unionist Oscar Mpetha. (Denis Goldberg and Govan Mbeki had been released earlier.)
I asked him how it felt to come home for the first time in more than 26 years. “I don’t know if I will ever be able to describe the feeling,” he said.
His family had kept vigil for three nights. Exhausted, they’d fallen asleep. It was early in the morning: he threw a stone on the roof to wake them and his daughter Sylvia emerged. When she saw him she shouted ‘Papa, Papa, Papa!’ and started to cry. She told her mother and everyone woke up, opened the gate and the police took in my parcels and my luggage and they left… I was now a free man.”
Mlangeni, after his release, never sought high office. He became an ordinary member of the new Parliament for a term in 1994, and again in 2009.
He suffered another emotional blow in 2001 when, shortly after the 50th anniversary of his marriage to June, she died from cancer. “During the night vigil before her burial, he cried inconsolably,” Mathebula writes.
He lived in the same modest house in Dube, where he was arrested, until his death. In the post-apartheid era, his new struggle was against corruption.
Everywhere, those in power are corrupt, he told me – “even government officials, my dear. This is the main war we are faced with.”
He was hopeful that Ramaphosa could make a difference. He was the one, after all, who with Roelf Meyer had pulled the negotiations in the early ‘90s out of a ditch. Now he hoped he could extract the country from the mire of corruption.
In his last years, Mlangeni was an enthusiastic golfer – and even into his 90s an occasional smoker. He continued to play a key role in trying to set the ANC on a trustworthy path.
On his 95th birthday, on 6 June, his daughter thanked the President for lifting the ban on alcohol, invoked under the State of Disaster regulations, so that he could enjoy a whisky.
He is survived by his two daughters, Maureen and Sylvia and his son Sello. His other son, Aubrey, died in 1998. DM
Pippa Green is a journalist and the current Press Ombud. In 2018-2019, she worked on a six-part podcast, Lessons from a Rivonia Trialist, part of the History for the Future series based on several hours of interviews with Mlangeni. The podcast can be accessed here: https://lifepodcasts.fm/podcasts/33-history-for-the-future
Mandla Mathebula’s book, The Backroom Boy – Andrew Mlangeni’s Story, is published by Wits University Press.