South Africa


Thami Mhlambiso (1938-2021): A South African elegy

Thami Mhlambiso addressing the UN Security Council about repression of school students in Soweto on 18 June 1976. (Photo: T Chen)

In the deadly ideological conflicts of the apartheid — and post-apartheid — eras in South Africa, the ANC’s first envoy to the United Nations, Thami Mhlambiso, was a tragic but honourable figure. An exile for more than half a century from the country of his family and his birth and youth, he died in Delaware in the United States of Covid infection on 24 January, aged 82. His isolation in the US speaks to the foul mess that South Africa is in today.

As a student at Fort Hare University College in Alice, in the Eastern Cape, in 1960 at the time of the Sharpeville massacre, Thami Mhlambiso was elected the following year as vice-president of the non-racial but mainly white, English-speaking National Union of South African Students (Nusas). He was one of the primary student leaders at Fort Hare at that critical and explosive time, while a phalanx of fellow activists at Fort Hare secretly joined the banned South African Communist Party and were later sent en bloc to the Soviet Union and the German (un)Democratic Republic (GDR) for further ideological and military training.

This split with the future masters of the ANC in exile and of the subsequent ANC government never healed. Thami’s was a defeated voice.

It is a complex story, hard to disentangle.

In his memoir, Stones against the Mirror (2011), Hugh Lewin — Eastern Province secretary for Nusas while at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in 1959-60 before I held the post in 1960-61, and a political prisoner for seven years — wrote that the students at Fort Hare were a “marvellous group of activists. We met in outlandish places both on and off the campus, usually borrowing a beaten-up car from one of our lecturer friends at Rhodes, bashing over the bumps to Alice, then diving behind bushes, through barbed-wire fences, or being smuggled into rooms on the campus, forever trying to avoid the attentions of the local Security Branch (SB) and the fearsome [detective] Sweetman.” 

Thami brought me to Fort Hare for one such secret meeting in September 1961, held at night in the middle of the playing field, where we lay flat on the grass so the headlights of the car of the security police passed over us.

At the end of 1989, nearly 30 years later, Thami’s former Fort Hare colleagues Chris Hani and Stanley Mabizela were sent by the ANC National Executive Committee to disband all elected committees chosen by name by ANC members in Tanzania just days before the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela — a principle of unaccountable government transmitted to South Africa’s future electoral system, in which no MP is able to be chosen by voters or removed by name.

Another Fort Hare colleague, Sizakele Sigxashe, became a head in exile of the ANC’s security department known among members of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) as Mbokodo (“the grindstone”) and headed a tribunal in 1984 which ordered public executions of MK members at Pango camp in Angola during the most severe internal crisis of the ANC in exile. In 1995 he went on to become the first director-general of the National Intelligence Agency in South Africa.

Sigxashe had been one of nine Fort Hare students addressed by Nelson Mandela at a secret meeting in Johannesburg in January 1962 before they were transported to the Soviet Union, in which Mandela told them: “We want you to study in the Soviet Union. Your mission will be to find out how the Soviets are able to provide free education, free health services, very cheap housing and virtually free public transport to all citizens of the country. This is the knowledge we require if we are to implement the Freedom Charter.” (Reported by one of the nine, Thami’s former Fort Hare colleague, Sindiso Mfenyana, in his autobiography, Walking with Giants: Life and Times of an ANC Veteran, SA History Online, 2017. p.155).

By that time, Thami had been expelled from Fort Hare by order of the apartheid government, which had taken over the college in order to advance its racist programme. He went on to Natal University Non-European section in Durban to complete his BA degree, where he was elected president of the Student Representative Council in 1963, was banned in 1964 and imprisoned in 1965.

Decades later, as well as Hugh Lewin, a colleague from Natal University, RW Johnson, in his autobiography, Foreign Native (2020), recalls Thami speaking “beautifully in a highly articulate English” to white students at a major meeting about segregated education in 1962. Thami was arrested in 1963 and sent to Kroonstad prison, where the senior journalist on the Rand Daily Mail, Benjamin Pogrund, reports in his memoir, War of Words (2000), of seeing him during a journalistic assignment in 1965.

Moving to London with his wife Nobubele after his release, Thami soon found himself in conflict there as a leader of the ANC Youth and Students with Thabo Mbeki, a power-conscious dauphin before his further tuition in 1968 at the Lenin School in Moscow, en route to becoming the president of post-apartheid South Africa three decades later. It was a conflict that never relaxed.

Thami was nevertheless close to the ANC deputy president (and later president) in exile, Oliver Tambo, and later provided a great deal of detail to Luli Callinicos in her biography, Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains (2004).

He was sent with his family to New York in 1972 to represent the ANC in the United States and was appointed ANC representative at the United Nations in 1975. The following year, alongside David Sibeko of the Pan African Congress, he addressed the Security Council on 18 June 1976 as ANC representative after the brutal suppression of the march of Soweto students two days earlier on 16 June, resulting in UN Security Council resolution 392 (1976) which condemned the “callous shooting of African people including schoolchildren and students demonstrating against racial discrimination”.

Oliver Tambo then addressed the UN General Assembly for the first time on 26 October.

By this time, Thami’s future had already been determined by one of the sharpest conflicts within the ANC in exile. Under his ANC exile name “Thami Bonga”, he had been classified for expulsion from the ANC in a decision taken by the NEC at a meeting in Morogoro in Tanzania in September 1975 as one of the so-called “Gang of Eight”. However, as Stephen Ellis wrote in the most balanced assessment of this conflict in his study, External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990 (2012), because of his continuing presence at the UN, Thami did not actually “appear to have been expelled from the ANC at this date.” (p.101) 

The rising power of the SACP within ANC was the central issue, presenting itself as a racial issue. Its Central Committee condemned the eight in its journal, The African Communist (second quarter 1976), as “The enemy hidden under the same colour.”

The crucial factor had been the ANC’s decision at its consultative conference at Morogoro in April/May 1969 to admit people who were not black Africans as members (though not as members of the NEC). A significant number of ANC members in exile, some even members of the SACP, saw this as a breach of the ANC’s founding character and in particular as too great an expansion of SACP influence within the ANC. This was no doubt Thami’s view, despite his deeply non-racist and anti-racist character, as I attest from my personal friendship with him in South Africa and London between 1960 and 1967. 

In 1970 a group of ANC “African Nationalists” led by Tennyson Makiwane — a member of the NEC and of the SACP — based mainly in London, requested that Tambo “call a meeting at the home of Thami Mhlambiso to listen to their grievances. At least 10 ANC Africans attended. They were particularly unhappy, they confessed, about the opening of ANC membership to all races. The London office was a case in point, where they maintained that the “African image” had been supplanted.

“ ‘People were complaining that, look, when people come from home, they don’t see Africans,’ recalled Mhlambiso, ‘and most of the people at the meeting felt they were being pushed into the background’.” 

The problems were ‘“faced squarely” by Tambo, Thami later told Luli Callinicos (Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains, p.341). Tennyson Makiwane was assassinated in 1980 by the MK in Mthatha in Transkei as a traitor.

Sindiso Mfenyana, Thami’s former Fort Hare colleague who had studied and married in the Soviet Union, reports in his autobiography that ANC leaders in Lusaka believed that Thami — in New York — “was not informing the ANC membership in the US about the expulsion of the Gang of Eight, but rather distributing a memorandum by the Gang of Eight in response to their expulsion. Thami was recalled to the ANC Headquarters in Lusaka but without success.” The NEC directed Mfenyana to go to New York and find out what was happening.

When he asked Thami why he was “ignoring his recall to Headquarters”, Mfenyana writes, the response was that “he was in debt and did not have funds to buy a ticket”, had “not received the letter of expulsion of the Gang of Eight” and “knew nothing about the memorandum from the eight questioning their expulsion”.

Mfenyana writes that having met ANC members in New York who “contradicted Thami’s professed ignorance,” he reported back to Lusaka, and “a ticket was sent to Thami the following day. He did not respond”.

According to Mfenyana, an older-generation stalwart Johnny Makhathini was sent to New York in 1979 to replace Mhlambiso, “but could not function because Thami continued to occupy the ANC seat at the UN.” ANC secretary-general Alfred Nzo then sent a formal letter to the UN stating that Makhathini was its accredited representative, resulting in Thami’s displacement. (Walking with Giants, pp.218-19)

Fear was a determining issue. I had a wonderful correspondence much later by email for several years with his son, Thando, who took up a senior position as a financial executive in Johannesburg, and who eventually managed to acquire his father’s phone number in the US for me. When I spoke to Thami in his home in Camden, Delaware, I asked him why he had not returned to the NEC. He told me he’d been instructed to return to the ANC in Angola, but had been advised by a UN delegate that this was dangerous.

And so it was.

Mfenyana, in another world, became ANC chief representative in the GDR in 1985 (and a member of the SACP), the first black Full Secretary to the National Assembly in Cape Town and ambassador to Tanzania in 2007.

Thami returned to his family home in Cradock in the Eastern Cape (now part of Chris Hani district municipality) after Nelson Mandela, who warmly welcomed his return, was installed as president. Hugh Lewin wrote to me that “Madiba insisted he be trained for an ambassadorial post — which was conveniently ignored — and Thami was hounded into continued exile”. When the presidency passed to Thabo Mbeki, who had tried and failed to get Thami removed from his post at the UN, he returned permanently to exile in the US.

Born in the Amathole Basin on 25 March 1938 and deceased on 24 January this year in Millsboro, Delaware, Thami is survived by his former wife Nobubele Mhlambiso, his son Thando and his daughter Thembisa, daughter-in-law Marlaina Balaban, son-in-law Ken Rivera, granddaughter Tickle Mhlambiso, and his sister Nompumelelo Mhlambiso.

For his family, it has been a sad story of a complicated man, determined by very harsh and complex times.

Let him be remembered by the words he posted on his Facebook page, 3 December 2013:

“I am not in a competition with anyone else. I run my own race. I have no desire to play the game of being better than everyone else around me, in any way, shape or form. I just aim to improve, to become a better person than I was. That’s me and I’m free.” DM


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