Anti-apartheid struggle hero Andrew Mokete Mlangeni, who died this week at the age of 95, was the last surviving of the eight African National Congress (ANC) activists who were sentenced to life imprisonment in the infamous Rivonia trial in the 1960s.
Mlangeni spent 20 of his 26 years in jail on Robben Island alongside fellow triallist Nelson Mandela and other luminaries of the ANC. He symbolised the generations who had joined the ANC during the most dangerous period of resistance to apartheid. No rewards, but only vindictive persecution, including detention and jail, were all that they could expect. They joined the movement to overthrow apartheid and build the South Africa envisioned in the Freedom Charter of 1955, the ANC’s blueprint for a free, democratic South Africa.
But he was no party apparatchik. He became a fierce critic of the ANC as it matured into a political party and began to show all the signs of abandoning its early commitment to establish a just South Africa. He was particularly outspoken about rampant corruption under President Jacob Zuma.
Speaking at the Rhodes University conferment of an honorary doctorate, he said :
Some of our political leaders have become absolutely corrupt – they are no longer interested in improving the lives of our people. They are busy lining their pockets with the money that is meant to help the poor people. What a disgrace.
He said that if convicted of corruption, Zuma should be jailed.
His early life exemplified what so many South Africans shared.
He was born on 6 June 1925 on a white-owned farm near Bethlehem in the Free State. His father died when he was one year old. The farm owner then evicted the family, who went to live in the blacks-only township of Bethlehem, known as Bohlokong (Place of sorrow) in Sesotho. Andrew had to drop out of school to earn money as a caddy at the nearest golf club.
In 1939, he and his mother moved to Pimville, in what is today part of Soweto, the sprawling black residential area southwest of Johannesburg. He returned to school: one of his teachers was Oliver Tambo, an ANC activist who went on to lead the movement in exile, after it was banned in April 1960.
In 1946 he began work in a factory. First-hand experience of exploitation made him join the Young Communist League. In 1951 he joined the African National Congress Youth League, and in 1954 the ANC. He married June Ledwaba in 1950. They had four children; she passed away in 2001.
In 1961 Mandela selected Mlangeni as one of the first six volunteers to be smuggled out of South Africa to receive military training and join the newly founded uMkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC. He was trained in China, and successfully returned to South Africa.
In 1963 Mlangeni was among those the Special Branch of the apartheid police detained at Liliesleaf farm, and joined Mandela and others as accused in the Rivonia trial for sabotage. In 1964 they were sentenced to life imprisonment, and transferred to Robben Island prison.
When the political prisoners won the right to study by correspondence in 1967, he was the first to enrol, and obtained a degree from the University of South Africa. After 26 years in jail, he was one of the Rivonia triallists released in October 1989.
When South Africa became a democracy in 1994, he was elected as an ANC member of parliament, serving until the 1999 election. He later served a second term, from 2009 to 2014. He was a member of both the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans and the Joint Committee on Ethics and Members’ Interests.
His Rivonia celebrity status, and being an octogenarian veteran, gave him the space as an MP to take a public stance against corruption in Zuma’s administration.
He repeatedly criticised his own party in public, regardless of the tensions that would cause with some members of his own caucus. Up to the time of his death, he chaired the ANC Integrity Committee. Though a majority on the ANC’s National Executive Committee got it to ignore the Integrity Committee’s findings, Mlangeni had done all that he could.
Mlangeni was awarded the Order for Meritorious Service, gold class, in 1999 by President Mandela, the first head of state of democratic South Africa. In 2016 he was granted the Freedom of Johannesburg and the Freedom of the City of London, and received the inaugural George Bizos Human Rights Award, named after the veteran human rights lawyer who represented the Rivonia triallists.
In 2018 Durban University of Technology conferred an honorary doctorate in Education on him; in the same year, Rhodes University granted him an honorary doctorate in law. The ANC awarded him its highest honour, Isithwalandwe-Seaparankoe, in 1992.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said on his death:
The passing of Andrew Mokete Mlangeni signifies the end of a generational history and places the future squarely in our hands. He was a champion and exemplar of the values we need to build in South Africa.
When the weekly barrage of media coverage on the ANC is dominated by reports of corruption, Mlangeni’s life work reminds South Africans of commitment to winning democracy and defending tenaciously its triumphs and achievements.
It reminds us that democracy is not only a destination, but also a lifelong commitment to a just society and fighting for it.