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Remembering Andrew Mlangeni

Ronnie Kasrils remembers his comrade Andrew Mlangeni, giant of the South African struggle against apartheid who spent 26 years in the cell beside Nelson Mandela at Robben Island.

“A giant tree has fallen,” said the African National Congress (ANC) in a statement. “The death of Ntate Mlangeni marks the end of a revolutionary life that was dedicated to the struggle for justice and the defence of our freedom.”

Andrew Mlangeni, among the revered leaders of South Africa’s liberation struggle, liked to refer to himself as the ANC leadership’s ‘Backroom Boy.’ The aphorism became the title of a biography of his exceptional life. 

He was a modest, self-effacing and gentle man who was sentenced to life imprisonment as a terrorist. When he died aged 95 in Johannesburg on July 20th, he was the last surviving Rivonia Trialist – the legal proceedings where he alongside Nelson Mandela had faced a possible death sentence in 1964.

So diligent was Mlangeni in whatever tasks were assigned to him – small or big, arduous or perilous – that his comrades-in-arms nicknamed him Mr. Reliable, Comrade Steadfast, Mr Dependability or phrases to that effect. They would slap their thighs, and laugh: “Mlangeni! Man, nothing could stop him once he was seized with a task. You could bet there could only be one outcome – fulfilment of his mission.”

The consequence was they dubbed him ‘Robot,’ denoting someone who was remorseless in forward motion. That was in jest to pull Mlangeni’s leg. No offence was taken. The self-proclaimed Backroom Boy had a much-admired self-deprecatory sense of humour.

I first met Andrew Mlangeni in Durban, where I worked as a young man, soon after his return from military training in China in early 1963. He was in the company of a tough uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) commander, Joe Modise. MK were collecting dynamite we had “liberated” from a construction site.

The one car we of the Durban Command possessed had become too “hot,” and Modise ordered Mlangeni to drive it back to Johannesburg where they would alter its appearance and registration. Something beyond us relative amateurs in Durban. The promise was they would replace it. That never happened. 

Years later, after Mlangeni’s twenty-six year Robben Island sojourn – where his cell was next-door to Nelson Mandela’s – he had become transport officer at the ANC’s Johannesburg headquarters. I duly approached him and requested a vehicle for my assigned work, which as a campaigns officer required trips all over the country. He looked at me somewhat bemused, explaining that given some time he would see what was possible but there were others who were ahead of me in line for a car.

Vehicles and funds were in short supply. Poker faced, I argued that I had been in line from the time of his 1963 Durban trip with Modise and an unfulfilled promise. His eyes twinkled with mirth. “Go tell that to Modise or Mandela if you wish,” he teased. I got my car in due course. But our friendship didn’t count. I had to wait my turn. To him, principles were fundamental. That went with his integrity. There was no question of favouritism or cronyism.

Struggle Veteran

Born in 1925, he knew poverty and suffering from the start. He was two years old when his father died. In penury, his mother moved to a shanty town where they dwelt in a tin shack.

By the age of twelve Mlangeni had left school to earn some money from casual chores, including as a teenage caddy on the white-only golf courses of the time (where he learned his love for the game), then became a factory worker and, by his early twenties, a bus driver.

This was punishing, underpaid work and he was soon involved in leading strikes. By the early 1950s he had joined the ANC Youth League and by 1954 the ANC. He served at Mandela’s side through the mass mobilisation campaigns of the 1950s where the leadership noted how reliable and diligent he was.

As a result of these qualities Mlangeni was selected for a year’s military training in China as part of a trailblazing group of six. On returning home he carried out MK operations with distinction until his arrest and indictment alongside Mandela and leading comrades-in-arms at the Rivonia Trial of 1964. He was sentenced, along with them, to life imprisonment.

It was partly the hot car that Mlangeni had driven from Durban to Johannesburg that led to his undoing. He was brutally tortured, suffered electric shock treatment, but kept his mouth shut and gave no shred of information away. And the Backroom Boy had plenty of information under his hat.

Fortitude, integrity and fulfilment of the mission were the golden threads that ran through his life. This was the case right to the very end, through service as an ANC member of parliament from 1994-2014 and chair of the ANC’s Integrity Commission.

The awards he received in life included the freedom of the city of London – quite a step up for a backroom boy. But for Mlangeni success and accolades by no means meant that the struggle to eradicate poverty, racism, exploitation and inequality was done with.

He was ready to raise his voice against corruption and strove in his quiet, backroom way, to impress on the ANC leadership the need to put its house in order. He understood the reality of an ongoing endeavour, that the struggle was never-ending, and there was always a need to pass on the baton to the next generation.

Honesty and service to the people – not greed, material acquisition and self-interest – was his mantra. “Love your country, love your people, fight corruption” was his message in these latter years. He was thrilled by the upsurge of the Black Lives Matter rebellion on the eve of his passing. White supremacy had enraged him as a youth, he came to see it as a way to oppress, humiliate and exploit people of colour.

Despite the years of sacrifice and deprivation he had found time to enjoy life, particularly his marriage to his wife, and fellow activist, June and his four children. She had waited faithfully for him all those years of Robben Island. He loved to quip that she was his second wife; the first being his love for golf.

Tragically she passed on in 2001 and that was a devastating blow. Yet, as ever, his resilience came to the fore with his irrepressible wit. In his closing years he would state that he was looking forward to soon joining her. He was something of an atheist, by the way.

It was clear that he had no fear of death – whether in the fight against apartheid or the struggle with illness. Golf, which he played with skill until an advanced age, and of course his abiding love of June, kept up his morale. But it was the years of struggle that shaped him and gave him his fortitude.

One of his last duties, a tribute to his internationalism, was endorsing a solidarity pledge to the people of Palestine, standing with them against the latest Israeli annexation plans.

Under lockdown my link to Andrew was through his devoted son Sello. We needed some big names and I asked Sello whether he could get his ailing father to agree. In next to no time an email came back with Andrew’s endorsement. It meant so much to the Palestinian people. It must have been Andrew Mlangeni’s last political act.

We deeply mourn this passing of a gentle giant, a self-effacing Backroom Boy who stood at the forefront of the global people’s struggle for freedom, equality, democracy and against racism.

His is a life to celebrate at a bleak time. May the example of his dedication serve the cause of justice everywhere in the world as we grapple with the pandemic of Covid-19, inequality, poverty, injustice and environmental peril. Andrew Mlangeni – Backroom Boy, Comrade Reliable – stands centre stage bathed in limelight. An inspirational beacon of hope for generations to come.