The Backroom Boy: Andrew Mlangeni’s Story, it shares the value of making a contribution to a people’s cause in a classically selfless fashion, says the writer. File picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/Independent Media
The publication of Andrew Mlangeni’s biography could not have come at a more opportune moment in the historical process.
Aptly titled The Backroom Boy: Andrew Mlangeni’s Story, it shares the value of making a contribution to a people’s cause in a classically selfless fashion, without seeking the glory of limelight attendant on leadership positions.
As post-apartheid South Africa evolves in intended and unintended ways, there is much in the process that warrants looking back to analogous moments in history.
Such an exercise is not only valuable in enabling us to avoid repeating mistakes of the past, but deepens our understanding of the possibilities of our human agency as individuals and at a collective level.
Thus we get to understand that although thrown into historically given circumstances, we have the power to change matters, to throw down the gauntlet to destiny.
This makes sharing the lesson-laden, politically-charged life of figures such as Om Andrew (elderly stalwarts of the Struggle are affectionately called “Oom”, uncle, “Om” for short) all the more necessary.
After the publication of the biographies of Om Andrew’s contemporaries Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Dennis Goldberg, Mike Dingake and others who have influenced his political development, it is only legitimate to expect Om Andrew to also claim his place in the exalted genre of South Africa’s expanding political biography.
This amounts to the writing of history, our history, by documenting the lives of the leading individuals during the freedom Struggle. It does not mean that history is the product of individual genius or sacrifice alone. It affirms the importance of individuals within the tapestry of collective human reaction to a given historical situation. Like his contemporaries, Om Andrew’s life is but one of numerous strands woven into the South African historical narrative.
Through reading a book such as this, we appreciate that, now and again, nations fall into a sore need for hard-nosed historical lessons as they try to pull through strangulating challenges thrown up by periods of socio-political misfortune. In South Africa’s case, where else to turn but the glorious history of the Struggle for justice and equality, whose mobilising philosophy constitutes the framework of our shared vision today.
The struggle for the entrenchment of a united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and just society is not cast in certain terms and will, inexorably, suffer setbacks in the cut and thrust of political existence. In such moments, it helps to look back to see how those before us rose to the challenges of the day.
Om Andrew evolved a temperament equal to the challenges of the day. A compelling view emerges of an individual committed to the struggle of his people, acting to make a difference in concert with and under the leadership of his comrades and his people.
Om Andrew is among this crop of individuals who acted to change, given circumstances within the parameters of the collectively shared vision.
What stands out with exceptional distinction in Om Andrew’s life is his personal conduct, discipline, a commendable self-respect and his exemplary sense of purpose.
That not much about the life of this remarkable individual is known, at least on the scale of his contemporaries, is probably thanks to his modesty. He has largely been an unknown quantity despite the fact that his political biography starts early, at secondary school level, with such luminaries as OR Tambo, Joe Matthews and Duma Nokwe, and that his political maturity owes much to Ruth First, among others.
Consequently, the time is right for a book to be written on the life and contribution of one of the most humble and yet enthusiastically committed souls to the Struggle.
Sadly, among the young generation of South Africans, very few would have heard the name Andrew Mlangeni, despite the fact that in addition to 26 years and four months of apartheid incarceration, Om Andrew has also served the democratic Parliament for more than two decades.
Never one to thrust himself into the limelight of history, Om Andrew has remained a classical epitomé of a disciplined and selfless cadre of the ANC throughout the three phases of his life (pre-prison, prison and post-prison).
Despite his huge political experience and a penetrating understanding of the ANC that naturally endowed him with the aura of a dean, he was content to be led, preferring to be a backbencher while lavishly sharing key insights with his parliamentary colleagues.
In a similar manner, he has never sought to be a chairperson of any portfolio committee throughout his parliamentary career, despite plenty of opportunities presented by his actual seniority.
On this account I would urge the South African public to read this and other books documenting the lives of figures who, through their sacrifices, helped our country to achieve freedom and democracy, and those still labouring for the attainment of the founding vision of a democratic South Africa. Along with the three surviving former Rivonia Triallists, Om Andrew is a living representation of such worthy individuals.
* Kgalema Motlanthe is a former president of South Africa
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.