It is an honour to be recognised in life, says liberation struggle stalwart, Eric Mtshali, who was on Tuesday awarded the National Order of Mendi for Bravery in Silver.
However, he believes, true liberation will only be achieved when the working class becomes the ruling class.
“I receive this award on behalf of the working class and its vanguard, the South African Communist Party. There has only been a slight improvement in the lives of the working class and this needs to change, I would like to see a socialist South Africa in my lifetime,” he said.
His admiration for the Soviet Union leader, Joseph Stalin, earned Mtshali the nickname, Stalin.
The trade unionist who represented South Africa at the World Federation of Trade Unions in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and former member of Parliament, spoke to the Daily News from Pretoria where he was to be awarded the presidential honour.
National Orders are conferred on “local citizens and eminent foreign nationals who have contributed immensely towards the advancement of democracy, excelled in various endeavours as well as those who have made a significant impact on improving the lives of South Africans”.
The 84-year-old, who lives in New Germany, was honoured for his “excellent contribution to the fight against apartheid. In spite of great risks, he was never deterred in his quest for true freedom and social justice”.
Mtshali spent 30 years in exile after joining the ANC, and in 1961, was part of the Congress Alliance’s group which founded uMkhonto we Sizwe.
In a previous interview, Mtshali told the Daily News that it was growing up in Clermont, near Pinetown, that the poor standard of Bantu education made him aware of the racial divide.
“The apartheid system was vicious. I was young, but there was no question I would join the struggle.
“Young people today don’t understand or appreciate what it took to have the freedom we enjoy today, it cost lives, the splitting of families… so much,” said Mtshali.
His first wife died while he was in exile.
“I have no regrets and I would do it again for the nation.”
He was stationed in Tanzania and received political and military training in countries such as Egypt and the USSR.
“We were being trained and lived as brothers with the Russians. That had an impact on me as it became clear to me that the enemy back home was not an individual white person, but the system,” recalls Mtshali.
Mtshali and about 40 exiles attempted to enter South Africa using a Soviet Union-owned vessel, The Aventura, in 1970.
“I knew only how to protest and was involved in the armed struggle. I could not even swim when I was on The Aventura. We realised Cubans were able to get victory through the sea, and we thought we could do this also.
“We had some very elementary training on the Black Sea. Ready or not we started the expedition. When we got to Somalia, we realised that the mission was compromised,” he said.
Last month, Mtshali and the others who had boarded that vessel bound for the KZN South Coast, were honoured by the South African Maritime Safety Authority and their names inscribed on the SA Agulhas.
Because of ill health, Mtshali had not been able to travel to Cape Town. However, he was able to travel to Pretoria with his wife, Gcinisile, to be recognised with the National Order from President Jacob Zuma.
Last year, he was honoured with a school being named after him.
Education MEC, Peggy Nkonyeni, officially opened the Eric Stalin Mtshali Secondary School in Wyebank.
“To have seen democracy was privilege enough. So many of us fell in the struggle, they were never recognised, which is why all of this is so humbling,” he said.