Graca Machel with then-National Minister of Development and Population Zola Skweyiya and Vice President Jacob Zuma at the 13th International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect in Durban in September 2000. PICTURE: RAJESH JANTILAL
In 1964 Bram Fisher wrote a letter to a 22 year old Thabo Mbeki. It read in part: "I must tell you one important event...Govan, Walter and Nelson came to an early moming consultation to tell us that if the sentence turned out to be capital punishment they had made up their minds that in that event there was to be no appeal. Their line was that, should a death sentence be passed on them, the political campaign around such a sentence should not be hampered by any appeal for mercy or raising Vain hopes....We lawyers were staggered at first, but soon realized the decision was politically unassailable. But I tell you this story not because of its political wisdom. I want you to know to what incredibly brave men you and others will have to be successors.”

Among the others was one Zola Sidney Themba Skweyiya. He was a husband, father, lawyer politician. He was also a venerated elder brother – Mkhuluwa.
In the pantheon of Oliver Tambo’s sons and daughters, he occupies a special place. The MK roll call would be glaringly incomplete without his name.
His is the generation that had to operationalise a deceptively simple vision: the creation of a unified, democratic non-racist and non-sexist South Africa at peace with itself and the world.

They were the brains trust that eventually gave us a progressive constitution. They formed the core of MK. They were the emissaries that traversed the world agitating for the isolation of the Apartheid state.


My first meeting with Mkhuluwa in Lusaka in 1980 was underwhelming. I was in the company of Mxolisi “Slumber” Jayiya an ex Robber Islander from my neck of the woods – East London. ’’Ooo ungowase Monti Basile abantu balapho. Kuse nexhego kulondawa”. (So you are from East London, that town of silly people; even the elderly are silly here). Slumber roared with laughter but the joke was lost on me. 

Further interaction with his peers particularly Zolile Nqose, now retired SANDF generals, and the late MacKay, resulted in him growing on me and we found each other. I was richly rewarded.


Mkhuluwa joined the ANC in his teens in the Western Cape. He was influenced among other by Archie Sibeko whose remains are also being interred on Saturday 22 April in Alice.

In Cape Town already he had formed bonds of friendship with Chris Hani, Pallo Jordan, Zolile Nqose and several others. As a younger and impressionable member of the ANC, I marvelled at what I perceived to be his view of the ANC. It seemed to me that he viewed the ANC as a corporeal entity. He was steeped in Congress mystique.

There would be the inevitable disagreement about this or that part of ANC strategy and tactics and Mkhuluwa would mock us “makwedimi aniyazi I kongres ....( You boys don’t know congress).

It was particularly pleasing to hear him sharing his early years in the organisation. He would talk lovingly about legendary ANC leaders like Robert Resha- Boet Robbie. Now, this I found impressive. Resha was the strong man of the Defiance Campaign. He was the Villain of the Piece in the Treason Trial of 1956-1960. The state made a lot of his statement: ‘ If a volunteer is called upon to murder, he must murder, murder, that’s all.'

He is the one next to Mandela in military fatigues in Algeria in 1962. And Mkhuluwa referred do this man as Boet Robbie!

Mkhuluwa lived and died for his organisation. It was a nuanced relationship. It was much later that I discerned something deep. There was and there remained a bittersweet side to this relationship. For want of a better term, I call it a ‘painful dialectic”


Up until the setback that was Rivonia the intention had been to return to South Africa and fight. The lull necessitated a rethink and Mkhuluwa found himself studying law in Leipzig in the German Democratic Republic. He attained a Doctorate and reported to ANC Head Office in Lusaka, Zambia. He was deployed to Ethiopia to open the organisation representation.

He served with honour and after Kabwe Conference in 1985 became the head of the ANC Department of Legal and Constitutional Affairs. He took to the position like a duck to water. It was one of President Tambo’s most inspired deployments.

Now he had to play his part in giving content to the deceptively simple vision. The old geezers had articulated it and legitimised it. Now it had to give the answer to the demands and cries of a myriad of stakeholders – it had to give succour to the gay man and the lesbian, those living with a disability, the abused woman, the discriminated, the dispossessed. It had to stay the hand of the hangman, deal with Vicky Momberg, defeat misogyny and stem jingoism.
Mhkuluwa and his team came up with another deceptively simple document ANC Constitutional Guidelines.

They led a process of internal consultation and embarked on an international benchmarking exercise looking for best practices. Albie Sachs rightly makes the point that the South African constitution has the DNA of Oliver Tambo. I proudly add it also has the fingerprints of Zola Skweyiya.


An endearing attribute of Mkhuluwa was that he was a just man. He was empathetic and fair. He embodied Ubuntu and I am not talking about the warm and fuzzy fraud attributed to Black people. I am talking about a universal value a that is common to all the major religions.

In the mid-1980’s MK units had mutinied in Angola. Blood was spilt and lives were lost and that ugly words “Torture” was whispered tearfully. Oliver Tambo sprang into action. Several commissions ensued and, invariably, Mkhuluwa was in the mix.

This put Mkhuluwa in a vexing situation. During his training in Egypt, he had come across Mzwai Piliso.

According to him, the latter cried when he saw the pitiful physical condition of the MK recruits after their training. He was another Boetie and it was heart-wrenching to hear him complaining about the non-cooperation of Boet Mzwai. 

A deeply loyal but highly combustible man, he regularly locked horns with some of his senior comrades who had a cavalier approach to human rights even those of dissenters and traitors. He of course triumphed and would have been the first to caution against lassez faire altitude. 


Of all ANC leaders, Zola Skweyiya and Chris Hani best understood and appreciated the younger generation. Although he deprecatingly referred to us as ‘Qinisilani' Sweyiya displayed uncharacteristic patience with our foibles. “Nazi ntoni nina. Sahamba nisalele makwedini. (What do you boys know? You were fast asleep when we left the country ). He is the only ANC senior figure I know of who was on Facebook!. If joining the ANC was his most important decision marrying Thuthukile Mazibuko was the next.

I was particularly pleased by this union. Two of my favourite people get united in love.

Thuthukie, whom I knew as Zinto was a dear personal friend, fellow Leipzig Alumnus, gender activist ambassador and businessperson gave Mkhuluwa love and companionship to the last, till death did them part.



* Zilani Mtshotshisa is a member of the African National Congress.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.