We must guard against the growing and real threat that Andrew and his fellow Rivonia trialists will fade into historical obscurity, says the writer. Picture Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA)
We must guard against the growing and real threat that Andrew and his fellow Rivonia trialists will fade into historical obscurity, says the writer. Picture Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA)

We’re at a crossroads: We can embrace all Mlangeni and his comrades stood for - or forget

By Opinion Time of article published Jul 26, 2020

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Nic Wolpe

I woke to the devastating news on Wednesday that my dear friend and comrade Andrew Mlangeni had died at 95.

As I gathered my thoughts and reflected, I was overcome with a deep sense of foreboding and sadness at the stark realisation that his passing signalled the closure of the final chapter in the physical link to Liliesleaf and the Rivonia trialists.

His passing has brought to a close a unique era in our Struggle history.

As with the death of Denis Goldberg at the end of April which marked the passing of the last Rivonia trialist to be arrested at Liliesleaf on that fateful day, July 11, 1963, so has Andrew’s passing signalled the end of our connection to the Rivonia trialists, men who were defined by their selfless sacrifice and unwavering commitment to the ideals and beliefs enshrined in our Freedom Charter, our People’s Charter.

For these ideals they were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice, their lives.

Andrew was one among a rare breed of liberation activists who throughout his life held true to the fundamentals of being a servant of the people.

He remained to the very end a political activist of absolute moral integrity. He never for one moment permitted himself to succumb to the trappings and vagaries that came with power.

Plato remarked that “the measure of a man is what he does with power”, and Andrew clearly showed his measure, for he never tried to position himself above those whom he sought to serve.

Andrew encapsulated the true meaning and essence of what the Struggle was about, to serve the people in working to realise a better life for all.

He was self-effacing and gentle, a beacon of morality and integrity.

As I ruminated on the curtain coming down, I soberly recalled the story of the last veteran of World War I who died in 2009 at 111. I vividly remember the global media attention and attraction it generated, given the realisation that the final physical link to the Great War had been severed, that with his death World War I had now passed from the present to the realm of history.

His passing elicited a wave of emotion, reflection, and pride but above all, a steely determination to keep the memory of the war to end all wars alive and in the minds of all.

Losing the last war veteran of World War I gave the British the opportunity to ensure that the sacrifices of those who gave their lives were not forgotten.

Thus, the moral task before us, as we grapple to keep the memory of our liberation struggle alive in the minds of all South Africans, in the wake of Andrew’s passing, is to reaffirm our commitment to the ideals, principles, beliefs and the moral character and integrity that Andrew and his fellow Rivonia trialists displayed and dedicated their lives to realise.

With his passing, the raid and the trialists have now slipped into the realm of history, interpretation and reflection.

We must guard against the growing and real threat that Andrew and his fellow Rivonia trialists will fade into historical obscurity.

While the news was on, I turned to the two gentlemen repairing my DStv and asked if they had heard of Andrew Mlangeni and the Rivonia trial. The one looked at me blankly and said no, while the other, pointing to the TV said, “is this person who has just died?” and shook his head.

Their responses said so much and sadly revealed how far our recent past has moved from our long history of liberation. The fact that these two individuals - and so many others - are unaware of the icons of our past is a shocking indictment on how we, as a country, have failed to preserve the essence of our Struggle, and the memory of those liberation stalwarts who gave so much for the freedoms we South Africans enjoy today.

The apartheid state, in sentencing Andrew and seven other Rivonia trialists to life imprisonment, was also aiming to silence them for good. After the sentencing of the eight co-accused to life in prison, Chief Albert Luthuli remarked, “for this they are sentenced to be shut away for long years in the brutal and degrading prisons”.

“However, they represented the highest in morality and ethics in the South African political struggle; this morality and ethics have been sentenced to an imprisonment it may never survive.”

They were not silenced, and their strength of resolve and determination inspired their clarion call for social, political justice, equality and freedom that only grew louder and louder over the years. For us to allow the raid on Liliesleaf and the Rivonia trialists, incredible individuals who gave their all, to fade and become forgotten would be a gross travesty. In essence we would have succeeded in doing what the apartheid state tried in vain to do.

Thus, as a country and South African people we must hold true to those lofty ideals and principles which Andrew steadfastly subscribed to and lived by.

In honouring Andrew Mlangeni’s legacy and unwavering service to the people of South Africa during the Struggle and in building democracy we must ensure we don’t waiver. We must reaffirm our willingness and commitment to fulfil his aspirations, desires and wishes for a better life for all.

It is now more than ever before incumbent upon us, the living, and in particular the younger generation, at a time of intergenerational exchange and dialogue, to heed the prophetic words of the 16th president of the US, Abraham Lincoln, who so eloquently remarked during his Gettysburg Address, “it is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. ”

A letter from Bram Fischer, the Rivonia trialists’ defence attorney, to a young comrade in exile, dated June 24, 1964, poignantly captures the essence of their deep sense of morality.

“Some days before the end of the argument in court, Govan, Walter and Nelson came to an early morning consultation to tell us of a decision they had taken with regard to the sentence if it turned out to be capital punishment.

“They had made up their minds that in that event there was no appeal. Their line was that, should a death sentence be passed upon them, the political campaign around such a sentence should not be hampered by any appeal for mercy or by raising any vain hopes

“We lawyers were staggered at first, but soon realised the decision was politically unassailable. But I tell you the story not because of its political wisdom.

“I want you to know what incredibly brave men you and others will have to be successors to.”

Fischer’s letter encapsulated everything that Andrew and his fellow accused stood for, a higher calling that went beyond the petty notion of “I”.

With the passing of Andrew Mlangeni, our moment of reckoning has come to the fore. We are at a crossroads.

We can either embrace the collective meaning and character of the actions of the Rivonia trialists, for the trial became the mirror of their reflections, goals and aspirations to secure those inalienable rights for their people, which they were so harshly denied by the shackles and brutal oppression of apartheid, or we can turn away and travel down the myopic path of prejudice and intolerance.

We were fortunate to have had in our midst this great revolutionary of our time and as such we should never forget that Andrew’s and his fellow comrades’ struggle was not for their own gain but to improve the conditions and lives of our people.

* Nicholas Wolpe is the founder and chief executive of the Liliesleaf Trust and the son of Harold Wolpe, who was arrested shortly after the raid on Liliesleaf and would have been one of the Rivonia trialists, but along with three comrades bribed a police warder and broke out of Marshall Square Prison.

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