Mendi Msimang, who died at a Pretoria hospital on Monday after what the Presidency says was an extended illness, was a colossus that his late wife Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, given her controversy in office, is unlikely to have rivalled. He was 90.
ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe was quoted this week as saying that Msimang served his articles at the law firm of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.
Msimang’s relationship with the former liberation movement dates back way before Chancellor House - he was in the Youth League of the generation of Walter Sisulu.
Between then and 1997, when he was elected treasurer-general of the ANC at the party’s Mafikeng Conference, a position he held until 2007, Msimang distinguished himself in selfless service to the people, a trait sorely lacking in the current crop of cadres.
History has been apathetic in telling how Msimang found himself in London at the service of the ANC and the struggling masses back home.
He went underground just after the ANC was banned in 1961 and was directed to join OR Tambo in a mission in London, according to Mabe.
In his biography of Thabo Mbeki, The Dream Deferred, Mark Gevisser writes: “Mendi Msimang was post-apartheid South Africa’s first ambassador to the Court of St James and was later hand-picked by Thabo Mbeki, in 1997, to be the party’s full-time treasurer general.”
Gevisser notes that: “He had little public profile during the Mbeki presidency, but - married to Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang - he was an ANC blueblood; part of the inner family of returned exiles.”
In her memoir, Dancing to a Different Rhythm, Zarina Maharaj writes about hearing of the arrest of her husband, Mac, while she was alone with their children in England.
She received a call from Valli Moosa on July 25, 1990 - a day before they were to head home - telling her that her husband had been arrested by the Special Branch, intercepted while on his way to Moosa’s house.
The international Anti-Apartheid Movement in England then marched for the release of Mac Maharaj, with protests outside Margaret Thatcher’s 10 Downing Street residence and South Africa House.
Among the dignitaries was the ANC’s chief representative in London, Mendi Msimang, head of the Labour Party in Britain, Neil Kinnock, his wife Glenys and the iconic Father Trevor Huddleston.
This is the same Msimang who was part of the old guard, alongside Duma Nokwe, who knew Thabo Mbeki as an impatient Young Turk who thought the ANC was too slow in taking up arms against the National Party regime.
Among wedding photographs of Thabo Mbeki and Zanele Dlamini, shot in England, is one where the bride and groom pose with witnesses to the nuptials - Dlamini’s university friend, Karen Fields, Essop Pahad and Mendi Msimang, in a Nehru-collared suit. In the absence of Govan and Epainette Mbeki at the wedding, Adelaide Tambo and Mendi Msimang stood in loco parentis for the groom.
The most colourful tale of exile is that of a young Fort Hare student Manto Mali, who was recruited into the underground by Govan Mbeki. But Mendi Msimang boasted more illustrious Struggle credentials.
Granted, his is not the story festooned with frills like that of the young Durban lass who is ordered to leave the university in Alice and return to her parents’ home and await further instructions.
In time, two young men, Thabo Mbeki and Sipho Makana, went to the Mali home to tell the young woman’s mother that she was leaving with them.
The “sexiness” of the Msimang biography is that at the 1974 funeral of former Turfloop SRC president Onkgopotse Abram Tiro in Botswana, it was Msimang who spoke on behalf of the ANC, a peroration as Gevisser calls it.
It is no wonder that Msimang was buried in Pretoria on Saturday in a Special Official Funeral Category 1, declared by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who delivered the eulogy.
The Presidency said a Special Official Funeral Category 1 entails elements of military ceremonial honours and is declared, in line with its state, official and provincial official funeral policy, for persons of extraordinary credentials specifically designated by the president.
President Ramaphosa had also declared that the national flag be flown at half-mast with immediate effect from the day of his passing until the funeral on Saturday.
In his life, Msimang was a recipient of the Order for Meritorious Service in Silver.