Anti-apartheid icon and the recipient of the prestigious Order of Mendi for Bravery in Silver, Eric 'Stalin' Mtshali, died in the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital on Friday after a long illness. He was 87. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU

Johannesburg - The Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) has paid tribute to anti-apartheid stalwart Eric "Stalin" Mtshali who died this week, aged 84.

In a lengthy statement, the MKMVA said it was deeply saddened by "the passing away of our beloved commander and veteran".

"Comrade Mtshali dedicated his whole life, with selfless commitment, to the struggle for the liberation of all our people - especially black (and specifically African) South Africans."

According to the MKMVA, the Durban-born comrade Mtshali joined the liberation struggle straight after high school. 

About his decision to dedicate his life to the liberation of his people, Mtshali, often recalled how hard life was growing up in Claremont under the vicious apartheid regime, the statement said. 

"A strong believer in the power of education, he was deeply irked by the poor standard of ‘Bantu education’, and how instead of education being a tool for empowerment and advancement, it was abused to subjugate black South Africans and deepen the racial divide." 

In a recent interview he said: "The apartheid system was vicious. I was young, but there was no question I would join the struggle. Young people today do not understand or appreciate what it took to have the freedom we enjoy today, it cost lives, the splitting of families ... so much. I have no regrets, and I would do it again for the nation."

In 1951 Mtshali mobilised workers in the Dock and Harbour Workers Union and workers in the textile industry to protest against the repressive apartheid state. He worked closely with leading members of the liberation struggle such as Stephen Dlamini, MP Naicker, Wilson Cele and Harry Gwala who recruited him in 1957 into the South African Communist Party, of which he remained a staunch and outspoken member throughout his life. 

He was also one of the signatories to the Freedom Charter.

"MKMVA especially honours comrade with great reverence and respect as one our very own. One of the greatest liberation soldiers and commanders, who was a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) on the 16th of December 1961. He was a senior member of
MK’s underground operations team in the then Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). 

"As such, he did invaluable intelligence work."

According to the statement, Mtshali was eventually forced by the apartheid regime into 30 years of exile, but his singular dedication to the liberation struggle never waned. 

He went to the Soviet Union for military and intelligence training, and later also to Cuba. On his return to Tanzania where MK had its first military base, he was appointed Chief of Personnel and served with distinction under comrades Moses Kotane, JB Marks and Moses Mabida.

As Chief of Personnel, he was responsible for transporting MK members and military hardware across the Zambezi River. Among many other operations, he led a group of 12 MK and Zimbabwe African People’s Union cadres in an operation to rescue a section of the Luthuli Detachment that had been surrounded by Rhodesian forces. This was an extremely dangerous operation, that sadly was compromised when two of the three dinghies that were capsized in the Zambezi river and some of the soldiers were attached (sic) by crocodiles. 

"Despite some painful setbacks and many hardships, comrade Mtshali resolve to push through with the liberation struggle never wavered in the slightest."

He was also one of the founders of the ANC Intelligence Division, and as such worked closely with Jacob Zuma. Together with Chris Hani, Benson Ntshele and Don Nangu he founded Dawn, the weekly journal of MK. Mtshali was editor of Dawn from 1964 to 1969. 

He also presented South African workers in the World Federation of Trade Unions in Prague and Czechoslovakia.

"After our first democratic elections in 1994, Comrade Mtshali served in different government positions. From 1995 to 2000 he was the Deputy-Commissioner of Criminal Intelligence in KwaZulu-Natal, and he became an ANC councillor in the Ethekwini Metropolitan Council in 2000. He subsequently served as a Member of Parliament (MP) from 2004, distinguishing himself as a member of the portfolio committees on Labour,
Higher Education and Hunan Settlements.

"In 2015, Comrade Mtshali received the well well-deservedur of the National Order of Mendi for Bravery, as the citation stated: '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'.

"Always a humble servant of our people, comrade Mtshali responded by saying that (he) was receiving the National Order of Mendi for Bravery on behalf of all liberation soldiers who laid down their lives in the struggle for liberation. 

He said: "To have seen 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."

The MKMVA statement added that while acknowledging that much had been done by the ANC government to improve the lives of people, he expressed his concern that more could have been achieved and much still remains to be done. 

"The spear of a great revolutionary and fellow MK liberation soldier has fallen, as we bow in reverence to pick it up we vow to raise it high and with renewed vigor to continue with the struggle."

The MKMVA sent its heartfelt condolences to Mtshali’s family and loved ones, especially to his beloved wife uMama Gcinile Kunene, daughter Lindiwe Mtshali, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

African News Agency (ANA)