Andrew Mlangeni - the soldier who never took his boots off
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We glibly use the phrase “a soldier dies with their boots on”.
This week, if one were to enter a person’s name against this phrase in the dictionary of South African icons, not many would challenge Isithwalandwe, Andrew Mokete Mlangeni.
On the first anniversary of his passing, we can only be grateful that his family and the June & Andrew Mlangeni Foundation aptly decided to host the first Annual Memorial Lecture in his honour – to be delivered by Gauteng Premier David Makhura.
Ntate Mlangeni did not only die with his anti-apartheid and human rights activist’s boots on, but with his integrity intact. At this stage of the evolution of our democracy, amidst the threats to the very fabric of our being as a nation, 21 July 2020 - when he took his last breath at 95 years of age - ought to be commemorated as the national day of reflection and soul-searching. His tomb in Roodepoort might as well be a monument of national introspection.
As the inaugural Chairman of the Integrity Commission of the ANC, which was announced at the party’s 53rd elective congress in Mangaung in 2012, he had no easy ride. Still, he steadfastly opted to call out his own party and comrades on numerous occasions for any transgressions irrespective of seniority or rank.
Nothing less could be expected of the last of the Rivonia Trialists to bow out. Prisoner 467/64, bid us farewell a year ago, but his ethos should force us all to yearn for the ingredients of stalwarts like him: being principled, hard work, staying true to a cause, discipline, moral rectitude, honesty and sacrifice.
He was famously known for referring to himself as the “backroom boy”. This did not mean that his contribution to the struggle for freedom before and after 1994 was anything from the backroom. It implied putting people first, something he did before going to prison for 26 years and the rest of his honourable life.
Without going into detail, our daily national discourse is littered with incidents, accusations and counteraccusations of impropriety, both by private and public sector leaders. The many commissions are seized with testimonies about people in positions of stewardship falling short on one thing that Ntate Mlangeni treasured above all else: integrity.
He understood that integrity is truly the ability and willingness to do the right thing - especially when nobody is watching. He probably mastered this, among other things, from his ardent love affair with the game of golf. Those who walked the fairways with him vividly recall how he would regale them with the cardinal significance of this virtue.
In golf, one learns to play and compete against the contours of the course, the elements and their own temperament. Cheating on a stroke or stealing some inches to get closer to the hole is tantamount to cheating oneself.
Ntate Mlangeni strenuously tried to teach us all not to cheat ourselves and our children’s future by taking short cuts to score quick wins. On this occasion of the anniversary of his passing, the memorial lecture in his honour serves as an opportunity to take to heart the essence of the man. The theme of the lecture is relevant “Integrity and Revolutionary Ethics in the Year of Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke ''.
The confluence of Ntate Mlangeni’s lecture and the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mme Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke is another masterstroke by his family and the Foundation. The story of Mme Maxeke is not only about her being the first black South African woman to obtain a degree. It is about how she used her B. Sc from Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, in the US as her cue to return to her home country to serve others. That is why she set up a school, participated in the anti-colonial struggles – including being part of the launch of the South African Native National Congress (the ANC) in Mangaung in 1912, among many other sacrifices she made for the betterment of others.
These two titans of our country personify the richness of our heritage. They teach us to honour our rich history, which is replete with people who gave up everything including their lives to enable us to have what we sadly take for granted today.
This lecture on 06 June, at the point when our country craves redemption, could be the trigger of a rebirth to recapture the spirit of a winning nation by making governance, ethics and integrity priorities once more. We cannot ask any more of him, he did everything he could until his final moments. His commitment to humankind transcended his term as a Member of Parliament. It saw him continue to stay among his people in Dube, Soweto, where he was accessible to all while keeping his keen interest in national affairs.
May we once again bid farewell to Isithwalandwe, express our heartfelt gratitude and sign our acknowledgement of debt to people like him. The only way we can ever repay them is by retracing our steps to the point at which we strayed. Once we have done that, we should promise ourselves and people like Ntate Mlangeni to never again forget who they were and what they did for our country by betraying the ideals they fought gallantly for. It is possible. No odds are ever too dire for a recovery. Ntate Mlangeni, his fellow Rivonia Trialists and other freedom stalwarts have demonstrated that with consistency, humility, selflessness and integrity.
As in his favourite sport, golf, integrity is everything. The ability to do the right thing when nobody's watching, as the saying goes, can neither be bought nor sold. The same goes for our national pride. If we fail to get back to the core principles of Batho Pele, it will not be for lack of role models – like Andrew Mlangeni. My deepest condolences to his family, friends and all the people of our beloved South Africa.
* Professor Mkhize is the Chairperson of the June and Andrew Mlangeni Foundation.