Struggle icon Andrew Mlangeni being awarded honourary doctorates in (Public Administration) by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Photograph: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)
Struggle icon Andrew Mlangeni being awarded honourary doctorates in (Public Administration) by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Photograph: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

Encounters and lessons from Andrew Mlangeni

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 1, 2020

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My first encounter with Comrade Andrew Mlangeni was in late 1979 or early 1980 on Robben Island.

Mlangeni and his fellow Rivonia Treason Trial prisoners, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba and Ahmed Kathrada, had just had one of their consultations with their lawyers outside the administration block.

I was part of a group that had been working on repairing Robben Island roads and also dragging some seaweed from the ocean for export, apparently, to make perfumes in far-flung lands such as Taiwan, we were told.

Some of us in the group had just arrived on the island and were clearly over-awed to meet these famous Rivonia Treason Trial prisoners and heroes when the latter stopped to greet us.

In turn we introduced ourselves and they did the same and, as if they felt our intimidation by their presence, relaxed the mood by telling us “we know you come here with this misconception we are larger than life”

The funeral of late struggle veteran Andrew Mlangeni took place on Wednesday in Soweto. The 95-year-old died last week following a short illness. Rasta painting the portrait Picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency(ANA)

They then told us “we are just like you, we are not larger than life, even though we might be seen to be in the leadership of the organisation.”

This organisation is ours together to fight for the liberation or our country and people, they said, and, as leaders “we make mistakes, of which you have a duty to correct us if we are taking the organisation in the wrong direction”

For me and, I guess, the rest of the us in the group that day, this was such a refreshing take on true leadership, the sheer selflessness and profundity of it all, for men of their world renowned stature to address us much younger boys as their equals who must also “correct us!”

Even though we lived in different sections of the prison, comrade Mlangeni and his co-accuseds’ leadership and influence permeated throughout the island.

What was central to their very DNA was a heightened sense of fairness, of re-contextualising our outlook to life, our world view to respect and treat with dignity all people, especially women whose continued oppression meant that the liberation we were fighting for will be impotent.

Comrade Mlangeni’s life was, in jail and outside, a life steeped in the belief and teachings to live and work with what you have and resist or never take favours you did not ask for. This was a sure way of avoiding inevitable traps of “paybacks” in later days for favours done for you when you did not ask for them. Another moniker for corruption.

Through the force of example, skill and experience, they somehow honed a way of making you feel less self-conscious of your age, newness in prison, embarrassment about some new words and concepts when you were inspanned into novel pursuits like umrhabulo (mandatory political education classes), poverty or lack of support from home or simply that sense of less-worthiness.

Comrade Mlangeni belonged to that rare breed of liberation fighters who taught us to “do the right thing even when no one is watching”. His word and deed against corruption wherever it reared its ugly head, was legendary.

He mixed no words when he saw incompetence and greed of his own comrades and neglect of the still exploited working class and the suffering poor by some of those who are supposed to be their liberators.

True to his adage of being “the backroom boy” it’s like he made sure that, when his day is done, he’d have taken care of all his fellow Rivonia Trialists. He is the last of this illustrious and rare crop of revolutionaries to leave this world who fought tooth and nail to see our country free from political oppression and social exploitation.

For political ex-prisoners, freedom fighters, revolutionaries and many in social organisations, his was an enduring and a towering epitome of fortitude, steadfastness, fairness and moral greatness.

Robala ka Khotso le khutso, Mohlabani! Your revolutionary spirit lives!

Seakhoa is a former Robben Island prisoner and member of the Robben Island Museum & World Heritage Site Council

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