Young South Africans have work cut out for them as Mlangeni exits

Friday August 14 2020

Andrew Mlangeni, a former apartheid struggle stalwart, died at the age of 95, on July 22, 2020. PHOTO | AFP


They have all left us now! Ninety-five-year-old Andrew Mlangeni, the only survivor of the anti-apartheid freedom fighters of the historic 1963 Rivonia trial in South Africa, died on July 21, 2020.

He was the last living defendant of the trial, which resulted in the sentencing of others, among them, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and, most famously, Nelson Mandela.

Police arrested them from Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, where Umkhonto wa Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) high command was meeting. They were convicted of treason on June 12, 1964.

The Rivonia trial provided the lenses from which the world saw South Africa’s apartheid system for what it was with the defendants becoming the rallying point for calls for freedom.

Sentenced to life, Mlangeni served 26 years on Robben Island as Prisoner No 467/64. His integrity was such that upon release, he continued living in Soweto, while he served as an MP for two terms, in the humble house he lived in before imprisonment.

Being the last to depart, Mlangeni eulogised all his co-accused and at Mandela’s funeral, he said his friend, “created hope where there was none.”


In May this year, I wrote about Mlangeni’s comments on the passing of Denis Goldberg, the second last survivor. He said his heart was sore from the loss since Goldberg had died during the Covid-19 crisis when mass gatherings, including at funerals were prohibited.

Unfortunately, many were not in a position to celebrate Mlangeni’s life during his special state funeral for the very same reason.

I had written about all the defendants in July last year after analysing the documentary titled The State Against Mandela and Others based on recovered sound archives.

Their lives provide a template to understand apartheid — Afrikaans for segregation — as a system of institutionalised racial segregation which, in an attempt to perfect the segregationist policies of the American south, became one of the most efficient racism models in the world.

Stellenbosch University was apartheid’s ideological intellectual home. White citizens had the highest political, social, economic status, followed by Asians, then coloureds with finally, Africans, at the bottom of the pile, in their own country.

Apartheid laws such as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages and Immorality Amendment Acts made the birth of children of mixed parentage like comedian Trevor Noah a crime.

The apartheid template authoritarian political culture was based on baasskap, white supremacy, a culture from which is rooted racist behaviour, social structure and ideology.

This culture had allowed, for centuries, the conquest in which millions of ‘uncivilised’ human beings were annihilated as a mark of ‘civilisation’ justifying the inferiority of especially darker skinned people as not only inferior but dispensable too. This is what Mlangeni and his fellow defendants at Rivonia fought against.

Their release from prison provided space for South Africa to provide another template, this time for transitional justice, on ways societies emerging from armed hostilities or prolonged unrest come to terms with their past.

Seeking to overcome apartheid’s legacies of violations, South Africa focused on, among other issues, reconciliation, memory, governance and justice through various processes, ranging from the Archbishop Desmond Tutu led Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Transitional justice created debates on relationships between individual and collective justice claims, structural causes of racism and its systematic impacts, how to focus on a less legalistic approach whilst emphasising indigenous initiatives and how not to solve a Western created apartheid system with liberal and/or Judeo-Christian norms on other cultures. There were heated discussions on what truth in truth telling actually entails and whether there are different versions of the truth and whether truth-telling mechanisms fulfil the expectations of victims.

We also learnt to distinguish memorials from monuments. “A monument celebrates, a memorial commemorates,” South Africans quipped. Museums came up as symbolic reparations to survivors, creating more accurate accounts of the past to remember those who suffered and died through Apartheid.

What a tragedy it was then for Mlangeni to witness another identity-based crisis, xenophobia, consistently rearing its ugly head as South Africa failed to acknowledge what a deep rooted and impactful problem it was!

Barely a year ago, in September 2019, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) held an unscheduled emergency meeting on South African xenophobia. The PSC usually only holds these kinds of meetings on issues considered a sufficient threat to Africa’s peace and security.

The passing of all the Rivonia defendants represents the end of a great era and the passing to the younger population of the never-ending race question that has afflicted South Africa for more than three centuries. What kind of South Africa will they, in turn, bequeath those who follow them? Hamba Kahle Andrew Mlangeni!