Andrew Mokete Mlangeni (95), the last surviving co-defendant convicted with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg and four others at the Rivonia Trial of 1963-1964, has died on 21 July 2020. His death came shortly after the death of Goldberg, who passed away on 29 April 2020. Mlangeni’s death signals the end of an era for South Africa’s liberation struggle since he was so closely associated with Mandela’s generation. Mlangeni and his co-accused were found guilty of sabotage and handed life sentences which they served in Robben Island Prison near Cape Town. To the apartheid state Mlangeni was known as Prisoner no. 467/64. He was only relased in 1989 after serving 26 years of his sentence. Mandela, who was released the same year, served 27 years. While Mandela was the charismatic leader, Mlangeni was the modest gentleman who avoided the spotlight. He described himself as a “backroom boy” who preferred to work behind the scenes. Throughout his life Mlangeni personified the values and principles which characterised his generation.
Mlangeni was born in 1925 on a farm near Bethlehem in the eastern Free State. His father, a farm labourer, passed away when he was only six years old. Due to financial problems Mlangeni and his mother moved to Soweto in 1939 where he started to work as a caddy at the Johannesburg Golf Course. He was only 20 years old when he joined the Young Communist League (YCL), the youth wing of the South African Communist Party (SACP), in 1945. Mlangeni’s cell leader was Ruth First, wife of fellow communist, Joe Slovo. In 1951 Mlangeni joined the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and in 1954 he joined the African National Congress (ANC). He attended the Congress of the People held in 1955 at Kliptown outside Johannesburg as an ANC branch delegate. The adoption of the Freedom Charter and the proceedings of the Treason Trial (1956-1961) during which many of Mlangeni’s comrades were hauled to court, had sharpened his political conscience. As a result, Mlangeni felt urged to become more actively involved in the liberation struggle.
Mlangeni’s active involvement in the armed struggle dates back to the early 1960s, when he was hand-picked by Mandela to join a select group of five other men, including Raymond Mhlaba and Joe Gqabi, to be sent for military training in the People’s Republic of China. It was also during this time (1961) that uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) was formed after the banned ANC and SACP realised that opposing the apartheid state by peaceful means was futile. In China the small group of South Africans personally met with Mao Zedong, head of the Chinese Communist Party, who had expressed his country’s solidarity with the liberation struggle. In China Mlangeni and his comrades were taught the art of Maoist-style urban warfare, including military insurgency, intelligence, radio technology, and how to handle explosives.
Inspired to put into practice what he was taught in China, Mlangeni returned to South Africa in 1963 with renewed vigour for the daunting task that lay ahead. At that time the apartheid state already boasted the most powerful military on the African continent and it could also rely on its widely-feared security police. Despite his running the real risk of being arrested, Mlangeni and another comrade, Elias Motsoaledi, embarked on a covert campaign to recruit young black men to sign up for military training abroad. However, things went badly for the two when they were arrested after their activities became known to security police agents. Mlangeni and other suspects were kept in custody in terms of the notorious law which permitted detention without trial for 90 days.
On 11 July 1963 almost all members of MK’s High Command were arrested during a police raid on Lilliesleaf Farm at Rivonia near Johannesburg. Mlangeni was charged alongside them with sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state through violent means. During the trial, which gripped the nation and made international headlines, Mlangeni testified that what he did “was not for myself but for my people”. In June 1964 Mlangeni and the seven other accused were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. The well-known advocate Bram Fischer acted for the accused and it is widely believed that because of Fischer’s plea they were spared the death sentence. During his time in prison Mlangeni enrolled for and successfully completed a number of degrees, including a BA Honours in Political Science.
Unlike many other struggle activists, Mlangeni was fortunate to see the realisation of a democratic South Africa in 1994. From 1994 to 1999 he served as a respected Member of Parliament (MP) and then in the National Assembly from 2009 until his retirement in 2014. In 1999 he was awarded the Presidential Order for Meritorious Service: Class 1 (Gold) by his longtime friend and comrade, former President Nelson Mandela. During his retirement Mlangeni, who was an avid golf player, emphasised the importance of ethical leadership. He also did not shy away from criticising those in the ANC who undermined the organisation’s principles. Mlangeni was married to June Ledwaba, who was not only a supporting wife but also a struggle activist in her own right. After his wife’s passing in 2001 Mlangeni established the June & Andrew Mlangeni Foundation in her honour. The foundation’s values, namely compassion, humility, passion and African excellence, characterised Mlangeni’s life.
It is hoped that Andrew Mlangeni’s example of modest and principled leadership will be an inspiration for generations to come. South Africa bids farewell to a gentleman struggle veteran.
Anon. Andrew Mokete Mlangeni, http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/andrew-mokete-mlangeni.html, viewed 23-07-2020.
Anon. The June & Andrew Mlangeni Foundation, http://www.mlangenifoundation.org/about-us.html, viewed 25-07-2020.
Cowell, A. Andrew Mlangeni, ally of Mandela in anti-apartheid struggle, dies at 95, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/22/world/africa/andrew-mlangeni-dead.html, viewed 23-07-2020.
Dlamini, P. Andrew Mlangeni a rare breed of leaders – biographer, http://www.sowetanlive.co.za/news/south-africa/2020-07-22-andrew-mlangeni-a-rare-breed-of-leaders-biographer.html, viewed 25-07-2020.
Fihlani, P. Andrew Mlangeni: last Mandela co-accused dies aged 95, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53498050.html, viewed 23-07-2020.
Volksblad, 24-07-2020, p. 6.
 Mlangeni’s biography, The backroom boy: Andrew Mlangeni’s story, by Mandla Mathebula was published by Wits University Press in 2017.