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February 1981: The last known photograph of lawyer Griffiths Mxenge, brutally murdered by a death squad in 1981, and his wife Victoria, an activist assassinated in 1985. (Photograph by Gallo Images/Sunday Times Archive)

The lives of two of South Africa’s bravest civil rights lawyers, Mlungisi Griffiths Mxenge, and his wife, Victoria Nonyamezelo Mxenge were cut short by apartheid agents. Their ultimate sacrifices for the liberation of South Africans should be remembered and honoured. Here are the couple’s inspiring stories.

Mlungisi was born on 27 February 1935 in Rayi Location, which is five kilometers from Qonce (formerly King Williams Town) in the Eastern Cape. He was the eldest son of Johnson Pinti and Hannah Nowise Mxenge. He completed his primary school education at a local school and obtained his secondary education at Forbes Grant Secondary School in Ginsburg near Qonce.

In 1956, Mlungisi matriculated at Newell High School in Gqeberha [formerly Port Elizabeth), in the Eastern Cape. In 1959 he completed the Bachelor of Arts (BA) Degree at the University of Fort Hare in Alice (Eastern Cape) majoring in Roman Dutch Law and English. It was at this university where he joined the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANCYL).

Mlungisi graduated from Fort Hare University and registered at the University of Natal for the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) Degree. He married Victoria Nonyamezelo just as he started his law degree. His LLB studies were disturbed when he was detained in 1965 for 190 days. He was also convicted under the Suppression of Communism Act for his political activities in the ANC and was imprisoned on Robben Island for two years.

Victoria Nonyamezelo Mxenge was born on 1 January 1942 in Tamara Village in King William’s Town, daughter of Wilmot Gosa and Nobatu Ntebe. She completed her primary education at Tamara, a suburb of Qonce in the district of Amathole in the Eastern Cape.

Victoria attended Forbes Grant Secondary School in Ginsburg where she completed her junior certificate and in 1959 she matriculated from Healdtown Comprehensive School near Fort Beaufort, in the Eastern Cape. She qualified as a nurse at Victoria Hospital before proceeding to King Edward VIII Hospital where she obtained her qualification as midwife. They were blessed with three children, two boys and a girl.

After Mlungisi’s release from Robben Island he was served with a two-year banning order which was followed by sporadic detentions, including 109 days in solitary confinement. Over time he completed his LLB degree, served articles, and met all requirements for admission as an attorney. It was not until 1974 that Mlungisi was granted permission to practice as an attorney. The government, capitalizing on his conviction under the Suppression of Communism Act, turned down a number of his representations, despite the fact that he met all requirements. After he was granted permission to practice, he moved swiftly to defend those who had been denied their civil rights.

Mlungisi represented Joseph Mdluli, who worked with him in Durban and was detained for his uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) activities. He also represented Mapetla Mohapi of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Both his clients died in police detention. Mlungisi was the instructing attorney for the three advocates who formed the defense team in the 1979 Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) trial. The first accused was Zephania Mothopeng, the PAC stalwart who was charged under the Terrorism Act.

Beyond his legal practice, Mlungisi served in a number of progressive structures. He was an active member of the Release Nelson Mandela Committee. He served as a member of Lawyers for Human Rights, and was a founder member of the South African Democratic Lawyer’s Association. He was involved in numerous community projects and helped establish a community newspaper, Ukusa, in the 1980s. Politically Mlungisi was a stalwart of the ANC. He was affectionately known as ‘the ANC lawyer’.

In 1981, about five years after her husband had set up his law practice, Victoria acquired legal qualifications, joined the practice, and was admitted as an attorney. Mlungisi was assassinated on the night of 19 November 1981 and his body was severely mutilated in an act of barbaric savagery. His murderers used three okapi knives, a hunting knife and a wheel spanner because they were instructed not to kill him with a gun. They inflicted 45 lacerations and stab wounds that pierced his body, lungs, liver and heart. His throat was slit and his ears were cut off and his stomach was ripped open. It fell upon Victoria to identify Mlungisi’s mutilated body at a government mortuary the morning after his murder. The presiding magistrate ruled that his death was caused by “the act of some unknown person or persons”.

Victoria strongly refuted the claim of police Captain Dirk Coetzee that Mlungisi had been murdered by the ANC. Instead, she believed that the government had carried out her husband’s assassination. She issued a statement defiantly declaring that “… when people have declared war on you, you cannot afford to be crying. You have to fight back. As long as I live, I will never rest until I see that justice is done, until Griffiths Mxenge’s killers are brought to book”. Mlungisi Griffiths Mxenge was laid to rest on 2 December 1981 at the family cemetery at his home village of Rayi near King William’s Town. More than 15 000 mourners paid their last respects to him.

Following the assassination of Mlungisi, Victoria continued to represent political detainees. She played a more prominent role in the struggle for liberation. She was active within the Natal Organization for Women (NOW) which was a United Democratic Front (UDF) affiliate.

Victoria worked with young people by representing them when they were detained or faced political charges. She also presented political classes for the youth from her home. She always encouraged the youth to focus on their education and even assisted some of them financially to access tertiary education using a bursary fund, Griffiths Mxenge Education Memorial Trust, which she had established in her late husband’s honour. She also worked closely with her fellow comrades from the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) to destroy apartheid and replace it with non-racialism.

In July 1985, Victoria was invited to deliver a speech at the funeral of the four slain UDF leaders from Cradock. In her speech, she ominously declared: “Go well, peacemakers. Tell your great-grandfathers we are coming because we are prepared to die for Africa”. It is widely believed that the speech Victoria delivered at the funeral could have been the immediate cause which made her a target for assassination.

Victoria was assassinated on 1 August 1985. Reportedly, she was shot by four men and they axed her in the head in the drive-way of her home. At the time of her death she was a senior member of the UDF and an instructing attorney in the Pietermaritzburg treason trial of 16 leaders of the UDF and NIC. That trial was due to start the following day, namely on 2 August 1985. Her assassination was therefore possibly linked with it.

Victoria was laid to rest next to her husband at Rayi Cemetery in the presence of 10 000 mourners. The Mxenge family received messages of condolence from Nelson Mandela who was in prison at that time, and Oliver Tambo, who was in exile. It was believed that the large scale of unrest in Natal from the time of Victoria’s death through 1987 was associated with protest connected with her brutal murder. The violence that erupted immediately after her death was testimony to the fact that many people, including students whose organizations were affiliates to the UDF and the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO), saw her death as a manifestation of the liberation struggle.

Mlungisi’s murderers are known today. They have confessed to committing the murder and they are: Dirk Coetzee, Almond Nofomela, Joe Mamasela, Brian Ngqulunga and David Tshikalanga. All of these men were policemen and agents of the apartheid government’s death squads. In 1996 the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) granted them amnesty. The record of the hearing on the death of Mlungisi before the Amnesty Committee contains the confessions of his murderers.

In 2006, Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge were awarded posthumously the national order known as the Order of Luthuli in Silver for their exceptional contribution to the field of law and sacrifices made in the fight against apartheid oppression in South Africa. The citation rightly notes that “as husband and wife, they forfeited family life in pursuit of the broader family of humanity, united non–racialism, non–sexism and justice for all South Africans. The Order of Luthuli is a South African honour granted by the President for contributions to South Africa and it is named after former ANC President, the late Chief Albert Luthuli, a Nobel Laureate.

The story of Mlungisi and Victoria Mxenge is one of hope. During a time of danger, they didn’t sit still and waited for things to change. They took action and made the ultimate sacrifice for the people of South Africa. The liberation struggle history is not beautiful, yet it is through stories like these where we find an act of love, namely, a husband and wife who dedicated their lives for the freedom of others. They became outstanding attorneys and stood for those who were defenseless against the apartheid regime. The manner in which they were brutally killed and were taken away from their young children who needed their parents points to the enormous price they have paid. Thank you Victoria and Mlungisi Mxenge for your sacrifice.

 Sources

ANC press release, ‘Statement on the murder of Griffiths Mxenge, November 1981’, https://web.archive.org/web/20080602212101/http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/or/or81-17.html (accessed 26 November 2021).

Anon. ‘Love and sacrifice: Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge’, < https://www.maropeng.co.za/news/entry/love-and-sacrifice-griffiths-and-victoria-mxenge > (accessed 11 March 2022).

Inaugural Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge memorial Lecture, delivered at the Faculty of Law – Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University on 30 October 2009 by Justice Dikgang Moseneke. “Establishing Social Consensus on the shifting boundaries between Judicial and Executive functions of the state – lessons from the recent past”, < https://lectures.mandela.ac.za/lectures/media/Store/documents/Public%20Lectures/Inaugural-Griffiths-And-Victoria-Mxenge-Memorial-Lecture.pdf > (accessed 15 March 2022).

‘Mlungisi Griffiths & Victoria Nonyamezelo’, The Order of Luthuli in Silver, < https://www.thepresidency.gov.za/national-orders/recipient/mlungisi-griffiths-mxenge-and-victoria-nonyamezelo > (accessed 25 November 2021).

Mzolo, B.G. ‘Remembering Victoria Mxenge’, < https://1860heritagecentre.wordpress.com/2018/08/01/remembering-victoria-mxenge-by-bg-mzolo/ > (accessed 11 March 2022).

Manenzhe, J. The politicisation of funerals in South Africa during the 20th century (1900 – 1994) M.A. Dissertation (University of Pretoria, 2007).

SAHA Archive for justice, ‘Griffiths Mxenge, a fallen hero!’ https://www.saha.org.za/news/2011/November/griffiths_mxenge_a_fallen_hero.htm (accessed 25 November 2021).

Sonderling, N.W. (ed.). New Dictionary of South African Biography:  2 (Pretoria: Vista University, 1999).

South Africa History online, ‘Griffiths Mlungisi Mxenge’ <https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/griffiths-mlungisi-mxenge > (accessed 15 March 2022)

South Africa History online, ‘Griffiths Mxenge is murdered’, https://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/griffiths-mxenge-murdered (accessed 24 November 2021).

Khotso Pudumo
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