It says a lot about the character of Andrew Mlangeni that when he was released from prison in 1989 – for crimes he didn’t commit, by the way – he returned to his humble abode in Dube, in Soweto, near Johannesburg; the very family home where police burst into his bedroom in the middle of a cold winter’s night in 1963 to arrest him.
This home was as humble and wholesome as the man’s approach to life. Sure, Mlangeni enjoyed a convivial party and the golf course, but not for him sipping Chivas Regal in a polo club, nor huge flashy houses, nor the latest luxury cars; never greed, nor vast wealth, for Andrew Mlangeni. For what? He would have said. During all those murky years of the President Jacob Zuma, when did anyone ever see the name of Mlangeni come up? Never.
“He was a principled man, of note,” says former finance minister and parliamentary colleague Nhlanlha Nene.
Principle that cost Mlangeni more than a quarter of his life behind bars for something he didn’t do. He told me that the police merely transferred the charges of sabotage levelled at his comrade, the late former defence minister Joe Modise, to him.
“I didn’t do anything!” Mlangeni told me half a century later. He pleaded guilty with Nelson Mandela and his comrades in a show of solidarity intended to put the apartheid government on trial. It worked and overnight the accused transcended criminal charges to be seen as the freedom fighting Benjamin Franklins of Africa.
Mlangeni grew up in Soweto as a towering man of principle, who never backed down. When he was arrested in 1963, police tortured him brutally with electrodes and their fists. In a chance meeting in 2010, ironically in the colonial splendour of the Rand Club in downtown Johannesburg, Mlangeni puffed on a Consulate cigarette, with a group of friends,as he told me of this torture 50 years before. The police tortured him with electrodes and dished out arguably the worst beating inflicted on any of the Rivonia trialists. He said at one point the police were waterboarding him; that is, holding a bag over his head while they poured water through.
“I felt my lungs fill up, I was drowning, I was gone…then one of the police hit me hard in the stomach and all of the water spurted out of me and I was OK!”
All of us listening, over post lunch drinks, laughed including the late veteran photographer, Alf Kumalo, who once had his skull cracked in police cells. If you have suffered through politics or journalism, as Alf had in both, you tend to see the funny side of the ugliest of moments.
Everyone has and Andrew Mlangeni story including Sello Hatang the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
“He called me Murwa because I shared a first name with his son. He always made time for me, and always brought a smile to my face with his dry, self-deprecating sense of humour. When asked one day about his lifelong smoking habit, for instance, he responded: It has ruined my singing voice.’’ When asked on another occasion, late in life, if he was still playing golf, he said: ‘If not for my knee I would still be out on the tee,’” recalls Hatang.
It was fitting, in 2018, that Mlangeni was awarded the prestigious freedom of Johannesburg – the city where he was put in chains and incarcerated a lifetime ago. A precious gift of freedom to a man who knew how hard and painful it was to achieve.
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