Why 95-year-old struggle stalwart Andrew Mlangeni was “happy and proud” about a life sentence.

By Chris Bishop

It says a lot about the personality of the last survivor of the trial that saw Nelson Mandela face death that when he emerged from 27 years in prison he returned to the same tiny township home he had been arrested in on a cold, crisp, winter’s evening nearly three decades before. The bedroom where rough tough police pushed their way in, on June 24 1963, to arrest Andrew Mlangeni, who was in bed with his wife June Johanna, is now his book-filled study where he worked for years to improve the life of his  people; there is an uplifting metaphor for hope in life if ever there was one.    

Not for Mlangeni the status symbol big empty multi-storey mansions of rich; he preferred to stay in the house be bought, in Dube in Soweto the Johannesburg township where he was born, close to his family and the people who supported his liberation politics. In his mid-eighties, a time when most people have retired, the member of Parliament Mlangeni opened up an office for his people in Dube.

“People can come here and we can help them,” he said of his new office in 2009.     

The widely respected Mlangeni joined the struggle in 1951 – the year he met Mandela for the first time at a train station in Soweto. He was always destined for the struggle and often used to talk of the influence future African National Congress leader OR Tambo had on him as he taught him science and mathematics at school.   

There is no doubt Mlangeni was a tough as nails; he fought exploitation as a young factory worker and led a bus strike in Johannesburg in the late 1940s- the days when violence and coercion were the order of the day. He trained as a soldier in China, in the early 1960s and soon after his return to South Africa he was captured in the famous police raid on Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia-the suburb that lent the trial its name.

As I write this, on June 6 2020 the sun is going down over Soweto on Mlangeni’s 95th birthday – an day to celebrate an achievement in both perpetuity and politics. Where ever he is tonight, Mlangeni will be surrounded by his comrades and friends; quite right too for one who sacrificed so much for many. I was lucky to spend time with him in the making of the CNBC Africa documentary Liliesleaf – the Untold Story and his bluff, no nonsense, persona left an indelible mark on me.    

In the dark days of the underground struggle, in the early 1960s, Mlangeni suffered more than most at the hands of bullying police. In the cells at the old Johannesburg Fort – now the Constitutional Court – where the Rivonia trialists were hauled in chains after the raid, his jailers were ruthless in seeking, in vain, information.

 In a chance meeting in 2010, ironically in the colonial splendour of the Rand Club in downtown Johannesburg, he puffed on a Consulate cigarette as he told me of how 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, including the late veteran photographer, Alf Kumalo, who once had his skull cracked in police cells, laughed. If you have suffered through politics or journalism, especially as Alf had, you tend to see the funny side of the ugliest of moments.

We even chuckled over the fact that no evidence was directed towards Mlangeni during the Rivonia trial – meaning he spent a lifetime in prison for doing nothing wrong. He pleaded guilty, on principle, to all the charges, shoulder-to-shoulder with his comrades, in the hope the hearing would put apartheid South Africa on trial. It did, the so called terrorists in the dock caught the imagination of the world’s press and transformed into the Benjamin Franklins of Africa.

This principle cost Mlangeni 27 years of his life. In the back of the police van leaving the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, on their way to Robben Island, the accused, including Mandela and Mlangeni, held up three fingers to the young advocate George Bizos who had helped them escape the death sentence.

“Three years George and we will be out!”

It turned out not to be so. A life sentence in apartheid days, meant life, as Robben Island  prisoner, the late Ahmed Kathrada, once commented to me with a hint of irony.

It is a measure of the man that Mlangeni said of his feelings about the 1964 life sentence, nearly half a century on: “We felt happy and proud  that although the propaganda outside from the government that we were murderers, terrorists and rapists, people now knew we were none of these things and people knew what we were fighting for. That feeling that they know we are not thieves, that we are fighting for freedom, that is what kept us going.” How much would people give to hear a leader speak that way in 2020?

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