Thursday, July 30, 2020

Andrew Mlangeni

Andrew Mlangeni

Andrew Mlangeni, the last survivor of the infamous Rivonia Treason Trial, was laid to rest this week.

Aerial view of Liliesleaf Farm
The treason trial followed a swoop by the South African security police on Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia near Johannesburg. All the men arrested there were wanted on a variety of charges including treason, sabotage, terrorism, and a plethora of other offences including belonging the banned SA Communist Party and the banned African National Congress. Those arrested were White, Black, and of Indian descent. The defendants were a precursor to the Rainbow Nation—a common purpose where race was not the issue.

Nelson Mandela was the most famous of those arrested, and he was already under sentence for leaving the country illegally and for inciting workers to strike (yes, that was illegal also). He was hiding at the property in full view, pretending to be a gardener. Whites never looked twice at Blacks dressed in shabby work clothes on White properties.

Supporters outside the trial
The trial itself in 1964 was designed as a showpiece, the Apartheid government demonstrating its invincibility. Instead, it became an opportunity for the leaders of the ANC to speak out to the world. In the end, all but one of the defendants was found guilty. The charges carried the death penalty and most people thought that the accused would receive it, joining the throng of prisoners executed for many types of offense. (South Africa had the highest number of executions in the world at that time. Chris Marnewick, a South African lawyer now living in New Zealand, wrote a memorable, if gruelling, novel on the destructive effect of the death penalty on everyone connected with it called Shepherds and Butchers, which was made into a critically-acclaimed film.)

When the time came to pass sentence, each prisoner made a statement. This was when Nelson Mandela made his famous speech that included the words:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mlangeni, never one to seek the limelight, made a short statement asking the judge to “remember what we, African and nonwhite people, have had to suffer. That is all I have to say, except to add what I did was not for myself but for my people.” All the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment. The non-White prisoners were sent to Robben Island, South Africa’s answer to Alcatraz. But they were grateful. “Life is beautiful,” one of the men told his mother after the sentencing.

Mlangeni was one of the twelve children of a farm labourer who died young and left his family to fend for themselves. Andrew worked as a golf caddy and became a devotee of the game. He was recruited to the ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto WeSizwe, and went for training in China where he even met Chairman Mao. One can imagine the impact that would’ve had on him. Then he returned to South Africa to try to pressure the government through acts of sabotage.

On Robben Island, he was the first of the prisoners to take advantage of being allowed to study, and obtained a BA from UNISA, South Africa’s correspondence university. He was studying law at the time of his release, 26 years after the trial.

Mlangeni liked to describe himself as a "backroom boy". He wasn’t interested in ministerial positions. He served a term for the ANC in the first democratic parliament, but then stepped down and was influential behind the scenes. It gave him time to be with his family, time that had been stolen from him for twenty-six years. 

Socially distanced funeral
Remaining true to the principals that had sent him to prison in the first place. He attacked Jacob Zuma vehemently for corruption when most others were turning a blind eye at best and helping themselves to the spoils at worst. Zuma was a friend and colleague from the struggle days so this was a painful task. He might have been a backroom boy, but when the time came to speak out, he did so without hesitation and whatever the consequences. He was ostracised by the party and even by some of his friends, but it was remembered at his state funeral this week by several speakers. “Social distance, corruption, nepotism, arrogance, elitism, factionalism, manipulating organisational principles and abusing state power… are deeply entrenched,” former president Thabo Mbeki said of the ANC. Another minister said, “You saw it, tata (father)… instead of fighting for the development of our people, we are fighting for positions.”

Andrew Mlangeni died this month after a sudden illness at 95 years of age. Hamba Kahle.


  1. Thank you for this, Stan. I don’t know how I missed it, but I never knew the story of the trial and how the prisoners ended up in Robin Island together.

  2. Hi Annamaria,
    Actually it was me, but my fault for forgetting to put "Michael - Thursday" at the top.
    Amazing that it was a week where Andrew Mlangeni and John Lewis both had memorials - both struggle leaders but very different men. I was very moved by Obama's speech at the memorial yesterday. Lewis also wrote a piece for the NYT to be published after his death (I'm sure you saw it) in which he recalled a speech by Martin Luther King. It struck me that those powerful words applied to both these men:
    "He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself."

  3. Thank you Michael. I confess I had never heard of this man before. Do you know how the farm came to have that name? Built by some Scottish settlers perhaps?

  4. Very good question...that means I have no idea...

  5. As you pointed out, two heroes in the global battle for racial equality were honored this week at memorials. Deep in my heart I do believe that there's a vibrant new generation of dedicated activists about to emerge ... inspired by their lives and deeds.

  6. I well imagine Mr. Trump will show up at the Pearly Gates with his golf clubs, but lacking integrity or a reservation and/or tee off time.