by Sir Nick Stadlen, London, 2020
Andrew Mlangeni, Accused No 10, who died on 21st July aged 95, was the last surviving defendant of the Rivonia trial, at the end of which he, Nelson Mandela and six others were sentenced in 1964 to life in prison for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid regime in South Africa by force. On trial for their lives, the 10 defendants, six black, three white and one Indian, decided to turn the trial into a political one, putting apartheid in the dock of world opinion and inspiring millions of their supporters in the country at a time when most of their leaders were in prison or exile.
Their decisions not to deny their role in the campaign of sabotage organised by the ANC’s armed wing, Mkhonto we Sizwe (“MK”), Spear of the Nation, and not to expose Mandela to cross-examination in the witness box – so that his speech from the dock would be a platform for an uninterrupted condemnation of apartheid – made death sentences, which their lawyers advised were likely, even more probable.
To them their lives were of secondary importance. Their courage was all the more remarkable given that, throughout the trial, in the prison where they were held, there was a ritual before the weekly 6am hangings. From 6pm the night before the whole prison sang in solidarity with the condemned men throughout the night. The gallows were not an abstract idea but an ever-present backdrop to the eight-month long trial. Joel Joffe, the sole defence attorney (solicitor) asked Govan Mbeki, Accused No 4, if he wasn’t frightened. “They put a noose round your neck, someone pulls a lever and you’re dead. What’s there to be frightened of?”
Fifty years later, I filmed Andrew and his co-defendant Denis Goldberg for my documentary on the Rivonia trial as they made a return visit to the dock in the Pretoria Supreme Court.
There, in April 1964, they had sat next to Mandela as they heard him challenge the judge to hang them all: “during my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the 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 live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Andrew said that they had all approved the speech and the feeling was indescribable. “I felt such pride.” In his own speech he said: “South Africa is a very rich country. The resources could be exploited for the benefit of all the people who live in it. This government and the previous governments have exploited not the earth but the people of various racial groups whose colour is not white. What I did was not for myself but for my people.”
The trial was the most important in South African history. It brought the evils of apartheid to the attention of the world and 30 years later led to its dismantling. But the price Andrew paid was enormous. He was subjected to electric shock torture (during which he did not react, leading his tormentors to give up) and spent 26 years and four months in Robben Island and other prisons, for the first ten suffering the indignity of being made to wear short trousers.
Whenever his wife got a job to support their children, the special branch had her sacked by telling her employers that her husband was a rapist and murderer. Without the support of the Anglican church, they would have starved. I asked him if it was worth it. “Oh yes. Definitely worth it. Those years were wasted and it should have ended sooner. But most definitely worth it.”
One of 10 siblings, of whom four including him were siblings, Andrew was born into extreme poverty on a white-owned farm near Bethlehem, in Orange Free State (now Free State province), where his father, Matia, worked as a labour tenant in exchange for a place to live for his family. When Andrew was six his father died and the family had to move to Bethlehem. Andrew did not go to school, a place he did not know existed until, at the age of 11, wondering where his friends disappeared to in the mornings, he secretly followed one of them. The destination turned out to be a church, where the children learned to count using piles of stones. He was a quick learner and excelled at school. At secondary school he was taught by Oliver Tambo, a future president of the ANC.
He got a job as a caddie in a Whites Only golf club to help his mother, Aletta, put food on the table. It was the start of a lifelong passion for golf. He started a golf club in Soweto where the course was on mud instead of grass and when he emerged from over 26 years in prison he was amazed and delighted to find a grass course in Soweto. But when he was 17 golf took second place to a new passion: politics. He was recruited to the Young Communist League by Elsa Watt, the sister of Hilda Watt, wife of Rusty Bernstein, Rivonia Accused No 6 and described being served tea by a young white woman as liberation. Later he joined the ANC and rose to be a senior organiser in Soweto. He was the first activist recruited by Mandela to MK.
In 1962 he was one of six MK recruits sent to China for training. While there they had a meeting with Mao Zedong and asked for tips on how to defeat apartheid. Speaking in English, Mao said: “If you try to cut someone’s arm off it’s very difficult. But if you cut off their little finger it’s just as painful,” leaving them to interpret his enigmatic advice for themselves. In 2018, while in London to receive the Freedom of the City of London, Andrew addressed an audience in the British Museum before the UK launch of my film to thank the English anti-apartheid activists for their support during the dark days on Robben Island. In the audience was Nanda Naidoo, one of the other recruits sent to China, whom he had not seen for 56 years.
On his return to South Africa in 1963 Andrew was put in charge of recruiting MK members and arranging to smuggle them abroad for training. One was Jacob Zuma, who was detained before he could leave the country and ended up on Robben Island with the Rivonia trialists. Andrew was arrested in his home at about the same time.
In the years after his release in 1989, Andrew retained the integrity that had led to his imprisonment. He remained a loyal member of the Communist party and of the ANC, serving two spells as an MP. Joel Joffe wrote that his nickname ‘The Robot’ reflected his capacity to stick to his post to the bitter end and his single-minded loyalty to a cause. But that did not stop him from repeatedly urging Zuma to resign as President in the latter years of alleged state capture.
Until his death he lived in modest circumstances in the same house in Soweto in which, apart from the prison years, he had lived since 1952. The framed photos on the walls alternated between him and leaders of the struggle and him winning golf trophies. Pride of place was a photo of the 1952 Committee of the Soweto golf club, including a beaming Mr A Mlangeni. No swimming pools at taxpayers’ expense for him.
In a speech in 2014 accepting an honorary doctorate from the University of South Africa, where many of the Robben Island political prisoners had obtained correspondence course degrees, he said of the Rivonia trialists: “We were a multiracial band of comrades whose aim was a non-racial South Africa.” He also said: “We did not spend 26 years in prison so that public officials could steal from the people or take bribes. Corruption must be stamped out ruthlessly.”
At the end of my documentary, Life Is Wonderful: Mandela’s Unsung Heroes, filmed in 2014 and released in 2018, he said: “When you see what is happening in the country today it makes your heart to bleed….(turning to Denis Goldberg)….It makes my heart to bleed Denis”.
In 2015 he became chairman of the ANC integrity and ethics committee. At Andrew’s 93rd birthday party, Cyril Ramaphosa, by then the South African President, spoke of his admiration for him. The first time he met him was on the committee to welcome the remaining trialists on their release from prison. As he got to know him he realised he had the same integrity as Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki. He was proud to regard him as a role model whose advice he was grateful to take. At Mandela’s funeral the Vice President of another country told him that South Africa was blessed in having the most valuable natural asset any country can have, living heroes. “He should be known as Mr. Integrity. In reply Andrew joked that he did not know the secret to reaching 93. “Perhaps it was because when we got married my wife and I agreed to have sex only three times a week. We always kept to that.” This was filmed live on TV and by the next morning he was known throughout South Africa as Mr Three Times A Week. History will remember him as Mr Integrity. Announcing his death, President Ramaphosa described Andrew’s dramatic life as a unique example of heroism and humility inhabiting the same person.
Andrew is survived by three of his children, Maureen, Sylvia and Sello and grandchildren. His wife, the former June Ledwaba, died in 2001. His son Aubrey also predeceased him .
Andrew was born on 6 June 1925 and died on 21st July 2020. That very night he and his departed comrades were being cheered and lauded to the rafters by 900 admirers in an online screening of the film which told their heroic stories. Not a bad way to bow out.