26 July 2020
Departure marks end of era of selfless leaders who served with humility
Last month, a frail Andrew Mlangeni spoke about how he wished not to reach the age of 95, the age at which his friend and fellow Robben Islander, Nelson Mandela, died.
The struggle icon was speaking on the occasion of his 95th birthday on June 6, after glowing speeches by former presidents Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, and former IFP
leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
“I never thought I would reach this age I’m reaching today. When Madiba reached 95, he was so fragile, if I may use that word. He was like a cabbage to me. I had always said that if 95 years of life means to be like Madiba, then I hope I would not reach that age,” he said, during a virtual celebration of his birthday. “People were always saying to me, ‘Mlangeni, it is not you who is going to decide at what age you are going to die. Somebody else, God or your creator, is going to decide’.”
Just over a month after Mlangeni uttered these words, the anti-apartheid stalwart took his last breath in the early hours of Wednesday at the 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria.
He, like Mandela, was 95 years old when he died, at the same hospital where Mandela had been receiving treatment for a recurring lung infection and for a longstanding abdominal complaint. Mlangeni, too, had complained about his abdomen.
It is not only ill-health and the age of death that the two struggle veterans shared – but an illustrious life lived in the selfless service of the people of this country. The common thread running through the many tributes that poured in after Mlangeni’s death was that his passing marked the end of an era, the passing of the last of a generation of freedom fighters who sacrificed for our freedom and never expected or demanded any special recognition or personal benefit.
Heroism and humility
Mlangeni, who referred to himself as the “backroom boy” of the struggle, was the last of the Rivonia trialists to die, two months after the death of another trialist, Denis Goldberg.
In paying tribute to the fallen hero, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “Bab’ Mlangeni’s dramatic life was a unique example of heroism and humility inhabiting the same person and throughout his long life he remained a beacon of ethical leadership and care for humanity in our own country and around the globe.”
Namibian President Hage Geingob said Mlangeni “represents the last of a generation of top freedom fighters and cadres of the African National Congress who endured a lot for citizens of South Africa and the region at large to determine their own future as free and sovereign people”.
I never thought I would reach this age I’m reaching today. When Madiba reached 95, he was so fragile, if I may use that word. He was like a cabbage to me. I had always said that if 95 years of life means to be like Madiba, then I hope I would not reach that age
Mlangeni was born on June 6 1925 on a farm 15km outside of Bethlehem in the Free State. He was the ninth child and part of the second set of twins in a family of 12. His father died when he was six, leaving his wife, June, with 12 children to fend for. It was this dire situation that forced Mlangeni to do some caddy work at Bethlehem golf course to augment his mother’s and brothers’ meagre incomes – which explains his love for golf.
Mlangeni joined the ANC Youth League in 1951 and later joined the ANC in 1954. Having been a branch delegate at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, Soweto in 1955, Mlangeni was among the first to be sent for military training outside the country in 1961.
In 1964, Mlangeni was found guilty of acts of sabotage to overthrow the government and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, along with Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Ahmed Kathrada. Accused No10, Mlangeni, was released in 1989 after serving 26 years on Robben Island and became an MP after the 1994 democratic elections until his retirement in 2014.
A former combatant of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) and member of the SACP, Mlangeni embodied the values of selflessness and was outspoken on corruption, even after retirement.
The integrity commission of the ANC, under Mlangeni’s leadership, made damning findings that rattled the party leadership accused of corruption – the outcomes of which were often ignored and ridiculed by the leadership of the governing party. In 2016, Mlangeni’s integrity commission asked former president Jacob Zuma to resign amid accusations that he mortgaged the state to his friends, the
Perhaps one of the quotes that captures Mlangeni’s disdain for corruption is to be found in his speech at Rhodes University, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2018: “Some of our political leaders have become absolutely corrupt – they are no longer interested in improving the lives of our people. They are busy lining their pockets with the money that is meant to help the poor people.”
The corruption that Mlangeni was talking about continues to cripple our country’s democratic promise to deliver a better life for all. The looting of state coffers has hollowed out instruments of government meant to deliver to people, including state-owned enterprises, government departments and municipalities. So shameless are comrades that they are now stealing food parcels, blowing millions on blankets and inflating prices for medical equipment in the middle of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
His departure marks the end of a generational era of selflessness, humility, dedication and resilience in the service of the people. It is within this context that the question arises: Who will take the baton from the Mlangenis and Sisulus?
- Matlala is Sunday World politics editor.