Bra Thobo’s life was lived in spirit of Thuma Mina
On May 17 I was in my office in Pretoria considering our role, as the National Heritage Council (NHC), in the funeral of Mfengu Makhalima, scheduled for the next day in the Eastern Cape.
Makhalima, a former Robben Island inmate and member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu), became the first chief whip of the ANC in the Bhisho legislature.
It was just at that moment we received another bolt of sad news that Thobile Mhlahlo, the first MEC for public works in the Eastern Cape, had been called to higher service.
Shocked and saddened, my mind raced back to the volatile early 1990s when I interacted with Bra Thobo, as Mhlahlo was fondly called. Having defeated the scourge of apartheid, SA was in the process of transition. At that time I was part of the ANC leadership of the Transkei region, engaging with other regions, including Border and the Eastern Province, to amalgamate all under one Eastern Cape province.
Mhlahlo, gallant and fearless Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) commissar that he was, played a key role in this process.
Amalgamation meant aligning different systems and incorporating the civil servants who administered them into one mainstream. It meant collapsing homeland armies and the South African Defence Force (SADF), MK, and APLA into one formidable new armed force.
The divide-and-rule strategy had left the Eastern Cape torn apart, pitting ethnic groups against one another. The Ciskei and Transkei homelands were ruled by tin-pot dictators Lennox Sebe and Kaiser Matanzima respectively.
Great skill and imagination was needed in ensuring the proper amalgamation of these varied regions. When he played a central role in this amalgamation was when we witnessed Mhlahlo’s statesmanship and craftsmanship. He made a great impression on Raymond Mhlaba, the first premier of the Eastern Cape.
Mhlahlo, this highly analytical, dynamic and multidimensional character, was the first member of the executive council (MEC) for public works in the Eastern Cape.
Among other things, he was charged with implementing the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), directly aimed at redress, considering years of socioeconomic injustices under apartheid. He excelled in his work.
As the youngest MEC in Mhlaba’s cabinet, heading the portfolio for development planning youth and gender, I looked up to Mhlahlo, trying to model myself on him. He remained my inspiration throughout our tenure as MECs, both during Mhlaba’s era and that of his successor, the late Rev Makhenkesi Stofile.
It comes as no surprise that Mhlaba, and subsequently Stofile, had faith and confidence in Bra Thobo. He had long earned his stripes during apartheid days. Forever an ANC member at heart, Mhlahlo was an employee of the Ford Motor company in Port Elizabeth.
He was recruited into the Sactu underground structures by Sipho Hina and Dennis Neer in 1976. The union’s political activism was taken to the Port Elizabeth townships, bridging the gap between workers’ and township struggles.
In 1979 Mhlahlo went to Lesotho, where he learnt how to conduct his underground work.
Sactu then instructed Mhlahlo to connect with Makhalima, who lived in Alice, and to come under his tutelage.
Together with other workers from Ford and Volkswagen in PE, Mhlahlo became one of the first members of the Motor Assemblies and Components Worker’s Union of South Africa (Macwusa) in 1980.
Macwusa worked closely with the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation (Pebco) on community matters. Then, in 1985, Mhlahlo received instructions to join Sactu in exile.
As the country undergoes a process of renewal in the spirit of Thuma Mina, after witnessing, “nine wasteful years”, and as our dynamic young premier Oscar Mabuyane prepares to lead our province to a brighter and more prosperous future, we should recall that there lived a humble and committed man by the name of Mhlahlo who selflessly gave his all for this province and the country.
Not only should we celebrate Mhlahlo’s life and achievements: we should also leave a lasting memorial for posterity. The naming of a street after him in Klipplaat, just outside Port Elizabeth, is just one demonstration that the government is committed to transforming our heritage landscape.
But most importantly, the names of heroes such as Mhlahlo should be etched in the history books, enabling all to read about their sacrifices and commitment to our beloved country. As the National Heritage Council, through our various programmes, we will ensure this happens, holding the legacy of Mhlahlo and others in high esteem.
There lived a humble and committed man who gave his all