FAREWELL TO A STRUGGLE STALWART
Keeper of the party purse — and the party’s dirty secrets
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers a eulogy during a funeral service for ANC stalwart Mendi Msimang held at the Christian Revival Church in Pretoria. Msimang, who died in Pretoria this week at the age of 89, was SA’s first post-apartheid high commissioner to the UK, one of the oldest remaining struggle veterans of the ANC and its treasurer-general when the controversial arms deal was negotiated.
● Mendi Msimang, who has died in Pretoria at the age of 89, was SA’s first post-apartheid high commissioner to the UK, one of the oldest remaining struggle veterans of the ANC and its treasurer-general when the controversial arms deal was negotiated.
He kept a low profile but was ANC aristocracy and part of the inner family of returning exiles. As keeper of the ANC purse he knew more about the extent and source of party funding than anyone, and who may have benefited and how. This made him a figure of power and influence in the party.
In exile he was close to the centre of power, notably ANC president Oliver Tambo, who he knew from his days as an articled clerk in the Tambo and Mandela law firm. This may have saved him when he was found to be running his own private intelligence network in the 1960s.
He was, and remained, a close friend and confidant of Thabo Mbeki. He was a witness at his marriage to Zanele in London in 1974.
He was chosen to give the peroration on behalf of the ANC at the funeral of murdered South African Student Organisation (Saso) leader Onkgopotse Tiro in Botswana in 1974.
Saso was started by Steve Biko. Relations between its Black Consciousness-aligned activists and the ANC were strained after Biko said the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress no longer commanded mass support in SA and were less influential than BC activists. The ANC regarded them as upstarts and sent the quiet but not-to-be-messedwith Msimang to Tiro’s funeral to put them in their place.
In his speech he slapped them down brutally. They were “just small boys” who should grow up and become part of the ANC’s youth wing, he told them. He had cut his political teeth in the ANC Youth League where he got to know Walter Sisulu.
Born on December 8 1928 in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, he matriculated at Mariannhill High School in KwaZulu-Natal, went to University of Roma in Lesotho (then called Pius XII University) where he met future ANC treasurer-general Thomas Nkobi and other future comrades.
Politics interrupted his studies and he never graduated. He did the bookkeeping and administration for Sisulu’s real-estate firm on the second floor of Chancellor House in Johannesburg. Mandela and Tambo’s law firm was on the floor below.
Close to Tambo
As the only black law firm in Johannesburg at the time it was in great demand. During the Defiance Campaign of the early ’50s its office was swamped with people whose relatives had been arrested. Sisulu sent Msimang to help it out. Msimang duly became articled to the firm and developed a close relationship with Tambo in particular.
When Tambo went into exile in 1960 to begin the ANC’s international campaign against apartheid, Msimang went to help him establish the ANC in London.
From there he was sent to Tanzania to set up ANC offices in Dar es Salaam and Morogoro, Tanzania. From Dar es Salaam he ran his own intelligence-gathering apparatus in London. Much of the information was about South African exiles arriving in the city.
Work on education
When some of his colleagues discovered the existence of his private network in 1967 they confronted him but he refused to give any explanation.
He was sent to India as the ANC’s chief representative in the late ’60s, then returned to Tanzania and worked on the education desk in Dar where he helped establish Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in 1979. He helped ANC cadres and students who had left SA after the 1976 student uprising to further their education.
From there he was posted to Lusaka where he worked in Tambo’s office until being sent to run the ANC office in London, where he stayed until returning to SA in 1994. After the elections he became MP and first chair of the ANC caucus in parliament.
While serving as high commissioner in London he was elected treasurer-general of the ANC at the 1997 Mafikeng conference, handpicked by Mbeki.
He had little public profile during the Mbeki presidency but much influence. It was speculated that this got his wife, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, her job as health minister. It may also have made her politically unassailable when her bizarre theories about HIV/Aids made her a national liability.
As treasurer-general Msimang was party to some delicate, if not shady, negotiations and agreements involving Mbeki and others around arms deal contracts, and in a position to share, if he had a mind to, whatever dirty secrets attached to them.
Former Thales fixer Ajay Sooklal told a judge under oath in 2014 that Msimang had accepted a cheque for à1m (about R14m at the time) from the French arms bidder to be paid from a secret Dubai account into an ANC-aligned trust nominated by Msimang.
Thales’s SA subsidiary Thint was awarded a R2.6bn contract to fit four navy frigates with combat suites. According to Sooklal, the cheque was handed over to Msimang at his home in Waterkloof, Pretoria.
Among his other roles, Msimang was a member of the ANC’s integrity commission.
Msimang married his first wife, Agnes, also a struggle stalwart, in Lusaka. They divorced and he married Tshabalala-Msimang, who died in 2009.
He is survived by four children. Four children predeceased him.
Mendi Msimang at an Aids policy press conference in 2002.