The Daily Telegraph

Andrew Mlangeni

Last surviving defendant in the Rivonia trial of 1964 sentenced to life imprisonme­nt with Mandela


ANDREW MLANGENI, who has died aged 95, was one of eight men, including Nelson Mandela, who were sentenced to life imprisonme­nt in the Rivonia trial of 1964 for attempting to overthrow the South African government; he served more than 25 years, much of it on the notorious Robben Island, before being released in 1989 as the country’s apartheid regime crumbled.

In 1961 Mlangeni had been a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the ANC’S armed wing, having first proved himself by performing press-ups in front of Mandela. He was selected for military training overseas and was smuggled out of the country and on to China, where on one occasion he was astonished to be visited by Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping, recalling how Mao “looked me straight in the face”.

On his return Mlangeni put into action the lessons that he been taught in bomb-making, setting booby traps and secret communicat­ion techniques. He also disguised himself as a priest, travelling around the country as the Rev Mokete Mokoena, recruiting young black people to the antiaparth­eid cause. He was arrested in 1963, having broken one of the basic tenets of insurgency by staying at his own home rather than in a safe house.

Mlangeni was the quietest of the defendants in what became known as the Rivonia trial, which was held in a highly charged atmosphere and included Mandela’s much-quoted words about the struggle against white domination being “an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. Mlangeni also spoke, telling the judge, Quartus de Wet, that “what I did was not for myself but for my people.”

In jail Mlangeni and his comrades were categorise­d as prisoner D – “worse than rapists”, he said, which meant visits only once every six months from his family and the opportunit­y to write a letter only twice a year. Later he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison, near Cape Town.

By 1982 the South African government was beginning to look for a way out of the apartheid impasse and approached Mandela about releasing three of the prisoners, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba and Mlangeni. Mandela was in favour, but Mlangeni recalled that he and his comrades insisted that they had been jailed for life together and should be released together.

Mlangeni was eventually freed in October 1989, followed four months later by Mandela. Returning to Soweto, he received a hero’s welcome. “We have been in the struggle for a long, long time,” he told the jubilant crowds. “Now we are back here, and we hope we can be of help to you. Thank you for coming to see me.”

He lived to be the last of the defendants from the infamous trial. Speaking in 2013 for a television documentar­y, the self-effacing Mlangeni spoke of his work behind the scenes before he was arrested, adding: “I was never at the forefront of the ANC. I was always a backroom boy.”

Andrew Mokete Mlangeni and his twin sister, Emma, were born on June 6 1925, children of Andrew and Aletta Mlangeni. They were brought up on a white-owned farm in Bethlehem, in the eastern Free State province of South Africa, where his father was a labourer.

He was educated at St Peter’s Secondary School in Rosettenvi­lle, where one of his teachers was Oliver Tambo, a founder of the ANC Youth League, which Mlangeni joined. Meanwhile, he and his classmates worked as caddies on an exclusive, whites-only golf course, thus beginning a lifelong love of the sport that he resumed playing after his incarcerat­ion.

Unable to afford to continue his education he found work in a factory before becoming a bus driver. Having joined the Young Communist League in 1945, he took part in a strike calling for improved working conditions and a living wage. In 1954 he moved to

Dube, a new township in Soweto, where he became involved in the ANC.

While in jail Mlangeni studied for a degree and took a postgradua­te qualificat­ion in political science. He later served one term in the country’s first multi-racial parliament from 1994 to 1999 under the presidency of Mandela, who died in 2013. Mlangeni became a revered figure in the ANC, serving as chairman of its Integrity Commission and latterly urging Jacob Zuma to resign as president in the face of corruption allegation­s.

He was the subject of a film, Prisoner 467/64: The Untold Legacy of Andrew Mlangeni (2015). His biography, The Backroom Boy by Mandla Mathebula, was published two years later. He also appeared in Nick Stadlen’s documentar­y about the Rivonia trial, Life is Wonderful (2017).

He was guest of honour at the South Bank Centre in London in 2018 for the opening of the Mandela Centenary Exhibition by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Speaking to the British press on that visit he compared the loss of freedom with losing part of the body: “You do not realise the importance of each finger. It is only when you are missing one for whatever reason that you realise what you have lost.”

In 1950 Andrew Mlangeni married June Ledwaba, a shop assistant from Soweto who spent time in jail with the likes of Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu. She died in 2001. They had two sons, Aubrey, who also predecease­d him, and Sello, as well as two daughters, Maureen and Sylvia.

Andrew Mlangeni, born June 6 1925, died July 21 2020

 ??  ?? Mlangeni: ‘What I did was not for myself but for my people,’ he told the judge
Mlangeni: ‘What I did was not for myself but for my people,’ he told the judge

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom