‘Andrew Mlangeni is dead,” announced a member of my family without a preamble.
It was 11am on July 22. I stood motionless, like a robot suddenly cut off from its power supply.
It must have been a minute later when the same family member asked: “Did you hear what I said? I thought you were fond of him.” The voice was louder. I could not make out if it was irritation or bewilderment that I sensed.
I found myself saying: “You mean passed on? Thanks. I didn’t know.” I knew I was being pedantic. The reality is that I was masking the fact that I was not just saddened by the news of Bab’ Mlangeni’s passing, I was disappointed in myself.
For my Mandela Day acts of goodness, my Tiptat (Things I plan to achieve today) included calls to Bab’ Mlangeni and my other favourite struggle veterans. I never got to make the calls that day.
I was caught up in research on crime and imprisonment, as well as the philosophies of crime and punishment, for my drop-in on a webinar with students from Wits University that evening. They were right when they said we should not bank on tomorrow for that which we can do today because tomorrow may never come.
The news of Bab’ Mlangeni’s passing felt like a stab to my heart and my conscience. At that moment, I wished I had followed through with my Tiptat and called him, Aunt Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, Advocate George Bizos, Frene Ginwala and Sis’ Zanele Mbeki.
Ordinarily, I try to not regret a past mistake I cannot change, but rather draw lessons from it, but I had regret this time. I remembered that the news of Mam’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s passing came after a cup of tea I kept postponing. Zindzi Mandela also passed on while we had an outstanding reconciliation meeting planned between her and one of my friends concerning the treatment of her mother.
A pedestal of hope
When accepting the country leadership baton from former president Nelson Mandela, former president Thabo Mbeki invited us to applaud Mandela’s generation as one that placed us on the pedestal of hope.
I once read an article that said that, for every Edmund Hillary, there is a Tenzing Norgay. This refers to the fact that no one achieves epic feats alone. Such achievements are the collective outcomes of an apparent hero and many unsung heroes behind the scenes. These co-travellers often influence the celebrated journey in equal measure to the apparent hero.
Norgay was the Nepali-Indian Sherpa mountaineer who helped Hillary summit Mount Everest in 1953. Borrowing this analogy, we may regard Mlangeni as one of Mandela’s Norgays.
Mlangeni was part of the generation that placed us on the pedestal of hope.
He was part of the Rivonia Trial cohort that was condemned to life imprisonment on Robben Island for their part in fighting apartheid.
What I found remarkable was that Mlangeni and his cohort understood that a pedestal was not a summit. Once apartheid was abolished and nonracial and nonsexist democracy was adopted, they redefined their roles as builders and defenders of democracy.
When people’s hopes were betrayed in democratic South Africa by indifference, ineptitude, corruption and state capture, Bab’ Mlangeni was among those who led from the front. He helped the nation push back against the excesses in the exercise of state power and control over public resources. He put principles first, not caring about losing political favour. Straight as an arrow was how he played the game of life, even if it meant losing support.
Former ANC insider Nomboniso Gasa recently narrated a moving anecdote that goes to the heart of Mlangeni’s integrity. On her Twitter account on the day his passing was announced, Gasa recalled an incident when the struggle veteran refused to give money to a young driver for a new trip without evidence of how he had spent the money he took previously. He refused to budge, even when the young man threatened to withdraw his support, including songs he and colleagues had fondly sung about Mlangeni and his colleagues when they were in prison.
#AndrewMlangeni, a story.— Nomboniso Gasa (@nombonisogasa) July 22, 2020
It’s 1993. Mlangeni is Head of Transport, ANC HQ. I go to ‘transport’ to book a car. There’s a long & noisy queue of people, mainly drivers,summoned by Mlangeni. He’s on a warpath, checking every requisition, mileage,fuel slips & god knows what else.
Incidentally, this is how many play the game of corruption and plain theft. If they give you praise and support your leadership quest, you are supposed to look the other way when it comes to their feet of clay. The worst part is that they may even expect you to fight their battles by hurrying out of the system the good people who have fallen out of favour with them or are not prepared to aid and abet wrongdoing.
Mlangeni never had any of that. Integrity for him was neither negotiable, nor did it have a price.
Voices in the wilderness
There must have been times when upright struggle veterans such as Mlangeni, Williams-De Bruyn, Bizos and Archbishop Desmond Tutu felt like voices in the wilderness.
It was a huge source of comfort to me knowing that I could always count on them, together with the late Ahmed Kathrada and Madikizela-Mandela. This was particularly the case when my team and I traversed the lonely wilderness that was the Nkandla saga. I drew inspiration from the fact that what mattered to them was what was wrong as opposed to who was wrong.
I have fond memories of Bab’ Mlangeni, Mama Winnie and Aunty Sophia randomly calling me, particularly in times of controversy, just to assure me that they had my back. That was priceless.
It’s our turn now
There is a democracy champion vacancy where Bab’ Mlangeni used to be. Actually, there are democracy champion vacancies where his entire cohort, the fellowship of the Rivonia Trial, used to be. I often wonder if we are equal to the task. Ours is not to do what they did, but to take the baton and deliver it to the next level.
Millennials often mistakenly accuse them of selling out and not doing enough for the country. If there is a generation that delivered something concrete, it is that generation. They did not just put us on a pedestal of hope through promises, they gave us democracy, a great bridging Constitution and a firm foundation to advance substantive equality.
Evidence that Bab’ Mlangeni’s generation took the ball further than their predecessors is there for all to see. What will our generation, together with millennials, claim as our legacy?
The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has given us the sense of urgency we need to tackle the social injustices of poverty and structural inequality, which keep growing exponentially.
My view is that the gift of gratitude we can give to the generation that put us on the pedestal of hope is to take the baton and finish the race by healing the divisions of the past.
Key to doing so is achieving equal access to wealth, work and wellbeing. To achieve that, we need all hands on deck, including capital, a functional state and a democracy that works for all. In isiZulu, we say: “Asisoze sabalibala [We will never forget them].”
Madonsela is law trust chair in social justice at Stellenbosch University, founder of the Thuma Foundation and Social Justice M-Plan convener