Andrew Mlangeni, 1925 – 2020: The life of the quiet revolutionary and the last Rivonia trialist

Andrew Mlangeni (Gallo Images / Beeld / Theana Breugem)
Andrew Mlangeni (Gallo Images / Beeld / Theana Breugem)

The "quiet revolutionary" and self-proclaimed "backroom boy" of the struggle against apartheid, Andrew Mlangeni, has died at the age of 95. He was the last of the Rivonia trialists.

Mlangeni, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and others were sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island on charges of treason and sabotage on June 12, 1964. He was released in 1989 after negotiations with the apartheid government started.

Described by President Cyril Ramaphosa as "Mr Integrity" and "the quiet revolutionary" at his 93rd birthday celebration in Sandton two years ago, Oom Andrew Mlangeni, as he was fondly referred to, will be remembered for being a dedicated and dependable member of the struggle – a true man of the people.

"Mlangeni is a giant himself‚ a giant of our revolution who has also walked with other giants and that's the beauty of it all," Ramaphosa said at his birthday.

"It is people like comrade Andrew Mlangeni who, with comrade Nelson Mandela, stood in prison and said this is a cause that I am even prepared to die for, [a] cause that finally brought our freedom."

Mlangeni first joined the struggle as part of the ANC Youth League in 1951 before becoming a member of the ANC in 1954. In 1961 he was selected as one of the first six members of the ANC who received military training in China before the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe. On his return to South Africa in 1963 he was arrested and tried for sabotage in the Rivonia Trial.

ahmed kathrada, andrew mlangeni, denis goldberg
Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Denis Goldberg (Theana Breugem, Netwerk24)

Before he was handed a life sentence, he told the court: "Though leaders of many countries throughout the world have tried to persuade the government to abandon its apartheid policy, and although resolutions have been passed in the UN against SA, this has been met with no result. All that the government has done is to reply to the people's demands by putting their political leaders in jail and break up families." 

Andrew Mokete Mlangeni was born on June 6, 1926, on a farm near Bethlehem in the Free State. He was his parents' ninth child and part of the second set of twins in the family of 12. When his father passed away shortly after Andrew's tenth birthday, the family lost its tenancy on the farm and had to move to the township in Bethlehem. The young Andrew started working as a caddy at the local golf course to help his mother sustain his siblings. Golf remained a lifelong passion of his, and he could often be found playing after he was released from prison.

In 1939 Mlangeni and his mother moved to Johannesburg where they stayed with one of his older brothers in Pimville, Soweto. Here he enrolled in the Pimville Government School. He went on to attend St Peters Secondary School in Rosettenville. 

At St Peters, one of his teachers was none other than political activist Oliver Tambo. Tambo was one of the founders of the ANC Youth League in 1944, of which Mlangeni became a member. After 1946 he worked in several industries and factories where he experienced worker exploitation. His dissatisfaction with slave wages drove him to join the Young Communist League.

Mlangeni was always passionate about education. When Robben Island granted prisoners access to education in 1968, Mlangeni was the first inmate to register for a BA degree. It took him 12 years to complete this degree with the help of his wife, June, who sent him money for textbooks despite persecution by the apartheid government. He was about to finish his law degree when he was released from prison. 

Andrew Mlangeni, George Bizos
Andrew Mlangeni and George Bizos at Ahmed Kathrada's funeral in 2017. (Felix Dlangamandla, Netwerk24)

In April 2018 Mlangeni was awarded an honorary doctorate by Rhodes University. During the speech he made at the ceremony, he emphasised the importance of education, quoting Marcus Garvey: "Liberate the minds of men, and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men.

"Criticisms or not, there comes a time when bold steps have to be taken to ensure that transformation is realised. Society cannot be paralysed by perennial caution because people's aspirations cannot be put on hold forever."

Mlangeni was never given a senior position in the democratic government – hence his description of himself as a "backroom boy". He was an ANC member of Parliament from 2009 until 2014, where he served on the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans and the Joint Committee on Ethics and Members' Interests. He was also chairperson of the ANC's integrity commission and founded the June and Andrew Mlangeni Foundation.

In 1999 Mlangeni was awarded the Order for Meritorious Service Class I: Gold. In 2016 he received the Freedom of the City of Johannesburg. In July 2018 he received the prestigious Freedom of the City of London, after being unable to travel to the United Kingdom when the honour was originally bestowed on him in 2016.

As an ANC veteran, Mlangeni was critical of the corruption that has spread under the party's watch. He reportedly said Jacob Zuma must go back to Robben Island if he is found to be corrupt. 

June Mlangeni died in 2001. The couple has two daughters, Maureen and Sylvia, and two sons, Aubrey and Sello. 

andrew mlangeni
Jacob Zuma, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Cyril Ramaphosa and Andrew Mlangeni at the ANC's elective conference in 2017. (Felix Dlangamandla, Netwerk24)

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