Govan Mbeki

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The Independent Online

Govan Archibald Mvunyelina Mbeki, political activist, journalist and teacher: born Transkei, South Africa 8 July 1910; chairman, African National Congress, 1957-64; married (two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Port Elizabeth, South Africa 30 August 2001.

In the resistance to the apartheid regime, Govan Mbeki held a stature not less than that of Nelson Mandela or Walter Sisulu. Long before Mbeki, Mandela and Sisulu stepped into the dock in Pretoria in the Rivonia Trial of 1963-64 with their fellow-accused, long before the life sentence they served together on Robben Island through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and long before his oldest son, Thabo, assumed Mandela's mantle as President of the changed South Africa, Govan Mbeki was an augur of that change and a formidable opponent.

No other person so directly personified the central place of the South African Communist Party (SACP), with its total adherence to the leadership of the Soviet Union, in the central councils of the African National Congress (ANC). No other top leader of the ANC was at the same time so much a "man of the base", since Mbeki was credited as the crucial organiser of the only really secure and organised base of the ANC prior to his imprisonment, grounded in the industrial working class in the motor assembly city of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

It was to Mbeki in Port Elizabeth in the early 1960s that future leaders of the ANC, then students at Fort Hare University College in the nearby town of Alice, would turn for consultation – among them Chris Hani, later chief of staff of the ANC military wing, and subsequently secretary general of the SACP within South Africa before his assassination; Thami Mhlambiso, ANC ambassador to the United Nations during the early 1970s; and Sizakele Sigxashe, head of ANC intelligence in exile and then deputy director of the National Intelligence Service in South Africa under the new government. They and many others considered themselves to have been politically "formed" by Mbeki. ANC trade unionists, such as Vuyisile Mini and his colleagues, hanged in Pretoria Prison in November 1964, were his protégés.

Mbeki's son Thabo, having gone into exile in the early 1960s, immediately ascended into leadership within the ANC in large part on the shoulders of his imprisoned father. Thabo Mbeki's succession as President of South Africa, after Mandela, is in large part a tribute to the qualities of his father, so that the Mbeki presidency carries suggestion of a species of dynastic succession, touched by the holy waters of life imprisonment on Robben Island.

It was a tribute, also, of a kind, to Govan Mbeki, that the only means available to the state in face of the general strike in Port Elizabeth following the massacre at Sharpeville in March 1960 was to seal the townships with the army and to send in the police. Street by street, house by house, they beat up everyone they could with their batons until they broke the strike. By then Mbeki was detained, without trial, in the cells at Rooi Hell (Red Hell) prison in Port Elizabeth, under the state of emergency that suffocated the country.

According to the diary he wrote at the time, conditions were abominable. He and his fellow detainees sang freedom songs and daily discussed a wide range of topics. The essential qualities of leadership, they agreed, were "personality, dignity, alertness, knowledge, intelligence, sincerity, perseverance, determination, restraint and humility" – qualities called upon in full during Mbeki's subsequent 23 years' imprisonment on Robben Island, following the Rivonia Trial, in which he and his colleagues were found guilty of having launched a campaign of sabotage.

During that period of three months' detention in 1960, however, a white warder gave Mbeki and his fellow detainees a vivid insight into their historical situation. "Remember," the warder told them, "thirty years ago we Afrikaners were in a similar position to yours."

Mbeki wrote of the defence and aid committees formed under the presidency of the then Archbishop of Cape Town, Joost de Blank, which distributed food and clothing to the detainees, that they had "sealed the bonds of friendship" between Africans and "that section of the white population which realises that the narrow racial nationalism of the National Party cannot work in the world of today".

It was a belief for which he was prepared to stake his life. The death sentence was likely for at least some of those who were found guilty in the Rivonia Trial. Given the Cold War conditions of the time and his status as the most prominent member of the Communist Party on trial, Mbeki was very vulnerable. Like Mandela and Sisulu, he had decided before sentencing not to appeal if condemned to death.

Mbeki was born to "devoutly religious peasant parents" in the Nqamakwe district of the Transkei in 1910, among the Xhosa-speaking people who were the first to receive extensive missionary education in South Africa. His first-hand knowledge of Xhosa-speaking peasant life became, alongside his subsequent experience of organising Xhosa-speaking workers in Port Elizabeth, the broad foundation to Mbeki's contribution to the dominant ethnic current within the ANC and in contemporary South African political life.

His father, a chief who had been deposed by the government, owned a few hundred cattle, as well as horses, sheep and goats and was "fairly well-to-do". Mbeki's primary education involved leaving home shortly after sunrise, walking six or seven miles over a steep mountain to school and returning home at about sundown to tend the livestock. In 1937 Mbeki received a BA degree from Fort Hare in politics and psychology, as well as a diploma in education, followed three years later by a BEcon degree in social studies.

He first became interested in politics when he was about 15, after a neighbouring priest held concerts in a church to raise funds for the ANC. At 19 he moved to Johannesburg, and worked as a "newspaper boy". This, he wrote, "brought me face to face with the poverty of the African". Township raids by the police, enforcing the hated pass and liquor laws, "aroused my anger as nothing else did and determined me to join the struggle to end such a system". By 1935, while a student at Fort Hare, he had joined the ANC. At about the same time he joined the Communist Party, becoming very influential. Dual membership of Africans in the CP and the ANC characterised his political life, as it has that of Thabo Mbeki.

Dismissed as a teacher because of his political activities in 1939, Govan Mbeki was elected secretary of the Transkei Voters' Association in 1941; member of the Transkei General Council (or Bunga) in 1943; and general secretary of the Transkei Organised Bodies (a "united front of peasant-professional-farmers-chiefs-women's organisations") in 1945.

Returning to teaching again in 1953 in northern Natal, he was dismissed again two years later because of his role in organising workers in nearby coal mines. By 1957 he was national chairman of the ANC, continuing to hold the post illegally even after he was banned.

Govan Mbeki's formative experience within the Communist Party took place during the high noon of General Secretary Stalin. (Thabo Mbeki was subsequently a member of the Politburo of the CP in exile in the Brezhnev years). In one of the determining conundrums of South African political life of the last century, leading ideologists of the apartheid state such as prime ministers Hendrik Verwoerd and John Vorster took inspiration from the German regime of the 1930s, while many of their foremost opponents took inspiration in their turn from the regime in Russia. A certain hardness of the soul bit deep into South African political culture, with effects that are still with us.

From the 1930s, through the Moscow trials and the worst horrors of the gulag, Govan Mbeki thought the same thoughts and repeated the same slogans as his CP comrades anywhere in the world. Like his fellow leaders in the South African party, he did not suffer any substantial pangs of conscience, then or later, about what they so enthusiastically endorsed at that time. (Thabo Mbeki has expressed no major qualms about the prison camps set up by the ANC in exile either). Over the course of a number of decades, South Africa passed from having been a society presided over by people with a residual respect for Hitler to one presided over by individuals formed in a residual respect for Stalin.

Govan Mbeki began his work in Port Elizabeth as organiser of the ANC and its trade union wing, the South African Congress of Trade Unions, when he took up a post there as local editor of the national Communist Party weekly, New Age, in the early 1950s. Given the alliance between the ANC and the SACP, New Age – run principally by the CP activists Ruth First in Johannesburg and Brian Bunting in Cape Town, with Mbeki in the Eastern Cape – served also as the national newspaper of the ANC until it was banned in 1962.

Mbeki had significant influence as a journalist and writer: as joint editor of New Age; as author of the booklet Transkei in the Making (1939); as co-author of African Claims (1943), which was the basis for formulation of ANC policy; as editor of Territorial Magazine, which became Inkundla ya Bantu (1938-44); and as author of South Africa: the peasants' revolt, published in Britain in 1964, when he was in prison.

As his colleague Ruth First – murdered by the apartheid forces in 1982 – wrote in the preface, a "great slice" of the book was written on lavatory paper while Mbeki was in solitary confinement in 1962, charged with making explosives and instructing ANC recruits in how to use them. (He was acquitted, and immediately went underground).

He had been chair of the ANC national conference in Durban in 1959, three months before the massacre at Sharpeville and the banning of the ANC and its rival, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC): the immediate cause of the turn to violent methods of struggle by the CP, the ANC and the PAC. Not long after his acquittal on the explosives charge, Mbeki presided illegally over the first national conference of the ANC in exile, held at Lobatse in Botswana (then still the British protectorate of Bechauanaland) in August 1962, which endorsed the decision of senior leaders – including Mbeki – to begin violent resistance to the regime. In November 1962, he was elected to the central committee of the SACP at a secret conference in Johannesburg.

Then, in July 1963, he was arrested, along with Sisulu and others at the CP/ANC underground headquarters on a farm in the suburb of Rivonia, outside Johannesburg. A mass of incriminating documents was captured.

On Robben Island, as the oldest of the imprisoned leaders of the ANC, Mbeki was intransigent. In frequently tense discussions within the High Organ (as the group of senior leaders was called), he was foremost in opposing any kind of negotiation with the regime. When, in 1968, Mandela initiated a discussion as to whether the ANC should open lines of communication with the government, Mbeki was outraged. Fourteen years later, in 1982, Mandela, Sisulu and three colleagues were transferred from Robben Island to more hospitable quarters in Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland – but not Mbeki.

Mandela was then transferred again, this time away from his four colleagues to an isolated complex in the hospital ward. Secret negotiations between Mandela and representatives of the regime began three years later. These developed a powerful momentum, secluded from the world by prison walls and from Mbeki by a turbulent strip of ocean.

In his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela makes no comment at all about Mbeki's release in November 1987, aged 77 – the first of the Rivonia leaders to be allowed home. It was preceded by a very tense meeting between them. Mandela had for a long time been urging the release of Mbeki and Sisulu, a matter Mbeki had no inkling about. His first meeting with Mandela in five years happened after he was removed abruptly from his cell to the mainland. Mandela, Mbeki said, "wouldn't go into detail because he said he had given an undertaking that he wouldn't talk about it".

There was a further meeting in prison with Mandela, following his release, about which Mbeki said later that he was "not very happy". It seemed to him that his old colleague either did not have "sufficient confidence" in him to inform him of the full scope of the negotiations, or, "alternatively, that the other side might have come to some arrangement with him which he felt he couldn't break".

From his home in Port Elizabeth in the late 1980s, Mbeki became a focal point of suspicion among ANC supporters directed against the whole secret negotiating process. It was only through endorsement by the ANC president in exile, Oliver Tambo, in Zambia – communicating with Mandela through a secret link, before Tambo's death by a stroke in 1993 – that negotiations were resumed, culminating in Mandela's release and the unbanning of proscribed organisations in February 1990. Mbeki grudgingly conceded the inevitable.

Govan Mbeki was married, with four children. His wife, Epainette, ran a large general trading store. Their youngest son, Jama, was murdered in exile in the turmoil of the struggle years, while his father fought the battle in his island prison.

Paul Trewhela