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Raymond Mhlaba

ANC leader imprisoned with Mandela

Raymond Mhlaba, political activist: born Mazoka, South Africa 12 February 1920; Commander, Umkhonto we Sizwe 1962-63; Premier, Eastern Cape 1994-97; married 1986 Dedika Heliso (three children); died Port Elizabeth, South Africa 20 February 2005.

Raymond Mhlaba, political activist: born Mazoka, South Africa 12 February 1920; Commander, Umkhonto we Sizwe 1962-63; Premier, Eastern Cape 1994-97; married 1986 Dedika Heliso (three children); died Port Elizabeth, South Africa 20 February 2005.

When Nelson Mandela and his colleagues went on trial for their lives in 1963, the South African Communist Party put up slogans on city walls reading "Free Mandela", rather than direct attention collectively to the 11 individuals on trial. However, if there had not been a stable, experienced group of African political leaders alongside Mandela - many of them holding dual membership in the African National Congress and in the SACP - the ANC's present secure hold on government in South Africa would not have come about.

Raymond Mhlaba was one of that group. He was a former laundry worker, who, 30 years after the Rivonia Trial, became the first premier of the regional administration of the Eastern Cape, following 26 years in prison.

As one of the founders of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC and the SACP, Mhlaba was sent in 1962 to lead a group of recruits for military training in China. With Wilton Mkwayi, a trade-union colleague from the Eastern Cape - who also later served a life sentence on Robben Island - Mhlaba took part in a discussion on military affairs in Nanking with Mao Tse-tung, who visited the South African trainees in their camp in order to get a better idea himself about conditions in southen Africa.

The discussion was remarkable on several counts. Mao made no attempt to indoctrinate the trainees. He confined himself to asking very specific questions about class conditions in the region, the terrain and the degree of military experience of the opponents of the South African regime, and urged his listeners not to follow blindly the experience of the Chinese Red Army. He suggested to them that the experience of the FLN in opposition to French colonial rule in Algeria might be more relevant.

It was an object lesson in very high-quality military thinking, but one that Mhlaba was not able to bring to effective use in South Africa, for two reasons. The first was that, not long after the discussion in Nanking, the SACP - following the example of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union - broke off its ties with China. Although Mhlaba was appointed Commander in Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe on his return to South Africa, Mao's military theory and experience had a negligible bearing on the organisation's subsequent activity.

The second and more immediate reason was that Mhlaba was arrested very soon after his return, in the raid of the ANC's underground headquarters at a farm in Rivonia in July 1963. With Mandela and other prominent ANC leaders, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mhlaba was a man of few words but his courage, loyalty and judgement were respected. He was one of the four former members of the National Executive of the ANC - the others were Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki - who secretly constituted the "High Organ" in Robben Island prison, guiding the affairs of the many political prisoners there.

Unlike Mbeki, the father of the current South African president, and a fellow Xhosa-speaking Communist Party colleague from the Eastern Cape, Mhlaba welcomed the opportunity to enter into negotiations with the apartheid regime from prison, when this became possible in the 1980s. He gave strong support to the negotiating strategy of Mandela, helping him to win approval from fellow prisoners in the face of considerable scepticism, much of it articulated by Mbeki.

As if anticipating this, in 1982 the regime separated Mhlaba, Mandela, Sisulu and Andrew Mlangeni (a fellow accused in the Rivonia Trial) from the bulk of African prisoners on Robben Island, transporting them by ferry to the mainland, to Pollsmoor Prison near Cape Town. Secret discussions between Mandela and the regime then took place in isolation from the main contingent of prisoners. In 1988, Mandela was moved on his own to yet another prison, for the final stage in the negotiations. A year later, on 10 October 1989, Mhlaba was released with Sisulu, Mlangeni, Mkwayi and four others, four months ahead of Mandela himself.

After his release Mhlaba became a member again of the National Executive Committee of the ANC (1991) and was one of the team who negotiated with the outgoing apartheid government. When the ANC swept to power in 1994, Mhlaba became premier of the regional administration in the newly created province of the Eastern Cape.

During his first period as a political leader in the 1940s, Mhlaba's home city of Port Elizabeth had provided the strongest mass base in the whole country for the ANC, based largely on an organised trade-union movement. Born in a small village in the Eastern Cape in 1920, Mhlaba had dropped out of school because of his family's poverty. Working for a dry-cleaning firm in Port Elizabeth, he joined the Communist Party in 1943 when Stalin was at the height of his prestige, and the ANC the following year; in 1948 he was sacked following a six months' strike of laundry workers. From 1946 until it was banned in 1950 he was district secretary of the Communist Party, and from 1947 to 1953 chairman of the Port Elizabeth branch of the ANC.

In 1952 he was the first ANC leader in the country to be arrested in the Defiance Campaign, when he led a group of singing protesters on to the whites-only platform of a railway station, in opposition to the apartheid government's unjust laws.

He married his common-law wife Dedika Heliso in Pollsmoor Prison in 1986 in the prison commandant's office, with Mandela in attendance. He and his wife were then legally permitted to touch each other for the first time in 22 years.

Mhlaba retired as premier for health reasons in 1997 and was appointed South African High Commissioner to Uganda and Rwanda. In 1995 he became national chairperson of the SACP, following a lifetime's party membership.

Paul Trewhela