Wilton Mkwayi

ANC leader imprisoned with Nelson Mandela
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The Independent Online

Wilton Mkwayi was one of the Robben Island stalwarts who served life imprisonment with Nelson Mandela.

Wilton Mkwayi, trade unionist and political activist: born Qwaru, South Africa 17 December 1923; married 1987 Irene Mhlongo (née Khumalo, died 1988), 1996 Pat Long; died King William's Town, South Africa 23 July 2004.

Wilton Mkwayi was one of the Robben Island stalwarts who served life imprisonment with Nelson Mandela.

Before the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, Mkwayi was one of the most prominent leaders of African trade unions in the Xhosa-speaking Eastern Cape of South Africa, then by far the best organised area in the country, based on the industrial city of Port Elizabeth.

Sent out of the country illegally during the state of emergency that followed the massacre in order to represent the South African Congress of Trade Unions, he became a member along with Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Joe Slovo of the National High Command of the military wing of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, Umkhonto weSizwe, formed in 1961 in response to the violence of the state. Sactu unions - led by the SACP and the ANC - were drained of capable organisers at this time, to form an initial cadre of leadership for Umkhonto.

In exile, he was appointed to lead a detachment of Umkhonto recruits that went secretly to China for military training in the early Sixties, before returning illegally to South Africa. In the course of its training in China this detachment had an extraordinary and revealing discussion with Mao Tse-tung, who visited their training camp to get greater information for himself about conditions for insurrection in southern Africa.

Returned to South Africa and living underground, Mkwayi managed to escape when security police raided the secret headquarters shared by Umkhonto, the ANC and the SACP, at a farm in Rivonia outside Johannesburg in July 1963. Within a year - immobilised after having been shot in the thigh by a Soweto gangster - he was arrested shortly after Mandela and his colleagues had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and six months later was himself charged with heading the second tier of leadership of Umkhonto.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment in January 1965, served alongside Mandela, Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and their colleagues on Robben Island. His white colleague David Kitson, a member of the SACP, received 20 years (served in segregation with white male prisoners in Pretoria, along with another white member of the SACP in the same trial, John Matthews, who got 12 years). Mahendranath "Mac" Maharaj, an SACP Central Committee member of Hindu background who became Transport Minister in the first post-apartheid government, received 12 years, along with another colleague of Indian origin, Laloo Chiba.

Mkwayi emerged 24 years later, in October 1989, when President F.W. de Klerk freed seven leaders of the ANC (and a member of its rival, the Pan-Africanist Congress) in the process leading to the unbanning of illegal organisations and the release of Mandela himself in February 1990. He was elected to the National Executive Committee of the ANC in 1991, resigning in 1997.

The discussion in Nanking with Mao Tse-tung was notable for the care with which Mao, as a veteran guerrilla leader, and effective head of state, asked questions. He asked the South African trainees about the demography of their country, about its topography, and the degree of experience in the country of military confrontation with the state (at that stage, practically zero). He concluded by cautioning them against applying Chinese guerrilla experience too zealously to their own conditions, and suggested that combat experience against the French in Algeria might be more relevant.

In the event, the sharpening ideological dispute between Mao and the leaders of the Soviet Union during the next few years put paid to any further connection between Umkhonto and China. Within southern Africa, the ANC aligned itself with the Soviet Union, together with its allies, the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union and the MPLA in Angola after the end of Portuguese rule in 1974, while the PAC and the now governing Zanu party in Zimbabwe - headed by Robert Mugabe - received support from China.

In his statement to the court in 1965, Mkwayi gave a moving exposition of his life. His father had been a member of the ANC, he told the court, and had made him a member in 1940 at the age of 17. His family's poverty had precluded education. He had progressed from labourer to office boy to factory worker and from there, as a trade unionist and ANC member, had become "what whites like to call an agitator".

Since 1947 he had taken part in bus boycotts, stay-at-homes, the Defiance Campaign (1952) and the Congress of the People (1955). He had been an accused in the abortive Treason Trial (beginning in 1956) and campaigned for higher wages and lower rents. He had organised metal workers and textile workers. In 1961 he had helped to found Umkhonto in opposition to violent suppression by the state. However, he explained, "Sabotage is not the beginning of a war, but a letter of invitation to the Government and the white minority [to take part in a National Convention]."

His military training in China was "so that I too could fight for my country if necessary". After all, he pointed out, "in South Africa white women, and boys and girls of 16, are taught to handle small arms". Two brothers were already serving long terms on Robben Island, and a third was being sought by the police.

During his long imprisonment he was one of a trio planning to escape during a visit to a dentist on the mainland (the others were Mandela and Maharaj), called off when they suspected a police trap setting them up for assassination.

A handsome, powerfully built man of even temper, Mkwayi inspired lifelong confidence and affection. He was a pillar of the transition from apartheid.

Paul Trewhela