Corruption. Is This What We Fought For?

Published 10 years ago
Corruption.  Is This What We Fought For?

“It’s time to let him go”, ran the front page headline of South Africa’s largest selling Sunday newspaper last month. This, a day after Nelson Mandela—struggle icon and South Africa’s first post-apartheid president—was re-admitted to hospital following a recurring lung infection. The Sunday Times was quoting Mandela’s long-time friend and comrade, Andrew Mokete Mlangeni, who had said: “The family must release him so that God may have his own way. They must release him spiritually and put their faith in the hands of God. Once the family releases him, the people of South Africa will follow.”

This from a man of few words. He is the least recognized of Nelson Mandela’s Rivonia Trial comrades. But, when 87-year-old Mlangeni does speak, he seldom minces his words; just like he didn’t mince his words more than a year ago, in our last interview. When asked to make assessment of the state of the African National Congress (ANC), specifically why South Africa’s governing party was so riddled with infighting, and was increasingly earning a reputation as being corrupt, Mlangeni retorted: “My heart bleeds when I see what is happening today. People are fighting to improve their own selves. The trouble is greed today. Everybody wants to be in the leadership. Everybody wants to be the president, the minister, earn more money, drive beautiful cars, have security around you. We are forgetting the people who have elected us into government.”

He continued: “Look at the corruption—everywhere corruption, corruption, corruption—is this what we were fighting for? Is this what people died for? We were accusing the Nationalist party government of corruption, and this is what we are doing today? My heart bleeds.”


Mlangeni’s candidness is nothing new. In court, 50 years ago, anticipating an adverse ruling by the presiding judge, Mlangeni would not cooperate with the court but instead read a terse statement: “The court can now see that some of the evidence given against me is true and some false. I have chosen not to give evidence, my Lord, because first of all, I do not want to be cross-examined about people I have worked with and places I have visited, in case I might give these people away. Also, my Lord, I have frankly admitted that I have assisted Umkhonto we Sizwe. I want to say that I joined the ANC in 1954. I did it because I want to work for my people. I did this because of the treatment my people have received from the rulers of this country. In the ANC, I found a political home, where I was free to talk against the government.”

“South Africa, my Lord, is a very rich country. The resources could be exploited for the benefit of all the people who live in it. This government and the previous governments have exploited not the earth but the people of various racial groups, whose color is not white. But the government, daily, makes suppressive laws in its white Parliament, [whose] laws are aimed at suppressing the political aspirations of the majority of the people, who have no say. I know that you, my Lord, have to administer the law, but when you do so, I ask you to remember what we, the Africans and non-white people, have had to suffer. That is all I have to say except, to add, that what I did was not for myself but for my people…”

No sooner had he said those words, Mlangeni was sentenced to life imprisonment alongside seven of his comrades—Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg and Elias Motsoaledi. Two of their fellow trialists, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein and James Kantor, were acquitted. The state withdrew charges against the eleventh accused, Bob Hepple, after he agreed to testify for the prosecution.

Mlangeni would serve 26 years, many of them in an isolated cell, on Robben Island and later at Pollsmoor Prison. In his mind, he replayed his upbringing as well as the events and circumstances that led to his incarceration—from his birth on May 6, 1926 in Prospect township, in Soweto, Johannesburg as the ninth of 14 children; to starting school at 10; having to drop out two years later to find work, after his father died; working as a golf caddy; and later becoming a factory worker and bus driver.


In 1951, young Mlangeni joined the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and, three years later, the ANC.

Following the ANC’s decision to move beyond passive resistance and embrace an armed struggle against the country’s colonial rulers, Mlangeni enlisted for Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK)—the ANC’s armed wing. Between 1961 and 1963 he was among the first six guerillas to undergo military training in China.

Upon the completion of their initial training—by this time he was a member of the High Command, MK’s highest decision-making body—they returned from the land of Mao Tse-tung to begin their ambitious program of insurrection. The MK’s High Command and operatives would meet secretly, every Monday, at Liliesleaf Farm. It was at this small holding, north of Johannesburg, that they plotted their operations.

Little did Mlangeni know—on a chilly Monday evening on June 24, 1963, while returning from their meeting, with assignment in hand—that state security agents were looking for him. This encounter would change his life forever.


The following morning Mlangeni was due to go to Krugersdorp, less than an hour from Johannesburg, to collect weapons to take them to a safe house.

“I arrived home at about half past eleven in the evening. My wife was asleep,” he says.

A short while later, police stormed his house, in Duke, Soweto and he was arrested. In the police car, waiting for him outside, was one of his comrades, Motsoaledi. Upon their arrival at the Pretoria Central Prison they found more of their comrades, who had already been detained.

“I was hurt, the police said the ANC is finished,” says Mlangeni.


On November 26, 1963, South Africa’s most famous political trial would begin, ending on June 12, the following year. International pressure, Mlangeni reckons, is what saved them from the death penalty.

“Strangely, we didn’t think we would die in prison. I had read a bit about the struggles of other people… [I] had seen how the Chinese struggled for their freedom; how the China Communist Party fought against emperors, against foreign occupiers of China, and how they ultimately drove all of them out,” he says.

Indeed, the Rivonia trialists would not die in prison. Mlangeni used this time to study for his Bachelor of Arts and honors degrees.

One day in 1986, while at Pollsmoor Prison, the anti-apartheid prisoners got an offer from their captors, through Mandela, affectionately known as Madiba—his clan name.


Mlangeni recalls: “Madiba was taken to hospital, where he was approached by Kobie Coetzee, who was minister of prisons at the time. Coetzee said they wanted to release the rest of us first, but keep Mandela. But would keep Mandela in a place where it would be easy for his family to come in at any time. Winnie and the kids would come see him anytime. Madiba thought it was a good idea. The comrades could go join the [anti-apartheid] forces outside.”

Upon Mandela’s return from hospital, “the four of us [Mlangeni, Sisulu, Mhlaba and Kathrada] were taken to an office where Madiba told us of this offer from government. We didn’t accept. We said: ‘What will people say? They will think we are sell outs.’”

Mlangeni says Mandela didn’t mind staying behind and thought his comrades should agree to be released, so they could strengthen the forces of freedom. What made the decision difficult was the regime’s stated logic, that if they released Mandela the country would go up in flames. The state also insisted that the activists denounce violence.

“So we rejected the offer.”


A couple of months went by.

“One day on October 1989, on the 10th, a warder came and said: ‘Guys, I want you to put on your best clothes.’ We said: ‘Why?’ He said: ‘I don’t know, you are probably going to see a minister.’”

The four were taken to Victor Verster Prison, where Mandela was now staying.

“Madiba said things had changed. He said the government was no longer singing the song of renouncing violence. They are saying they can release you and months later me. We accepted the offer. We said: ‘Okay, go and tell them that we’re prepared to take up their offer.’”

When their meeting was over, Mandela’s comrades were told they could not go back to Pollsmoor, as there was a large media contingent camping outside Victor Verster Prison.

“They were telling a lie,” chuckles Mlangeni as he recalls the sequence of events. “At eight o’clock, it was news time on TV and they had organized a TV for us. First item, the government has decided to release so and so from prison… our names… and that Madiba would be released soon. After the news they said: ‘Well chaps, the media is gone now. We can take you back to your cells.’”

“We were no longer addressed by our first names, but as Mr Mlangeni, Mr Mandela… We said we were hungry. They asked us what we wanted to eat. We said steak and chips. We hadn’t had that in a while.”

On October 15, 1989 Mlangeni, Sisulu, Mhlaba and Kathrada walked out of jail. And on February 11, 1990, Mandela followed.

Four years later, Mandela would become post-apartheid South Africa’s first democratically-elected president. Mlangeni, together with Sisulu and Mbeki, would be members of Parliament. Mhlaba would be the premier of the Eastern Cape.

Nineteen years on, Mlangeni has retired from politics, yet he remains a veteran member of the ANC. He divides his time between playing golf, very competently—he learnt as a caddy—his foundation and advising the ANC. He was a member of the electoral commission, during the last elective conference. Now, he chairs the party’s recently established Integrity Committee; it investigates allegations of corruption against party members.

The ANC has a lot of battles, Mlangeni concedes, but is adamant about its resilience.

“I know the ANC can always regroup, when things go wrong. We can always come back together.”

As for the government the ANC leads, Mlangeni says they are doing their best.

“We can’t meet the demands of our people in the few years. [Nineteen years] is too little to meet the demands of our people. It took [colonialists] more than 300 years to do what they’ve done to suppress us, to exploit us.”

Does he have any regrets?

“None whatsoever.”

What he missed a great deal though was seeing his children grow up. His wife Johanna, who died in 2001, singlehandedly brought up their four children. Mlangeni’s children were teenagers when he was arrested in 1963; the youngest was 14.

“Other things were also important… but not seeing my kids…”

Twenty six years of imprisonment didn’t change Mlangeni’s unyielding support of the fight for freedom, but when he speaks of his children, his voice trembles.