Andrew Mlangeni was prisoner 46764. He spent 26 years and eight months in the cell next door to Nelson Mandela. He chose to be known as ‘The Backroom Boy’ as his 2017 biography, ghost-written by Mandla Mathebula, attests. Cyril Ramaphosa is now the 8th ANC president he has served under, dating all the way back to Dr James Moroka, and he acknowledges the great man as “Comrade Integrity.”
Mlangeni has received many honors such as freedom of the cities of Johannesburg, Sedibeng and London and four doctorates from UNISA, Rhodes University, Durban University of Technology and Cape Peninsular University of Technology.
Mlangeni is “A Dube Man with three names and Free State Roots,” as historian Estelle Bester titled her article about him. He attended St Peters in Rosettenville where OR Tambo taught him mathematics. This was where he first became politically active joining a league of great African intellectuals including Duma Nokwe. Mlangeni left the school after achieving his Junior Certificate (grade 10) and lived in Orlando West. June Ledwaba was working in Orlando East.
“June and Andrew are one of the great love stories like Walter and Albertina,” explained champion of heritage Flo Bird. They met, married, had 4 children and moved to Dube. They were both activists and co- founded the Dube ANC branch together with “Giraffe” Mthembu.
Andrew first cut his teeth in politics with the Young Communist League, unlike most of his generation who started in the youth league. He served both in the ANC and the South African Communist Party. He attended Congress of the People in Kliptown, 26 June 1955 where the Freedom Charter was adopted.
June was part of a group of very courageous women. She was arrested and in 1957 served time at the Women’s Prison at the Old Fort. Other prisoners at the Fort included Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu.
Former state president Kgalema Motlanthe established the inaugural ‘Andrew Mlangeni Integrity Address’ on his 94th birthday, the 6th of June 2019 which was also internationally celebrated as the 75th anniversary of “D-day.”
Motlanthe gave a valuable history of the struggle. He explained how when the ANC was banned in 1960, the organisation had to go underground. The Communist Party had been operating underground since the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 and to continue their struggle, the ANC benefitted from the experience of the Communist Party, and a long-lasting bond began.
Mlangeni was Umkhonto we Sizwe’s (MK) first recruit. In 1962 together with Raymond Mhlaba, Wilton Mkwayi, Steven Naidoo, Joe Gqabi and Mthembu, he was selected to travel to Communist China for a year’s training in the secrets of guerrilla war fare. The comrades were welcomed by Chairman Mau.
“Going into a strange country a long way from home where nobody speaks their language; it must have been quite terrifying,” Flo Bird.
Flo Bird likens the strength and determination of these men to the astronauts. After China, these comrades visited OR Tambo at the external mission in Tanzania. Motlanthe recited Mlangeni’s fascinating story of how Tambo, their leader, chose to sleep on the floor so as to accommodate the visiting comrades in the beds. He acknowledged this as a real lesson in integrity, humility and service to others.
Mlangeni’s role in the MK was in recruiting volunteers and transporting them for military training in Africa. For this he used the disguise of Reverend Mokete Mokoena.
Mlangeni was arrested in 1963 by the apartheid police at Liliesleaf in Rivonia and was sentenced to life imprisonment in a fascinating event which has now been immortalised in at least two movies, over a dozen books and a permanent museum at Liliesleaf farm.
On Robben Island Andrew completed his education and a Political Science post graduate degree. He was reading in law when he was released.
During incarceration, the wives and families of political prisoners were subjected to harassment from the apartheid police. June struggled to keep her home and family together during this period. However she used her strength to transform her suffering into joy. She did community work and made clothes and prepared meals for the elderly. The two Mlangeni sons were involved in the youth revolution of 1976 and went into exile to join MK.
June Mlangeni passed away in 2001 after a struggle with cancer. The Dube ANC branch was named in her honor and the Mlangeni Foundation was established to continue her powerful humanitarian work, especially upliftment of the elderly.
Andrew’s political career since democracy has been regarded by many as the great unsung. Under President Nelson Mandela he served as a member of the new parliament on the Sports and Recreation Committee. He has never been appointed as minister, deputy minister or chair of a portfolio committee.
During the apartheid era Mlangeni surrendered his freedom for the nation and during democracy he was still made to struggle. From 2013 to 2018 he chaired the Integrity Commission.
Being a highly trained and disciplined soldier, Mlangeni did not break rank and go public to broadcast his differences with the corrupt leadership of the time. His ethics were to bring about change from within the party.
Bird likened this frustration to Chinese water torture. She said, “For years patiently and politely Andrew said the corruption was unacceptable. He was a conscience sitting there and the ANC ignored it.”
Dube Walking Tour
Dube resident, activist and historian Cheche Selepe has founded the popular Dube Walking Tours and together with Johannesburg Heritage Foundation has placed seven blue plaques outside the homes of prominent social, cultural and political heroes including Andrew Mlangeni.
Selepe with support of Dube born Generations writer Mfundi Vundla held a birthday function at the home of Mlangeni.
One can see the role golf has played in Mlangeni’s life, almost as a symbolic counterpoint to his years of isolation. Photos of the Transvaal Non-European Golf Association grace his dining room wall and Nedbank golf challenge memorabilia his lounge wall.
Historian Flo Bird explained, “Golf does offer you a very different experience from having to work in a quarry on Robben Island. The old man surrendered his entire life to politics. ”
He started playing golf as a young boy growing up in Bethlehem. He was inspired by pro golfer Bobby Locke. When Mlangeni moved to Pimville Soweto to stay with a brother, he played the 9-hole Mofolo golf course which does not exist anymore.
When Mandela came to recruit Mlangeni to go for training to China he was taken to Mofolo golf to do pushups and check his physical fitness. At the age of 94, Ntate Mlangeni is in good health, sharp of mind and still active on the golf course.
He made strong remarks against communism and socialism. He said, "Communism has failed in Eastern Europe, Germany and Soviet Union and is mixed with capitalism in China. If communism or socialism has already reached a high stage and then it has collapsed, why do we think it will succeed in South Africa?"