The last honest man in the ANC

Jeremy Gordin reflects on the response to the passing of Andrew Mlangeni

On 11 July 1963, the men who became known as the Rivonia trialists were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm, near Johannesburg. I would then have been 10 years’ old and living overseas, so I assume it was much later that I saw the grainy black and white photographs of those who stood trial – presumably three or four years later.

Whenever it was, I remember thinking, young as I was, that the man called Andrew Mlangeni – not in fact arrested at Liliesleaf but some weeks earlier in Soweto [1] – seemed a more “authentic” revolutionary than most of the others. I’m now not sure what 14-year-old me meant by that; perhaps Mlangeni seemed to me to look truly working class.

I remember too that I felt inspired by all those who stood trial. To me they were brave men who had been fighting the evil of apartheid.

Mlangeni, along with Nelson Mandela and others, was sent to Robben Island for life, but released from prison in October 1989 – he’d have been 64 – having served 26 years of his sentence. Mlangeni then served as an ANC member of parliament from 1994 to 2004, and once more in the National Assembly from 2009-14, when he retired. He died nine days ago, aged 95.

Now, I happen to subscribe to the Latin tag “De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est,” “Do not speak ill of the dead”. I also understand that the ANC, like most political movements and countries, needs to celebrate its “heroes” and that the Rivonia Trial and surrounding events are considered major ones in SA’s struggle history. And at this point the ANC obviously needs all the heroes it can garner.

Little need to spell out why this is so. It’s common cause that the behaviour of the party qua party, and many of its leaders and office-bearers, has been reprehensible, destructive, and venal for 20 years, if not longer.

At this very moment South Africans are being presented with clear indications that not even the horror of Covid-19 – or President Cyril Ramaphosa’s words on the subject – has had much effect on this behaviour.

I’m referring to the allegations of tender profiteering concerning, among many others, the family of Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Khusela Diko, who happen to be firm friends with Gauteng MEC for health Bandile Edgar Wallace Masuku and his wife. The allegations suggest that well connected tenderpreneurs sought to profit from, to the tune of many millions, the acquisition of PPEs and other Covid-19 equipment. 

In the light – or rather darkness – of this behaviour, and notwithstanding my feeling that it is distasteful to speak ill of the dead, what am I or others to make of all the fine words that have recently been written or spoken about Mlangeni?

The main thrust has been that Mlangeni was a “struggle hero” and all this entails. For example, Cheryl Carolus has written: “He was one of the first to take the bold and courageous step to join Umkhonto We Sizwe and to go for military training when the ANC decided to take up arms against the apartheid regime after the Sharpeville Massacre. His history as a Rivonia Trialist and his time on Robben Island together with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and others, is well documented. They are all deservedly held high in our memories for their bravery, for their courage and for their refusal to compromise on what they stood for, what drove them to act as they did in the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe and the grounds on which they based their defence throughout their trial.” 

Fair enough [2]. But there has been another trope that has been repeatedly underlined by various people. This has been – for the reasons I have touched on above – that Mlangeni was the country’s Mr Incorruptible and consequently to be celebrated even more by all; a beacon in whose radiance and lustre we should all attempt to stand.

For example, the ANC Veteran League’s Mavuso Msimang and others, including Julius Malema, said a few days ago that inviting former president Jacob Zuma to speak at a memorial service held in honour of Mlangeni was shameful. This was because Mlangeni is claimed to have disapproved of Zuma because of the latter’s “corruption”.

Now there is no dispute that in October 2016, Mlangeni was one of the signatories of the letter signed by 100 “stalwarts” in which they accused the party leadership of failing to act decisively against corruption, nepotism, factionalism, arrogance and election slates. But what Mlangeni is more generally lauded for vis-à-vis Zuma is his leadership of the ANC Integrity Committee, also in 2016, at one meeting of which Mlangeni is said to have told Zuma in no uncertain terms to get lost as quickly as possible.

But as so often happens when it comes to the ANC, the devil lives in the details. As Gwede Mantashe, then ANC secretary general, opined at the time, while the Integrity Committee had the power to act independently against ANC members who brought the party into disrepute, it failed to call Zuma to account, even after the Constitutional Court’s ruling on March 31 that he violated the Constitution in his handling of the security upgrades to his Nkandla homestead. “The president never refused to appear before the integrity commission, because they never called him, said Mantashe.

This was not correct. In a series of interviews given to Pippa Green in 2018, Mlangeni told her that in fact Zuma’s appearance before the Committee was botched.

“It was on a Monday,” recalled Mlangeni. ‘Again we are saying he must step down, but we wanted to say this to the entire leadership of the ANC.” But only Zuma and then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa arrived. They said that as they had not been given an agenda, nor a report on Zuma’s supposed wrongdoing, the other officials would not attend the meeting. ‘That was the mistake we made.’”

In short, the moves against Zuma by the Integrity Committee were, to put it politely, engineered to fail.

Don’t get me wrong. Clearly, this was not Mlangeni’s fault. He was then about 91 years’ old, and even though criticism of Zuma following Nenegate (end of 2015) was commonplace, one must surely acknowledge that what Mlangeni did was significant and courageous.

I am thinking, rather, about all those who now sing Mlangeni’s praises. To laud him so fulsomely and stridently for what the whole ANC leadership failed to support him doing then, smells a little off to me.

Here is another article that appeared recently, written by Nic Wolpe. Part of it reads as follows:

“[Mlangeni] remained to the very end a political activist of absolute moral integrity. He never for one moment permitted himself to succumb to the trappings and vagaries that came with power. Plato remarked that ‘the measure of a man is what he does with power’, and Andrew clearly showed his measure, for he never tried to position himself above those whom he sought to serve. ...He was self-effacing and gentle, a beacon of morality and integrity.” [My emphasis.] 

Yet all it takes is a simple Google search to see that this is not true. In the early 2000s Mlangeni, notably, allowed himself to be ensnared in Brett Kebble’s business machinations. He was the non-executive chairman of Matodzi no less, Kebble’s “flagship” BEE enterprise. One of the main purposes of the company was to profit from the ANC government’s newly acquired power to allocate mining and prospecting rights. In the 2004 Matodzi Resources annual report Mlangeni himself wrote that: “Our government has demonstrated its commitment to Black Economic Equity (‘BEE’) initiatives by awarding mineral rights and exploration and mining permits to BEE companies. The challenge to Matodzi is as the Company receives these rights to utilise them in a manner that contributes to economic growth and job creation and not self-enrichment.”

In August 2004 Mlangeni also disclosed to parliament that his “friend” Kebble had given him a R1,6m house in Newlands and a R320 000 Mercedes Benz. Kebble also paid him R360 000 between 15th October 2003 and 4th September 2004, which the trustees of Kebble’s insolvent estate later tried to have returned, as Kebble was technically bankrupt by this point.

What does this mean? ... That during those years in particular, everyone (except Jacob Zuma, which annoyed him intensely) was cut in on whatever deals were going. No one, it seems, said no. There was no law in the early 2000s against taking up a non-executive chairmanship, the numerous other directorships on offer, or accepting the gift of a car or a house. But some would argue that the handing out of such goodies, doubtless for the purposes of buying influence, represented the start of the rot.

This is not to say that Mlangeni was a bad person, just that he was human, and subject to the same temptations as the rest of us.

Why then this over-praise on this particular score? The ANC, and especially its disaffected former supporters, still seem to hold to a heroic narrative of the liberation movement and its “selfless” cadres. You could not make this claim about the party and its politicians now, without being laughed at, but there is still this yearning for the mythical ANC “of old”.

The problem is, or rather was, that if you believe yourself to be uniquely virtuous, you won’t want to be bothered by all those annoying institutional “checks and balances,” which seem to just get in your way. Get rid of them though, as the ANC did before Zuma came to power, and you will end up where we are today. An internal party “integrity committee”, in other words, is a very poor substitute for highly capable investigative units and an independent and highly professional prosecution service, and all the other institutional rules and requirements which keep the powerful in check in other countries.

It is perhaps appropriate at this point to mention the story of Abie. Abie dies – and the Rabbi visits Abie’s wife Sarah and some family members and friends who are consoling her. The Rabbi says to Sarah that while the eulogy (hesped) delivered at a Jewish funeral should be brief and unadorned, it is a time-honoured tradition that he, the Rabbi, should say something positive about Abie. However, being new to the community, the Rabbi knows nothing about the deceased. Can Sarah – or anyone – please help?

No one says a word. It’s apparent to the Rabbi that neither Sarah nor anyone else has anything good to say about Abie. Well, the funeral takes place, with the Rabbi doing the best he can. Then that night it’s time for prayers at the family home – and the Rabbi feels he must try again. He addresses the gathering: “There must be something good to say about Abie. Can’t anyone say one good thing about him?”

Again, a painfully long silence ensues. The Rabbi looks distinctly cast down. Finally, at the back of the room, a man puts up his hand and shouts out: “Well, I’ll tell you what – his brother, he was worse!”

In other words, jokes aside, just as one should not speak ill of the dead, one should also try to speak the truth about who they were. 


[1] There apparently exists some of the usual misinformation/confusion about Mlangeni’s arrest. According to e.g. Wikipedia, Mlangeni was arrested at Liliesleaf (), but in his biography by Mandla Mathebula (The Backroom Boy, Wits UP, e-edition) and in a recent piece by Tymon Smith it’s noted that Mlangeni was arrested some weeks prior to the Liliesleaf arrests.

[2] Here, however, just by way of context, is a remark made by Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom. “We [the accused in the Rivonia trial] decided that ... Andrew Mlangeni, accused No. 10, should [not] testify. [He was] a low-level member of MK [my emphasis] and could not add much to what had already been said.” Now, it’s common cause that Long Walk was written by Richard Stengel, doubtless under considerable time pressure, and that Stengel probably did the research and its “sculpting” in the text. Still, we assume that Mandela read the final product. (P. 440, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Abacus edition, 2004.)