from Africa in Transition , Africa Program , and Democracy in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Andrew Mlangeni, Mandela Ally and Anti-Apartheid Hero, Dies in South Africa

Andrew Mlangeni speaks about his close friend, former South African President Nelson Mandela, during an informal meeting of the plenary of the General Assembly to commemorate Nelson Mandela International Day at the UN, in New York, July 18, 2013.
Andrew Mlangeni speaks about his close friend, former South African President Nelson Mandela, during an informal meeting of the plenary of the General Assembly to commemorate Nelson Mandela International Day at the UN, in New York, July 18, 2013. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

July 28, 2020

Andrew Mlangeni speaks about his close friend, former South African President Nelson Mandela, during an informal meeting of the plenary of the General Assembly to commemorate Nelson Mandela International Day at the UN, in New York, July 18, 2013.
Andrew Mlangeni speaks about his close friend, former South African President Nelson Mandela, during an informal meeting of the plenary of the General Assembly to commemorate Nelson Mandela International Day at the UN, in New York, July 18, 2013. Lucas Jackson/Reuters
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Anthony Carroll is founding director of Acorus Capital, a private equity fund investing in Africa, and a vice president of Manchester Trade Limited, an international business advisory firm. He has over forty years of experience working with Africa and is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Andrew Mlangeni’s death last week represents something of a passing of the guard for South Africa’s liberation struggle. Andrew was the last living defendant of the 1963 Rivonia trial, which resulted in the sentencing of Andrew and ten others, among them, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and, most famously, Nelson Mandela. In a highly publicized trial, the defendants were found guilty of sedition and conspiracy. The Rivonia trial and the Sharpeville massacre, which occurred three years earlier, were turning points in the world’s view of apartheid South Africa. The images of unarmed protesters being shot in the back and the regal presence of Nelson Mandela in a Pretoria dock shouting “Amandla” were indelible.

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Andrew and seven co-conspirators were arrested in 1963 at Denis Goldberg’s Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg. Goldberg, who died a few weeks ago, was a fellow member of the uMkhonto we Sizwe (UK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Denis was arrested along with Rusty Berstein, Bob Hippler, Arthur Goldreich, and later Harold Wolpe. All were members of the Jewish left that supported the ANC by offering legal counsel, modest shelter, and even more modest finances to a movement always on the run. 

At the time, the only unknown outcome of the Riovonia trial was whether the key defendants would be sentenced to death. Perhaps due to the international attention of trial, a sympathetic judge, and an all-star defense team, Andrew and his co-defendants were spared the death penalty, but received life sentences.

What always struck me about Andrew Mlangeni was his humility and integrity. Unlike Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, and Nelson Mandela, Mlangeni was from the Orange Free State and later moved to Soweto with his widowed mother. Owing to poverty, he dropped out of school to help support his mother by working as a golf caddie, factory worker, and bus driver. He became active in the labor movement, but his frustration with the oppression of apartheid and the horror of Sharpeville caused him to be among the first members of the UK. Andrew was trained in China and later secreted back into South Africa. Two years later, he began a life sentence on Robben Island following the Rivonia verdict. 

For over twenty years, Andrew Mlangeni occupied the cell next to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Like Mandela, he generally lacked bitterness and was optimistic about the peaceful evolution of a democratic and non-racial South Africa. In 1994, he was elected to serve in South Africa’s first multi-racial parliament and remained an icon of the liberation struggle without ever intending to be so. His autobiography is entitled “Backroom Boy.”

About four years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Ahmed Kathrada at the Lilliesleaf Farm at an event honoring the contributions of the Norwegian people to the anti-apartheid struggle. Just months before, Ahmed had openly criticized the administration of Jacob Zuma and the diversion of some ANC leaders from serving the people of South Africa to serving themselves. Andrew also found the courage to speak out against the predatory nature of the Zuma presidency and ANC leadership, who, he said, ”were no longer interested in improving the lives of our people.”

More on:

South Africa

Political Transitions

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Sub-Saharan Africa

It was again the courage of Kathrada and Mlangeni that helped South Africa to bring down a corrupt regime, this time that of Jacob Zuma, and bring to power credible leadership that they had long fought and suffered for.

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