Sitting at a hotel bar in Lobatse, Botswana, in late October 1961, Andrew Mlangeni and Raymond Mhlaba are nervous: they have fled the country of their birth and are holding fake passports, which they hope will get them into communist China.
Sitting at the bar, the gravity of what they are doing sinks in: they are going for military training so they can join the ANC’s armed struggle against apartheid.
Both men are on edge, but this was no time to grab a drink to settle their nerves: they have to stay focused.
“We didn’t drink anything, we could not, we had to remain sober minded,” recalls Mr Mlangeni, now aged 92.
Then, the very thing they had both feared happened.
“Somebody came to us and said, ‘Good evening, gentleman, my name is so and so.’ He was from the Special Branch.”
“He said, ‘Gentlemen, I want you to accompany me to my office across the road.’ He was a policeman; we could not refuse,” says Mr Mlangeni, staring into space as if transported to that moment in the bar all those years ago.
He is the last remaining Rivonia Trialist and one of the first members of the ANC sent for military training outside the country for Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
Last Friday, January 27, Mr Mlangeni was a guest speaker at Westerford High School. He called the pupils “future leaders”.
After the talk, sitting in an office chair, his walking stick leaning against it, Mr Mlangeni leans forward, a frown wrinkling his forehead as he cuts a cheese sandwich with a teaspoon and recalls the interrogation all those years ago.
In 1961, Botswana, then still known as the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, was still five years away from winning its independence, so as Mr Mlangeni and Mr Mhlaba endure the Special Branch policeman’s questions they both feared being sent back to South Africa if he learned their true identities.
“’Gentleman, where are you going?’ he asked. We said we are going to Francistown. We had documents to show that we’re citizens of Botswana. We negotiated for documents with an office in Joburg which helps Botswana citizens,” says Mr Mlangeni, recalling the phoney story he spun for the policeman.
‘” ‘My friend wants to buy some cattle,’ I said. My mother in-law was going to show us where to buy cattle. He started to question Raymond and asked him, ‘Who is your chief?’ And he didn’t know. He didn’t know the chief and didn’t speak a word of Tswana and the policeman became suspicious.” After this, Mr Mhlaba and Mr Mlangeni were questioned for hours and their suitcases were searched. Here letters written by the wives of comrades, who had already left for China, were opened and read.
“Our case became weaker and weaker as he read the letters. I didn’t know what was in the letters. Raymond asked to go to the bathroom, it was now 10.30pm. When Raymond came back, all of a sudden he said, ‘Yes, we’re leaving the country and we’re going to Ghana’. “I felt as though I wanted the earth to open up. The chap said, ‘Why didn’t you say so from the beginning? I would’ve long released you.’ I told him, ‘It’s late, we’re hungry and have nowhere to sleep. We’re your responsibility now.’
“He took us to his home and said that there was no food for us and he wanted us to be out by 5am. He didn’t want anyone to see us come out of his house. So we did that. We left that morning and our plane flew for nine hours. Our first meal was in a hotel in Mbeya, Tanzania.” Speaking to the Westerford pupils, Mr Mlangeni said he always believed in the struggle and that the ANC was fighting a good cause for the rights of everyone in the country regardless of race.
It was a cause he paid a heavy price for. When he returned to the country in 1963, he and Raymond Mhlaba were rounded up along with other top ANC leaders after a raid at Liliesleaf Farm in the suburb of Rivonia in Johannesburg, which the ANC had been using as a hide-out. Mr Mlangeni was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.
While recounting his experience of becoming part of the ANC’s military wing and explaining the torture his family endured while relaying messages between those on Robben Island and the ANC leader Oliver Tambo, questions were posed to Mr Mlangeni by the pupils who wanted to know whether he thought apartheid still exists today.
“You people don’t know what is apartheid. You hear and probably read in the newspaper (about) the type of government. When people talk to you about separation of races, you don’t know what is meant by separation of races. 1994 brought about changes in this country. But today we still find portions where they say this is Indian or this is coloured.
“It is something that should not have existed in the first place. We all belong to one race: the human race. We are all African. You are South Africa, not an Indian, not a coloured. “Mr Mlangeni said the 20 years the ANC had been in power were not enough to undo 300 years of oppression.
He said all South Africans had a constitutional right to basic services such as housing, good education and healthcare, and they should continue to demand them, but in a peaceful manner.
“Continue to put constructive pressure on government. I am not in favour of #FeesMustFall and employing violent methods to bring down fees on universities. It must be peaceful and bide by the laws of the country. We want you to be responsible citizens. This country will be led and governed by yourselves.”