Raymond Mhlaba Biography - Began as a Trade Unionist, Sentenced to Life Imprisonment, Continued the Struggle from Prison
Anti-apartheid activist, politician, diplomat
Raymond Mhlaba devoted his life to the struggle against apartheid, the system of racial segregation and discrimination that once defined South Africa. Rising to leadership positions in both the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African National Congress (ANC), Mhlaba spent two decades in the nonviolent struggle for human rights in his country. After the ANC was banned by the government in 1960, Mhlaba joined the High Command of Umkhonto We Sizwe—Spear of the Nation—the ANC's military wing. In 1964 Mhlaba and his comrades, including future South African President Nelson Mandela, were sentenced to life imprisonment. Following Mhlaba's release in 1989 and the ANC's subsequent electoral victory, he became premier of the Eastern Cape Province. Later Mhlaba served as South Africa's High Commissioner to Uganda.
Known as Oom (Uncle) Ray for his sweet disposition, Mhlaba was a close associate of Mandela and one of his staunchest supporters throughout their many decades together. Mhlaba was a quiet man who seldom partook in political argument, and he was known for his conciliatory approach. Mandela was quoted in the Guardian: "I got to know him as the peacemaker. He spent a lot of time urging fellow prisoners to forget their differences and unite so that conditions for prisoners could improve."
Began as a Trade Unionist
Born on February 12, 1920, in Mazoka, a village in the Beaufort district of South Africa's Eastern Cape, Ray Mhlaba was the son of a policeman. After gaining his early education in a mission school, lack of money forced him to drop out of Healdtown Secondary School. Mhlaba went to work in a dry-cleaning factory in Port Elizabeth, where the horrendous conditions converted him into a committed trade unionist. He served as the leader of the Non-European Laundry Workers' Union. About 1943 Mhlaba married Joyce Meke, also from the Beaufort region, and the couple had three children. Meke was killed in an automobile accident in 1960.
In 1943 Mhlaba joined the SACP, serving as the party's district secretary from 1946 until the party was banned in 1950. In 1944 he joined the ANC, a Communist Party ally. The trade union movement, the SACP, and the ANC shaped Mhlaba's political and personal life and his world view.
Mhbala was a leader in the ANC's nonviolent anti-apartheid campaigns and civil disobedience actions. As a member of the Eastern Cape Executive Committee and chair of the Port Elizabeth ANC, Mhlaba was the first to be arrested for disobeying apartheid laws during the nationwide Defiance Campaign of 1952. The campaign was launched in Port Elizabeth when Mhlaba led a group of volunteers singing freedom songs through the "Whites Only" entrance of the New Brighton Railway Station. This action earned him the Xhosa nickname Vulindlela or "he who opens the way." That same year Mhlaba was charged under South Africa's Suppression of Communism Act. Although his political activities continued, he was barred from attending meetings or gatherings.
Sentenced to Life Imprisonment
The South African government banned the ANC in 1960 and the group turned to armed struggle, launching Umkhonto We Sizwe. Mhlaba was one its first recruits and went to China for military training. Before leaving he assisted Mandela in writing the Umkhonto constitution.
Mhlaba returned to South Africa in 1962. Following the arrest of Nelson Mandela, he became a commander of Umkhonto. Mhlaba was arrested, along with other ANC leaders and their white communist allies, on July 11, 1963, when security forces raided the ANC's underground headquarters in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg. Along with Mandela and the others, Mhlaba was charged with sabotage—a capital crime equivalent to treason under South African law—and conspiracy to overthrow the government.
The defendants used their trial as a political platform. Since the government had little evidence against Mhlaba, the group decided that he should deny his membership in the High Command and involvement in the sabotage. The trial lasted eight months. In June of 1964, Mhlaba, Mandela, and six other defendants were sentenced to life in the notorious Robben Island Prison. The men were greatly relieved, having assumed that they would receive the death penalty and never dreaming that they would remain in prison for the next 25 years.
The government declared that the Rivonia trial had put an end to the ANC. Instead the prisoners became symbols of the anti-apartheid struggle and world opinion began to turn against the South African government. The legacy of Rivonia helped bring the ANC back to prominence in the mid-1970s.
Continued the Struggle from Prison
At Robben Island, Mhlaba and three other former members of the National Executive formed the ANC High Command or High Organ with Mandela as its head. They educated and supported younger imprisoned members, formulated policies on day-to-day concerns, prisoners' complaints, and strikes, and enforced discipline within their isolation unit. Their decisions were communicated to other political prisoners throughout Robben Island.
Much to their surprise, in 1982 Mandela, Mhlaba, and two other members of the ANC leadership were transferred to the Pollsmoor maximum security prison near Cape Town. There they received more humane treatment. The reason for their transfer appeared to be two-fold. The government wanted to diffuse their influence by separating them from other political prisoners. However, the transfer also marked the first hint of possible talks between Mandela and the government.
In 1986 Mhlaba received permission to marry his common-law wife Dideka Heliso, the mother of three of his children. Mandela was a witness at the ceremony in the prison commandant's office. Mhlaba was allowed to touch Heliso legally for the first time in 22 years.
Released from Prison
In 1987 Nelson Mandela, with Mhlaba's support, began negotiating with the government. In October of 1989 South African President Frederik W. de Klerk, in part responding to worldwide pressure and sanctions, agreed to the unconditional release of Raymond Mhlaba and seven other prominent, aging, political prisoners. Their release was greeted with large celebratory demonstrations around the country.
Mhlaba joined the ANC Special Executive Committee to negotiate with the government for the future of democracy in South Africa. In 1991 he was elected to both the ANC National Executive and the SACP Central Committee. He became the SACP national chairman in 1995. In 1994, when the ANC came to power in South Africa's first democratic multi-racial elections, Mhlaba became premier of the newly formed Eastern Cape Province. The second-largest province in South Africa, the Eastern Cape included the wretchedly poor Transkei and Ciskei "homelands." Rebuilding the territory and restoring the provincial government was an overwhelming job. Mhlaba's government was paralyzed by incompetence and corruption. He was criticized by all sides and the ANC decided he should step down.
After resigning in 1997, Mhlaba served as South Africa's High Commissioner to Uganda and ambassador to Burundi and Rwanda. The University of Port Elizabeth honored him with the Raymond Mhlaba Institute of Public Administration and Leadership. Following his retirement in 2001, Mhlaba became chairman of a black economic power consortium that was involved with a port project. He suffered a stroke in 2003, however, and the following year was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer.
In his last days Mhlaba received visits from Mandela and South African President Thabo Mbeki, the son of his lifelong comrade Govan Mbeki. Mhlaba died on February 19, 2005, in a Port Elizabeth hospital. Thabo Mbeki spoke at his funeral: "Raymond Mhlaba, Ndobe, devoted his entire adult life, covering 60 years, to the service of the people and the cause of freedom…. He grew to become the giant he was, one of the great guides of the struggle our people had and have to wage to free themselves from oppression, poverty and dehumanization." A memorial service was held on February 24, 2005, at St. Alban's Cathedral in Pretoria, "to celebrate the heroic and selfless life of a valiant warrior, who fought till the end for the liberation of this country."
(With Thembeka Mafumadi) Raymond Mhlaba's Personal Memoirs: Reminiscing from Rwanda and Uganda, Human Sciences Research, 2001.
Frankel, Glenn, Rivonia's Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999.
Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Little, Brown and Co., 1994.
Mandela, Nelson, Mandela: An Illustrated Autobiography, Little, Brown, 1996.
Sampson, Anthony, Mandela: The Authorized Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Economist, December 7, 1996, p. 41.
Guardian (Manchester, England), February 25, 2005.
Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1990, p. 11.
New York Times, March 13, 2005.
"Address at the Memorial Service of the Late Mr. Raymond Mhlaba," African National Congress, www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/zuma/2005/jz0224.html (September 24, 2005).
"Minister Dlamini Zuma's Message of Support on the Death of Raymond Mhlaba," Department of Foreign Affairs, Republic of South Africa, www.dfa.gov.za/docs/2005/mhlaba0221.htm (September 27, 2005).
"Speech of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, at the Funeral of Raymond Mhlaba, Port Elizabeth," South African Government Information, www.info.gov.za/speeches/2005/05022809151001.htm (September 27, 2005).
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