September 22, 2020

Andrew Mlangeni, Ally of Mandela in Anti-Apartheid Struggle, Dies at 95

Andrew Mlangeni, the last surviving co-defendant convicted with Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial of 1964, which focused a global spotlight on the segregationist policies of apartheid in his native South Africa and helped define the battle lines for an epochal struggle against white minority rule, has died at a military hospital in Pretoria. He was 95.

His death was confirmed by the office of President Cyril Ramaphosa, which said on Wednesday that he had died overnight after being admitted to the hospital because of an abdominal complaint.

All eight men accused of sabotage at the trial were given life sentences and served long prison terms. Mr. Mandela’s was the longest, 27 years behind bars, until his release in 1990 as South Africa began a remarkable transformation to fully democratic elections in 1994.

Mr. Mlangeni served 26 years as Prisoner 467/64 (Mandela was 466/64), incarcerated for much of the time on Robben Island; he was released in 1989. Unlike the charismatic Mr. Mandela, who became South Africa’s first Black president, Mr. Mlangeni cast himself in a far more self-effacing role.

An official biography, written for his charitable foundation in 2017, was entitled “The Backroom Boy,” a reference to his clandestine activities in the underground world of resistance and, perhaps, to the language of apartheid, when white bosses routinely referred to adult Black underlings as “boy.”

When Mr. Mlangeni arrived under heavy guard on Robben Island in 1964, he and other Black convicts in the group were issued prison uniforms with short trousers usually reserved for schoolchildren and menial Black workers such as gardeners.

Such were the granular divisions of apartheid that the only white activist among the group, Denis Goldberg, who died last year,was sent to a different, whites-only prison while Ahmed Kathrada, a Rivonia trialist of Indian descent who died in 2017, was issued long trousers because he belonged to a different racial group.

For all his reticence, though, Mr. Mlangeni was part of a historic vanguard as opponents of apartheid turned to violent tactics, starting in December 1961, with the creation of a secretive insurgent group called the Spear of the Nation.

According to Mr. Mlangeni’s biography, Mr. Mandela sought him out and selected him to join five other men in the first group of South African anti-apartheid activists to be sent for training to China. (Mr. Mlangeni had to prove his physical fitness by performing press-ups to Mr. Mandela’s satisfaction, according to this account.)

It was a time when what Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, called the “wind of change”was blowing through Africa, fanning a clamor for independence and majority rule and threatening a palisade of British and Portuguese colonies shielding South Africa.

Faced at home with powerful, white-led security forces and an all-pervasive secret police, the would-be freedom fighters played a cat-and-mouse game to avoid detection as they planned their journey to China as representatives of the outlawed African National Congress and South African Communist Party.

Outside South Africa, the activists relied on a network of exiles to arrange passage for Mr. Mlangeni and the rest of the group, who slipped out of their own country to neighboring Botswana, then called the Bechuanaland Protectorate, and traveled through Tanzania, Sudan, Ghana, Zurich, Prague, Moscow and Irkutsk, in Siberia, before reaching China, according to a series of interviews in 2019 with a prominent South African journalist Pippa Green.

During their training, the South Africans said later, they were amazed to be visited by Chairman Mao Zedong — the head of the Chinese Communist Party — and other leaders, including his deputy, Deng Xiaoping, and Premier Zhou Enlai.

Mao “looked me straight in the face and I did the same, trying to be as great a soldier as I could,” Mr. Mlangeni said, according to his biography.

Their training comprised schooling in the techniques of secret communications, bomb-making, booby traps and the Maoist philosophy of insurgency. But their ability to put their lessons into practice turned out to be short-lived.

After he returned to South Africa in late 1962, Mr. Mlangeni became a member of the insurgents’ high command. He disguised himself as a priest with the nom de guerre the Rev. Mokete Mokoena and traveled around South Africa recruiting young people to go abroad for training as insurgents. But in June 1963, he broke the rules of his tradecraft by staying at his home in the Dube section of Soweto rather than in a safe house. The police raided it.

Initially, he and a fellow activist, Elias Motsoaledi, were charged with trying to spirit out of the country a group of South Africans, including Jacob Zuma, who would later become president in the post-apartheid era. They were acquitted but immediately rearrested under apartheid laws permitting 90 days detention without trial.

They were subsequently accused of sabotage along with others who had been arrested at a farmhouse in the Rivonia District of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs to face charges of plotting to overthrow the state with a campaign of sabotage that could have brought the death sentence.

All had been accused of participating in a putative insurgency called Operation Mayibuye, sometimes translated as Operation for Africa’s Return.

The subsequent trial, named for the Rivonia area, drew broad international attention and is often remembered for a stirring address from the dock in which Mr. Mandela evinced his readiness “if needs be” to sacrifice his life for the cause of freedom.

But Mr. Mlangeni also spoke, urging Judge Quartus de Wet to “remember what we, African and nonwhite people, have had to suffer. That is all I have to say except to add what I did was not for myself but for my people.”

Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting.