Freed Mbeki speaks

African National Congress leader Govan Mbeki was freed last night after 23 years in prison – and immediately reaffirmed his dedication to the ANC and the SA Communist Party.

"The ideas for which I went to jail and which the ANC stands for I still embrace. I am still an ANC member. "I am still a member of the Communist Party. I still embrace Marxist views," he said. Mbeki was one of seven prisoners released yesterday before ending their sentences, including PAC member John Nkosi, who was also serving a life sentence.

The 77-year-old Mbeki, the first major ANC leader released unconditionally while serving a life sentence, spoke shakily and uncertainly at a press conference organised by the Bureau for Information. The grey-haired slightly balding grandfather figure said he was "happy to be back", though he was concerned about his prison  "comrades". But, he added, he was confident they would soon he released.

"I wouldn't say my release is a step towards a solution; a solution is not found with one man. No solution can be arrived at by keeping the ANC out," he said. Mbeki, who was imprisoned for his membership of the high command of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the ANC's military wing, said there was still a need for MK. "As long as the ANC sees fit for it to be there, it would be there."

Asked about the UDF, he said it was "a good thing". He had no definite plans. He was due to spend the night in the Holiday Inn and would then take up residence in the nearby New Brighton township. He was keen to see his exiled sons and to collect an honorary degree he had been awarded in Amsterdam. He would be applying for travel documents. Bureau for Information representative, Caspar Venter, cut the press conference short. He also told journalists that special permission had been granted for the conference to be reported, though Mbeki would now be "listed".

The African National Congress immediately issued a statement demanding that Mbeki be allowed "to speak to the people". In a statement released in Lusaka last night, the ANC said Mbeki's release would "significantly enrich and augment the leadership of the democratic forces as well as a whole". The ANC said it would now step up the campaign for the release of other political prisoners.

And family members in exile – including his two sons who have not seen or spoken to their father over two decades – gave emotional accounts of their feelings on their father's release. One son, ANC national executive committee member Thabo, is listed and cannot be quoted. The other, Zimbabwean-based journalist Moeletsi, said yesterday he was both "thrilled" and "apprehensive" about the release of his father, whom he last saw when a young teenager in about 1961.

This is victory. Botha and his government have been forced to release my father – first and foremost by the fact that they completely failed to destroy his spirit. "He has come out of prison more firmly resolved than when he started out in politics in the 1930s. "As a victory, l am happy and excited. But we haven't solved the problem that led him to politics. And that is where my apprehension and fore- boding come from." He said he was looking forward to seeing his father, but "I won't be asking permission from the regime to go to South Africa to see my father. How do you ask permission to go to your own home?" he said.

The ANC statement said the campaign to free South African political prisoners had scored an important victory. But, said the ANC, "we are acutely aware that his release in a real sense also means a change of address from the confines of Robben Island into the prison house of South Africa".

John Nkosi, also released yesterday, was a PAC member who has served 24 years of a life sentence. Also released were two other PAC members, one ANC member and two members of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweeging. The AWB members had served just four years of 15-year sentences. They are J D Viljoen and J G Jacobsz. The others released were Michael Matsobane, Zifozonke Thsikila, both PAC members who had served eight years of 15-year sentences, and Tom Masuku, an ANC member who has served nine years of a 20-year sentence.

Mbeki's release comes after months of wrangling between his lawyers and the government since PW Botha announced on August 13 that he had asked the prison Advisory Release Board to look into his case. It is also the culmination of a step-by-step back down by the government in its bid to impose conditions on the release of political prisoners serving life terms. Gradually, through three major statements on political prisoners, Botha has dropped most of the conditions he attached to their release.

Many observers will see these releases as a step along the road to the possible freeing of South Africa's best-known political prisoner, ANC leader Nelson Mandela – a view that will be strengthened by a throwaway remark by Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee in his announcement of yesterday's releases: "The release policy … will be applied in the usual manner as a continuous process".  

Mbeki in the 50s. Perhaps the crucial E Cape figure

The name of Govan Archibald Mvunyelina Mbeki, an ageing, greying man on an island prison, may not be as instantly recognisable to the world as that of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. But the struggle has also, quite literally, been his life. Mbeki is one of the African National Congress pivotal leaders. He has lived through – and deeply influenced – the fluctuating fortunes of that movement. In the 1940s, as a member of the ANC Youth league, he played a central role in injecting the Congress with a note of urgency and confrontationism.

In the 1950s he was the ANC in Port Elizabeth, inculcating a level of-militancy among resistance organisations which is still reflected in the South Africa of the 1980s. And while Mbeki may never have been an international symbol, he has certainly remained a potent cynosure for the black youth of South Africa – the myriad parks and schools named in his honour during 1984-86 bear graphic testimony to this.

Born in 1910 in Transkei's Nqamakwe district, the son of a chief, Mbeki attended mission schools and worked as a messenger and newsboy before entering (then-independent) Fort Hare University on a bursary from the Transkei Bunga. He completed his BA in 1937. While a student he rapidly became politicised, rising to prominence in the ANC Youth league and embracing socialist ideas. He worked as a school teacher for several years after graduating, eventually being dismissed by the educational authorities for his forthright political views.

He gained a BEcon in social studies in 1940 through the University of South Africa. Following his dismissal as a teacher, Mbeki had a spell as owner/manager of a cooperative store in Idutywa in the Transkei. But his overarching – and interlocking – passions for politics and journalism proved irresitible. Through the Transkeian Organised Bodies, he had led a boycott of elections for what were called "Native Representatives" in 1936.

He edited the Territorial Magazine from 1938 to 1944, and in 1939 wrote a book, The Transkei in the Making. In 1941 he became secretary of the Transkei African Voters' Association, and was elected to the Transkei Bunga as Idutywa's representative in 1943. He was a member of the drafting committee of the ANC's famous 1944 document, African Claims.

In the early 1950s Mbeki's store was destroyed by a tornado, prompting him to try teaching for a second time. Political activity – this time an attempt to organise coal workers in Ladysmith – led to another dismissal. When he moved to Port Elizabeth in 1955, all other pursuits gave way to politics. As Port Elizabeth-editor of the influential left-wing newspaper New Age, Mbeki became probably the most important political figure in the Eastern Cape. Combining journalism and activism, he turned the newspaper office into an ANC nerve centre.

Port Elizabeth became one of the few areas in which resistance organization was sufficiently entrenched for the "M-Plan" to be introduced. Mbeki was an influential planner of the Congress of the People in 1955. In the following year, he became national chairman of the ANC. Despite subsequent restriction orders, his political activity continued.

During South Africa's first State of Emergency, in 1960, he spent five months in detention. In 1961 he joined the Communist Party of South Africa. In October 1962, he was a key delegate at the ANC's conference held in Lobatsi, Bechuanaland (now Botswana.) He was arrested in the same year, and charged under the Explosives Act. After a spell in solitary confinement, he was brought to trial and acquitted on a technicality, after which he was placed under house arrest.

Mbeki chose to go underground, joining the ANC's newly-formed military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe. Less than a year later he was arrested along with the rump of the ANC High Command – in the "Operation Mayibuye" raid on Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia. After his conviction in 1964 on charges of sabotage and his sentencing to life imprisonment Mbeki was sent to Robben Island — where he was incarcerated until his release yesterday.

While in prison he completed a BA Honours degree in Economics. In 1977 he was awarded an honorary doctorate in social sciences by the University of Amsterdam, in recognition of his authoritative book The Peasants Revolt.

Mbeki's wife, Epainette, still lives in Idutywa. He has three sons and a daughter – one son, Thabo, is a prominent figure in the movement with which his father's name is inextricably linked. – Shaun Johnson.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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