When Govan Mbeki spoke about how he came to embrace Marxist political thought two themes emerged. One was the memory of police brutality on the streets of Johannesburg, which had etched itself in to his memory when he was still a high school student. The other was what he perceived to be the failure of the church to intervene in the wake of attempts to remove the franchise from Africans.
Mbeki was born on July 8, 1910 at Mpukane location in the Nqamakwe district of Transkei. He was the youngest of five children. His father was a chief, Sikelewu Mbeki, and his mother, Johanna Mahala, was the daughter of a Methodist missionary. He told me how, at the age of eight, he saw his family – along with many other black people in the Transkei – being "robbed of their land". His father's forebears had moved to Nqamakwe when the Zulu king Shaka was still attempting to consolidate his rule in Natal in the face of widespread resistance. Nqamakwe was one of seven districts in which areas were fixed for "white occupation".
According to Mbeki, this meant there would be no further allocation of land for local black residents. He first came into contact with the African National Congress at the age of 14, while in Std 4. A parish Priest Rev Mhlanga of the Independent Methodist Church, held fundraising concerts for the ANC which were attended by local children. During the concerts, Mhlanga explained the aims and objects of the Congress. As a high school pupil at Healdtown, Mbeki recalled, he was also touched by the poverty he saw among whites in the Transkei. There had been a breakdown in subsistence farming among Afrikaners, who had been hit by natural disasters, and many had resorted to, roaming the country for work.
The Mbeki family – with their cattle, sheep, goats, poultry and horses – was relatively well off by the standards of black South Africa. "Many whites came to our house asking for food and shelter," he told me. They stayed overnight. These events unusual in South Africa – took place against the background of the National Party's aggressive "swart gevaar" propaganda campaign, a tactic used to remove the franchise from Africans. Mbeki became increasingly disillusioned with Christianity. "There seemed to be no answer," he said. "I thought the church would stop (Prime Minister JB) Hertzog. But it seemed to do nothing. This undermined my confidence in the church. My mind was in turmoil."
Mbeki's first experience of trade unionism came in the late 1920s, when he acted as an interpreter – from English to Xhosa for his cousin Robert Mbeki, a prominent figure in the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union. Mbeki had got his own political career off the ground when he formed, with other students, the Transkei Students' Association: "With all the noble ideas of youth, the move was to improve the conditions of the oppressed and exploited people."
In 1929, in the year-end vacation, Zizi – his clan name – travelled to Johannesburg to visit his sister, who ran a shebeen near Doornfontein to augment the family income. It was on Johannesburg's streets that he had his first direct experience of brutality perpetrated against blacks in the urban areas. He recalled "regular police harassment for pass offences and illicit liquor." The raids, which were almost daily occurrences, were accompanied by beatings, he said. "I was helplessly angry at what I noticed, but had no answer for the state of affairs," he said.
An answer emerged for Mbeki in 1933, when as a matric student in the high school section of Fort Hare University he came into contact with leftwing political activist Dr Eddie Roux, a botanist. Mbeki remembered Roux pitching a tent on the slopes of Sandile's Kop near the university. The young student was invited to the tent by a senior colleague, Ernest Mancoba, where they heard the botanist give lectures on communism. Roux was a member of the Communist Party of South Africa, and had been a leading light in the Young Communist League. His "tent lectures" – which went on for two weeks – had a tremendous effect on Mbeki, providing an explanation for the plight of the "oppressed and exploited masses".
Then, in 1934, an "Afro-American" teacher named Max Yergan came to South Africa to establish a Christian Union at Fort Hare. After building a hall, he travelled back to the United States and also spent some time in the Soviet Union. When he returned to Fort Hare, said Mbeki, "he was no longer the Max Yergan we had known – concerned only with church work". Yergan, who remained at Fort Hare for another year was invited to deliver lectures on communism and fascism to the political science class. At the time, Mbeki was reading the subject as one of his majors for a Bachelorof Arts degree.
Mbeki became friendly with Yergan who, he said, invited him to his home and fed him with literature. One of the first books his friend gave him was Lenin's State and Revolution. The friendship with Roux was also maintained, and in 1946 Mbeki contributed a volume on co-operatives toRoux's Cape Town-based publishing concern, The African Bookman. ln his final year at university, he wrote an article for the college magazine criticising a book by Edgar Brooks, who referred to "coloureds" as "the sins of our forefathers". Mbeki argued strongly for the integration of races asa solution to South Africa's problems. The university's principal. Alexander Kerr, took exception to his article, and ordered him withdraw it. He refused, and the issue never appeared.
The years 1934-1935 saw the introduction of the "Native Bills" which were intended to remove Africans from the voters' common roll. Mbeki participated in the activities of the "All African Convention" established in Bloemfontein to fight the Bills. It was during this time that he worked during school holidays for the CNA in Johannesburg. He said he learned about the problems of workers from this personal experience: poor wages earned by blacks as well as confrontation with the police in matters of labour relations. He recalled how during the Depression whites were placed in supervisory positions even though they did not know the job. Then an undergraduate, Mbeki was fired for organizing the workers.
After completing his degree he asked the then treasurer of the ANC, Dr AB Xuma to take him on as national organiser. "I asked him to pay me £8 a month," he said. Xuma refused, saying the ANC had no funds and that at 26, Mbeki was young enough to find a job elsewhere.
Mbeki turned to teaching, at the same time writing a book, Transkei in the Making. It was published by Verulum Press in 1939 and serialized in the magazine, The new South African Outlook. After reading the series two men running a printing business offered Mbeki the editorship of a newspaper they were planning in exchange for rights to the series. He accepted. The paper was called Territorial Magazine and later, Inkundla ya Bantu, and he edited it until 1944. The rest of Mbeki's history is well-known; and at the time of his arrest he was a member of the High Command of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, and of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.