Mfenyana’s ANC: A giant tale of life in the party

“My association with Sindiso predates our arrival in Parliament. Shortly after the New Year’s celebrations in 1962, I was tasked with the responsibility of secretly transporting him and eight other young ANC recruits to Botswana, leading to their eventual enrolment as students at universities in the Soviet Union. They had ostensibly left the country as a table tennis team taking part in a championship in Gaborone.” — Ahmed Kathrada.

Sindiso Mfenyana may not be an easily identifiable colossus in the struggle for South Africa’s liberation, but he played an important supporting role for liberation heroes. Smuggling money into Harare with Nelson Mandela while trying to convince Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe of their plans, Uncle Kathy helping him across the border into exile, and hobnobbing with slain Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi are some of the events Mfenyana recalls in his autobiography.

Walking with Giants isn’t so much a book as a literary album, containing glimpses into Mfenyana’s life before he joined the ANC, anecdotal and then dramatic musings of his life abroad, and the opportunities that led him to become the first black secretary of Parliament.

The book is raw and unmediated, told in real time with all the changes in perspective that come with age, flitting between prosaic and pivotal.

His upbringing in the rural Eastern Cape, being smuggled into Botswana for a table tennis championship, his education in the Soviet Union, political initiatives and relationships all come together, surprisingly tidily, to provide a well-rounded picture of Mfenyana and his life in exile.

The autobiography has as its linchpin political history, in particular the history of the ANC in South Africa before, during and after being banned. The memoir provides a tapestry of the inner workings of the oldest and still operational liberation movement in Africa and the early, heady days of a democratic, post-apartheid government.

Having been in the ANC since the early 1960s, Mfenyana is keenly aware of how mythology develops around its leaders and the group itself. The problem with such mythology, even when it is largely truthful, is that it invites impossible expectations. It can also make for mind-numbing reading.But Mfenyana avoids this and is able to relate this history refreshingly and succinctly. He tells of how he and his compatriots experienced life in 1950s South Africa with depth and a keen attention to detail, providing colour to days gone by.

His recording of his politicisation in Cradock, through events such as the 1952 Defiance Campaign, and later at the University of Fort Hare, give the background for his recruitment into the ANC. His insights provide a rare and unvarnished look at his life in relation to a dark time in South Africa’s history.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with the philosophical conflict between atheism and Christianity, human rights, peer pressure and the importance of an education. As a man raised in a Christian home and educated in Eastern European countries, Mfenyana’s introspection and the discussions he shares with his comrades on this topic indicate how widely read and knowledgeable he is about global affairs. This intellect would later contribute to building a new South Africa’s politics.

At the launch of Walking with Giants, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said that, given how the ANC was founded in 1912, there’s a wealth of information, but it is important that these stories are told by those who were present.

Mfenyana’s story straddles different epochs of the ANC and is an extension of the party’s history. The sense of amnesia, coupled with misremembered nostalgia that currently pervades the organisation, means stories like Mfenyana’s are crucial.

Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.
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