/ 9 April 2018

Read in full: Andrew Mlangeni’s inspiring graduation speech

"One of the biggest prisons we were afraid of being locked up in though
"One of the biggest prisons we were afraid of being locked up in though

Struggle stalwart and ANC veteran Andrew Mlangeni was awarded an honorary doctorate by Rhodes University on Sunday evening. Below is the full speech he delivered at the ceremony.

Vice-chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, chairperson and members of council, esteemed teaching staff of Rhodes University, fellow students and worker, friends, ladies and gentlemen: I am privileged to be standing here today to convey my heartfelt thanks to the chancellor and the council of Rhodes University for the honour bestowed on me. 

In line with the motto of the University: Strength, Courage, Truth, I am pretty confident that this university, which I join today as an honorary member, will continue to play its role to help transform our country into a nation that will counted among the best nations of the world. My name is Andrew Mokete Mlangeni, born of farm tenants as a result of racially legislated land dispossession of the Land Act of 1913. 

I was born under the farm labour tenancy system. Which means from the day I was conceived, I was destined to be a future farm worker because of the labour tenancy system. A condemnation which many farm tenants’ children are still subjected to in this day and age in our modern society. Indeed, it is not yet UHURU for the majority in our country. I was born on 6 June 1926. I thank my God for longevity. 

As a farm boy somehow, miraculously I escaped not because of my own making but because of the tragic event in my early life, the death of my father, the head of the house. I am the ninth child and part of the second set of twins in a family of 10. My father passed on when I was six, leaving my mother with 10 children to take care of. When my father passed on, my family had to move out of the farm, hence my miraculous escape from the injunction of being a farm labourer. I am the only son, and one of the remaining two children of my parents. 

At the tender age of nine, I was already doing some caddy work to augment the upkeep of my mother’s family. By this time in my life, age nine, I had no hint of something called “school”. Schooling, or rather education, is one of the subjects I am very passionate about, because of the denial I experience in my own life. 

It was not until I was 11, that I got introduced to something called a “teacher” in a formal schooling environment. I must hasten to say that I bumped into this thing called “school” by accident, though. A story for another day, or I recommend you read my biography to get more information. One of the people who left an indelible print in my mind, and I guess our generation, is Marcus Garvey. He pointed out that, “Liberate the minds of men, and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men.” I think here he was asserting the primacy of education in all its facets, the investment in actual education that leads to knowledge production rather than knowledge regurgitation. 

Education ranging from what I want to call “real education”, which in most cases is an informal survival kit that uses indigenous value systems to get one to think and act upon his/her thoughts in accordance with one’s societal needs. However, the world has changed a lot and it will be foolhardy to believe that indigenous knowledge systems alone can beat the odds of the moment. 

Only the combination of the formal and informal education can catapult humanity to greater heights. My brother and fellow comrade, Nelson Mandela says, “Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can use change the world.” One of the clauses of the Freedom Charter, the seminal policy-guiding document of the ANC adopted by the people of SA across colour line states, “The doom of learning and culture shall be opened.” This was not just a slogan, but a clarion call to action. Action to creating an environment that empowers the people to be the captains of their ships insofar as their lives are concerned. Moreover, empowering people to be agents of change in dealing with conditions and the country.

It is for this reason that when free and compulsory education was introduced to cater for the majority who were historically excluded two decades ago, I was in awe. Today, I am over the moon by the introduction of free education at TVET and University levels for the poor deserving students because it gives them a fighting chance in this cruel world. 

Criticisms or not, there comes a time when bold steps have to be taken to ensure that transformation is realised. Society cannot be paralysed by perennial caution because people’s aspiration cannot be put on hold forever. When Madiba uttered those words, he had a dream of a people who can really turn things around using education as the agency for change. 

My generation and especially the comrades with whom I was locked up, among the first things we fought for the very first day we landed on Robben Island, knowing that we had all the time because we had to do time, was to fight for our right to study, the right to education. 

During my trial for life and death, literally and figuratively, before the court handed down a life sentence on us, this is what I told the court: “Though leaders of many countries throughout the world have tried to persuade the Government to abandon its apartheid policy, and although resolutions have been passed in the UN against SA, this has been met with no result. All that the Government has done is to reply to the people’s demands by putting their political leaders in jail and break up families.” 

One of the biggest prisons we were afraid of being locked up in though, was the jail of ignorance. We had to demand to have access to education, a fight that was fought over a period of three years until it was granted 1967. Guess who was the first among the inmates to register to study? Some fellow called Andrew Mlangeni. All my gratitude goes to my wife June, who stood by me. May her soul rest in peace. Despite her persecution and banning orders by the apartheid regime, she managed to send me money for the registration of books. 

I took a journey of 12 years to gain a BA degree, despite all odds. Our jailors were against as studying and they found excuses to disturb our progress. At times, it was due to the unavailability of funds, but we never let that deter us. I went to prison without a degree, but came out with two degrees. 

I was about to complete my law degree when the people across colour lines locally and abroad made it possible for us to be released from prison in October 1989 after being behind bars for 26 years. 

Born on the 18th July 1918, Mandela would’ve turned 100 years old this year. We are reminded to emulate the values of Madiba and Albertina Sisulu who would have also turned 100 years old this year. The right to human dignity enjoins us to treat people with reverence and dignity. Their selflessness should be embodied by the whole world not only on their months of birth, but every day. They fought against, among other things, the introduction of the Bantu Education Act. 

Through Parliament, we have been able to repeal that notorious act. They were very strongly against corruption, which today has destroyed our economy. Some of our political leaders have become absolutely corrupt – they are no longer interested in improving the lives of our people. They are busy lining their pockets with the money that is meant to help the poor people. What a disgrace! They have forgotten that many people died for this democracy that we are enjoying today. The percentage of our unemployed youth is very high, poverty is rampant, and there is no sign of an immediate solution. Thank you very much. I will be awarded another degree from the Durban University of Technology soon.