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1962, China: The day Mao met Mlangeni


It probably took less than a second from the knock —  a single bang —  to the opening of the door and the entry of an unexpected visitor into the room.

The hosts had just finished their lunch. The unannounced visitor must have realised that he had disrupted the occupants, but there he stood —  unconcerned, unfazed and somehow gigantic in his presence. The room had been invaded. The invader was a man who was to be a landmark in the lives of the military trainees, and a major milestone in the programme they had been in for almost a year. Seeing him was like a vision, or a dream in broad daylight. From the first he was calm, charming and with a humility that contrasted with the reverence bestowed on him by his countrymen and the fear in which he was held abroad. He seemed to be approachable and accommodating —  yet dignified and commanding of respect.

Andrew Mlangeni, one of the trainees, nearly jumped off his chair, but hesitated to reveal to the others how excited he was. They, too, he thought, seemed spellbound by what they had hardly expected. They all watched the invader in amazement, each suppressing his excitement in seeing the great man —  Mao Tse-Tung —  as their guest. Never in their dreams had they thought of getting an opportunity to meet him, let alone play host to him. None of them had thought their stay in that country, far away from their motherland, was appreciated by the highest office in the land.

“He stood there and gazed at us. He seemed amused. We looked at each other, not knowing if we should greet him first or wait for him to initiate the gesture. Personally, I felt like a military graduate and a liberator of serious note. I felt energised and radicalised and I was ready for any kind of war,” recalled Andrew Mlangeni.

The guest was in his trademark plain grey suit —  a shirt-like jacket buttoned to the neck, with matching trousers. He was a man of about 70, but still strong. 

“He was taller than most Chinese people. He had a big face, with broad cheeks and large eyes that constantly roved around.”

Mao was flanked by six companions including his deputy in the Chinese Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, and two other heavyweights, Premier Zhou Enlai and Minister of Foreign Affairs Chen Yi. 

“Deng and Zhou were Mao’s trusted diplomats at the time. Chen was one of the most experienced military and political leaders in Mao’s inner circle.” 

One of the other three turned out to be his permanent interpreter, although Mao spoke without his assistance. Andrew Mlangeni was sure that the other two were not bodyguards. 

“There were no guards among the entourage —  and none in the vicinity, for that matter,” he recalled.

Evidently in a celebratory mood, Mao took the initiative. He greeted each one of them with a handshake, starting with the trainers. By the time Mao finally reached him, Andrew Mlangeni’s hidden tension had eased slightly. He had observed how the other hosts had responded to the great man’s gesture. 

“He had a firm handshake. He looked me straight in the face and I did the same, trying to be as great a soldier as I could.” 

But he couldn’t help noticing, when Mao smiled slightly, how brown his teeth were. He was known to be a heavy smoker. 

“He carried the fresh smell of a cigarette probably finished a few minutes earlier, and by the time he left he had finished countless more,” said Andrew, who later learned that Mao smoked over 50 cigarettes a day.

It was Wednesday the first of August 1962. The trainees learned that to Mao they were as important as the all-important day on which he had chosen to visit them. The day was highly significant to the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party, the “Army Day” or “Soldiers’ Day” on which the Chinese celebrated the standing of a soldier in the life of a Chinese citizen. It also commemorated the day in 1927 on which the People’s Liberation Army of China was founded. For Andrew Mlangeni and the other South African trainees in China, it was a day to acknowledge the critical role their programme was destined to play in the liberation of their own people back home. It was the beginning of the end of the struggle, they would say, and the beginning of the end of the suffering their people had endured all those years under colonial rule and apartheid administration. It was the realisation of what the Chinese had already achieved, had tested and were defending.

The day was to remain a notable one in the lives of Andrew and his comrades. Mao’s visit was a sign that their training was valued highly by the Chinese and an indication that, as fighters for freedom, they were important not only to their trainers but to the bosses of their trainers and especially to the commander-in-chief of the Chinese army. They had all read and been inspired by Mao Tse-Tung’s books —  On Guerrilla War, On Practice, On Contradiction, On Protracted War, On New Democracy, Serving the People and The Art of War —  during their stay in China and as part of their military training, and they regarded Mao not only as a liberator and gallant leader but also as a prolific writer of political, military and philosophical literature. 

“He was an inspirational philosopher, a symbol of patriotism and one of the greatest freedom fighters in the world,” Andrew Mlangeni was to say later.

Mao did not say as much about himself as [the] hero of his people, as the trainees had expected to hear, but the few words he uttered would echo in their thoughts. Speaking in shaky English but in an impressively loud voice, he bemoaned the fact that the ANC had sent only six cadres for training, especially as they had travelled so far. 

“He spoke of the significance of commemorating the life of a soldier and reminded us of our own value to society,” recalled Andrew, adding that Mao had briefly told them about the People’s Liberation Army and its special unit, the People’s Volunteer Army. 

“He mentioned the wars in which he had participated, all of which we had already read about.” 

Mao touched on Sino-Soviet issues and the struggle for liberation in Algeria, challenging the South Africans to learn from the Algerians, who were fighting their French colonisers. 

“He advised us to consider using Algeria as another training ground, as his army had already trained the Algerians —  he spoke highly of the Algerians.” 

He gave them a short lecture about the value of studying terrain for the purpose of guerilla warfare, and to their surprise he spoke knowledgeably about South African landscape features, naming rivers and mountains. 

“We soon realised he knew the subject better than we did. He had obviously read extensively about South Africa and its government.”

Mao boasted to the trainees that just as foreign invaders had actually speeded up the Chinese revolution, so the brutality of the apartheid regime could accelerate the people’s struggle in South Africa. He also impressed Andrew by stating that he was mindful of the cost of the revolution to family and friends, having himself lost family members during the revolution. 

“He urged us not to regret such losses and never to blame ourselves in this regard,” said Andrew, who would later learn that everyone surrounding Mao was a staunch supporter of the Chinese Communist Party. “It became evident to me that to be around Mao one had to have unquestioned ideological loyalty and perhaps even to have proven oneself as beyond reproach within the Communist Party.”

By the time he left, a mere few moments later, Mao Tse-Tung had made such an impression that it felt to the trainees as if he had been there the whole day. The impact on their lives —  not only as freedom fighters but also as leaders in their own right — was huge, and in their minds he would always appear as the revolutionary and founding father of the People’s Republic of China.

Andrew Mlangeni’s lasting impression of Mao was of his striking force and dignity, his intelligence and his wit. The few moments of the meeting confirmed the Chinese leader as a firm disciplinarian. “The Chinese leadership generally exercised the highest level of discipline and this could be attributed to their leader’s intelligence.” Andrew also found Mao reasonable and considerate, especially to the situation the South Africans were in at the time.

Above all, Mao was a great military strategist and political visionary with a proud nationalist and anti-imperialist outlook and deep loyalty to his country and people, whom he had served in an exceptional way. 

“He modernised China and built it into a world power, promoted the status of women, and improved the quality of education and healthcare, which almost doubled the population of his country during his rule. He was not extravagant. He lived with his family in a humble residence in Beijing … a true socialist who forsook luxuries.”

The extract is from Chapter 1 of The Backroom Boy, published by  Wits University Press

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