REFLECTIONS ON THE LESSONS FROM THE LIFE AND STRUGGLE OF RAYMOND MHLABA BY FORMER PRESIDENT KGALEMA MOTLANTHE AT THE BOHLOKONG NEW HALL IN BETHLEHEM, FREE STATE, ON 12 MARCH 2020.
Provincial Chairperson – Sam Mashinini
Deputy Provincial Chairperson – William Bulwane
Provincial Secretary – Paseka Nompondo
Regional Task Team Members
The January 8th statement of the NEC of the ANC identifies comrades Vuyisile Mini, Raymond Mhlaba, Rusty Bernstein and Harry Gwala as leaders who, were they alive, would have celebrated their 100th or centennial birthdays this year.
Hence today we celebrate the centenary of the birth of one of the most outstanding, committed and consistent revolutionaries in the struggle for freedom in South Africa – Raymond Mphakamisi Mhlaba.
The life of Raymond Mhlaba is one of long, tireless and unwavering struggle that left an indelible and enduring legacy in the annals of the liberation movement in the country.
Born 20th February 1920 in Mazoka village in Fort Beaufort District, Raymond Mhlaba was first an active member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) and then later a member of the African National Congress throughout his adult life. Like comrade Moses Kotane, Raymond Mhlaba joined the trade union movement, then the CPSA and later the African National Congress (ANC). His nurturing and caring character earned him the name Oom Ray.
He attended his secondary schooling at Healdtown but due to financial constraint he was unable to reach matric and complete his studies. Raymond Mhlaba started his long and enduring political life, tentatively while at Healdtown Secondary School.
After, a teacher, Mr. Sigila, had explained to the young learners about how white settlers had confiscated land belonging to Africans through the Natives Land Act in 1913, Oom Ray and some of his peers formed an organisation called Mayibuye Students Association.
These youngsters, who were beginning what for Raymond Mhlaba was to be a lifelong vocation, used the student organisation to organise their communities to be concerned, particularly with the land question.
They strove to arouse among their people the necessary political consciousness that would help in the struggle to reclaim their land. The organisation, which met at various places, including Fort Hare University and Lovedale College, used every opportunity to organise both young and old members of their communities.
Although this student organisation did not last long, it had planted in the mind and heart of the young Raymond Mhlaba, the initial seeds of politics that were to germinate and become strong and formidable in later years. When Oom Ray started work in a Port Elizabeth dry cleaning firm, it was the coloured women who recruited him into the Non-European Laundry Workers Union (LWU). This recruitment by coloured women was very important, because it planted into Raymond Mhlaba the abiding consciousness of both non-sexism and non-racialism.
From 1942, Oom Ray became very active in the trade union movement, especially in the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU). As he became more involved in the trade union movement, he learned more about the previous struggles of workers and the power of collective bargaining. The work of Raymond Mhlaba and other trade unionists made Port Elizabeth to be one of the most well organised areas in South Africa in the 1940s.
It was during this time that he met Jack Simons and Ray Alexander and then a lifelong comradeship developed between them.
In 1943 he met and married his first wife, Joyce Meke, and in their 17 years together they were blessed with three children: Bukeka, Nomalungelo and Jongintshaba. Before the state of emergency in 1960, Oom Ray’s wife, Joyce Mhlaba unfortunately died in a car accident. This was a devastating blow to both him and his young children. Fortunately, for him, his sisters decided to take care of the young children while he continued with the struggle for freedom.
Once the ANC Youth League was formed in 1944, Raymond Mhlaba became an active member of the organisation and the CPSA. Oom Ray was a political prisoner in Robben Island since 1964 but was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in 1986 where he received special permission to marry his second wife Dideka Heliso. They were blessed with three children, Mlilo, Nomawethu and Nikiwe.
He was fully involved in the discussions and inputs that brought about the 1949 Programme of Action of the ANC Youth League. During this time, he led an active political life. He conducted political lessons for all the bodies to which he belonged. He fully participated in each and every campaign that was launched by the organisations.
Throughout his active participation, Raymond Mhlaba personified the unity in action that bound the different structures that were fighting for liberation. Together with some of his comrades, they demonstrated that the struggle for freedom could not be compartmentalised. During this time, Oom Ray did not use any of the constituent parts of the Congress Alliance for personal gain or factional tendencies.
He never distinguished his political work between the ANC, the CPSA as well as that of organising workers into the trade unions. Neither was there any distinction between the work he did as a worker, an organiser on local issues and the freedom fighter for his country.
At the same time, there was no difference between his private and political life.
This was particularly so, when employers started targeting him and he had to lose some of his jobs. But he soldiered on, arguing that he was married to the struggle for emancipation.
The unrelenting struggles in Port Elizabeth were further boosted by the presence of many formidable women. These women were led by powerful leaders like Florence Matomela, Francis Baard, Hilda Tshaka, Talita Chaba, Lilly Diedericks, Crissy Jason, Nondwe Mankahla, Sophie Williams, Nuntuthuzelo Mbhala, Mrs Qhoyo and Nomalanga. Through the decades, these women and others in different parts of the country, left their mark in the National Democratic Revolution and left their great legacy for younger ones to emulate them in later years.
When the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, as great admirers of Nazism in Germany, they lost no time in passing the Suppression of Communism Act. The CPSA decided to then voluntarily disband itself in order to deny the new fascist government the opportunity to apply this act against them.
However, the decision to disband itself gave rise to a faction or tendency that was referred to as “Bafa ba giya”. This grouping did not accept the disbandment. They distinguished themselves by wearing red neck ties and insisting on adopting the slogan: “the rule of the road is to always keep left”. This was a manifestation of ill-discipline.
When there was the regrouping and launching of the CPSA to become the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1953, Oom Ray was one of the participants. Most importantly, those “Bafa ba giya” elements alluded to above, were excluded from the now underground SACP.
Raymond Mhlaba became active in these clandestine activities for both CPSA and SACP and travelled to the Transvaal, which was a centre of the SACP, as part of this underground work.
A year earlier, during the Defiance Campaign of 1952, Raymond Mhlaba was one of the first people to be arrested for defying the apartheid laws. He was also a leading member in the new forms of organising called the Mandela Plan or M-Plan. This was a strategy of organising through small cells, based at street levels so as to ensure deeper and enduring structures that would resist the anticipated repression.
This method of organising was to define the democratic movement through the years and was particularly effective in the 1980s when rudimentary organs of people’s power emerged. To be effective, street and area committees became the backbone of organisations at local levels.
These were further strengthened by worker structures such as shop-steward committees in many factories. The question to us today is why have we abandoned these methods of mobilisation as the ANC, the SACP, COSATU and SANCO?
Comrade Raymond Mhlaba was banned in 1953. Although he was prohibited from attending meetings and social gatherings, he decided to risk arrest.
After discussions with other comrades, Oom Ray and others who were banned, took a decision to defy the banning orders. As a result, he was instrumental in the success of the M-Plan in Port Elizabeth where he worked closely with Govan Mbeki.
Again, in Port Elizabeth, Oom Ray was active in the formation of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) in 1954. Because of his banning order, he could not travel to Kliptown to attend the Congress of the People and the adoption of the Freedom Charter. Yet, he had worked hard behind the scenes to ensure that the aspirations of the people are reflected in the Charter. By the end of the 1950s, Raymond Mhlaba was one of the leaders who suggested the need to take up arms against the apartheid regime.
When the 1960 state of emergency was declared, Raymond Mhlaba and Govan Mbeki were arrested in Port Elizabeth. In 1961, after being released from prison, he received a coded message from the Party that he had to leave for military training in China. In China, Oom Ray trained with other comrades such as Andrew Mlangeni, Joe Gqabi, Wilton Mkwayi, Patrick Mthembu and Steven Naidoo. They were welcomed by Chairman Mao Zedong the leader of the Communist Party of China.
When they returned to South Africa, Nelson Mandela, the first commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) had been arrested for leaving the country illegally. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment. Raymond Mhlaba was then asked to take over as the Commander in Chief of MK.
In 1963, Oom Ray together with Joe Modise travelled to a number of African countries as well as to Czechoslovakia to solicit military support.
In Algeria they met Ben Bella, the president of the country and made follow-up on the discussions that Mandela had in 1961. Ben Bella agreed on the requests from the ANC for training facilities and other forms of support.
At that time, Moses Kotane who was in the Soviet Union asked Oom Ray to present a budget as well as other resources needed from the Soviets.
After managing to hike back into South Africa, Oom Ray found his way to Lilliesleaf farm where the MK High Command had established its base. He continued to organise recruits and coordinate MK activities from the farm. On 11 July 1963, the South African apartheid police raided the Lillieleaf farm situated in Rivonia, Johannesburg. They arrested Raymond Mhlaba, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Rusty Bernstein, Bob Hepple, Denis Goldberg and Ahmed Kathrada.
After a marathon trial, Oom Ray was convicted together with other Rivonia Trialists and given a life sentence.
On Robben Island, Oom Ray was one of those leaders that preached unity across different political organisations. He was known as a peacemaker and spent a lot of time urging fellow prisoners to forget their differences.
He insisted that political prisoners should unite against the common enemy of apartheid as well as fighting together to improve their prison conditions.
Again, in prison, he was one of the leaders that supported younger prisoners with counselling so as to make prison life bearable. He also helped to enforce organisational discipline among fellow prisoners, especially those who belonged to the ANC. Together with other leaders, he was responsible for the formulation of political lessons.
The structured and consistent lessons on Robben Island helped to train many prisoners who did not have adequate political education. This turned the prison into a ‘university’ where those who were released after serving sentences became part of the important political educators and leaders within trade unions, civic bodies, youth and student movements as well as general political organisations.
In October 1989, Raymond Mhlaba together with Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Wilton Mkwayi, Oscar Mpeta, Jafta Masemola of the PAC and Ahmed Kathrada, were released from prison.
As we know, this was because of the intense pressure under which the apartheid government was subjected by the mass actions, the military operations and the international sanctions and solidarity.
Upon their release, the ANC and SACP leaders never spared themselves. They immediately joined efforts to strengthen the structures of the movement at all levels.
They also helped to guide the efforts of those who were engaged in the struggle to ensure that the advances made were not reversed.
Oom Ray concentrated in the work of the SACP and the ANC both in the Eastern Cape and throughout the length and breadth of the country.
Because of the steady hand of leaders such as Raymond Mhlaba, the march towards democracy became irreversible even when apartheid forces tried all tricks in the book to scupper the process towards liberation.
In 1994, he became the Premier of the Eastern Cape and had to deal with the long legacy of apartheid. This included integrating three different administrations of the erstwhile Bantustans of the Transkei and the Ciskei as well as the apartheid regime in the area (an enduring spatial problem that our people still face today).
He also had to start a difficult process of undoing not only the plethora of apartheid and discriminatory laws but also the deep economic structural fault lines that condemned the majority of black people to perpetual servitude.
Ten years later, in 2004, the ever warm Oom Ray was diagnosed with liver cancer. Unfortunately, the following year in 2005 he departed from the place of the living to join other saints and sages of our people. Thus, ended the life of one of the most dedicated and extraordinary revolutionaries who never spared himself and always pushed himself to the limits so that we can be free.
Throughout the entire period of a bitter and difficult struggle for freedom, Raymond Mhlaba displayed the important characteristics of an unflinching and courageous freedom fighter. Oom Ray was a selfless cadre.
He was first among the dedicated volunteers of our movement and second to none in the humble and patient work of organising different sectors of our society. He did not hesitate to take up arms when the call was made. And he was forever prepared to pay the ultimate price for the liberation of this country.
As we celebrate the centenary of our exemplary leader, we need to draw lessons from his life, from the way he organised for our liberation, starting from the local community through to the regional, provincial and national levels.
It is also an important time to reflect on what exactly is the message to all of us today by the actions and decisions taken by this titan of the liberation struggle of our country when he was faced with a very difficult choice together with his fellow Rivonia Trialists: to submit or fight.
The question is whether at any time today, any of us would be prepared to leave aside the comfort of our homes, the certainty of our professions and careers so that the rest of our people can have a possibility of a better life.
We need to learn and relearn these critical attributes that defined the life of Raymond Mhlaba because today as members of the Congress Alliance – the ANC, SACP, Cosatu and SANCO – there are many things that we need to revisit if we are to be regarded as the true heirs to this great revolutionary.
We all agree that both at organisational levels as well as in government, we are faced with many serious challenges.
While most of these challenges stem from the stubborn legacy of apartheid, there are many that have been occasioned by our own behaviour and modus operandi.
Accordingly, it would be critically important to take a leaf from how Raymond Mhlaba worked; how he conducted himself and the manner in which he seamlessly combined the duties of the various structures in which he belonged.
Above all, if we are to defeat the numerous negative, alien tendencies that have crept into our Movement, we will need to lead our lives the way Raymond Mhlaba led his.
Oom Ray ensured that within the ANC ranks, members discussed local issues affecting communities. These ranged from rent to sewage and transport problems. Because of this approach, the ANC stayed in touch with issues that affected ordinary people on the daily basis. As they addressed these local issues, they linked them up with those at national level such as democracy and justice.
In this way, the local branch of the ANC became popular and attracted many new members. This is the lesson for today, the ANC will never be strong as long as it does not address the problems of the people.
The difference between an organisation and a movement is that in an organisation, members have rights and obligations, whereas in a movement they have rights but no obligations.
Comrades, it is important to learn that when there is a social distance between the masses of our people and the leadership of the ANC, the Party and COSATU as well as those deployed in government, then we will surely lose the support of those masses.
To be effective, ANC members must have tasks to perform, otherwise they become mere supporters. The ANC branch is made up of all its members and is not restricted to the BEC only.
As the youth prepare to take forward the task of reconstructing our country and nation, they should anchor their efforts in the example of leaders such as Raymond Mhlaba and his generation.
Oom Ray was a loyal and active member and leader of both the ANC and SACP. We should learn and try to emulate his ability to remain a loyal member and leader of the ANC and SACP all at once.
The Lobatse Consultative Conference of 1962 resolved that punctuality should be upheld by all members of the underground ANC, and that it has no need of leaders who are active only when they occupy positions of leadership.
One needs to know how to be led in order to be a good leader.
Further lessons to learn about the life and time of comrade Raymond Mhlaba include:
- Leaders must help instil a sense of responsibility to our people and community to ensure that all our people demonstrate in theory and action, that they are their own liberators.
- The ANC and Alliance leaders at all levels, must be prepared to take extraordinary steps for the betterment of our people; do work not for personal gain but for the improvement of our localities, communities and society as a whole
- ANC and Alliance leaders must volunteer their time and sacrifice to do community work, not merely for elections. But to have programmes of volunteerism whereby every weekend, month, there are community activities, without using state resources and refuse to use these opportunities to give government money to friends and relatives.
As I conclude, I would like to remind you all that as a general rule, in politics, victory always goes to those with the clearest understanding of what the next step is. If you embark on any campaign without working out what the next step is, you are inviting defeat.
We must ask of ourselves as the governing party whether we are behaving and discharging our responsibilities in a manner that advances the struggle for a better life to which Oom Ray sacrificed for in his entire life.