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Celebrating the rich legacy of Alfred Nzo

KHULU MBATHA

ALFRED Babethuxolo Nzo would have turned 95 years old on June 19. 

Bab’ Andrew Mlangeni, the only Rivonia trialist remaining, who celebrated his 95th birthday on June 6, would have taken a stroll to Comrade Nzo’s place and said, “Ntwana [young man], I am 13 days older than you!” 

I am sure they would have hugged and laughed, and be the first nonagenarians to disobey in public the COVID-19 social-distancing dictates. I am also certain that a presidential pardon from President Cyril Ramaphosa would have been given on the same day, breaking all procedures for such legal applications. Even our Constitutional Court would ‘uphold’ such a presidential ‘misapplication’.

The birthday celebrants would have continued to summon their younger comrades and friends, Philemon Dumasile ‘Duma’ Nokwe (1927), Henry ‘Squire’ Makgothi (1928) and Joseph ‘Joe’ Matthews (1929) to come and celebrate together. You are wondering, why?

Bab’ Mlangeni, Duma Nokwe and Henry Makgothi were classmates at a government school in Pimville, Soweto, which provided education up to Standard Six. The three were fortunate to be together again at the renowned St. Peter`s School in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. St Peter’s was amongst the best high schools of that era. 

At this school, they befriended another schoolmate by the name of Joe Matthews who was born in Durban but had his primary education in the Eastern Cape because his father, ZK Matthews, was a lecturer at the University of Fort Hare.

Among the teachers here at St Peter’s, was Oliver Reginald Tambo, who was schooled there and was now back as a teacher after being fired from the University of Fort Hare because of his politics. He taught Mathematics and Sciences. ‘Teacher Tambo’ was one of their favourite teachers.

Bab’ Mlangeni reminiscing of those days, says: “He found Henry Makgothi, Nokwe, Matthews and Mpolokeng to be very gifted at debate. These young men were the core of the St Peter’s debating team that other schools found difficult to defeat…” 

Makgothi, with his simple and relaxed style, sometimes mocking and sarcastic, was good at introducing the topic. ‘He would intimidate the opposition from the start, and reduce its confidence.’ Joe Matthews’s speciality was the middle part of the debate, with his well-researched analysis of the facts and the way in which he lined up the arguments and the sub-topics. 

Nokwe was the ‘destroyer’ or ‘sweeper’, killing whatever argument the opposition raised. Looking up and down and sideways as he spoke, he argued like a seasoned leader addressing cheering masses. ‘With such a combination, the St Peter’s team was unbeatable.’”  Mlangeni’s recollection is from “THE BACKROOM BOY: Andrew Mlangeni’s Story”.

When they matriculated at St Peter’s, they all headed for Fort Hare with the exception of Bab’ Mlangeni, who was living with his mother and she could not afford to send him to university. Mlangeni had to start working.

At Fort Hare, all of them took membership of the popular ANCYL. This is where they met a new student friend named Alfred Nzo, who was born in Benoni, Johannesburg but had his education in the Eastern Cape. 

This bond was to last forever! They all qualified and got their degrees except forNzo, who left before he could finish. Nzo managed to qualify as a Health Inspector in 1951. 

The relationship among the educated youth within the ANCYL grew strong and resilient. It propelled all of them into the struggle of the masses, especially those around Johannesburg and the surrounding cities and regions. 

They participated in and were in the forefront as organisers of the Defiance Campaign in 1952. Nzo became chairperson of the Alexandra branch of the ANC in 1956 and led the bus boycotts. He became a full-time worker for the ANC when he lost his job as a health inspector because of his political activities. 

Nokwe, with a B.Sc. degree, also lost his teaching post because of his political involvement. He then decided to do a second degree in law and he qualified in 1956 to become the first African barrister to be admitted to the Transvaal Supreme Court. 

They were all at some stage detained and imprisoned and then forced into exile. For Nzo, he was placed under 24-hour house arrest in 1962. In 1963 he was detained for a period of 238 days and in 1964 the ANC ordered him to leave the country.

Mlangeni was among those arrested in Rivonia and were sentenced to Robben Island. Later, Makgothi was also sentenced to Robben Island.

Nokwe became the Secretary-General of the ANC from 1958 to 1969. He was succeeded by Nzo from 1969 to 1991, becoming the longest-serving Secretary-General of the movement, from  1969 to 1991. 

Makgothi, after spending 8 years on Robben Island, left for exile and became Deputy Secretary-General to Nzo. 

Nzo and the longest-serving Treasurer-General (1973 to 1994), Thomas Titus Nkobi, an activist of the 1950s from Alexandra too, became the reliable and trustworthy pillars that Tambo’s presidency needed, particularly during the exile years. At the funeral of Nzo on January 22 2000, Former President Thabo Mbeki lauded Nzo and said:

“Alfred Nzo lies in front of us in his small house of wood, cold and still and without a voice. While he lived, his humility, his self-effacing ways, his constant humour, his loyalty to principle, his avoidance of the self-serving theatrical flourish, his refusal to be defeated, the certainty his very being carried of the inevitability of the realisation of our hopes, brought light and joy to all our nights of despair.

“He worked quietly to persuade us to understand the cruel errors of the small-minded people, teaching us to assert our own humanity by respecting the right of all our people to life, liberty and happiness. He showed us by example that we needed no high sounding titles to discharge our obligation faithfully to serve the people of South Africa.”

Under the heading “Death of an underestimated salesman” RAY HARTLEY from the Sunday Times (16 January 2000) wrote: “Nzo’s friendship with Libya, far from alienating South Africa from the West, was part of a strategy that produced the country’s biggest foreign relations coup in decades when the Lockerbie bombers were handed over for trial. By the time Nzo left office last year, South Africa was the pre-eminent nation of the developing world, holding the chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement and about to assume the leadership of the Commonwealth. And in the US, where Nzo was supposed to have made us pariahs, we were about to assume the chairmanship of the IMF’s influential Group of 20. 

“Nzo did not accomplish these things alone, but, in his unspectacular, plodding way, he engineered South Africa’s diplomatic return to the centre of the African stage – the cornerstone on which our country’s international prestige is now being built. But the little that most South Africans saw of Nzo since his return from exile in the ’90s was the tail end of a long political career.”

As we celebrate Youth Month 2020, we pay tribute to the founding members of the ANC Youth League!!!

Long live the spirit of Lembede, Mandela, Mothopeng, Sisulu, Sobukwe, Tambo!!!

By The African Mirror

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