ANC was his family, the struggle was his life

2 September 2001

A man of fierce principles, devoted to the battle against apartheid, has died. mark gevisser examines the remarkable life of Govan Mbeki

In April 1964, a 22-year-old Sussex student went to London to plead, before a United Nations delegation, for the life of his father, facing death in the dock of the Rivonia Trial.

Thabo Mbeki's statement was one of the finest pieces of polemic he was ever to pen. It was shot through with an emotion carefully worked into righteousness.

He spoke, uncharacteristically, of Govan Mbeki from the perspective of a son, but he was quick to turn the categories of "father" and "son" into political rather than biological ones: "Today we might be but weak children, spurred on by nothing other than the fear and grief of losing our fathers. In time we shall learn to die both for ourselves and for the millions."

The sense of destiny, passed from father to son in the redemptive cause of liberation, is manifest. This despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Thabo spent only the first seven years of his life under the same roof as his father. Their relationship would be severely attenuated by underground activism in the 1950s and the demands of state in the 1990s, by three decades of prison and exile in between, and by politics as well as personality.

For Govan Mbeki, there was only one family: the ANC. Perhaps seeing the effects of this, his other three children made lives for themselves connected to the liberation movement but nonetheless independent of it.

Thabo, on the other hand, followed foot by foot in the steps of an absent father. He talks about how he imbibed intellectual openness and curiosity from his parents; although he grew up in the rural Transkei, there was Marx on the mantelpiece and a portrait of Gandhi on the wall.

But for Govan Mbeki, work came first, and he was a distant and elusive father, stern and demanding when present.

The Mbeki children like to say that while their father was busy educating the nation, they had their mother - Epainette Mbeki, who at 85 still runs her shop in the Transkei. Although she and her husband spent most of their married life apart - even after his release - they shared an ethos of productivity and a missionary impulse that saw them devoting their lives to the upliftment of others.

Govan Mbeki was born just weeks after the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 and died the day before his son Thabo, as President, would open a major international conference on racism on SA soil.

His life spanned an astonishing trajectory. The son of a prosperous and severely Christian farmer and headman, his destiny was to be a "black Englishman". He followed this path to Healdtown and Fort Hare and was, with two university degrees, to become one of the most educated black men of his generation.

But he was of the generation that began to develop an understanding of how they had been subjugated rather than liberated - as their parents had thought - by the white man's schools and churches, and he became committed to both African nationalism and communism while at university. His Christian upbringing gave him not only the framework from which to embrace a prophetic, utopian communism but the missionary impulse that defined him.

An urbane sophisticate in Durban in the late 1930s, he went back to the Transkei in 1940 to set up shop among the amaqaba, the illiterate "red people", and to attempt to put his ideology of peasant upliftment into practice.

He was an inveterate pamphleteer and propagandist and a high-profile journalist in the three decades before his imprisonment and was the father of radicalism in Port Elizabeth, where he lived in the 1950s and to which he returned after his release from prison in 1987.

Govan Mbeki was, most of all, a lifelong teacher - not so much in the classroom (where he spent several years before being fired for refusing to lead students in prayer) but as a mentor in the liberation struggle. In the 1950s, almost every young activist from the Eastern Cape came of political age under his tutelage. Later, in prison, he was the principal designer of the political education curriculum and the major proponent of the need for young inmates to become literate and continue their studies. His many books were written to pass history on to younger generations.

While men like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu were known as "tata" or "father", he was always "Oom Gov", the stern and slightly distant uncle whom one feared somewhat but who could nonetheless entertain the way a father never could, with singing, storytelling and laughter.

In marked contrast to the cautious scepticism of his son Thabo, he was an irrepressible and adventurous optimist. One of his favourite lines, oft quoted to conjure the thrill of struggle, was Wordsworth's paean to the French Revolution: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ but to be young was very heaven!"

He was charming, inquisitive and adventurous but also steely, severe and a notoriously harsh taskmaster. Ruth First described him as a "stern disciplinarian" in possession of "a sharp mind, intolerant of the foolish and faint-hearted".

His old-world courtesy covered a legendary tenacity and discipline. Hilda Bernstein wrote that, at the Rivonia Trial, his steadfast refusal to answer any question that might implicate anyone else reduced prosecutor Percy Yutar to "an angry fly hitting himself again and again against a pane of glass": "Something in Govan's quiet and courteous way of speaking arouses in Yutar a greater antagonism than he has yet displayed to the accused."

He neither drank nor smoked, announcing, as a young man, that he would give up his pipe so that if arrested and jailed he would not be forced into tobacco-dependency. This paid off when he was in solitary confinement for almost a year in 1961: he used the two shillings he had in his pocket to buy a bag of tobacco, which he used to purchase favours rather than smoke: a roll of toilet paper, David Copperfield from the prison library and a pen. He kept himself sane by writing his most celebrated work, The Peasants Revolt, on the toilet paper and hiding it in the Dickens novel.

Govan Mbeki was dogged and uncompromising in his beliefs and unsentimental in his attachments; this led to a "hard-liner" reputation. But it is incorrect to label him as orthodox or hackish. He had a tendency to be contrary and militant, and this sometimes brought him into conflict with the mainstream of the liberation movement.

He maintained until his death, for example, that the ANC's greatest tactical fault was to concentrate on organising an urban proletariat and ignore the peasantry, who were true radicals ripe for revolution.

A communist and an avowed non-racialist from the start, he was also at odds with the ANC Youth League that his contemporaries formed in the 1940s.

Although both men have denied it, his relationship with Mandela was particularly complicated. They disagreed strongly over Operation Mayibuye - the swashbuckling programme for armed insurrection which Mbeki wrote with Joe Slovo in the early 1960s -- and then, in prison, over Mandela's willingness to entertain alliances with bantustan collaborators.

So serious was the conflict between the two men at one point that, in 1975, a group of nine ANC leaders on Robben Island convened to try to find a solution; a report smuggled out to ANC leadership in Lusaka contended that "the two who represented polar opposites in attitudes and opinions were Madiba and Govan".

While the rest of the senior ANC leadership were moved to Pollsmoor in 1982, Govan Mbeki was kept on Robben Island until his release in 1987, perhaps because he was intractably opposed to negotiations and might thus try to scupper the authorities' attempts to woo Mandela.

On his release, Govan Mbeki worked constantly until his health gave out last year. He would often talk with pride about how inaccessible Thabo was because of how hard he worked. But there appeared to be no demonstrable resentment from either side about this: if work was the product of an abstracted love of the people and duty to the people, then it seemed to be, for father and son, an acceptable substitute for familial love.

When Govan Mbeki went off, in January 1990, to meet Thabo in Lusaka, he was asked by a reporter at Jan Smuts Airport how he felt about seeing his son for the first time in nearly three decades. "Not much finer than seeing the others," he retorted. "You must remember that Thabo Mbeki is no longer my son. He is my comrade!"

This should not be misinterpreted as callousness: for Govan Mbeki, a son was a mere biological appendage; to be called a comrade, on the other hand, was the highest honour.

Govan Mbeki bore, in the name of the liberation of his people, an intensity of hardship almost unimaginable. His son Jama was murdered by agents of the Lesotho government in that country in 1982, and his grandson Kwanda - Thabo's son - disappeared in the late 1980s.

When I once asked him how he coped with these and other traumas, he responded with literature - which provided him, as it does Thabo, with an emotional language. He could not remember the name or the author of the poem or even the exact lines but was clear on the sentiment: "When you go into war, if your comrade in front of you falls off his horse, you must not stop and weep. You jump over him into battle. You learn not to weep."

If work was the product of duty to the people, then it seemed to be, for father and son, an acceptable substitute for familial love

'You must remember Thabo Mbeki is no longer my son. He is my comrade!' - Govan Mbeki on the prospect of seeing his son for the first time in decades