There is a poem whose author is not known about an hourglass which goes as follows:
“An hourglass is an emblem of human life
behold how swiftly the sands run down
and how quickly are our lives drawing to a close
We cannot look upon these little particles without astonishment
How they all pass away almost imperceptibly
And yet in a short space of an hour, they are all gone
So waste man, today he puts forth the tender leaves of hope
Tomorrow blossoms and bears his blushing honour thick upon him
The next day comes a frost and nips the tender shoots
And while he still thinks his greatness is inspiring
he falls like autumn leaves to enrich the mother earth.”
It felt like the light went out of our lives on Tuesday, 21 July 2020, when Ntate Andrew Mokete Mlangeni passed away. His death brings to an end the glorious chapter in South Africa’s politics. We are bereft of a leader who was the epitome of integrity. Known popularly as the ‘backroom boy’, which was the title of the biography written by Mandla Mathebula, Ntate Mlangeni was not an ordinary political activist, anti-apartheid campaigner and leader. His greatness was inspiring, and his dreams for all of us shall be long-lasting.
Mlangeni’s passing marks a solemn day in South Africa’s history as we mourn the last of the “beautiful” ones, that concept invented by Ayi Kweyo Armah in his novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. This book describes a post-independence Ghana during the last year of the presidency of Kwame Nkrumah. Ghana at that time was beset with corruption, nepotism and decline. In this book, Armah concludes that Ghana was on the decline because the ““beautyful” ones are not yet born.” He deliberately misspelt “beautiful” because he was not talking about physical beauty but virtuous, determined, industrious and patriotic leaders and citizens.
Mlangeni was part of the Rivonia Trial, and he and his fellow trialists faced charges of sabotage and guerilla warfare against the apartheid government. Unlike, Bob Hepple, who later became a renowned professor and a master at Cambridge University, he and his other comrades did not escape the sentence. Mlangeni was convicted in 1964, and sent to Robben Island, where he was Prisoner 467/64. He was reduced to a number by those who sought to demonise and dehumanise him. He, like his fellow comrades, were men of peace who were forced into armed struggle because all peaceful avenues were firmly closed.
Rivonia Trial a pivotal moment in our country’s history, shone a global spotlight on apartheid in South Africa. It marked a turning point in the struggle for liberation and, more than ever before, the international community took notice of the apartheid government’s atrocities. It became a spark that ultimately led to the formation of the massive solidarity movement in the world, a campaign against apartheid. It eventually led to the imposition of sanctions against South Africa.
Mlangeni was one of his kind, and he was indeed the “beautyful” one. Like Madiba, he was prepared to die for an idea of a free South Africa. Like, Steve Biko, he knew that “it is better to die for an idea that will live than to live for an idea that will die”. Now the “beautyful” ones are all gone. The first “beautyful” one to go was Elias Motsoaledi, followed by Govan Mbeki, then Walter Sisulu, then Raymond Mhlaba, then Nelson Mandela, then Ahmed Kathrada, then Denis Goldberg and now Mlangeni. These were South Africans who saw evil and sought to correct it. They saw apartheid and fought to replace it with democracy. They saw injustice and sought to replace it with justice. They saw exploitation in the workplace and sought to replace it with economic justice. They were fearless and used their conviction as an advantage that ultimately benefitted all of us when we were liberated.
Mlangeni served more than two decades on Robben Island, dreaming of a liberated nation. He voiced his commitment to freedom, equality and remained a strident voice against corruption. He was a source of inspiration for many for his selflessness dedication to serving humanity without expecting anything in return. When there was a political class overly focused on achieving individual glory rather than focusing on the greater cause, Mlangeni remained a shining amour of our ailing body politic. He was the quintessential man of integrity to the very end. He was a special breed; a principled leader, and the struggle for liberation to him meant a struggle for his people. We will continue to value his life, the lessons and trust that the baton is passed to the next generation to continue to fight for the vision he had for our nation.
Mlangeni’s legacy remains pertinent as a leader who at the age of 95 remained an active participant in our society, a voice of conscience and above all, a symbol of quiet leadership. Our South African liberation heroes such as Mlangeni personify outstanding leadership and a vision for our country. As the curtain closes on a chapter in our history whilst we continue the good fight for justice and equality, we ought to ask ourselves if the “beautyful” ones are still left.
When South Africa’s economic performance is below par, with over 30% unemployment, do we still have the “beautyful” ones? When 18% of learners enrolled in our schools drop out before matric, do we still have the “beautyful” ones? When 47% of our university students drop out, is the “beautyful” one still left to fix this problem? When corruption, is undermining our developmental agenda and relegating South Africa to the “dustbin of history” do we still have the “beautyful” ones? When our public hospitals are crumbling and, thereby, precipitating the reduction of our life expectancy, where are the “beautyful” ones? When the infrastructure in our schools is crumbling, and learners still use trees as classrooms and pit latrines as ablution facilities, are the beautiful ones even here? The list of woes in South Africa is long, and our success is short. But this can be fixed by reimagining a new South African.
We need a new person who will draw from the lessons of Mlangeni to develop impatience with inefficiency, corruption and violence. Such a person should understand that to thrive in the era of the fourth industrial revolution requires education in its totality. Total education equips a person to understand society, politics, economics and technology. Yes, we still do have the “beautyful” ones here and there, but they are simply not enough. We need to get more “beautyful” ones by investing in education at all levels, whether primary, secondary or tertiary. We need to strengthen our communities so that they can serve as a factory for “beautyful” people, who are patriotic, hardworking and honest. Yes, there are still the “beautyful” ones.
Kha vha edele nga mulalo muhali!
Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the Deputy Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.