Date Posted: July 11, 2013


Email: info@uhuruspirit.org

A Memorial lecture in honour of Govan Mbeki delivered in East London, South Africa, on 11 July 2013 by Blade Nzimande, the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP).


Govan Archibald Mvuyelwa Mbeki passed away 12 years ago at the age of 91. Had he still been alive he would have just celebrated his 103rd birthday two days ago (9thJuly). He was born in 1910, the year that the four British colonies –the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange State and the Transvaal were joined together to become the Union of South Africa. The resulting oppressive state was controlled by the white, colonist minority and organisations of the black people – African, Coloured and Indian – spoke out strongly against it. The establishment of the African National Congress in 1912 was the direct result of the establishment of the Union as organisations of the African people in the four provinces joined together to fight their exclusion from full citizenship and for equality and freedom.

The year of Oom Gov’s birth marked the beginning of a new era in South Africa’s history, an era that lasted until seven years before he finally passed away in 2001 and shaped his life. It was during this period that he became a leader of our people and helped to shape the country that we live in today. If we are to understand the contribution that he made and the lessons in leadership that he taught us, we should at least locate his life in its historical context and appreciate how he and his comrades understood the challenges that faced them. Providing leadership means, above all, developing an analysis and understanding of the challenges that people face, providing strategies and tactics to tackle these challenges and organising people to tackle their common concerns.

As I mentioned, the South African state was established in the year of Govan Mbeki’s birth, 1910,by the British Parliament – with full constitutional independence granted by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The newly established South African state had its own parliament and in time became a member of international organisations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. This state, however, represented independence only for the white minority who dominated the voters’ role and had full rights of citizenship. The position of the majority of the population – the indigenous African people and the other black groups (coloureds and Indians – did not change at all with the establishment of the post-1910 state. We remained a colonised people, a people whose independence had been extinguished by colonial occupation and whose freedom continued to be progressively extinguished under the segregationist and apartheid governments established by white South African.

This situation which came to exist in South Africa was later characterised by the SACP in its 1962 programme as “colonialism of a special type”, a phrase use to describe a colonial situation 'in which the oppressing White nation occupied the same territory as the oppressed people themselves and lived side by side with them'. (The Road to South African Freedom, 1962). This characterisation of the South African political system as colonialism of a special type was later adopted by the ANC as well. This was because it so aptly described the national oppression Africans in their own country even though the country was not a classical colonial territory of a distant colonising power. Since this is a lecture on Govan Mbeki, it is important to reflect on his life.

Govan Mbeki was an activist, a Communist and an intellectual. He was a product of missionary education in the Eastern Cape, absorbed the best of that tradition which went back to the plain living and high thinking of Scottish Presbyterianism, but transcended it and rooted himself in the struggles of the Eastern Cape. He was a product of Fort Hare, that complex institution that nurtured generations of African intellectuals both from South Africa and other parts of the continent. His interactions there were another ingredient of Mbeki’s intellectual and political formation.

Mbeki worked in Port Elizabeth, playing a leading part in the working-class struggles of that industrial city, but understood and wrote about the rural areas. His great work of the 1960s, The Peasants’ Revolt, is a classic of South African revolutionary history and sociology, getting under the skin of the Pondoland of the day and exposing as no other commentator of the time had done the effects of the ‘separate development’ Bantustan policy on rural African people. He was able to analyse the effects of apartheid policy on traditional leadership, and looked without illusions not just at the policies of the oppressor, but also at their corrupting effects on traditional leadership. The book was written on kitchen tables in townships with its author under constant threat of arrest and is a tribute to the power of the socialist ideas, the application, and the courage and strength of Mbeki.

For Oom Gov, writing, which meant the communication of ideas, never ceased. He wrote on Robben Island, and we have the record of this period in Learning from Robben Island, his prison writings, written in the most difficult and dangerous situation, his audience his fellow-prisoners, his themes the dynamics of capitalism in South Africa, its particular manifestations as a form of fascism under the National Party regime, and its effects on the lives of ordinary South Africans. This book was published in 1991, with Mbeki not long out of prison and with the victory of the South African struggle by no means assured. The book was itself a contribution to the consolidation of the revolution, and was based on the assumption - true of Mbeki throughout his life - that struggle was not only a phenomenon of the streets and of rallies, but was a question of thinking through the complexities and complications of the current situation, and doing informed by a detailed knowledge of the past and of its effects on the present. Now an elderly man, Mbeki did not just rest on his laurels and content himself - as he might well have done, and who would have blamed him? - with issuing his writings from the past, but he now embarked on yet further writing on South African history, always with a revolutionary political purpose.

The following year, in 1992, Mbeki published The Struggle for Liberation in South Africa, a short history the aim of which was to educate South Africans about a history that had been deliberately obscured over the years of Bantu Education and attempted manipulation of the mind, especially the African mind. Once again, Mbeki showed himself as the activist intellectual that he was, writing history that served a revolutionary purpose, and at a time when it was important to arm the masses with the knowledge of which they had been systematically deprived as far as it lay within the power of the regime to do so. Was doing all this whilst simultaneously serving as a member of the Central Committee of the SACP, which was elected with Chris Hani as General Secretary at Nasrec near Soweto in 1991.

The revolution of the time in South Africa was far-reaching, and it could be said that there was a succession of revolutions in institutions mirroring the changes that were taking place in the country as a whole. One of these institutions was the University of Fort Hare, Oom Gov’s alma mater, where, in anticipation of national changes to come, and in the context of the complex sub-politics of the Ciskei homeland, the old regime was overthrown and a new, radical, African administration took charge. Fort Hare by the late 1980s had long been subordinated to the ‘tribal college’ thinking of the National Party and its homeland collaborators, and it was not an easy matter to throw this into reverse. Part of the attempt to do so was to set up the Govan Mbeki Centre, a nucleus of liberation research in an institution still dominated by Fundamental Pedagogics and other manifestations of apartheid thinking.

This was the context of Oom Gov’s next book, Sunset at Midday, published in 1996. Written in collaboration with the Centre, which was under the directorship of Lindiwe Sisulu at the time it was being written, this is a remarkable production of its author, who was by now well into his 80s. Once again, it is a book for the times, reminding citizens of the republic of the struggles that had led to democracy and self-rule, and in particular analyzing the struggles and conflicts from the 1960s. The heroes of this story were the unionists, the students and the activists.

To the end - and Oom Gov, in spite of hardships, lived a long life - Mbeki never let go of the central fact that activism by itself is not enough, and that to be effective activism must be combined with strenuous and systematic thinking and with a real knowledge of the struggles of the past and of the economy and society of society. In fact he symbolised Lenin's adage of the necessity to combine theory and practice, and that 'Theory without practice is sterile, and Practice without theory is blind'. He was a great South African socialist, while at the same time being an internationalist who knew it was vital to understand his own country in the context of the world capitalist system and the struggles of the masses worldwide. He was a communist who is worthy to be numbered with the great leaders of the movement, whether in Europe, Asia or elsewhere. He is a leader who will not be forgotten, and his words remain in his writings. We should learn from Oom Gov, and try to model ourselves on this great socialist intellectual.

The colonial system which had come to dominate Africa and most of Asia during the 19thand early 20th centuries was an outgrowth and natural development of the capitalist system which had developed in Europe. The advanced capitalist countries – especially Britain and France, but also including Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Spain and Italy – competed with one another to grab African soil and took control of almost the entire continent. They saw our continent as a source of raw materials, a market for their goods and as strategically important territory in their quest for dominance in the world.

As they established colonies, they stole land, established mining, agricultural and manufacturing enterprises, levied taxes on Africans and forced them into exploitative wage labour. Poor Indians were brought into South Africa and elsewhere as indentured workers. Working class Europeans also came to work in the colonies, especially in South Africa, the richest and most developed of the African colonies. All these workers were exploited under capitalism and they organised themselves to fight for their rights and for a better life. However white workers, who as voters had considerable political influence, secured for themselves a relatively privileged position; laws were passed giving them rights to form recognised trade unions, and many jobs, especially jobs, were reserved only for them. They also had other benefits not enjoyed by black workers: free compulsory schooling, privileged access to post-school education and training, free or inexpensive health care and social welfare.

Govan Mbeki, like JB Marks, Moses Kotane, Edwin Mofutsanyane, Walter Sisulu, Moses Mabhida and Harry Gwala, Chris Hani and others were members of both the Communist Party, and the national movement, the African National Congress. They all came from poor, working class or peasant families and felt their oppression both as Africans and as workers. They understood that most workers in South African workers were in the same position and could liberate themselves from capitalist exploitation if they remained nationally oppressed in a colonial-type situation.

Govan Mbeki joined the SACP in the 1950's and earlier the African National Congress. In 1936 he completed his degree in Politics and Psychology and a teachers' diploma at Fort Hare. However his teaching career was short-lived because of his political activism among students, local communities and organizing workers into trade unions. Earlier in 1925 he had become interested in the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU).

By 1938 Oom Gov abandoned his teaching career and was involved in a number of regional and local politics, including organisations like the Transkei Voters Association and the Bunga, a government-created body of elected representatives and traditional leaders, which had very limited powers. He later described the Bunga as a toy telephone: "You can say what you like, but your words have no effect, because the wires are not connected to an exchange". In today's language it is like a cell phone without airtime!

Oom Gov also wrote for the newspapers of our movement at the time, like New Age, Guardian and The Spark. In June 26 1980, Oom Gov was given Isithwalandwe, the highest Honour by the ANC.

Today this seems obvious to us and has come to be part of the common-sense knowledge of the liberation movement. However, it was not always this way. Very serious debates about the appropriate attitude of the national liberation to the workers movement (and particularly the Communist Party) raged from the 1920s until after the ultra-nationalist Pan African Congress split for the ANC in 1959 on the basis that it was overly influenced by communists and especially by non-African communists. Even after the ANC was banned, anti-communism remained the regime’s favourite ideological weapon to try to divide the liberation movement. However, the unity that had been forged in struggle ensured that this weapon was not successful. Govan Mbeki and his colleagues in the leadership of the SACP and the ANC realised that the national and class struggles were interwoven and had to be fought as one.

In the course of struggle the ANC and the SACP became allied organisation. They also strengthened their bonds of co-operationwithin the Congress Alliance that included also the SA Indian Congress, the Coloured Peoples’ Congress and the white Congress of Democrats. All these organisations came to understand that the essence of leadership in the struggle against colonialism of a special type was to bring together all forces that were prepared to cooperate in the struggle to overthrow apartheid the regime and establish a democratic state. This included all oppressed national groups, the working class, the rural masses, oppressed women and youth, and those among the white population who opposed apartheid and were prepared to join with the oppressed in fighting for a non-racial democratic society. This strategy of creating broad unity around common goals was also the essence of the United Democratic Front which was essentially led by the ANC during the 1980s and brought many grassroots organisations and stimulated further organisation among pro-liberation communities and groupings.

Our history, then, teaches us that one of the essential strategic functions of leadership in a divided society is to correctly identify the main challenges at a particular time, to identify all the forces that must cooperate in meeting the challenges, and to unite all these forces around a common strategy and tactics.

The political leadership of the working class must ensure that the workers are effectively organised. They must be organised into trade unions, other organisations such as civics and coops. But above, all the leadership must ensure that the working class party (in our case the SACP) remains organisationally strong and continues to increase its influence through ensuring it can provide intellectual and ideological leadership to the political struggle of the working class and all democratic forces. These are ongoing obligations of leadership and the party’s achievements are never complete and can never be taken for granted.

Political leadership also necessitates being able to identify strategic allies with social forces whose interests coincide with those of the workers to a greater or lesser extent. In our country, the SACP, together with the ANC and COSATU, have built the Tripartite Alliance that has been built on the historical traditions of the old Congress Alliance and reflects fundamental coincidence of interests. The Tripartite Alliance must be at the core of our strategy. It must be defended and strengthened and all inter-alliance tensions and contradictions must be confronted and resolved so that they do not weaken us.

The Tripartite Alliance represents the common interests of the working class, of the African people as a whole and all democratically minded people who recognise that the process of national liberation, particularly for Africans, is an unfinished project of our liberation struggle. Beyond this we will inevitably find ourselves allying ourselves with others – even at times with big business – in order to achieve particular objectives. But such alliances will inevitably be temporary and cannot be strategic because of the inherently contradictory nature of class relations in a capitalist society. A seasoned and sophisticated political leadership, guided by a progressive ideological outlook will be needed to decide on tactics and activities as circumstances dictate.

Political leadership must always be able to identify what the main tasks are at any historical moment. Up until recently it was to end apartheid and to ensure the establishment of a democratic state. This has largely been achieved. The 2012 SACP Congress and the ANC’s Mangaung Conference have identified the need to move to a second phase of the transition from apartheid colonialism to a national democratic society. This means particularly ensuring socio-economic development and ensuring that we can effectively tackle the triple challenge of overcoming unemployment, poverty, and inequality. It also means that our leadership will have to have the courage to adopt and implement the radical policies necessary to ensure thorough socio-economic and democratic transformation.

Before I end this lecture, I’d like to briefly reflect on the international aspects of the challenges facing us today. The economy of our country – like many other parts of the world – is going through a very difficult period partly because of the global economic crisis. The crisis has been triggered by the neoliberal policies that have been dominant for over two decades in the advanced capitalist countries. Neo liberalism has to some extent been discredited, but the ruling classes in the advanced countries are hanging on to it and hope to re-establish its hegemony. Popular dissatisfaction is growing in many countries, including in Europe, to some extent in the USA (e.g. the Occupy movement) and of course in the Arab world and now even Brazil. These popular movements are not always progressive and can at times even take fascist forms.

One of the main reasons that it neoliberalism has not been completely cast aside is that progressive forces have yet to develop an alternative that can capture the hearts and minds of working people. I believe that progressive organisations in different countries need to accelerate their cooperation to develop progressive theory, policies and strategies for cooperation. The forces of big capital are well organised and have generally succeeded in maintaining their ideological hegemony and their control of the world. I believe that one of the big challenges of leadership now is to build a global coalition to develop progressive alternatives to neoliberalism and to mobilise working people behind it. Internationalism has been a key principle of our party from the start. I think we need to start discussing ways to resuscitate it in today’s circumstances.

Finally, I’d like to conclude by reflecting that we owe a great deal to our heroic predecessors like Govan Mbeki and others and a study of their lives and of the history of the movement that they led can tell us a great deal about how to conduct our struggles today. Circumstances today are different to those that they faced. Nonetheless we can still benefit from understanding the strengths and virtues of Govan Mbeki and his comrades: dedication, persistence, determination, a yearning to fight injustice, a willingness to work and a striving to analyse and understand their society in order to change it for the benefit of ordinary people.

Lessons from the life and struggles of Oom Gov

# The importance of our Alliance and that there is no contradiction with many caps in our Alliance

# The necessity of engaging in and intensifying the battle of ideas, including the struggle to radically change of ownership and diversification of media

# Need to transform the public broadcaster to serve the needs and interests of the workers and the poor of our country and liberate it from threats of tenderpreneurs

# Communist participation in production and distribution of our own media and propaganda

Dr. Blade Nzimande is the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

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