Govan Mbeki

Govan Archibald Mvuyelwa Mbeki (9 July 1910 – 30 August 2001) was a South African politician, military commander, Communist leader who served as the Secretary of Umkhonto we Sizwe, at its inception in 1961. He was also the son of Chief Sikelewu Mbeki and Johanna Mahala and also the father of the former South African president Thabo Mbeki and political economist Moeletsi Mbeki. He was a leader of the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress. After the Rivonia Trial, he was imprisoned (1963–1987) on charges of terrorism and treason, together with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada and other eminent ANC leaders, for their role in the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He was sometimes mentioned by his nickname "Oom Gov".

Govan Mbeki
Under arrest in 1963
Co-Deputy Chairperson of National Council of Provinces
*alongside Bulelani Ngcuka
In office
Preceded byposition established
Succeeded byNaledi Pandor
Deputy President of Senate of South Africa
In office
Preceded byposition established
Succeeded byposition renamed
Secretary of MK
In office
Preceded byposition established
Succeeded byposition abolished
Personal details
Govan Archibald Mvuyelwa Mbeki

(1910-07-09)9 July 1910
Mpukane Location, Nqamakwe district, South Africa[1]
Died30 August 2001(2001-08-30) (aged 91)
Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Political partyAfrican National Congress
South African Communist Party
SpouseEpainette Mbeki
ChildrenLinda Mbeki
Thabo Mbeki
Moeletsi Mbeki
Jama Mbeki
Occupationanti-apartheid activist

Early years

Govan Mbeki was born in the Nqamakwe district of the Transkei region and was a part of the Xhosa ethnic group. As a teenager, Mbeki worked as a newsboy and messenger in the cities, and because of this, he saw the poverty urban black Africans lived in, and the constant police raids they endured. He attended Fort Hare University, completing in 1936 a Bachelor of Arts degree in politics and psychology and a teaching diploma.[2] Mbeki met other African struggle leaders while attending the university.

Teacher, trader and communist

For a time Mbeki worked as a teacher, but lost his job because of his political activities.[3] He was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP, then the Communist Party of South Africa, or CPSA) from the late 1930s, and joined the African National Congress in 1935.[4] He then set up a co-operative store in Idutywa and began a writing career. From 1938 to 1944 he was the editor of Territorial Magazine / Inkundla Ya Bantu.

Mbeki left journalism in 1944 and became a government-nominated member of the Transkei Territorial Authorities General Council until 1950. His role in the CPSA/ SACP was clandestine at the time, which helps explain why he received the nomination. Mbeki disparagingly referred to the council 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".[2] In 1948 Mbeki stood as a candidate for the Natives Representative Council but lost the election.[5]

When the CPSA/ SACP was banned in 1950 by the apartheid government, Mbeki remained in the African National Congress (ANC). In 1952 Mbeki was imprisoned together with Raymond Mhlaba and Vuyisile Mini for three months in Rooi Hel ('Red Hell' or North End Prison, Port Elizabeth) for disobeying apartheid laws by participating in the 'Campaign of Defiance against Injustice Laws' (Defiance Campaign). In 1954, a tornado destroyed his store, and Mbeki was dismissed from teaching again (he would lose his job three times, and be blacklisted from others, from the 1930s onwards).[6] Mbeki moved to Port Elizabeth and joined the editorial board of New Age, a prominent leftist newspaper linked to underground CPSA/ SACP networks.[2] Mbeki played a crucial role in ensuring that the pages and columns reflected the conditions, demands, and aspirations of black working-class people, particularly in the countryside.[3]

He also worked on the Guardian, New Age, Fighting Talk and Liberation,[4] and worked with 'Jock' Harold Strachan in the Port Elizabeth area, and helped him produce the newsletter Izwe Lomzi ("Voice of the People").[7][8] Mbeki was meanwhile actively involved in the major campaigns of the day, including the revival of the African National Congress in the 1940s, the Defiance Campaign and the Congress of the People.

Armed struggle and Robben Island

In 1960, the ANC was banned, and along with the underground SACP, formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which became ANC's armed wing. Mbeki was involved, and, at his urging, Strachan assisted MK by turning his hand to improvised explosive devices based on substances like potassium permanganate, magnesium, glycerol and icing sugar.[9][10][11]

...this was our job – devices and explosives. So I said, for God’s sake, why me? And they said, no well, you were a bomber pilot in the war, you see, so you must know how to make bombs. I said, but for Christ’s sake, Govan, (Mbeki) we didn’t make our own bombs. And they said, but you know about those things and I said, no, bombs were made in bloody factories, I don’t know. So he said, anyway, you’re appointed. We did a good job, actually.

Strachan, quoted by Zoe Mulder.[12]

Meanwhile, in November 1962, the then-Minister of Justice, John Vorster, banned New Age. When the editorial board came out with its successor publication Spark, Vorster went one step further by banning not the newspaper but its editors and writers.[3] This effectively ended Mbeki's role as editor and journalist in the country. On 11 July 1963, he was arrested with other MK high commanders. In 1964, he was an accused in the Rivonia Trial and sentenced to Robben Island.


In 1939, Mbeki published his first book, Transkei in the Making.[13] A supporter of the 1950-1961 Pondoland peasant revolt, he wrote the pioneering study of the movement, South Africa: The Peasants' Revolt from 1958, which was published in 1964.[14] Much of the book is an analysis of the political economy of the Transkei, rather than the revolt itself.[15]

Following the Rivonia Trial, Mbeki served a long-term on Robben Island, during which he managed to run education classes with prisoners, many on Marxist theory, and wrote a number of significant analyses jail, which were kept on the island and used for discussions. The surviving copies have since been published.[16]

In 1992, he published The Struggle For Liberation in South Africa: A Short History and in 1996, Sunset at Midday: Latshonilangemini!

Govan Mbeki's guitar at Robben Island (Fort Hare Archives, 2016)

Release and post-apartheid role

Mbeki was released from custody after serving 24 years in the Robben Island prison on 5 November 1987. He served in South Africa's post-apartheid Senate from 1994 to 1997 as Deputy President of the Senate, and then the Senate's successor, the National Council of Provinces, from 1997 to 1999.

Mbeki died in Port Elizabeth on 30 August 2001. He was given state funeral during his son's presidency (Thabo) on 8 September 2001.[17] His remains were the subject of controversy in 2006 when plans were made to exhume them, and place them in a museum. These plans were called off after Mbeki's family refused the request.[18]

Awards and honours

Mbeki received an honorary doctorate in the Social Sciences from the University of Amsterdam in 1978.[19] His son Moeletsi attended the ceremony, as Mbeki was imprisoned at Robben Island.[19]

Honorary doctorate, Amsterdam 1978

On 26 June 1980, the Secretary General of the then-illegal African National Congress, Alfred Nzo, announced the conferring of the Isitwalandwe Medal, the ANC's highest honour, on Mbeki. Mbeki was, however, not present to receive the award, because he was serving a life imprisonment sentence on Robben Island.

Mbeki received international recognition for his political achievements including the renaming (at Mandela's suggestion) of the recently opened health building at Glasgow Caledonian University.[20][21] The Govan Mbeki Health Building was inaugurated in 2001 at a ceremony featuring his son Thabo.[21]

The Govan Mbeki Local Municipality in Mpumulanga is named in his honour.

In 2004 he was voted 97th in the SABC 3's Great South Africans.

In 2013 a large section of road between Swartklip and Baden Powell Road, running between the neighborhoods of Browns Farm, Gugulethu, Nyanga and Crossroads in Cape Town was renamed Govan Mbeki Road.[22]

See also




    1. "Govan Archibald Mbeki". The O'Malley Archives. Retrieved 19 December 2013.
    2. James Barron (6 November 1987). "A Chronicler of Revolt, Defiant Behind Bars". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 December 2018.
    3. "Biography of Govan Mbeki". SACP website. Archived from the original on 14 July 2014. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
    4. Colin Bundy, 2012, Govan Mbeki, Johannesburg: Jacana, p. 147
    5. Mia Roth (20 January 2016). The Communist Party in South Africa: Racism, Eurocentricity and Moscow, 1921-1950. Partridge Africa. ISBN 978-1-4828-0964-0.
    6. Colin Bundy, 2012, Govan Mbeki, Johannesburg: Jacana, p. 149
    7. "Harold Strachan". Sunday Times. 10 May 1998. Retrieved 29 October 2017.
    8. Bundy, Colin (2013). Govan Mbeki. Ohio University Press. p. 101. ISBN 9780821444597.
    9. South African Democracy Education Trust (2004). The Road to Democracy in South Africa: 1960-1970. Zebra. pp. 121–123. ISBN 9781868729067.
    10. Bundy, Colin (2013). Govan Mbeki. Ohio University Press. p. 111. ISBN 9780821444597.
    11. Cherry, Janet (2012). Spear of the Nation: Umkhonto weSizwe: South Africa's Liberation Army, 1960s–1990s. Ohio University Press. pp. 20–21. ISBN 9780821444436.
    12. Molver, Zoe (5 March 2007). "Harold Strachan: Bram's Bow-maker". Retrieved 30 October 2017.
    13. Colin Bundy, 2012, Govan Mbeki, Johannesburg: Jacana, p. 161
    14. Govan Mbeki, 1964, South Africa: The Peasants' Revolt, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books).
    15. Colin Bundy, 2012, Govan Mbeki, Johannesburg: Jacana, p. 93
    16. Govan Mbeki, 2015, Learning from Robben Island: The Prison Writings of Govan Mbeki, Cape Town: Kwela Books
    17. "Govan Mbeki | South African History Online". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
    18. Helga van Staaden (23 January 2006). "Govan Mbeki reburial called off". Archived from the original on 30 September 2007.
    19. Folia civitatis, v. 31, no. 18 (24 December 1977)
    20. "Have You Heard From Johannesburg". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
    21. Kasuka, Bridgette (7 February 2012). Independence Leaders of Africa. Bankole Kamara Taylor. ISBN 978-1-4700-4175-5.
    22. "Six streets in Cape Town renamed". Retrieved 7 April 2021.
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