Raymond Mhlaba

Raymond Mphakamisi Mhlaba (12 February 1920 – 20 February 2005) was an anti-apartheid activist, Communist and leader of the African National Congress (ANC) also as well the first premier of the Eastern Cape. Mhlaba spent 25 years of his life in prison. Well known for being sentenced, along with Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and others in the Rivonia Trial, he was an active member of the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) all his adult life. His kindly manner brought him the nickname "Oom Ray".

Raymond Mhlaba
Premier of the Eastern Cape
In office
7 May 1994  4 February 1997
Preceded byPosition Established
Succeeded byMakhenkesi Stofile
High Commissioner to Uganda and Rwanda
In office
PresidentNelson Mandela
Thabo Mbeki
Overall Commander of Umkhonto weSizwe
In office
August 1962  July 1963
Preceded byNelson Mandela
Succeeded byWilton Mkwayi
Personal details
Raymond Mphakamisi Mhlaba

(1920-02-12)12 February 1920
Fort Beaufort, Cape Province (now Eastern Cape), South Africa
Died20 February 2005(2005-02-20) (aged 85)
Political partyAfrican National Congress
South African Communist Party
    Joyce Meke
    (m. 1943; died 1960)
      Dideka Heliso
      (m. 1986)
      Children8 children including:
      Bukeka Mhlaba (daughter)
      Nomalungelo Mhlaba (daughter)
      Jongintshaba Mhlaba (son)
      Mpilo Mhlaba (son)
      Nomawethu Mhlaba (daughter)
      Nikiwe Mhlaba (daughter)

      Personal life

      Mhlaba was born in Mazoka village in the Fort Beaufort district, Eastern Cape and was educated at Healdtown secondary school but had to drop out because of financial problems Mhlaba started working at a laundry in Port Elizabeth after leaving school in 1942. He met and married his first wife, Joyce Meke, who was also from the Fort Beaufort area in 1943. In their 17 years together, before her death in a car accident in 1960, they had three children Bukeka, Nomalungelo and Jongintshaba. In 1982, Mhlaba, who had been a political prisoner in Robben Island since 1964, was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison where he received special permission marry his common-law wife Dideka Heliso in 1986, with whom he had three children Mpilo, Nomawethu and Nikiwe.

      Early political career

      Mhlaba started working at a laundry in Port Elizabeth after leaving school in 1942. The horrendous conditions at the laundry converted him to a trade unionist and he became the leader of Non European Laundry Workers Union in 1943. In 1943, he joined the South African Communist Party, serving as the party's district secretary from 1946 until the party was banned in 1950. In 1944, he became a member of the African National Congress. From 1944 Mhlaba maintained dual membership of the ANC and the SACP. He rose through the ANC ranks becoming the chairman of the Port Elizabeth branch of the ANC from 1947 to 1953, and then elected to the Cape Executive committee. Mhlaba was the first to be arrested for disobeying apartheid laws during the nationwide Defiance Campaign of 1952 together with Govan Mbeki and Vuyisile Mini for three months in Rooi Hel ('Red Hell' or North End Prison, Port Elizabeth). The campaign was launched in Port Elizabeth when Mhlaba led a group of volunteers singing freedom songs through the "Whites Only" entrance of the New Brighton Railway Station. This action earned him the Xhosa nickname "Vulindlela" or "he who opens the way." That same year, Mhlaba was charged under South Africa's Suppression of Communism Act. Although his political activities continued, he was barred from attending meetings or gatherings. After the ANC was banned on 8 April under the Unlawful Organisations Act, the party took up the armed struggle forming its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe. Mhlaba was one of its first recruits and was sent to China for military training.[1] Before leaving he assisted Mandela in writing the Umkhonto constitution. In 1962, Mhlaba returned to South Africa, becoming a commander of the MK after Nelson Mandela's arrest.

      Rivonia Trial

      On 11 July 1963 the South African apartheid government raided the ANC's underground headquarters in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg. Mhlaba and 10 other ANC and SACP leaders including Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki were arrested and Nelson Mandela was already in prison. They were charged with sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. On 9 October 1963, the world-famous Rivonia Trial with all the accused charged with high treason. On 12 June 1964, Mhlaba, Mandela and six other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment, and all were sent to Robben Island but the white Denis Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Central Prison instead of Robben Island.[1]

      Struggle from prison

      During his time in Robben Island, Mhlaba and other ANC members founded the ANC High Command or High Organ with Mandela as its head. The committee educated and supported younger imprisoned members, formulated policies on day-to-day concerns, prisoners' complaints, and strikes, and enforced discipline within their isolation unit. Looking back at their time in Robben Island Mandela said of Mhlaba: "I got to know him as the peacemaker. He spent a lot of time urging fellow prisoners to forget their differences and unite so that conditions for prisoners could improve."[1]

      Release from prison

      After his release from prison on 15 October 1989, he was elected to the ANC national executive and the South African Communist Party central committee. He became national chairperson of the SACP in 1995.

      In January 1994 he was chosen as the ANC's nominee as Premier of the Eastern Cape, and in May 1994 he was elected to that post. He helped to establish the house of traditional leaders. He then became the High Commissioner to Uganda and Rwanda, until he retired in 2001. In April 2001 he released a book of his memoirs, narrated by him and researched and compiled by Thembeka Mafumadi. He was chairperson of a black economic empowerment consortium involved in the Coega port project, but suffered a stroke on 19 July 2003, recovering quickly.


      In 2004, Mhlaba was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer, and in December doctors discharged him from a private clinic saying there was nothing they could do for him. On 20 February 2005 he died in hospital. He was granted state funeral on 27 February 2005. Mhlaba is survived by his wife Dideka Heliso, three sons and five daughters.


      Mhlaba is seen as a stalwart member of both the ANC and the SACP. He was recognised with the Isitwalandwe Medal in 1992 for his role in the liberation struggle, and the Moses Kotane Award in 2002 for his contribution to the SACP. The Nkonkobe Local Municipality which includes Alice and Mhlaba's hometown Fort Beaufort was renamed the Raymond Mhlaba Local Municipality and Andries Pretorius street, The R30 in Bloemfontein was renamed after Raymond Mhlaba to honour him. There's an ANC branch named after him in Mpumalanga, Nkangala region, sub-region Thembisile Hani ward 11 in Verena.


      1. Meldrum, Andrew (25 February 2005). "Raymond Mhlaba". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
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