Last Wednesday was a busy day for South Africa as they were bidding farewell to the last surviving Rivonia trialist, Andrew Mlangeni who died a week ago at the age of 95. Unfortunately less than 100 people were allowed to attend the funeral due to Covid-19 protocols. The majority of South Africans had to glue their eyes to television channels which brought live broadcast of the event. I also watched the funeral on television and I can confirm that indeed there were emotional scenes especially when the MK veterans gave the deceased military salute. The funeral was described as category one which is said to be the nearest to the state funeral. That was befitting considering Andrew Mlangeni’s contribution to the liberation struggle.
For the benefit of readers, I must add a new aspect to the life of Andrew Mlangeni. As I know it, there were some coincidental scenes in that struggle icon’s public life. For instance, Andrew Mlangeni was imprisoned for 26 years and that his somewhat dealing with the Botswana National Front (BNF) remained secret for 26 years! Of course this may be a strange or interesting coincidence. Mlangeni was released from prison in October 1989 together with other struggle stalwarts such as Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Walter Sisulu and Elias Motsoeledi after spending 26 years in Robben Island and Pollsmoor prison. The release of prisoners was done by installment. The first was that of Denis Goldberg in 1985 after 22 years of imprisonment. Then it was that of Govan Mbeki in November 1987 after serving 24 years prison service.
Following his release, Andrew Mlangeni was engaged at Shell House, the headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC) where he was engaged as transport officer for the organization. As transport officer, he had to ensure that the ANC was adequately provided with transport for it to carry out its programmes. It would seem that between 1993 and 1994, the BNF approached the ANC with a request for donations of vehicles. It will be remembered that 1994 was yet another election year in Botswana. South Africa had already conducted theirs and the ANC was in power. The BNF was like any party in the race, in need of sufficient transport to traverse all the corners of the country canvassing for support. It is not clear as to who in the BNF approached Andrew Mlangeni. However, suggesting Michael Dingake would not be farfetched. Michael Dingake had been to Robben Island as well. While there, he rubbed shoulders with ANC stalwarts like Nelson Mandela and Andrew Mlangeni himself. That relationship put Michael Dingake in good position to ensure that his BNF and the ANC cooperated.
For Andrew Mlangeni, the BNF’s appeal was something he could not refuse, hence he donated them five vehicles. The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) was totally unhappy over the donation. Their point of contention was that ruling parties all over the world cooperate among themselves. Similarly, opposition parties should cooperate with their counterparts in other countries. When Nelson Mandela visited Botswana in 1994, President Sir Ketumile Masire raised the BDP’s concern with him during their tete-a-tete in Gaborone. Nelson Mandela informed Sir Ketumile that he had heard of such a donation and that he suspected that it was Andrew Mlangeni who did it. He said he was going to deal with it internally on his return home. The two presidents agreed that Mandela’s undertaking to deal with the matter effectively should not be made public. Sir Ketumile fulfilled the promise and only shared the information with a few members of his central committee. Key people in the BDP central committee were Ponatshego Kedikilwe as chairman, Daniel Kwelagobe as secretary-general and Gaotlhaetse Matlhabaphiri. Matlhabaphiri gossiped it to me but seriously asked me not share it with anyone. But out of journalistic curiosity, I felt it was necessary to check that with another source even though I had no intention of sharing it with anybody. It was told to me on condition I did not share it with another person. I had access to both Kedikilwe and Kwelagobe but I did not have the courage to talk to them about it.
On August 1995, I was assigned by my bosses at BOPA to travel to London, England for the coverage of celebrations marking 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. While there, Sir Ketumile invited me to his room for informal discussions. I seized the opportunity to ask Sir Ketumile if indeed he had raised the issue of Vehicle donations by the ANC to the BNF with President Mandela and what his response was. Masire confirmed what Matlhabaphiri had said to be and he too asked that I keep it to myself. Circumstances for which both Mandela and Masire entered into such an agreement no longer exist. I have therefore decided to open the lid on this issue because key characters in this play have departed this world and that they will therefore suffer no harm. However, other characters that played significant role in the donation are still alive.
I spoke to Daniel Kwelagobe. He was aware of the BDP’s response to the donation but referred me to trade unionist and former BNF official, Johnson Motshwarakgole. Motshwarakgole discussed the event as if it happened last week. He can vividly recall that the donation was in the form of VWs, Combi and corollas. Five BNF activists were dispatched to South Africa for the vehicle collection. They are Motshwarakgole, Patrick Kgoadi, Julia Mathumo, B.G. Mafoko and a certain Kelapile. Two of the team, Motshwarakgole and Mathumo spent the night at Andrew Mlangeni’s home at Dube in Soweto while the rest were accommodated elsewhere. Motshwarakgole also recalls that Mlangeni was driving a brown Cressida car when he drove them from Shell House to Dube. He was playing old music in his car which made Mathumo jokingly remark that he was reminding himself of the old days before incarceration. While the success of the BNF in the 1994 election may not be due to the vehicles’ donation, it is reasonable to say they added value to the party’s campaign. That year the BNF registered victories at 13 parliamentary constituencies and took control of several town and district councils. That election outcome, made many into believing that the BNF would take power in the next election due in 1999. But that was not because of a major split in the BNF which resulted with the formation of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP). As it turned out, the BDP’s popularity only dropped by two percent from the 1994 election results to the 1999 election results (54.5 percent to 54.3 percent).
I watched Mlangeni’s funeral on television because I wanted to hear former President Thabo Mbeki speak. He is an orator and I admire him. I and Mbeki have known each other for many years during the liberation struggle. We met for the first time in October 1989 during the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government meeting in Malaysia. But my memorable interaction with him was the summit meeting of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Abuja, Nigeria in 1990 when we had a drink together at Hilton Hotel. I had been looking for the rest of the Botswana delegation without trace when he said to me “don’t worry about their whereabouts may be they are out seeing Abuja by night”. Earlier in the day we had been attending a Botswana chaired OAU committee which recommended that June 16 be declared Day of the African Child. The other reason for watching the funeral proceedings on television throughout the procession was because I was familiar with his place of residence, Dube, Pineville where the service was held and Roodepoort where he was buried. Both Pineville and Dube are not very far from Dobsonville where my parents used to stay during the apartheid days. Yesteryear’s soccer fans in Botswana may recall Dube as home for the then famous Moroka Swallows alias, The Dube Birds and Pineville as hosts to the other famous soccer outfit called Pineville United Brothers alias, Pubs or the Skorm Boys. Roodepoort is where my parents lived before they were forcibly removed to Dobsonville to pave way for the whites. As cooperating partners and beneficiaries of ANC gestures, the BNF should have spoken loudly expressing message of sympathy to the ANC and Mlangeni’s family instead of relying on the UDC to do that. They may have done that and if so, I commend them for that.