Le Govan Mbeki


Govan Mbeki (1910 – 2001) was born in the Transkei in the Eastern Cape. He is the father of Thabo Mbeki.
Mbeki spent the better part of his early Xhosa life in the Transkei and came to gain a first hand knowledge of the conditions and problems facing rural African in the area, a phenomenon which was to be found in most other parts of South Africa at the time.
Mbeki received his early education through mission schools and later attended the University College of Fort Hare before going into teaching.
His teaching career was short-lived, ending with the sack each time because of his political activities among the students and the local community.
In 1925 he became interested in the activities of the Industrial and Commercial Worker’s Union (ICU), the first mass-based black worker’s movement in South Africa.
If the conditions in the Transkei made a deep impression on Mbeki, his experiences in Johannesburg, where he moved to in 1929, completed the picture of the desperate plight of the black South African.
‘Once again I saw the poverty of the black Africans. Where I lived – in the city and in the suburbs – police raids were always taking place. Either they wanted to check our passes, or were looking for illegal drink. No other event up till then had provoked my anger as much as those raids and I decided definitely to join the struggle to put an end to such a system.’
In 1936 Mbeki completed a degree in Politics and Psychology but by 1938 he had abandoned the idea of a career in teaching and, back in the Transkei, devoted himself to politics and writing.
His first publication was a magazine called ‘Territorial Magazine’ later renamed ‘Inkundla Ya Bantu’. In 1939 he published his first essays, ‘The Transkei in the Making’. By 1941 he was actively involved in the Transkei Voters Association, Transkei Organised Bodies, and the Transkei Territorial Authorities General Council.
The Transkei Territorial Authorities General Council was a government creation of elected members, which Mbeki famously referred to 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.’
Early on Mbeki recognised the power of the written word. He had a sharp mind and a literary ability which was capable of translating the reality of apartheid South Africa in its social, political, economic and other facets, into the written word.
In 1954 he joined the editorial board of ‘New Age’ – the only national newspaper that would serve the liberation movement over the next eight years. Together with Ruth First and other members of the editorial board, Mbeki played an immensely important role in ensuring that the pages and columns reflected the conditions of the black peoples, their demands and their aspirations.
Even as editor of ‘New Age’ in the Eastern Cape, Mbeki was immersed in the practical politics of mass mobilisation, organising branches of the African National Congress (ANC) and publicising the movement’s policies.
Lekker Links
ANC – Govan Mbeki
Marxists Internet Archives
Frontline: Mbeki on Mandela
South African History Online He was chairman of the ANC in the Eastern Cape and an active member of the underground South African Communist Party (SACP).
Between 1956 and 1960 one of the fiercest of confrontations in South Africa took place. The epic of the resistance and violent confrontation is to be found in Mbeki’s book ‘South Africa: The Peasants’ Revolt’. The book, which was begun on rolls of toilet paper and smuggled out while Mbeki was awaiting trial under the Explosives Act, earned him international recognition and an honorary doctorate of Social Science from the University of Amsterdam.
In November 1962 the Minister of Justice, JB Vorster, banned ‘New Age’. When the Editorial Board came out with its successor, ‘Spark’, Vorster banned its editors and writers – stopping them from having anything to do with the preparation, editing, printing and distribution of printed materials.
Rather than remain cut off from the movement, Mbeki went underground. The first explosions of the armed struggle had already rocked South Africa on the 16th December, 1961.
When the limits of peaceful, non-violent struggle were exhausted, the ANC took the decision to continue the political struggle using all means, including armed struggle. Mbeki became one of the key figures of the ANC underground leadership and it was in this capacity that he was arrested at Rivonia.
Mbeki was charged with sabotage and other offences in the Rivonia Trial and on 14 June 1964 was sentenced, along with Ahmed Kathrada, Nelson Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Walter Sisulu,  to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Dennis Goldberg was the only white person found guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment in a white prison in Pretoria.
Mbeki was imprisoned on Robben Island for 24 years, finally being released on 5 November 1987. Upon his released he immediately continued with the work of the African National Congress.
After the historic democratic elections of 1994, Mbeki was elected Deputy President of the Senate until 1997, and then of its successor, the National Council of Provinces, from 1997 to 1999.
Govan Mbeki died aged 91 on 30 August 2001 in Port Elizabeth
Besides ‘South Africa: The Peasants’ Revolt’, Mbeki also published ‘The Prison Writings of Govan Mbeki: Learning from Robben Island’ (1991); ‘The Struggle for Liberation in South Africa’ (1992), and ‘Sunset at Midday’ (1996).


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