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
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
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
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.
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
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
He was chairman of the
ANC in the Eastern Cape and an active member
of the underground South African Communist
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
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,
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
Mbeki was charged with sabotage and
other offences in the Rivonia Trial and on
14 June 1964 was sentenced, along with Ahmed
Nelson Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew
Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and
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
"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"