Govan Mbeki. The Peasants’ Revolt. 1964


by Ruth First

This book has had a painful birth. Govan Mbeki is recognized widely in South Africa as an expert on the Transkei and on rural and agrarian problems. But not for him the seclusion of a study or library, the facilities for patient interviews and field work. This manuscript was written in fits and starts on deal tables in the kitchens of several African homes in Port Elizabeth townships; its progress was frequently interrupted by police raids, when the sheets of paper had to be hurriedly secreted, or moved away from where their writer lived and worked, for his and their safe-keeping. A great slice of this book was written on rolls of toilet paper when Mbeki served a two-month spell of solitary confinement, awaiting trial on a charge of making explosives. Mbeki was acquitted after those court proceedings; the manuscript was smuggled out of the cell to the typist who pored over the faint pencil writing on the thin paper, by candlelight and in the privacy of her township room. Some final portions of the book were written from Govan’s last hiding-place in Johannesburg, where he had moved from Port Elizabeth after he was drafted by the African National Congress National Executive to direct A.N.C. campaigns from underground.

Mbeki began to write a study of the workings of apartheid policy in the reserves — the areas set aside in law for African occupation — as early as 1959 and 1960. He intended originally to prepare a manual for members and organizers of the African National Congress. This little booklet was to probe the role of the tribal Chiefs of the Transkei, and the campaigns of the commoners and their political movements; it contrasted the policies on rural issues of the African National Congress and other African movements with the Liberal and Progressive Parties, the United Party, and the Nationalist Government. It intended to analyse the history and lessons of peasant struggles in the Transkei. A first draft of the book was almost ready when the shootings at Sharpeville intervened. A fortnight later the African National Congress was banned. If the book on Bantustans — the tribal satraps which it was government policy to construct out of the reserves — was still to be published, it would have to be illegally produced on crude hand-worked presses or duplicating machines, to circulate dangerously from hand to hand. Plans were indeed laid for this, and so Govan used unexpected weeks to write new sections and bring his material up to date. ‘The work goes on,’ he wrote from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, ‘but always under the noses of the police and I am forced to move too often.’ He did not get away from the police raid early in 1962. Arrested with Harold Strachan and Joseph Jack under the Explosives’ Act on a charge of having instructed men in the manufacture of home-made bombs, Govan was held in prison for five months, three of them in solitary confinement. Somehow he managed to lay hands on a pencil and those toilet rolls. Without reference material he began again to write the book on Bantustans, and when he was discharged from the trial and the rolls of paper were retrieved from the prison, two manuscripts lay side by side. The one was the earlier form, written largely before the banning of the African National Congress and taking the peasant story up to 1960; the second was an improved version of the first, taking the story two years further.

It was at this point that I came into the picture, to reconcile the two versions and edit the final form of the manuscript. Friends in Cape Town (who must be nameless because they are still in Cape Town) annotated and checked the references. Govan’s colleagues in the Transkei watched the workings of the new Bantu Autliorities, the chiefs’ courts, and the so-called development schemes of the government, and sent their findings to him, through the information pipe-lines of the African National Congress. Steadily the newly arranged chapters were assembled. By the beginning of 1963 both Govan and I had been served with government prohibitions against writing, preparing, or compiling any material for publication. We were journalists without a newspaper (New Age had been banned by the Nationalist Government, and its successor, Spark, forced to suspend publication because its entire staff had been disabled by ministerial prohibition). We had more time to work on the Bantustan book, but it had all to be written under cover, both to secure the manuscript and to guard ourselves against arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment for writing in defiance of the government ban. In addition, we were unable to meet openly to discuss the progress of the book, for we were both on the list of persons banned from communicating with other banned persons.

The manuscript was almost ready by July 1963. It remained only for Govan to write the final chapter on the Transkei’s first constitution and first elections. That month Govan was arrested in the raid on the Rivonia underground hiding-place and he was taken to prison to spend the first ninety days in solitary detention, and then to await trial on a charge of conspiring to overthrow the South African government by violent means. Less than a month after Govan’s arrest I, too, was detained for ninety days under the General Law Amendment Act. The ninety days grew to 117, till I was released in December 1963. The Bantustan book had not been hanging fire all that time. In Cape Town it was being completed, and sent in instalments out of the country. When I managed to reach London it remained for me only to do the final polishing.

As the book went to press Govan Mbeki sat in the dock of the Rivonia trial, side by side with his fellow Transkeians Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Raymond Mhlaba. They and their five other co-accused stood trial for their lives. Govan’s book on the Transkei helps to explain his deep involvement in the political struggle of his people. He has a formidable grasp of economic and political problems. More than that, his own life in the Transkei has bound him to the problems and passions of the peasants.

For many years he served the newspapers on which he worked with hard-won reports on what was happening to the Transkei under its state of emergency, to Pondoland in revolt, to the Ciskei in famine. His first writings were about the Transkei. He was Secretary of the Transkeian Voters’ Association in the forties and General Secretary of the Transkei Organized Bodies. He was born and grew up in the Transkei, as his father before him.

Govan Mbeki is a modest, a self-effacing man. But he has told something of his early life.... Born in 1910 at the MpukaneLocation in the Nqamakwe district of the Transkei, he relates:

‘I was brought up in a strict religious atmosphere. My mother was the daughter of a Methodist minister. My father was chief and recognized as such by his people but graded and employed as headman by the government. Later he was deposed. For his times he was fairly well-to-do. He had an agricultural plot of just over 16 morgen, he owned a fairly large herd of cattle and horses, as well as flocks of goats and sheep. Missionaries influenced him to educate all his children. My sisters qualified as teachers, and my brother as an agricultural demonstrator. My father built a substantial stone house when I was born or just before then. My brother still lives in it. When my father died he left savings at the post office in separate accounts for my brother as well as for me. This was used to pay for our education. I went to a mission school about six miles from our home. Most of the way was scaling a mountain. Daily I walked to and from school leaving shortly after sunrise and returning at about sundown to tend the stock. The school classes were held in a church hall. All the classes ranged up the length of the hall, with the highest classes just below the pulpit. It was bedlam. One class recited the alphabet, another a multiplication table, a third sang up and down the scale of the modulator, others would be poring over arithmetic problems. The only advantage in the arrangement was that the principal teacher saw his staff at work all the time without having to leave his own class. But little wonder I was below average in arithmetic!’

Govan won scholarships to the Fort Hare University College, to do his school leaving certificate examination and an Arts degree. He also gained a diploma in Education, leaving Fort Hare at the end of 1936. By then he was the leader of militant student opinion. His interest in politics had first been aroused in his teens when the area in which he lived was visited by an African minister who was an early member of the infant African National Congress. As a young man he had accompanied a cousin to meetings of the I.C.U. (the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union), and he had interpreted his cousin’s speeches to the peasants. In the early thirties Dr Edward Roux, then a member of the Communist Party, had pitched a tent outside Fort Hare, and for the first time Govan explored the Marxist view of the African problem. By the time of the Herzog Bills in 1935, and with them the seal of segregation and the final loss of the vote on the common roll, Govan was in the thick of African National Congress politics. Mussolini’s attack on Abyssinia had incensed the students of Fort Hare. Govan was collecting degrees, majoring in politics and psychology, and then economics, and selling newspapers during his vacations for 24s. a week. He tried to organize a trade union, and was sacked. From compound life with workers Govan took to teaching first at a secondary school in Durban, then at a teachers’ training college in the Transkei. Now he began his first political journalism, and published essays in book form in 1939, entitled The Transkei in the Making. In 1938 he edited the Territorial Magazine which later became Inkundla Ya Bantu.

From teaching and journalism he went back to the people of the Transkei and in 1941 he became Secretary of the African Voters’ Association, whose object was to restore the African voters to the common roll, and two years later General Secretary of the Transkeian Organized Bodies, which united all political groups in the Transkei. The same year he co-authored a new policy document drawn for the African National Congress — ‘The African Claims.’

Govan went into the Bunga (The Transkei Council of elected and nominated members) as an elected representative and watched the workings of this body from the inside. From 1944 to 1946 he was the first representative of the students on the governing body of Fort Hare. He published a new booklet, on co-operatives, called Let’s Do it Together.

In the fifties Govan went back to teaching, this time in Northern Natal. But there he found himself in a coal mining area, and he held his teaching post for only twenty-one months before he was sacked for organizing the coal workers.

Now began some years of full-time political journalism, as manager of the Eastern Province office of New Age and Spark and their banned predecessors, and as reporter and editor in the branch office used by the Transkei to siphon its news to the outside world. By now Govan was an African National Congress kingpin in the Eastern Cape. He was organizer, propagandist, technician, policy-maker; man of action, and intellectual.

Above all, he sees the Transkei through the eyes of the commoner, for the peasants of his home country are the people he loves. In this book he describes how the commoner lives and works under apartheid. Can the land support the people? Is there work? he asks. He strips apartheid to its economic bones and discusses it in terms of wages, land allotments and taxes. Can this really be self-government? he asks. He tells the sordid inside story of how chiefs chose power and were bamboozled and cajoled into accepting the Bantustan plan because they learned that there was something in it for them. He presents material never reported anywhere before on the fate of the ordinary peasant at the hands of the tax collector, the authoritarian chief, and the tribal court. Many of the chapters are a close scrutiny of the technique of rule of Africans by the Verwoerd Government but throughout the story is told in the words and from the experiences of the peasant, for while Govan worked with blue books and statistics, the commoners of the Transkei were his chief source of information, and as he loved them, so they trusted and confided in him.

Govan has a sharp mind, intolerant of the foolish and the faint-hearted. But in between the meetings, and the drafting of circulars and resolutions, the stern disciplinarian becomes the gentle and considerate friend. The last years have been hard ones for a man who has renounced home and family life, comfort and study, to lead the life of the political outlaw. Like the Transkeian peasant, Govan has lived as a migrant. Poverty and the rule of race that is called apartheid drive the Transkeian migrant from security on the land to work in the cities, and then back again. His own hatred of poverty and racial rule has led Govan Mbeki to place the cause of his people before his personal needs. Today he is locked away on the penal Robben Island, serving a sentence of life imprisonment.

Ruth First
London, June 1964