When Comrade Govan Mbeki entered Port Elizabeth’s townships for the first time in 25 years last month, the sleepy Sunday afternoon turned into a celebration that not many people will forget.
People danced in the streets, youths hung out of the sides of fast moving taxis, children and old women shouted his name, and crowds of people toi toi-ed after the cream coloured car.
It was a great homecoming for Comrade Mbeki – the ANC and Communist Party leader who first went to live and work in the Port Elizabeth townships in 1955. He was now back, after serving 23 years of the life sentence he was given at the Rivonia Trial in 1964.
When Mbeki returned from Johannesburg on Sunday afternoon, excited crowds waited patiently for him at the entrance to New Brighton township. When he arrived at the Dan Qeqe Service Station, he was greeted with songs and tears.
A blind, old man, Phakama Simon Mkhalipi, an old comrade of Mbeki’s, waited for two hours at the station to welcome his friend. When he met Mbeki, they shook hands and hugged each other.
Before the car moved off, the group of youths and colourfully dressed women clenched their fists and sang freedom songs.
As the car moved down the dusty streets of New Brighton, it was followed by taxis, scooters and private vehicles. Out of the windows of the cars people shouted: “Mbeki is home after 23 years on Robben Island! Mbeki, our leader is back!”
When they heard the message, hundreds of people rushed out of their houses to see and greet the 77 year old leader, who first joined the ANC way back in 1935.
The stream of cars grew into a river. The honking hooters of 100 cars could not drown the singing and shouting from the people who lined the streets. Mbeki sat in the front seat of his car, holding up his fist and smiling happily. He travelled with his wife, Epainette, his lawyer Priscilla Jana and a minister, Rev. Mcebisi Xundu.
At Njoli square, a meeting place for food sellers, taxis and hawkers, people left their stalls and taxis and surrounded the car, shouting their greetings with fists in the air. The car entered Zwide’s St. Peter’s Anglican Church. Here Mbeki was followed into the small building. He stood up and people stopped singing. There was silence as Mbeki started to speak.
We cannot tell you what Comrade Mbeki said because he is now a listed person. The government only let newspapers use Mbeki’s words on the very first day of his release when he said: “The ideas for which I went to jail and which the ANC stands for I still embrace.”
The singing crowd led him back to the car. He then drove through Little Soweto, a shanty township. Little Soweto was not around when Mbeki went to prison, but the residents greeted him like an old friend.
One woman jumped so high into the air that she lost her balance and fell onto the dusty street. She laughed, got up, and still singing, chased after the cars which bounced along the narrow muddy roads.
One excited man was knocked down by a car. He picked himself up and limped after the crowd, waving his fist and forgetting his injuries.
The line of cars then took the highway and drove to Motherwell township, 15 kilometres away. Fishermen on the Swartkops River raised fishing rods in greeting. When the cars entered Motherwell township, residents rushed from their homes. With fists in the air, they sang “uBaba Mbeki Yinkokeli” (Our father Mbeki, is our leader).
The hooting cars drove through the township and then back to the service station. Mbeki was then taken away to a secret place so he could rest.
As he left, people gathered around, talking about the day they will never forget. One women said: “If this is how the people greet Mbeki, think what it will be like on the day of liberation”.
A youth, who was not yet bom when Mbeki went to prison, said: “One day I will tell my children about this day when Comrade Mbeki came home to Port Elizabeth. For all of us, he is a hero of our struggle.”