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An unbroken spirit

The receptionist at the South African Council of Churches (SACC) put down the telephone and greeted us with a smile: “Yebo bantwana bam’i — (Yes, my children). Can I help you?” “Yes, please, we are looking for Ma-Mlangeni.”

The woman looked at us, still smiling, and said: “Are you people making a fool out of me? You must be joking.” “Rrrring rrrring …” it was the sound of the phone. “Hallo’oo, it’s the SACC,” she answered. “Can I help you?”

Again we waited until she was finished. A few minutes later, she put down the phone and said: “I am the person you are looking for.” We looked at each other in surprise, and we all laughed.

Many of the people who visit or phone the SACC office know Ma-Mlangeni as a warm, ever-friendly woman. But how many of them know about the hardship she has gone through? How many know that behind the smile, there is a spirit that cannot be broken?


Mrs June Mlangeni — or just Ma- Mlangeni to her friends and comrades — is married to Andrew Mlangeni, who is serving a life sentence on Robben Island.

Mlangeni has been in prison since he was detained in 1963 and sentenced the following year at the Rivonia Trail — together with Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada, Motsoaledi, Mhlaba, Mbeki and Goldberg. All but the last two are still in jail.

Ma-Mlangeni was born in 1928 in Prospect Township, now called Jeppestown. When the township was demolished in 1939, her family went to stay in Alexandra.

They later moved to a place called Lady Selborne, in Pretoria. In 1948, the people of Lady Selborne were removed after the area was declared “white”. Her family then moved to Mzimhlophe in Soweto.

It was here that Ma-Mlangeni met Andrew. She clearly remembers how it all happened: “I was 19 years old when I met Andrew at ‘Ema-Sheltheni’— a shanty town near Mzimhlophe. I was working in a grocery shop, as an assistant. I used to pass Andrew’s home every day on my way to work. That’s how he first saw me and fell in love with me.

“But in those days it was not so easy for a woman to fall in love with a man. It took a man three, four, six or more months to win over a woman’s heart. This was the pride we enjoyed as women — and it also gave us time to study and get to know the man proposing love to us!”

It took “only” three months for the young June to decide that Andrew was her “Mr Right”. After they got married, she went to stay with her husband in ‘Ema Sheltheni’. They were blessed with four children, two girls followed by two boys.

In 1954 the Mlangenis’ bought a house in the new township of Dube. It is in this house that Ma-Mlangeni still lives and which holds the memories of Andrew as a loving husband and a caring father. “I will never move out of this house,” says Ma-Mlangeni proudly.

“This is because I can still feel my husband’s presence, although he last set foot in it 26 years ago.”


Ever since Ma- Mlangeni can remember, Andrew was an active member of the ANC. But it was not a case of the husband working in the struggle and the wife sitting at home. “I also became involved,” says Ma-Mlangeni. “I organised women into the Women’s League and I was the chairperson of the Dube branch in 1956 and 1957.”

When Andrew was not busy with ANC work, he was a bus driver for PUTCO and a golf-player in his spare time. Later he moved to New Age, a weekly newspaper, where he worked as a clerk. Ma-Mlangeni will never forget the day when she and her children were robbed of a husband and a father. “It was the 11th of July, 1963.

I had a party the day before because I was going to Botswana to see my mother. I was so excited — I did not know that it was not going to be possible for me to go away.

“That morning I saw four cars stop outside my house. Inside those cars I saw our leaders who later became the Rivonia trialists. I still remember Elias Motsoaledi waving to me when those cars stopped. The police got out of the cars with Andrew. He was handcuffed. They searched our house. They were rude and didn’t allow me to speak to my husband. When they drove away with them, Andrew and his comrades waved good-bye to me.”

Later Ma-Mlangeni heard that Andrew and his comrades had been detained at Liliesfarm in Rivonia, Johannesburg.


After Andrew and the others were sentenced, Ma-Mlangeni carried a heavy burden on her shoulders. “When Andrew was still free, I didn’t work — I was a housewife and he was the only breadwinner in the family. It was a mistake that I must warn other women not to make, for I suffered a great deal after my husband’s arrest.”

Ma-Mlangeni’s younger daughter, Sylvia, who also works at the SACC, was only 12 years old when her father was arrested in 1963. She remembers how her mother struggled at this time — and how she did all she could so her children could grow up like other kids.

“I don’t know where would we be if my mother was not there,” says Sylvia. “In Sesotho we say ‘Mmago ngwana o tshwara thipa ka bohale’ — meaning that mothers will do anything to save the lives of their children. I saw the meaning of this in practice. We grew up poor, and sometimes didn’t have clothes, but we always had my mother’s love.

“My mother sent us to school, but it was very difficult for her. I remember my brother Aubrey used to say: ‘I will one day be a lawyer and represent my father and my people.’ We missed our father, and we were jealous of the other children who would run to meet their fathers as they came home from work. But our mother gave us comfort. When we asked her about Pa she used to tell us that he is working in Pretoria.”

A year after her husband was sentenced, Ma-Mlangeni decided to send the children to Botswana to live with their grandmother. It was a painful decision — she was now without husband and children. But she knew that her children would be better off in Botswana.

It was in Botswana that Sylvia and her brothers and sister learnt about their father’s true where-abouts. “Our grandma finally told us about our father — that he was in jail because of the politics in South Africa. We didn’t understand and, for a long time, we all cried. When she saw that we were not going to stop crying, she told us that one day, an aeroplane would bring him back. We looked up to the sky whenever there was the sound of an aeroplane and still Pa didn’t come.”

Later, when Ma-Mlangeni went to visit her children, she told them the full story about their father. “I saw him for the first time in 1975,” says Sylvia, “My mother warned me not to cry because I would make the police happy. I was frightened, but I didn’t cry. For the first few minutes we just looked at each other. Finally we spoke.”


Meanwhile, Ma-Mlangeni was searching for a job. They were difficult to find — and even more difficult to keep. Every time she got work, her employers would get a “visit”. And the next thing she would be called to the boss’s office. Time and again, she was told: “We are dismissing you and you know why.”

Ma Mlangeni’s first job was in a factory called Kosy Products in Booysens. “I worked as a demonstrator, promoting the coffee the factory made. I used to work with a kind woman and I would tell her when I visited Andrew. No one knew except her. But when the management found out about my husband, I was fired.”

Later, she went to a company called Saw & Knit where she trained as a demonstrator. During the year she was training, she was not being paid. She stayed with the company for eleven years. “I must mention here that it was the manager, Mr Lesly Dishy, who helped me to bring my kids home from Botswana in 1974.”

Ma-Mlangeni then worked as a machine demonstrator with Singer Sewing Machines for two years — “until two policemen came to where I was working. A few minutes after they left I was called into the office and was fired.”

Ma-Mlangeni went from job to job — and still the same problems followed her. In 1979, at a time when she was unemployed, she began to get grants from the SACC. Finally, in 1981, her friend Sophie Mazibuko helped her to get a job at the SACC. Her job was to make tea. Last year, she was given the job of receptionist.


Ma-Mlangeni and her children have been through much — but the family is not without hope. They look to the day when they will be re-united with Andrew — the husband, father and grandfather.

Says Sylvia: “We always have a vision of seeing our father knocking on the door and saying ‘Hello, my children and my children’s children and of us running to hug and kiss him.”

But even as they wait, the Mlangeni family think of the many other families who have been separated from their loved ones. There are hundreds of husbands and fathers — as well as mothers and daughters — who are in prison for “political offences”.

And there are others, besides Andrew Mlangeni and his comrades from the ‘Rivonia Trial’ who are serving life sentences — like Wilton Mkwayi, Petrus Mashego, Johannes Shabangu, Johnson Lubisi, Vusimuzi Nene, Jeff Masemola, Mathews Meyiwa, David Moisi, Naphtali Manana, Zakhele Mdlalose, Dieter Gerhard, Lizo Ngqunwana … the list goes on.

Ma-Mlangeni has a word of comfort and advice to all the families who have relatives in prison: “Don’t lose hope for God is on our side. All those who are in jail, for whatever period, will be with us on the day of celebration. They shall return!”

NEW WORDS demolished — when a building or town is demolished, it is pulled down and destroyed. spare time — this is the time when you are not working a grant — a grant is a small amount of money given by an organisation or the government


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