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Free Harry Gwala

A very sick old man is lying in a cold cell in Pietermaritzburg’s new prison. Doctors have told him and his family that there is nothing that they can do for him.

The disease has left the 68 – year – old man helpless — he cannot use his hands anymore, even to feed himself.

His name is Harry Themba Gwala — and there is now a fear that he may die if he is not freed soon. His friends, both in South Africa and overseas, have called on the government to let him go.

Last year the Release Mandela Committee (RMC) started a campaign calling for Gwala’s release. This campaign is supported by many other UDF member organisations.

And last month, railway workers in Britain started their own campaign. The National Union of Railwaymen is sending thousands of postcards to Adriaan Vlok, the minister of Law and Order, asking for Gwala’s release.

But, so far, their voices have fallen on deaf ears.


Gwala, a highly respected leader of the African National Congress in Natal, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1977.

Those who know him, from prison and outside prison, speak of him as a great man who has spent nearly all his life fighting for a better South Africa.

Lulu Gwala, his eldest daughter, told Learn and Teach about her father at their small, well-kept home in the village of Dambuza just outside Pietermaritzburg.

“My father is suffering from ‘motor neuron disease’ which doctors cannot cure. The disease has left him helpless and he can no longer use his hands. He now has to ask other prisoners to feed him.

“Ever since he broke his collarbone while playing soccer one day in prison, he has not been well. His life changed from that day. He began to lose the strength in his hands. Every time we went to see him on Robben Island, he looked worse.

“They told us he was suffering from this disease that cannot be cured. Then last year, without telling us, they transferred him to the new prison in Pietermaritzburg. We were upset to find that they are keeping him in the same cell with ordinary criminals.”


Harry Gwala is now in a prison not far from the place where he was born. He was born in a place called Swayimani near Pietermaritzburg. After finishing high school, the young Harry Gwala went to Adam’s College. He got a teacher’s diploma in 1945. He then taught at Swayimani High School where he was a choirmaster.

From early on, Gwala was very community minded — both in sports and politics. He was a keen soccer player — and it was on a soccer trip to Cape Town that he met Nettie Mkwayi, who later became his wife. They had four children together. Lulu Gwala cannot remember when her father became a unionist and ANC member. “I was still very young then. But I knew that my father was a special person, a man who cared for his people. Chief Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, and the late Braam Fischer used to come to see him at our house. He was a very busy man.”

Gwala began organising workers in the rubber and brick factories. In the early forties he organised railway workers for the old South African Railway and Harbour Workers’ Union (SARHWU). But he paid the price for his union work. He got his first banning order in 1954.


Gwala was one of the founding members of the South African Council of Trade Unions (SACTU). He was there when it was launched in March 1955.

Gwala was the chairman of SACTU in the Pietermaritzburg area. He was one of the pillars of the organisation in his area and he helped to build many future leaders — like Moses Mabhida, the late SACTU and South African Communist Party (SACP) leader.

In 1960 the government declared the first state of emergency — and Gwala was one of the thousands who was detained. When he was released he carried on with his work of serving the people.

On 8 April 1961 the government banned the ANC. Many people were arrested and many others left the country. SACTU was not able to carry on with its work.

The following year, the Gwala family moved to Slangspruit, a village near Pietermaritzburg. Gwala, who was no longer allowed to teach, worked for some time as a clerk at Edendale Hospital. But he was still an organiser at heart. He organised nurses and other hospital workers for the Health Workers’ Union.

In February 1963, Gwala was banned, together with many other SACTU leaders. In 1964 Gwala was arrested and charged with treason. He was sent to Robben island until he was released in 1972. But he was not a free man. He was banned again, for five years.


Lulu remembers the time her father came home from prison: “My mother died in September of the same year. My father was hit hard by her death. She had always stood by his side and supported him.

“After my mother died, my father spent more time with the family — but the fighter in him never died. He was arrested again in November 1976. That was the beginning of a sad and lonely time for us.”

It was also the beginning of a long trial for Harry Gwala and nine of his comrades. They were charged with “terrorism” and furthering the aims of the ANC. The trial came to an end on 15 July 1977. Gwala and four others were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The others were given long prison sentences. “We missed the old man very much. We often went to see him on Robben Island, but that was not enough. We needed his love and care,” says Lulu.

The Gwala family now lives with the hope that one day they will lead a normal life with their father. Lulu thinks that the government will set him free one day.

“I thought that they brought him to Maritzburg because they wanted to release him as he is now old and sick. But nothing has happened and we do not know what the government will do. We can only hope that they will find it in their hearts to send him home.”

“It is the policy of the SA Prisons Service not to comment on the physical condition or medical treatment of individual prisoners as it is regarded as a private matter between the prisoner, his family and the doctor. It can however be stated that Mr Gwala, like all prisoners, has regular access to doctors and fully trained medical personnel.

“The Prisons Service is satisfied that the medical treatment of all people entrusted to its care is of a very high standard and any prescription or reference for specialized treatment is strictly adhered to. “Mr Gwala was transferred to the Pietermaritzburg Prison on 1987. 07. 28. Contrary to the allegation that his family was not notified of the transfer it can be stated that on 87.07.29, as is standard procedure, Miss Lulu Gwala was notified per letter. Miss Gwala’s first visit to her father took place on 87.08.08.

“It is also mentioned in your report that Mr Gwala broke his collar bone while playing soccer in prison. The truth is that Mr Gwala’s wrist was fractured during a soccer game and he received the necessary medical treatment.

“It can also be mentioned that the release of all prisoners is considered from time to time by the relevant statutory bodies in the process of which a variety of factors such as the nature of the crime, previous record, length of sentence, portion of sentenceady served, the health condition, age, prognosis etc. are taken into account. It is therefore policy not to speculate on the possible release of any individual prisoners.”

NEW WORDS a pillar of SACTU — somebody who helped to build up SACTU a doctor’s prescription — a letter to take to the chemist to buy medicine allegation — a claim or accusation transfer — send statutory body — a department or committee set up by a law fractured — split, broken speculate — guess

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