By Nelvis Qekema
13 July 2021

While human beings are known to choose with ease what they will live for, not many are too keen to choose what they will die for and set out on the path of death to defend the collective right to live. Cde Mthembu, 67, was that rare breed who looked death in the eyes and dared it to do that which it is notorious about.

Colonialism could not severe his umbilical cord from the land. Racism could not ridicule his soul and being. Torture could not dilute his spirit and determination. Prison could not deny him his liberty. Bullets failed to take his life.

Yet Covid-19 succeeded where oppression and slavery failed. Nobody would have thought Covid-19 would defeat that bull-strong body and unyielding determination of Cde Mthembu. As he was admitted in hospital on 27 June, everyone was talking about what needed to be done when he was discharged. I could visualise him going back to his religious youth days and humming the hymn:

“There is a race I must run
And there are victories to be won
Give me power every hour
Tobe true”.

That power, that Black Power, kept him company to fight Covid-19 whose origins bear no Blackness. Towards the tenth day in hospital, the doctors were quite pleased with his progress and reckoned that he would be discharged in one or two days. That was not to be. He took his final journey to wage the liberation in the world of the spirits.

How tragic it is that Covid-19 not only takes your life but ensures that nobody will give you the honour of a dignified send-off you deserve. Similar to Steve Biko’s send-off, Covid-19 imposes roadblocks and turn away your relatives and Comrades who would have wanted to attest to your greatness on this anti-black world.

A grassroots activist and organic intellectual right from the beginning, the teenager Khehla sought to use religion to steer his people away from despair and give them hope that there was a world better than this one where there was no disappointment nor sorrow. In the late 1970s he and the likes of Enos Ngutshane who wrote the historic letter to the apartheid authorities two months prior to the June 16 uprisings, formed the Teenage Outreach in Soweto to organise and institutionalise young black people away from the hopelessness that caused them to terrorise their own communities.

As a student at Orlando West High and a member of the Student Christian Movement (SCM), he would jump onto the trains and preach to the hopeless black people on their way to toil and slave in the industries of white settler-colonialism. They would even collect old clothes for distribution to the needy. He was not alone. He was in the company of fellow believers like Esau Mokgethi, Ishmael Mkhabela, Lybon Mabasa, Strike Thokoane, Pule Pule and others. Those were the days when the South African Students Movement (SASM), the BCM’s high school student wing, had the schools firmly under its firm grip.

As those were the heydays of the Black Consciousness Movement under the leadership of Biko, Black Theology was born and soon promoted an interpretation of religion as a liberatory force. God was no longer neutral, but had become the “God of the Oppressed”. No wonder that the 1973 SCM conference held in Lesotho pushed for the exclusion of whites from that body.

By the outbreak of the June 16 Uprisings, Cde Mthembu had already matriculated a few years earlier. It was his sister Cde Sibongile who was a firebrand and leader of those uprisings. Cde Mthembu was already active in the Black People’s Convention (BPC) and attending some of its strategic meetings at the St Peter’s building in Johannesburg. With the banning of the BCM organisations on 19 October 1977, he was in the groove of the several meetings that were held towards the formation of AZAPO. Hardly five days after the banning, a planning meeting was held at the Lutheran Church in Chiawelo to plot the way forward. The Soweto Action Committee was born. The last of these meetings was at the St Ansgar’s where AZAPO was founded six months after the banning.

The Curtis Nkondo experience had not worked in 1979. And so Cde Nombulelo Mkefa née Kobus had to march forward and hold the fort as the AZAPO President. In 1981 Cde Mthembu was elected AZAPO President. Ironically, his presidency kick-started the clarity of political direction, for this was the period in which the July Political Symposium discussed a number of policy papers on Black Consciousness, Race and Class, and a number of other areas. The Black Solidarity-loving President Mthembu set the tone for the symposium:

“We are not here to provide an outlet for various factions to sell their sectional and parochial interests and ideas… We place our national ideals and aspirations above all else… Stagnancy is detrimental to any liberatory philosophy… [A]t the end of this symposium we hope we shall have re-affirmed our belief in Black Consciousness as a liberatory and viable philosophy”.

That’s from the horse’s mouth. Cde Mthembu was emphatically opposed to any form of sectarianism and organisational fragmentation. He was unwavering of Black Unity and Black Solidarity. Of cardinal importance, his dialectical and dynamic base of intellectualism agitated him to fight the setting in of political, ideological, theoretical and praxis stagnation in the Movement.

True to form, he took AZAPO out of the boardrooms onto the streets where winds of change blow. The Cultural Boycott which saw the chasing away of the O’Jays and other international stars and politicians took place under Cde Mthembu’s leadership. No wonder that AZAPO had such confidence in him that he was re-elected for a second term.

As he was consolidating the Movement of Biko behind the enemy lines, he was also involved in clandestine activities to consolidate the Movement in exile. After consulting with the exiled BCM leaders under the mandate of AZAPO in 1981, he paid the banished Cde Mosibudi Mangena several visits in Mahwelereng where he delivered the directive for Cde Mangena to skip the country and lead the exiled mission. A passport was arranged with Cde Mangena’s face under the name of Cde Manfred Yende who had earlier died in a car accident.

The efficient Cde Mthembu followed Cde Mangena to Botswana in 1982. His AZAPO delegation met their BCMA counterparts where the name of Cde Nkutsoéu Skaap Motsau came up for call. Cde Mthembu made the efforts to ensure that Cde Motsau was at the Qwaqwa AZAPO Congress from which he skipped the country. Cde Mangena became the BCMA Chairperson, while Cde Motsau was to be the Secretary for Defence and Operations.

Armed with the power of transcendence, nothing was impossible with Cde Mthembu. In the early 1990s he had shot through apartheid concrete ceilings to be the Managing Director of the black-owned African General Insurance Company (AFGEN). Having grown up in Zola in Soweto, he had tried his hand in that industry after matriculation. From AFGEN he moved on to be the Chairperson of Pepsi under the black consortium New Age Beverages in 1994.

While legendary poet Dr Don Mattera says “we hide our anguish in song”, perhaps Cde Mthembu hid his anguish in jokes. You could say he knew no miseries because he would make his witty jokes even in times of distress and despair. He did just that when he was the Programme Director at the funeral of his friend and AZAPO co-founder Mlungisi Mavana who also succumbed to Covid-19.

Ironically, his last public political engagement was this year in April in an AZAPO Webinar to commemorate the founding of his AZAPO. Admitting that he was not active in AZAPO, he conveyed his last message to the “glorious movement”:

“I think AZAPO has missed several steps going forward. It needs to go back to the roots and focus on liberation politics and gaining power. If that can be done, we can come back and rebuild this glorious movement.”

In our being in denial that Cde Mthembu is no more, we would opt to plant rather than bury him. We do this in the hope that the planted seed will germinate and multiply into a million formidable Mthembus.

Hamba kahle Mvelase.