The Robben Island Museum (RIM) celebrated struggle hero and Rivonia trialist Govan Mbeki’s birthday with a special lecture at the Table Bay Hotel on Tuesday July 9.
It was part of the memorial lecture series, launched last year to mark the centenary of former president Nelson Mandela.
Before the most recent one, the museum has also hosted a lecture to honour Albertina Sisulu (“Women honoured”, CapeTowner, September 6, 2018).
Museum spokesman Morongoa Ramaboa, said the aim was to honour ex-political prisoners and add their voices to the narrative.
She said Robben Island had previously been criticised for giving a one-sided narrative, and highlighting only a few of the ex-political prisoners. “With this series, we want to celebrate as many struggle heroes as we can. This year we are celebrating Govan Mbeki.”
“Oom Gov”, as he was fondly referred to, was charged with treason and sabotage along with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Wilton Mkwayi and Denis Goldberg.
In 1964, the apartheid regime sentenced them to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial.
During his keynote address, former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke spoke about the influence Oom Gov had had on his fellow comrades and gave the audience some insight into Oom Gov’s life as a member of the Communist Party, a political prisoner and journalist.
Oom Gov had been a reporter for the Guardian, an activist against apartheid, and had headed up a newspaper called New Age which was eventually banned in 1950.
He had also been involved in underground political awareness and held educational classes in the local townships.
Justice Moseneke described Oom Gov as having had a “sharp mind” and being “intolerant of the foolish and faint hearted, but in between the meetings and drafting of circulars and resolutions, the stern disciplinarian becomes a gentle and considerate friend”.
He added that the revolution was not an event, but a process and that the start of democracy was simply the start of a new struggle.
Dr Goldberg said after 1960, when he lost his job as a civil engineer in Cape Town, he was on his way to Durban where he had found work when he stopped in Port Elizabeth to visit Oom Gov, who was the editor of The Guardian at the time.
“I remember him writing an article on an old school typewriter before he picked up the phone, called a few comrades and his family and said: ‘Another one for lunch’.”
He said at the Rivonia trial, they were very sure that they would be hanged, but Oom Gov did not apologise for wanting to overthrow the apartheid government – he rather explained why the system needed to be stopped.
“He was a very rigid person… very determined. He did not like people who were afraid of speaking up in the time of the struggle. He was also a master at organising people.”
Asked what he has learnt from his comrade, Dr Goldberg said: “He taught me not to be afraid. He taught me not to commit if you can’t follow through.”
The Mbeki family spokesperson, Fezeka Mbana, thanked the RIM for honouring their father and grandfather. “Thank you for keeping Oom Gov’s name alive. Without these lectures, our heroes will be forgotten, and the work they did will have gone to waste.”
She described Oom Gov as a strict but kind parent who had an infectious laugh.
“He was a good storyteller, and a soldier. It was good to hear from people who spent more time with him.”