The Nelson Mandela Museum pays tribute to the ANC struggle stalwart, anti-apartheid activist and former Robben Island prisoner, Andrew Mlangeni. Also known as Percy Mokoena, Mokete Mokoena and also Rev. Mokete Mokoena. Nicknamed the ‘backroom boy’ for working from the background. Born 06 June 1925 and died 21 July 2020, Andrew Mlangeni was the last remaining Rivonia trialist who never chose easy paths in his political struggle against apartheid and a working democracy. From his early days of struggle until well into democracy, his struggle legacy is that of a quiet voice of courage and principle.
Andrew Mlangeni died aged 95, was born in Bethlehem, Orange Free State (known as Free State). He was one of those convicted with Nelson Mandela and others in the Rivonia trial and served 26 years in prison. Mostly this was on Robben Island, under harsh conditions that drained him and others both physically and emotionally along with other political prisoners such as Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and Raymond Mhlaba among others. The “backroom boy”, which is also the title of his biography penned by Mandla Mathebula is how Andrew Mlangeni saw himself “I operate from behind” I was a person who did not want to hold leading positions in the organisation. “I helped those who wanted to become leaders get elected” said Mlangeni in one of his interviews in 2018.
Regardless of how Andrew Mlangeni preferred to operate, as the backroom boy, this did prevent him from becoming the centre of the struggle for both against apartheid and a workable democracy in South Africa. After having given up his studies owing to poverty, Mlangeni also experienced worker exploitation as a factory worker. When working as a bus driver, he was active in a strike for better working conditions and a living wage. He joined the ANCYL in 1951 and in 1954 joined the ANC. Andrew Mlangeni as the first recruit of Nelson Mandela to the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) translated to the Spear of the Nation.
In 1986, he and his fellow political prisoners rejected an offer Nelson Mandela had brokered that they should be released. Mandela had recently been discharged from hospital, where he’d been treated for tuberculosis, back to Pollsmoor prison. Mandela told them he had been approached by then Justice minister, Kobie Coetzee, with an offer that the government release them but not himself, “the reason being that they fear that if we are released together, the country will go up in flames”. Mlangeni replied: “Madiba, tell them we don’t accept the offer. All of us who were in the so-called Rivonia trial were sentenced to life imprisonment. If the government wants to release us they must release us all at the same time, otherwise we are not accepting the offer.’ Madiba was terribly disappointed”.
As a political prisoner, Mlangeni was prisoner No 467/64 right next to Mandela’s 466/64. He was released from prison in October 1989 after having served 26 years of his life sentence.