Wilton Mkwayi

Wilton Mkwayi, South African freedom fighter

Born: 1923, in Eastern Cape

Died: 23 July, 2004, in King William’s Town, aged 81

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WILTON Mkwayi was sentenced alongside Nelson Mandela to life imprisonment for treason in 1964. His death means only three of the seven renowned "Treason Trialists" now survive - Mandela himself, who turned 86 this month, Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg.

Mkwayi, the quietest man among the seven, succeeded Mandela as leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Boulder that Crushes), the armed wing of the African National Congress, under bizarre circumstances.

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He had been one of the accused, along with Mandela, in an earlier 1960 treason trial, which began in Pretoria days after the Sharpville Massacre. Mandela had been arrested by policemen who threatened to break his skull, but Mkwayi had been out on bail 800 miles away in Port Elizabeth. Mkwayi, a trade union leader, travelled to Pretoria for the opening of the trial on 31 March, 1960. Somehow, he became separated from his co-accused, and when he approached the Pretoria High Court through a group of demonstrators, a white police officer ordered him to leave. Mkwayi told the policeman he was one of the accused. The officer called him a liar, threatened to arrest him for obstruction of justice and angrily ordered him to leave the area.

Mkwayi shrugged his shoulders and walked away. He went underground for two months and was smuggled out of the country. He underwent military training in China and became commander of Umkhonto and chief overseas representative of the banned South African Congress of Trade Unions.

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He returned clandestinely to South Africa in 1962 and led sabotage operations until his capture in 1964 and his imprisonment for life on Robben Island, with Mandela and his other fellow Treason Trialists.

Wilton Mkwayi was born in a small village called Middle Drift on the spectacularly beautiful Fish River in the Eastern Cape. It was an area where the Xhosa people had a history of more than a century of resistance to British colonial rule. Mkwayi, the eldest of 13 children, left school to seek employment at the age of 12 after both his parents died. He worked variously in the gold mines of Johannesburg, at an explosives factory in Cape Town and as a stevedore in Port Elizabeth. It was in that third job that he got involved in a dockers’ strike soon after the Afrikaner National Party, which enshrined in law the former British rulers’ de facto apartheid, took power in 1948.

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Mkwayi was a leader of various defiance campaigns in the Eastern Cape against South Africa’s increasingly harsh race laws. He rose through trade union ranks until he became treasurer of the South African Congress of Trade Unions. When the ANC was banned in 1960, he became one of its underground leaders in the Eastern Cape.

After he was imprisoned, Mkwayi used to apply each year to marry his childhood sweetheart, Irene Khumalo. In 1985, 21 years after Mkwayi was imprisoned, he and Irene were permitted to marry in a Robben Island prison ceremony. She died of cancer six months later.

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On Robben Island, Mkwayi was respected for his humility, his love of Xhosa poetry and for his cooking. He was the leader of a tea club at which ANC stalwarts discussed every subject under the sun. He also cooked delicious seafood stews on days when Mandela and the other prisoners collected seaweed from the cold Benguela Current to be exported to Japan to be used as fertiliser. The prisoners also collected mussels, clams and abalone and caught lobsters which went into Mkwayi’s stews on the beach.

His prestige as a chef was so high that the warders used to join the prisoners in picnic lunches. Mandela recalls: "In 1973, in a smuggled newspaper, we read about the wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, and the story detailed the bridal luncheon of rare and delicate dishes. The menu included mussels, crayfish and abalone, which made us laugh. Thanks to Wilton, we were dining on such delicacies every day."

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Mkwayi was freed from prison on 10 October, 1989, after nearly 26 years on Robben Island, paving the way for the release of Mandela three months later.

Mkwayi recalled how he was released to a friend’s home in Soweto, Johannesburg, after being flown from Cape Town. "We were each driven in a separate car, in front of which was another car occupied by several policemen," he said. "Behind was a van carrying our prison luggage of 26 years and right behind the van was another car. In other words, the six of us were escorted home in 24 vehicles, four for each of us."

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Thereafter, he assumed a low profile, serving for five years as a member of the Eastern Cape Provincial Assembly and getting married for a second time to Patricia Lang-Mkwayi, a British woman, who survives him.