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Govan Mbeki

Colin Bundy

Publication Year: 2013

Govan Mbeki (1910–2001) was a core leader of the African National Congress, the Communist Party, and the armed wing of the ANC during the struggle against apartheid. Known as a hard-liner, Mbeki was a prolific writer and combined in a rare way the attributes of intellectual and activist, political theorist and practitioner. Sentenced to life in prison in 1964 along with Nelson Mandela and others, he was sent to the notorious Robben Island prison, where he continued to write even as tension grew between himself, Mandela, and other leaders over the future of the national liberation movement. As one of the greatest leaders of the antiapartheid movement, and the father of Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa from 1999 to 2008, the elder Mbeki holds a unique position in South African politics and history.

This biography by noted historian Colin Bundy goes beyond the narrative details of his long life: it analyzes his thinking, expressed in his writings over fifty years. Bundy helps establish what is distinctive about Mbeki: as African nationalist and as committed Marxist — and more than any other leader of the liberation movement — he sought to link theory and practice, ideas and action.

Drawing on exclusive interviews Bundy did with Mbeki, careful analysis of his writings, and the range of scholarship about his life, this biography is personal, reflective, thoroughly researched, and eminently readable.

Published by: Ohio University Press

Series: Ohio Short Histories of Africa


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-5


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pp. 5-6

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Introduction: Intellectual activist - or activist intellectual?

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pp. 7-12

Govan Mbeki was born on 8 July 1910. The Union of South Africa was barely six weeks old: a new state, delivered by compromise and negotiations at a constitutional conference. Political power was vested firmly in white hands: a limited black franchise operated only in the Cape Province. The Prime Minister was Louis Botha, recently a Boer guerrilla general and now an adroit politician...

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1. Home comforts and family histories

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pp. 13-24

When Govan Mbeki spoke about his childhood, his face softened and he conveyed a sense of comfort, warmth and stability. The family house – in Nyili village, Mpukane ward, in the Nqamakwe magistracy – was ‘a solid house, very well built’ and the furniture was handsomely carpentered, ‘some of the most beautiful furniture I ever saw’. He spoke with a...

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2. Healdtown and Fort Hare

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pp. 25-43

Pulled from the front, pushed from behind:
Healdtown, 1927–1931
In January 1927 Govan Mbeki left his family home for Healdtown, the school founded by the Methodist missionary John Ayliff in 1855. The Healdtown Institution was successively a base for training Wesleyan evangelists, a teachers’ training college and...

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3. Permanent persuader: Mbeki in the Transkei, 1940-1952

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pp. 44-71

In 1937, having graduated from Fort Hare, Govan Mbeki applied for a teaching post at the Taylor Street Secondary School in Durban. The school had been founded in 1921 to educate the children of the ‘Married Quarters’, housing set aside just north of the city centre for the families of African Christian converts...

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4. Township politics: Ladysmith and Port Elizabeth, 1952-1960

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pp. 72-86

Politically, Govan Mbeki’s years in the Transkei ended in anti-climax, with the loss of his main base in the Transkei Organised Bodies. Financially, the struggle to keep the trading store profitable was sapped by other, even less successful ventures. Domestically, a troubled marriage reached breaking point. In 1952...

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5. Mbeki as journalist and author, 1955–1963

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pp. 87-103

This chapter moves from political education classes in township kitchens to political education through the printed word. Mbeki worked for New Age: he ran the office, wrote articles and took photographs, and mailed copy to Cape Town where the paper was printed. He lived in New Brighton, from 1956 or 1957...

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6. The road to Rivonia

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pp. 104-121

Between March 1960 and July 1963 – from Sharpeville to the Rivonia raid – Govan’s life changed decisively. Detained under the State of Emergency, he played a key role in the decision to turn to armed struggle (and was party to long-running controversy over its form); he was a founder member of Umkhonto weSizwe...

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7. Cold comfort: The Robben Island years

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pp. 122-138

Govan Mbeki spent 23 years and four months in prison – more than a quarter of his long life. His incarceration lasted for 8,522 days: days mapped on the unremitting coordinates of the prison timetable; activities at every waking hour specified by a grid of rules and regulations, strictly applied by one’s captors...

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8. Release, retirement –and a modest revolutionary?

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pp. 139-158

Govan Mbeki’s release from prison was not straightforward in its planning, execution or consequences. All the Rivonia triallists had previously rejected conditional offers of release, Govan as recently as 1985. By 1987, however, Nelson Mandela was meeting government ministers and securocrats – early...

To My Grandfather

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pp. 159-160


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pp. 161-164


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pp. 165-168

E-ISBN-13: 9780821444597
E-ISBN-10: 082144459X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821420461
Print-ISBN-10: 0821420461

Page Count: 168
Illustrations: about 4 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1
Series Title: Ohio Short Histories of Africa
Series Editor Byline: John Smith, Will Wordsworth See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 832313956
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Govan Mbeki