‘Harry Gwala would have pushed for full implementation of the Freedom Charter’
The stalwart, who died of a heart attack in 1995 at the age of 74, was incarcerated on Robben Island twice by apartheid authorities.
ANC NEC member, Dr Zweli Mkhize and SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande along with ANC members at the graveside of Harry Gwala. Picture: ANC KwaZulu-Natal, Facebook.
Late SACP stalwart Harry Gwala Is fondly remembered by his comrades in the SACP and the ANC as a hero who feared nobody in the Tripartite Alliance, including the late Nelson Mandela.
Former SACP general-secretary, Charles Nqakula, who delivered the Harry Gwala memorial lecture in Johannesburg on Saturday, paid tribute the man he described as a “courageous leader” and whom some further regarded as a “man of steel”.
Nqakula said Gwala was committed to defending and serving the people under any circumstances and that he was a leader that the liberation struggle needed. He said Gwala would have questioned the failure to implement all the clauses of the Freedom Charter, had he been alive today.
Despite all his suffering including his harassment and incarceration by the state twice on Robben Island, his family walked on and supported him because they believed in his cause and the cause of people’s liberation. His family stood by him when he was suspended by the SACP and when he became sick and a burden on them.
Nqakula explained and reiterated his opposition to Gwala’s suspension by the SACP politburo and central committee in July 1994. He said he opposed the action because to him it was undemocratic and sounded a “Stalinist” move to suspend someone without giving him an opportunity to defend himself on the allegations he was accused of.
The six-month suspension was after some of Gwala’s comrades in KwaZulu-Natal were unhappy with his propensity to disrespect senior Alliance leaders.
Nqakula said Gwala feared nobody including Mandela and spoke his mind. In the process he tended to displayed “a tint of some arrogance, intellectual arrogance”. Nqakula said he defended Gwala “but I was not blind to the ways that Harry Gwala rubbed comrades up the wrong way”.
He disagreed with the decision because he believed it was better for justice to be seen to be done and that was why he suggested that the party should rather call Gwala and put the charges to him or persuade him to change his ways. Nqakula stressed that he was unhappy with the way the politburo meeting proceedings were going.
But Nqakula was defeated as the SACP politburo resolved to suspend Gwala, which was later rescinded before the expiry of six months.
Nqakula said he was confident that had his predecessor, Chris Hani, not been murdered at the time the decision to suspend Gwala was taken, Hani would have opposed the suspension because it was not based on any democratic principle.
“We sounded like Stalinists. The decision was made without providing an opportunity to him to defend himself. Comrade Chris loved comrade Gwala and he was the only leader in the Alliance who respected him,” Nqakula said.
Gwala cried when he was informed by Nqakula and former SACP chair, Raymond Mhlaba at his Pietermaritzburg home, because he worried about the infractions and mistakes that the party leaders had been making.
Nqakula, who was minister of safety and security under the Thabo Mbeki administration, condemned the worrying trend among Alliance members who embrace personal aggrandisement and a propensity to accumulate wealth. He said patronage was presently rampant but if leaders like Gwala were alive, he would have opposed that and instead taught them about what a real revolutionary should be.
He was called mnt’omdala (old man) not only because of his age but also as a result of being a repository of wisdom within the Alliance. He was a member of each of the Alliance components – ANC, SACP and Cosatu.
“He was always teaching people about the elements of the revolution. Harry Gwala would have pushed for the implementation of each of the clauses of the Freedom Charter,” Nqakula said.
“He would have been insisting the struggle for socialism must never die. Socialism is an important goal … he would have trampled on the toes of people who want to steal people’s resources,” Nqakula said.
The education that we have today is not what was expected and challenged the youth at universities to debate the concept of decolonising the education system. The youth must be engaged because the university students needed to know what legacy they would leave behind for future generations. It was unfortunate that today’s youth were not interested to hear from those with experience about what to do.
Nqakula questioned why the Freedom Charter was still not fully implemented as Gwala would have insisted that the policies be applied. “We understood we needed to make consensus but we ought to use those levers of power we have to liberate our country,” he said.
Gwala, who was affectionately called “Lion of the Midlands” by his comrades, was incarcerated on Robben Island twice by apartheid authorities. He was among the top ANC leaders including Cyril Ramaphosa, Hani, Ronnie Kasrils and Steve Tshwete, who led the September 1992 march that culminated in the Bhisho Massacre when the Ciskei homeland security forces open fire on the protesters.
Gwala died of a heart attack on 20 June 1995 at the age of 74. Nqakula called for Gwala’s grave at KwaSwayimane cemetery in Pietermaritzburg to be declared a national heritage site.