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date: 23 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

Govan Mbeki was a South African politician, writer, long-term political prisoner, and father of President Thabo Mbeki. His political career was distinctive among African leaders of his generation in two respects. First, he combined sustained efforts at rural mobilization and a leading role in building a militant urban organization. His long-held belief in the political importance of rural people carried little weight in the African National Congress (ANC), an overwhelmingly urban nationalist movement. Second, he was both an activist and an intellectual, leaving a body of writing produced over six decades, including a remarkable set of prison writings and a landmark study of rural protest. An ANC member from 1935, he emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a senior leader of both the ANC and the underground South African Communist Party (SACP) and also their armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), formed in 1961. He was sentenced at the Rivonia Trial in June 1964 to life imprisonment, together with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and five others. Mbeki spent twenty-three years in prison on Robben Island, during which time significant tensions emerged between him and Mandela. He was active in encouraging other prisoners to study academically and was central to an ambitious program of political education. Mbeki was released in November 1987 and died in August 2001, by which time his oldest son, Thabo, had succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president.

Keywords: Govan Mbeki, African National Congress, armed struggle, Transkei, Robben Island, South African Communist Party

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