Karabo Nkoli with Andrew Mlangeni (Supplied)

Karabo Nkoli with Andrew Mlangeni (Supplied)

Karabo Nkoli writes that he will miss phone calls with Andrew Mlangeni who became his “political”  grandfather after his biological grandfathers died. 

He’s among those unsung heroes of the struggle against apartheid who was so humble and always referred to himself as “the backroom boy”.

Andrew Mlangeni’s life is evidence that in order to be a leader and servant of the people, you don’t always have to occupy a title position. Leadership has to do with having the interest of the masses at heart.

When I was in primary school, we never came across Mlangeni’s name in history textbooks, which is why I forgive many young people who cannot relate to this gentle giant and the role he played in the fight against apartheid.

After 95 years of pain, love, struggle and militancy, Mlangeni is with our ancestors whose shoulders we proudly stand on.

Isthalandwe/Seaparankoe; Reverend Mokete Mokoena; soldier of Umkhonto we Sizwe; Accused No. 10; political prisoner of 26 years, the former chairperson of the ANC Integrity Commission; the gigantic tree that dedicated more than 70 years of his life to the liberation of his people. 

His death marks the end of a chapter.


After my biological grandfathers died when I was younger, Mlangeni stepped into the role of my mentor and became my “political”  grandfather. He was always open to holding me accountable to my own words, always saying it like it is, staying true to himself and always providing detail into his own insight, unapologetically, into many things, including hot topics.

It will be sad to not receive any more calls. A month would never go by without us each calling each other.

My first visit to him on the 12 July 2017, paved the way for our journey together in the last remaining years of his well-lived life.

When I think of Ntate Mlangeni I feel rejuvenated in serving the people of South Africa and Africans as a whole as a result of the encouragement, wisdom and knowledge that came from him.

Referring to the young people of South Africa he said: “But the youth of our country, this is their land. This is their country. We must make them to love the country. Once you love your people, you love your country. You love your country, you will love your people. Make sacrifices. You can’t do anything unless you sacrifice.”

Closure of a chapter 

The pain is the same as with the death of uMam’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada.

This is not just the passing of a struggle stalwart, but a selfless cadre of the struggle whose focus has always been to serve the people. This marks the finality of the closure of a chapter in history, a very painful chapter of men and women who dedicated themselves to this country, who fought for the rise of South Africa which is yet to be fully realised.

Whenever our struggle stalwarts die, they leave us asking questions and leave us feeling challenged and we must find the courage to pick up the baton where they had left off.

We are the product of Andrew Mlangeni and his entire selfless generation that fulfilled its mission. It is now up to us to fulfil our mission that can only be accomplished through our collective efforts.

As Maya Angelou once said in her poem, When Great Trees Fall:

When great trees fall,

rocks on distant hills shudder,

lions hunker down

in tall grasses,

and even elephants

lumber after safety.

When great trees fall

in forests,

small things recoil into silence,

their senses

eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,

the air around us becomes

light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.

Our eyes, briefly,

see with

a hurtful clarity.

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,


gnaws on kind words


promised walks

never taken.

Great souls die and

our reality, bound to

them, takes leave of us.

Our souls,

dependent upon their


now shrink, wizened.

Our minds, formed

and informed by their


fall away.

We are not so much maddened

as reduced to the unutterable ignorance

of dark, cold


And when great souls die,

after a period peace blooms,

slowly and always

irregularly. Spaces fill

with a kind of

soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never

to be the same, whisper to us.

They existed. They existed.

We can be. Be and be

better. For they existed.

– Karabo Nkoli is the author of Whispers of Life.

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