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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Harry Gwala - Man of Steel

Harry Gwala, SACP and ANC stalwart, died after a long illness on 20th June 1995. The following is a tribute by CHARLES NQAKULA, General Secretary SACP

"The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare them..." So begins the last paragraph of the Communist Manifesto. Whenever I read those lines, I think of our comrade, Harry Themba Gwala.

Harry Gwala spoke his mind, always. In doing this he was prepared to ruffle feathers, to criticise anyone, no matter how important, in our movement. That was Harry Gwala.

He was born in New Hanover in the Natal Midlands in 1920. His father was a Lutheran lay preacher. I suspect the orator in Harry Gwalawas nurtured in those earliest years, listening to his father. I don't know whether Gwala senior was a good speaker. The son was outstanding.

Our political culture, born in mass struggle, has produced a fine crop of public speakers. But, for me, Harry Gwala was among the best of all. He has his imitators, but few if any equals. Even in his last years, with his arms disabled, his neck encased in a brace, when Gwala stood up in a meeting, instant silence would descend. The gathering might be a behind-closed-doors ANC national executive committee meeting, or it might be tens of thousands at a mass rally. Maybe you were going to agree, maybe disagree with Gwala, but you knew you were going to hear fireworks.

Those of us who heard him will never forget his brief speech at the FNB night vigil at Chris Ilani's funeral. It was passionate, controlled anger at its most incisive.

But Harry Gwala was not just an orator, he was also an outstanding teacher. This, indeed, was his first profession. He graduated with a teacher's diploma from Adams College and taught at Slangspruit, where one of his students was the young Moses Mabhida, who later went on to become SACP general secretary in exile.

In 1942, Gwala joined the CPSA (as the Communist Party in South Africa was then known). Two years later he joined the ANC. Gwala's political commitments led him to shift careers. He left formal teaching and became a full-time trade union organiser. But he never stopped being a teacher.

Generations of South Africans benefitted from his political teaching skills. George Mashamba, now an ANC MP and SACP central committeemember, was one of those who learnt from Gwala on Robben Island. "We had political study groups on the Island, but we suffered from a lack of political literature," Mashamba remembers. "All we had was conservative educational material and official government publications."

"Comrade Harry disagreed with our complaints. He said if you read Das Kapital you will realise that Marx used exactly those kinds of official sources. Marxists must be able to build their theories from any source."

Harry Gwala had his full share of suffering. Listed, then banned, he was deprived of a livelihood in the 1950s. He was severely tortured in the 1970s by the Security Police, his comrade Joseph Mdluli being killed under interrogation at the same time. Gwala served two long sentences on Robben Island, the second was a life sentence. While' a prisoner, his wife Elda died, and he was not allowed to attend the funeral. In prison, during his second sentence, he contracted a terrible, debilitating motor neuron disease, which progressively paralysed his arms, and led to his release in 1988.

But it was out of the frying pan into the fire. Gwala was released into the midst of a civil war. His home-town, Pietermaritzburg, was becoming the epicentre of a bloody conflict that was to rage through the Midlands.

"Every weekend", I remember him saying in 1992, "we are burying comrades. You people in Johannesburg head offices and at the World Trade Centre don't understand what is really happening down there on the ground."

It was this direct, on-the-ground experience, as much as anything, that led to Gwala's deep scepticism about the negotiated transition process that began in 1990.

Last week I led the SACP delegation that received Irish Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams. It happened to be the day on which comrade Harry died. We asked Gerry Adams if there was scepticism within their movement towards potential negotiations with the British. From our side we mentioned the example of our comrade Harry.

We made two basic points. Our first point was that, right or wrong, the sceptics are, invariably, amongst the most dedicated of one's comrades. They are speaking for tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.

And our second point to Adams was, therefore, those views must not be suppressed or marginalised. It is very important that debates within a liberation movement that is involved in negotiations are opened up. Ordinary members must be empowered, and when they are empowered the negotiators themselves are strengthened.

I like to believe that the SACP, in this respect, macle a very important contribution to the negotiated transition in our country. If we did make such a contribution, it was only because we had comrades of the calibre of Joe Slovo and Harry Gwala who, as communists and loyal ANC members, were prepared to go toe-to-toe against each other in public debate. Neither of them settled into backroom manoeuvres against the other.

At the beginning of 1994, and with great reluctance, the SACP Central Committee suspended comrade IIarry's membership of the Party for six months. There had been serious allegations of sectarian behaviour in the Midlands region, and we had failed to secure comrade Gwala's co-operation in trying to get to the bottom of the allegations.

Some of the white liberal controlled media presented the suspension as a battle between "doves" and "hawks", "reformers" and "stalinists" in the SACP. It was nothing of the sort. Our move was not related in the least to comrade Harry's political views.

A life-time Communist, comrade Harry was deeply hurt by the suspension. But he was also a very proud individual, and so we were pleased, and relieved, when he began to co-operate with us in the latter part of last year. In December the suspension was lifted, although he did not stand for re-election to the CC in April this year.

He, like us, had become convinced that, in the war-zone conditions of the Midlands, he had been manipulated by certain individuals with dubious motives. The truth of all of this will, sooner or later, emerge more fully.

For our part, we are proud that Gwala died a Communist. Hamba kahie, comrade Harry - teacher, tribune of the people, man of steel.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.