Eric „Stalin‟ Mtshali 1933-2018
The Obituary of Comrade Eric „Stalin‟ Mtshali, “The Man of Steel”
by Comrade Ian P. Beddowes
He grew up and attended both primary and secondary school in Clermont, and was introduced to the struggle when he was a high school learner by Wilson Cele, who was the District Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Mtshali was involved in amateur boxing at school. His last fight occurred after meeting Cele, who asked him about the fight and his future plans. He further asked Mtshali about his interests and then introduced him to the local Ratepayers Association.
Mtshali was amused by the Association when he was growing up in Clermont, which was declared a “freehold area”, meaning that it was one of the few settlements in South Africa where Black people were allowed to buy and own a house. He later discovered that its meetings, which took place every Sunday, were actually African National Congress (ANC) meetings. He and four of his friends who were drawn closer to the Association used to sing. They particularly liked the struggle song Mayibuye i-Afrikha. However, at that time they did not have a full grasp of what that meant in a broader context. The association‟s members were known as Amaphekula skhuni, trouble makers in English but revolutionaries in Zulu.
Cele was working together with Harry Gwala, who became known as “The Lion of the Midlands”, as well as with Stephen Dlamini and Marimuthu Pragalathan „M.P.‟Naicker. It was as a result of their work that Mtshali joined the SACP in 1957.
At that time the Party was an underground organisation following its banning by the apartheid regime in 1950 under the Suppression of Communism Act. It therefore operated in secret. Recruitment to the Party was preceded by thoroughgoing screening, targeted induction and advanced training of the recruits.
Mtshali joined the ANC a year after he had joined the SACP. By this time he had started accumulating experience of work in mass organisations, having joined the ranks of trade unions in 1950-1951 at the age of 18. Another stalwart of the struggle who participated in shaping Mtshali‟s political and ideological world view was Rusty Bernstein. Mtshali also worked with Kay Moonsamy, who became SACP National Treasurer.
As a young man, working as a casual labourer at the docks, loading and unloading goods from the ships, Mtshali developed an idea of following a career that would help him make money. But Cele, who introduced him to the trade union movement, was not convinced. He gave Mtshali a pamphlet titled The Three Sources and Three Components Parts of Marxism, authored by Vladimir Lenin, the historic leader of the Great October Socialist Revolution that took place in Russia in 1917. He succeeded in convincing Mtshali to change his mind, thanks to a section in the pamphlet stating that people have always been victims of deceit and that will remain so until they conduct an inquiry into the class interests underpinning economic and other social phenomena.
In 1951, at the age of 18, Mtshali started trade union organising for the Dock and Harbour Workers‟ Union as a casual worker. At that time he was paid a mere 15 shillings per week. It was during this time that he started attending political classes and workshops organised by the union and became active in the struggle for a living wage and improved employment conditions. He became involved in the founding of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) in 1955.
SACTU became part of the Congress Alliance together with the ANC, the Congress of Democrats, the Coloured People‟s Congress and the South African Indian Congress. While in theory the Alliance was legally made up of these five formations, in practice the underground SACP, from which Mtshali was receiving systematic training, was the sixth. Its members and leaders were active in the other Congress formations and were part both of their leadership and in organising the Congress of the People that adopted the Freedom Charter on 26th June 1955. Mtshali was one of the tens of thousands of volunteers who participated in collecting the freedom demands of the people country-wide in the democratic consultation process that led to the writing of the Freedom Charter.
One of the first major responses by the apartheid regime was the banning of the entire SACTU leadership, the ANC in 1960 and other political formations. The SACP and the ANC responded by establishing the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) in 1961. Mtshali, who became affectionately also known as “Comrade Stalin”, or “The Man of Steel”, was among the first who were prepared to pay the highest price with their lives and accordingly joined the MK. He was one of the most advanced and resolute cadres who, on his part based on his Communist conviction, directly linked the struggle for the national democratic revolution to the struggle for socialism ― a transition, according to his belief, from the oppressive and exploitative system of capitalism and its social and environmental consequences to a classless society free from all forms of class oppression, inequalities, exploitation and domination.
Mtshali left South Africa in July 1962 and went into exile without an opportunity to inform his family. Eight years later, without having had any contact with them, his first wife, Jabu Sibisi-Mtshali passed away. He married his second wife, Thokozile Mtshali (née Makubu) in 1980. She passed away in 2012, 19 years after they separated (after exile).
Mtshali was deployed to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for military and intelligence training. He spent two terms at the Party School in the Soviet Union. Later he was deployed to receive further training in Cuba. On his return he was deployed to the MK‟s first military base in Tanzania and was appointed Chief of Personnel. He worked under Moses Kotane, John Beaver (JB) Marks and Moses Mabhida. Kotane was also the SACP General Secretary (he remains the longest serving SACP General Secretary to this day). JB Marks was a member of the Communist Party since 1932 and later served as its Chairperson. Mabhida succeeded Kotane after his death in May 1978 as SACP General Secretary.
Mtshali had been elected to the Central Committee of the Party in 1971, the same year he started serving as the Chief Representative of the ANC in Tanzania, a role he played for five years until 1976.
Comrade Stalin became one of the founding members of the intelligence division of the ANC, of which he was the last surviving co-founder. Together with Chris Hani, Benson Ntsele and Don Nangu, they founded The Dawn, a weekly journal of the MK, which he was the editor from 1964 to 1969. Mtshali‟s involvement in political education, using the magazine, provided a clear direction during the Sino-Soviet split on various strands of thought amongst the soldiers who were trained in the Soviet Union and China respectively.
The Man of Steel received further training while in Tanzania, and thereafter he was deployed to Egypt together with Lambert Moloi for a special higher training to lay the basis for future politico-military campaigns against the apartheid regime. Mtshali served in a crucial unit that started the sabotage missions. He handled all of his tasks with extreme care and dedication. In his capacity as the Chief of Personnel, he among others was responsible for transporting MK members and military hardware, working with Kotan, in one of the crucial military programmes across the Zambezi River. Together with about 40 MK combatants Mtshali attempted to enter South Africa using the ship Aventura in 1970. The mission was recalled after they realised that it was compromised. Mtshali had participated in the Wankie and Sipolilo Campaigns of 1967, in which he commanded 12 MK and Zimbabwe People‟s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) combatants to rescue a section of the Luthuli Detachment that had been surrounded by the forces of the oppressor régime of Rhodesia. The combatants crossed the river in three dinghies. Two dinghies capsized during the mission with most of the occupants being attacked by crocodiles ― necessitating a new rescue mission inside a rescue mission.
Mtshali was one of the central figures in the “James Bond Unit”. At one point the Unit managed to smuggle firearms and carried out fully-fledged sabotage operations against the apartheid régime in South Africa.
After the mid-1970s, the Man of Steel was deployed to work as a SACTU representative at the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He had sacrificed a lot in building the proletarian class-oriented trade union movement in South Africa, and had accumulated sufficient experience in trade union organising from his dedication and selfless service to the workers. At one point he had no pay and survived on bananas as a daily lunch whilst organising workers in South Africa.
Comrade Stalin continued to serve workers with outstanding loyalty, and was deployed by the WFTU to establish trade unions in many parts of our African continent. He worked in Ethiopia, Sudan and Morocco, pioneering the development of the progressive trade union movement. He formed the first open trade unions in Ethiopia, during the time of Mengistu Haile Mariam as President. Previously, trade unions were suppressed in Ethiopia.
Mtshali was further deployed by the WFTU to revive the trade union movement in Sudan after the massacre of Communists, including the General Secretary of the Communist Party, in that country. He went to Sudan to carry out the work despite the danger that the mission involved. The Communist Party of Sudan, which remained resilient during that period of brutal attacks, helped The Man of Steel to revive the country‟s trade union movement.
Together with Joe Matthews, Mtshali was assigned by the SACP to establish the Communist Party of Lesotho. The assignment signified the critical role that he played in the work of the Party and symbolised the trust that he had earned. In Lesotho he worked among other revolutionaries with Mokhafisi Kena. The mission was very crucial in Lesotho both in its national and international context as well as in paving the way to bringing down the apartheid regime in South Africa. During the 1980s, the Man of Steel became involved in reviving the trade union movement inside South Africa. It was during this period that many of the affiliates of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the federation itself were established. COSATU became SACTU‟s successor in the National Democratic Revolutionary Alliance headed by the ANC. Mtshali was also a member of the ANC-headed Revolutionary Council.
Comrade Stalin returned formally to South Africa after the unbanning of the SACP, the ANC and other political organisations in 1991. Following the 1994 democratic breakthrough, he served as the Deputy Commissioner of Police Crime Intelligence in KwaZulu-Natal, from 1995 to 2000. When he was nominated to serve as a Ward Councillor of the ANC in eThekwini in 2000, he did not say he was a senior leader with a wealth of many years of national and international experience and therefore had to serve in a senior authority nationally, he made himself available to serve the people as a Ward Councillor, a role he played for four years until 2004 when he was elected to serve in Parliament as an MP of the ANC.
In Parliament he formed part of the portfolio committees of labour, higher education and training as well as human settlements.
At the time of his last breath, he was the longest serving Central Committee Member of the SACP. At its 14th Congress in July 2017, the Party conferred him one of its highest awards, the Moses Kotane Award for his excellent service to the peace-loving people of South Africa and the world working-class struggle for socialism. By virtue of this exceptional award, he became a lifetime member of the Central Committee of the Party.
He ceased to breathe in the early hours of the morning on Friday, 12 October 2018 after a long illness.
He is survived by his third wife Gcinile (née Kunene) and daughter Lindiwe Mtshali, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.