Harry Themba Gwala (1920 - 1995)
The Order of Mendi for Bravery in
Profile of Harry Themba Gwala
Harry Themba Gwala was born in 1920 in New-Hanover (Kwa Swayimane), near Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal. In his later life, he was popularly known as “Munt’omdala” (The Elder) or “The Lion of the Midlands”. After completing his Teacher’s Diploma at Adams College, Amanzimtoti, he taught at Slangspruit, across the Imbali township of Pietermaritzburg.
A son of a Lutheran preacher, he grew up in an environment of poverty. During his time at Adams College, he encountered students who were discussing important political issues of the time, impacting on his political consciousness.
Gwala started teaching in 1941. Some of his students included Moses "Mncane" Mabhida and Agrippa Ngcobo, whom he later recruited to the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). Gwala joined the CPSA in 1942 and the African National Congress (ANC) and the ANC Youth League in 1944. In 1948, he was elected to the position of ANC Youth League vice-president in Natal, deputising for Jordaan Ngubane.
In 1943, Gwala attended his first Political Party School organised by the CPSA. The following year, Gwala was asked by the CPSA to quit his profession in teaching to pursue a career in trade unionism. He subsequently resigned from teaching in 1944 to dedicate his life to organising workers into trade unions. He was instrumental in organising workers in the chemical and building industries and founded the Rubber and Cable Workers’ Union in and around Howick.
In 1950, Gwala was one of the organisers of the national stay-away of workers. He was consequently listed under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1952 and was served with a two-year banning order, which limited his movements to the Pietermaritzburg area.
In 1954, Gwala was employed at the Edendale Hospital as a typist in a laboratory, but was dismissed after four years for recruiting hospital workers to become members of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu). During that period, he organised doctors to strike and was involved in "pound a day" strikes.
After the banning of the ANC in 1960, Gwala became active in the party’s underground activities until his arrest and sentence in 1964 for sabotage and for recruiting members for Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC. He served eight years on Robben Island and was released in June 1972. After his release, he was restricted to Pietermaritzburg and as a result could not pursue his trade union activities. Gwala started a laundry-collection business as a cover for ongoing ANC underground activities and also to revive Sactu.
Gwala was re-arrested on 13 November 1975. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with nine others and in May 1976 was sent to Robben Island to serve his sentence under the Terrorism Act. In prison, he was known for his tireless political and educational work. Dozens of young political prisoners benefited from his clear and effective thinking skills. He was also an ardent and strident philosopher who believed that everything could be explained in theoretical terms. He read voraciously although he had no academic background. While on Robben Island, he famously used the Bible – the only book provided – to teach communism.
His wife, Elda, passed away in 1984 and he was not allowed to attend her funeral. While in prison, he suffered from a rare neuron disease that left both his arms paralysed and was subsequently released in 1988 due to his poor health. Despite the terrible debilitating effects of the disease, his spirit and commitment were not diminished. He was an electrifying speaker who inspired millions of people, especially the young lions, to join the fight for the liberation of their country.
In 1990, Gwala was elected as the first chairperson of the then unbanned ANC in the Natal Midlands. He became a member of the Internal Leadership Core and in 1991, he was elected to the National Executive Committee of the ANC, in which capacity he served until 1994. In recognition of his outstanding role in the struggle, he was awarded the ANC‘s highest honour, the Isithwalandwe-Seaparankoe Award on 8 January 1992. He was nominated to the South African Communist Party (SACP) Central Committee in 1994, but was suspended in the same year. He nonetheless remained a loyal member of the SACP until his death. After the first democratic election in 1994, Gwala became a member of the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature, where he served as the ANC Chief Whip. He passed away on 20 July 1995. At his funeral, the first president of a democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela, said of Gwala: "The fact of his disability, as a result of the motor neuron disease he contracted later, did not deter Mphephethwa. Instead, his fortitude increased with each day. To him, the mission of liberation knew no obstacles. When he was released, he again threw himself into the thick of things. It was precisely because of the recognition of Mphephethwa’s tenacity that the African National Congress awarded him its highest honour, Isithwalandwe-Seaparankoe".