Harry Gwala: a hero of the revolution

It is with great honour, once again, to reflect on the life and times of the greatest son of the soil, a communist, a teacher, organizer and a leader of our movement as a whole.

A son of the Lutheran lay preacher who himself grew up through those religious teachings. Cde Harry Themba Gwala had read the bible from Genesis to Revelation and could take you through the context of these scriptures.

But ironically he was an open atheist, a materialist par excellence.

Born in New Hanover, after completing school he enrolled in Adams College for a teaching qualification.

As a school teacher he taught in Slangspruit. Amongst those he taught was Moses Mabhida who later, in the cause of struggle, became the General Secretary of the SACP.

The Lion of Midlands or Munt’ omdala (as he was affectionately known) joined the SACP in 1942 and the ANCYL in 1944.

He is less mentioned as one of those founders of the League, and had worked with the likes of Anton Lembede although there was discord on subjects like communism and narrow Africanist nationalism.

It is during this time that he began his trade union activism, organizing workers in the chemical and building industries.

He established the Rubber and Cable Workers Union in Howick. He was instrumental in organising the 1950 national stayaway and was listed under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1952.

He was banned for two years. There were difficult days after National Party had assumed power in 1948. With great speed they set about entrenching racialised laws and fighting against liberation forces, with the ban of the Communist Party in 1950.

He found employment in Edendale Hospital but was quickly dismissed because of recruiting workers to Sactu.

After the banning of the ANC in 1960, Gwala became an underground activist, recruiting for uMkhonto weSizwe.

It is these activities, as well as acts of sabotage, that led to his arrest.

He was sent to Robben Island in 1964. He was released in 1972 but restricted to Pietermaritzburg.

As a result, he could not pursue his teaching career or trade union activities. So he had to open a laundry business for survival within the area. But Munt’ omdala remained defiant.

He undermined the system and continued to operate, and this led to his re-arrest in 1975 and August 1976 respectively for being involved in a workers strike.

This was a tumultous time, just after the June 16 student riot, with the system taking no chances and consequently Gwala was sent to Robben Island in 1977 for life imprisonment.

He was released in 1988 due to illness. Motor neuron disease had robbed him of the use of his arms.

But even after his release, and despite the disease, he remained a fighter and a militant.

He was part of the leadership after the unbanning of the liberation movements was elected, in the early 90s, as ANC Chairperson of Midlands and elected to the ANC NEC in the Westville conference in 1991.

Again he was elected to the Central Committee of the SACP. He was honoured by the ANC with the highest honour of Isithwalandwe in 1992.

This year, we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the seven days war of Pietermaritzburg.

It was comrade Gwala who commanded the defence of the IFP-targeted communities through its warlords who wanted to forcefully turn these areas into IFP bases.

Without his leadership in the Midlands area, many would have perished.

But Munt’omdala was not a school teacher only, many senior comrades who were in Robben Island share how Harry Gwala taught them – from Marxism to various theories of development.

Amongst those that were his students is comrade George Mashamba, a CC member of the Party and an outstanding Marxist scholar.

From 1988 Mdala helped with the recruitment of health professionals for a newly formed union, Nehawu, in particular at Edendale Hospital, where he was expelled.

Gwala co-ordinated and recruited health professionals to the union linking it with the underground work of the movement at the time.

That is why Edendale Hospital, the largest hospital in the Region, became a focal point of the struggle through worker strikes, with the Special Branch raiding more often to seize shop stewards.

Munt’omdala was known to many as a militant and firebrand leader, particularly in the early 90s. Sometimes this led to a befogging of his intellect and decisiveness in key moments.

Like all revolutionaries, he may have erred here and there, but his dedication and contribution to the freedom of this country far eclipses any other deviations.

The YCL and the PYA will not allow his contribution to be washed away down the river streams!

In his eulogy, the then General Secretary of the SACP, Charles Nqakula, referred to him as “Harry Gwala a – Man of Steel”.

In qualifying this, comrade Nqakula quotes the last paragraphs of the Communist Manifesto:
“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.

They openly declare them…” he further goes from this quotation to describe Harry 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 suspicious of the Codesa negotiation – whites and their interests against the interests of the downtrodden masses.

For him the movement was committing serious mistakes in the process, such as suspending the arm struggle, the concessions in Codesa, canvassed by Joe Slovo, such as the sunset clauses, and the distance between negotiators and masses for mandates.

He took Slovo head-on in terms of the sunset clauses encapsulated under the Slovo document “Negotiations, what a room for compromise”.

As comrade Charles Nqakula said, it was Gwala at his best. The June 20, 2010 marks the 15th anniversary of Harry Themba Gwala’s death.

Like one of the popular architects of this post apartheid revolutionary setting, Joe Slovo, Gwala’s heart ceased to beat just after the democratic forces had made an electoral breakthrough in 1994.

Both of them were not to form part of the reconstitution of our country within the framework of the national democratic revolution.

We, the living, are directed by history to pursue these ideals in the face of many comrades amongst us who have retreated.

We have a task to continue the struggle, and articulate the correct theory that exposes modern day strategic detours assumed by bourgeois apologists within our own ranks.

Khaye Nkwanyana is YCLSA Deputy
National Secretary

Numsa News No 2 2010