Farewell to an unassuming hero

Posted on March 27, 2011


Henry Gordon  — ‘Squire’ — Makgothi
1928 – 2011

One of the most humble of a fighting generation of ANC leaders died this week (on 24/03/2011). Henry Gordon — “Squire” — Makgothi, teacher, defiance campaigner and treason trialist was perhaps the most unassuming of the leading figures in the liberation movement.

Loyal, often to a fault, to friends and to the movement to which he devoted his life, he had been ailing for several years, was felled by a stroke and passed away in hospital in the early hours of Thursday morning at the age of 82. He remained, right up to his death, confident that a better world was possible, although he was concerned at the way things were developing in South Africa. “The wheels seem to be coming off,” he confided several weeks ago.

It was a feeling reinforced by a recent experience with the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). As one of the earliest members of the league who was elected its Transvaal president in May 1945, Henry Makgothi was invited to speak at a recent ANCYL function in Johannesburg. When he turned up, as he always did, without an entourage or any fanfare, and made his way hesitantly toward the main entrance — his failing eyesight being the only ailment he complained about — he was ordered away. “What are you doing here old man? This is for the youth,” said an ANCYL official, directing him to another door.

Without protest, Henry Makgothi went to a side entrance, entered the hall and sat down. Eventually recognised by another official, he was asked to come to the stage and “speak for longer than we asked because our president (Julius Malema) is not yet here. He has a new car and he is trying it out.”

In typical fashion, he told this story in a tone of bewilderment and dismissed as irrelevant his own treatment; what upset him deeply was the “disrespect” shown to the audience by an ANCYL president. This was an example of the wheels coming off. However, he still believed that somehow, at some time, even the wheels on the Youth League would again be refitted and the journey to a freer, more egalitarian future would be resumed.

But these issues are unlikely to be raised when he is officially remembered. Then he will almost certainly be hailed as a former deputy secretary-general of the ANC, as a stalwart of the SA Communist Party and as a secretary for education in the exile years. It should also be noted that he served as the political commissar for East Africa and, after his return from exile, as the ANC chief whip in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) between 1997 and 1999. But he always seemed uncomfortable with high office, perhaps because of an abiding belief in the inherent reasonableness and equality of all humanity.

It was this that led him to try always to lead by example, to play a role that others might emulate. This applied particularly in the years of exile. I have a still vivid memory of Makgothi inviting me to join him in 1981, knee-deep in sewage at the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco) campus in Tanzania, as he struggled to clear a blocked drain.

It was part of his policy of encouraging emulation, insisting that “no essential work is beneath anyone”. And so, as the principal of the college’s primary division, I joined the then political commissar for East Africa in unblocking the drain. Groups of students looked on with what seemed wry amusement. “Emulation takes time,” Makgothi assured me as the effluent finally flowed away and the students wandered off, apparently unimpressed.

To my mind this summed up the humility and humanity of Henry Makgothi, a bright student and linguist who went on to the University of Fort Hare where he graduated with a degree in African languages, a teaching diploma — and a greater wealth of political experience.

It was a regular joke of his that he had very little experience in the only job for which he was qualified — teaching — because, with the advent of the 1952 defiance campaign, he lost his only teaching post and was barred from the profession. To make ends meet he briefly took on work as a driver of “Green Mambas” — the Public Utility Transport Company (Putco) buses that ferried workers from the townships before he landed a job as a records clerk with an accountancy firm.

Then came the treason trial of 1956 and Henry Makgothi, resident of Sophiatown, ended up in the Fort prison, charged, with 155 others, with high treason. It was during the trial that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent many months in hospital. The charges against him were withdrawn in 1958, but he was constantly harrassed and, in 1960, he crossed the border into Bechuanaland (Botswana).

Officials in the then British protectorate handed him over to the South African police who charged him with leaving the country without a passport: he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Two of these he served in Leeukop prison before spending the next eight on Robben Island.

Banned and restricted after his release, Henry Makgothi managed to escape to Swaziland and, when the ANC established its school and other projects on an abandoned sisal estate, north of Morogoro in Tanzania, he was deployed to Somafco. There he contracted malaria, a disease that dogged him for years, but where he also gained a devoted following — as “Uncle Commissar” — among many of the young students.

In the post-exile years, the roles Henry Makgothi played — even as chief whip in the NCOP — were never high profile. He was happy to be regarded as “just one of the comrades”. But he also expected comrades to be treated — and to treat one another — with civility and respect, something he never failed to do.

Hamba Kahle Qabane!

Posted in: Obituaries