Announcing the Govan Mbeki Fund

Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Prison Writing of Goven Mbeki

The Center for African Studies announces The Govan Mbeki Fund, inspired by South African native and Geography Professor Emerita Gillian Hart and energized by Geography and Environmental Science, Policy and Management Professor Louise Fortmann.

The Govan Mbeki Fund

The Center for African Studies announces The Govan Mbeki Fund, inspired by South African native and Geography Professor Emerita Gillian Hart and energized by Geography and Environmental Science, Policy and Management Professor Louise Fortmann.

This award will provide supplemental aid on a flexible, needs based approach to students who are citizens of African countries, have experienced a significant change in their financial situation, and are affiliated with the Center for African Studies, at the University of California, Berkeley.

You can support this program either through an online donation:

Or via a check made out to “The UC Berkeley Foundation” with “Govan Mbeki Fund” noted in the memo and mailed to:

 The Center for African Studies
342/356 Stephens Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-2314

The opportunity to apply for support from this fund will be announced at a later date.

Who was Govan Mbeki?

Govan Archibald Mvuyelwa Mbeki (1910 – 2001) was a leader of the African National Congress and South African Communist Party. A political theorist and activist, he was an organic intellectual. The Apartheid regime imprisoned him on Robben Island after the Rivonia Trial in 1964 along with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and others. Released in 1987, he served as a Deputy President of the South African Senate from 1994 to 1997 and then in the National Council of Provinces from 1997 to 1999. He is the father of Thabo Mbeki, who served as President of South Africa from 1999 to 2008. Learn more about Govan Mbeki by exploring the resources listed below.

Writings by Govan Mbeki

Learning from Robben Island: the prison writings of Govan Mbeki. No. 1. London: J. Currey; Athens, Ohio : Ohio University Press; Cape Town : D. Philip, 1991.

South Africa: The Peasants Revolt. Penguin African Library. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1964.

Sunset at Midday = Latshon’ilang’emini! Braamfontein: Nolwazi, 1996.

The Struggle for Liberation in South Africa: A Short History. UWC Mayibuye History Series: No. 13. Bellville: Mayibuye Centre ; Cape town: D. Philip, 1992.

Biographies and interviews

Colin Bundy, Govan Mbeki, Ohio University Press, 2013. Available from Ohio University Press and from Project Muse (requires subscription).

John Carlin, “Interview: Govan Mbeki” The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela, PBS Frontline, May 1999.

Padraig O’Malley, “Govan Archibald Mvuyelwa Mbeki: Biography and Interviews, 1992-1998.” Hosted online by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

South African Communist Party, Govan Mbeki Biography,

A Tribute to Govan Mbeki

Published in The Sunday Independent, September 2, 2001

By Gillian Hart

Govan Mbeki stands out as one of the world’s greatest practical intellectuals and revolutionaries of the 20th century.  A man of towering intelligence, integrity, warmth, and wit, he brought to the South African liberation struggle a deep understanding of the connections between theory and practice.  As we navigate the choppy waters of the 21st century, the lessons from Oom Gov’s life and writings remain fresh and powerfully relevant.

I had the enormous privilege of spending some time with Oom Gov in the last years of his life.  In paying tribute to him I would like to draw on some of the reflections he shared with me, as well the direct testimony of others whose lives he influenced. 

My meeting with Oom Gov came about through Mr Alfred Duma, another great South African and a local councillor in Ladysmith who was imprisoned on Robben Island with Oom Gov.  Mr Duma called attention to an extremely important period in Oom Gov’s life about which little is generally known: his sojourn in Ladysmith between 1953 and 1955.

There are several reasons why Oom Gov’s time in Ladysmith was so important.  First of all, this was the height of activity around the Freedom Charter.  Oom Gov not only conceived of the importance of consulting with ordinary people about their vision for a good society.  He was also very actively involved in practical politics.  He described to me how “we used to go to the people and ask them what do they want?  We would go to the mines in Dannhauser and take demands from people.  Often we first had to come to an agreement with the ndunas.”

Other older residents of Ladysmith describe how Oom Gov would hold regular meetings in the afternoons in Umbulwane, an area just outside Ladysmith.  Many of those too young to have met him recall stories told by their elders of regular meetings that came to be known as “Oom Gov’s university.”  All of them talk of how the meetings he organised generated tremendous intellectual ferment and excitement, and helped to transform people’s understandings of themselves, the conditions they confronted, and the possibilities for political action.

At the time Oom Gov was teaching in the high school in Steadville, the township outside Ladysmith.  He established a dancing school in the afternoons, and used this as cover to escape the scrutiny of the Special Branch while he did his political organizing. 

Oom Gov also described how he worked very closely with Dr Achmad Sader, a leading figure in the Natal Indian Congress who had studied in London in the late 1940s where he met with leaders of the Indian liberation movement:  “Achmad invited me to address the Indian community in Ladysmith.  He took me to Dundee.  He took me to Newcastle.  These places we visited at night after school hours.  The people I addressed were mainly Indians.  That’s the sort of work I did there with Achmad Sader and Kallie.  Those two ran a printing press.  We used to plan there, and print things for distribution among the people.”

There is a second set of reasons why Govan Mbeki’s time in Ladysmith is so important.  It spanned the period between his rural organising in the Transkei, and his move to Port Elizabeth.  As is well known, Govan Mbeki helped to build PE as a rock solid base of support for the ANC.

Ladysmith, in other words, represented the period in his life in which he shifted from being a rural organiser to becoming an urban one.  Yet his focus was always on rural-urban connections, and on linking land, labour, and broader political struggles. 

Talking about land struggles in Ladysmith in the 1950s, one of the older residents explained how Oom Gov helped him understand how “land, people and politics to together,” and how struggles over forced removals were closely linked with struggles over wages and working conditions, as well as with opposition to injustices that people experienced in other parts of their lives.

More than any other intellectual in the liberation movement, Govan Mbeki had a deep theoretical and practical grasp of the need for broad social alliances capable of spanning rural and urban areas to press for social change. 

As we confront the challenges of achieving social and economic justice in a world of staggering material and social inequalities, these lessons remain powerfully relevant.

Gillian Hart is Professor of Geography and Director of the Centre for African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Natal, Durban.