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Raymond Mphakamisi Mhlaba (12 February 1920 – 20 February 2005) was an anti-apartheid activist and leader of the African National Congress (ANC). Mhlaba spent 25 years of his life in prison. Well known for being sentenced, along with Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and others in the Rivonia Trial, he was an active member of the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) all his adult life. His kindly manner brought him the nickname "Oom Ray".
Raymond Mhlaba was born in Mazoka village in the Fort Beaufort district, Eastern Cape and was educated at Healdtown secondary school but had to drop out because of financial problems Mhlaba started working at a laundry in Port Elizabeth after leaving school in 1942. He met and married his first wife, Joyce Meke, who was also from the Fort Beaufort area in 1943. In their 17 years together, before her death in a car accident in 1960, they had three children Bukeka, Nomalungelo and Jongintshaba. In 1982, Mhlaba, who had been a political prisoner in Robben Island since 1964, was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison where he received special permission marry his common-law wife Dedika Heliso in 1986, with whom he had three children Mpilo, Nomawethu and Nikiwe.
Early political career
Mhlaba started working at a laundry in Port Elizabeth after leaving school in 1942. The horrendous conditions at the laundry converted him to a trade unionist and he became the leader of Non European Laundry Workers Union in 1943. In 1943, he joined the South African Communist Party, serving as the party's district secretary from 1946 until the party was banned in 1950. In 1944, he became a member of the African National Congress. From 1944 Mhlaba maintained dual membership of the ANC and the SACP. He rose through the ANC ranks becoming the chairman of the Port Elizabeth branch of the ANC from 1947 to 1953, and then elected to the Cape Executive committee. Mhlaba was the first to be arrested for disobeying apartheid laws during the nationwide Defiance Campaign of 1952. The campaign was launched in Port Elizabeth when Mhlaba led a group of volunteers singing freedom songs through the "Whites Only" entrance of the New Brighton Railway Station. This action earned him the Xhosa nickname "Vulindlela" or "he who opens the way." That same year, Mhlaba was charged under South Africa's Suppression of Communism Act. Although his political activities continued, he was barred from attending meetings or gatherings. After the ANC was banned on 8 April under the Unlawful Organisations Act, the party took up the armed struggle forming its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe. Mhlaba was one of its first recruits and was sent to China for military training. Before leaving he assisted Mandela in writing the Umkhonto constitution. In 1962, Mhlaba returned to South Africa, becoming a commander of the MK after Nelson Mandela's arrest.
On 11 July 1963 the South African apartheid government raided the ANC's underground headquarters in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg. Mhlaba and 10 other ANC and SACP leaders including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki were arrested. They were charged with sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. On 9 October 1963, the world-famous Rivonia Trial with all the accused charged with high treason. On 12 June 1964, Mhlaba, Mandela and six other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment, and all were sent to Robben Island but the white Dennis Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Central Prison instead of Robben Island.
Struggle from prison
During his time in Robben Island, Mhlaba and other ANC members founded the ANC High Command or High Organ with Mandela as its head. The committee educated and supported younger imprisoned members, formulated policies on day-to-day concerns, prisoners' complaints, and strikes, and enforced discipline within their isolation unit. Looking back at their time in Robben Island Mandela said of Mhlaba: “I got to know him as the peacemaker. He spent a lot of time urging fellow prisoners to forget their differences and unite so that conditions for prisoners could improve."
Release from prison
After his release from prison in October 1989, he was elected to the ANC national executive and the South African Communist Party central committee. He became national chairperson of the SACP in 1995.
In January 1994 he was chosen as the ANC's nominee as Premier of the Eastern Cape, and in May 1994 he was elected to that post. He helped to establish the house of traditional leaders. He then became the High Commissioner to Uganda and Rwanda, until he retired in 2001. In April 2001 he released a book of his memoirs, narrated by him and researched and compiled by Thembeka Mafumadi. He was chairperson of a black economic empowerment consortium involved in the Coega port project, but suffered a stroke on 19 July 2003, recovering quickly.
In 2004, Mhlaba was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer, and in December doctors discharged him from a private clinic saying there was nothing they could do for him. On 20 February 2005 he died in hospital. Mhlaba is survived by his wife Dideka Heliso, three sons and five daughters.
Mhlaba is seen as a stalwart member of both the ANC and the SACP. He was recognised with the Isitwalandwe Medal in 1992 for his role in the liberation struggle, and the Moses Kotane Award in 2002 for his contribution to the SACP. The Nkonkobe Local Municipality which includes Alice and Mhlaba's hometown Fort Beaufort was renamed the Raymond Mhlaba Local Municipality and Andries Pretorius street, The R30 in Bloemfontein was renamed after Raymond Mhlaba to honour him.
as Administrator of the Cape Province
| Premier of the Eastern Cape
7 May 1994 – 4 February 1997
as Chairman of the Military Committee and of the Council of State of Ciskei
as Chairman of the Military Council and of the Council of Ministers of Transkei