HARRY GWALA (1920-1995)
Centenary memories of the ‘Lion of the Midlands’
Harry Temba Gwala was known as “Ibhubesi, the Lion of Pietermaritzburg”. He was born in New Hanover on 30 July 1920, to a Lutheran family. He became a very influential teacher at Slangspruit in Edendale. He became politically active while teaching in Pietermaritzburg, and joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1942. One of his pupils was Moses Mabhida, who became general secretary of the SACP from 1978-86.
In the early 1940s, the SACP sent Gwala to a cadre school in Johannesburg, where he learnt about trade unionism, liberation theory, Marxist-Leninism and public speaking. In 1944, Gwala left teaching and became a trade union organiser, establishing unions for textile, chemical, municipal and rubber workers in Howick.
Gwala joined the ANC in 1944, and opposed the Group Areas Bill after the Nationalist Government came into power in 1948. He was listed as a communist in 1950, and banned for two, and then another three, years. He was detained in the 1960 State of Emergency, and again in 1963.
From 1964-1972 he was sent to Robben Island as punishment for recruiting members for Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. His wife, Elda, died while he was there. He was again sent to Robben Island from 1976-1988, under the Terrorism Act. There he contracted an incurable motor-neuron disease, which caused the paralysis of both his arms.
Harry Gwala was an electrifying speaker, who inspired thousands. On Robben Island he was influential in politicising comrades in prison, where he was known as “the principal of the school of political education”. He brought Jacob Zuma, who had no education, to Std. 8 level.
Gwala was elected as the first chairperson of the ANC in Natal after its unbanning in 1990. In 1991, he was elected to the ANC National Executive Committee and the SACP Central Committee. He became ANC Chief Whip in the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature in 1994.
In recognition of Gwala’s outstanding role in the Struggle, he was awarded the ANC’s highest honour, the Isitwalandwe-Seaparankoe Award.
At Gwala’s funeral in 1995, President Nelson Mandela said that for Gwala, “the mission of liberation knew no obstacles”. Mandela added “yet some contributions stand out as monuments, precisely because the individuals responsible do not fear to differ; they do not wilt at the slightest sign of divergence. Mphephethwa (clan name) was such a personality,” said Mandela.