Mhlaba in exile and in Umkhonto we sizwe

After going into exile, Raymond Mhlaba underwent military training in southern China where, among other things, the Chinese taught him and his comrades hit-and-run techniques using self-made weapons.

"When Raymond Mhlaba left South Africa he, together with Andrew Mlangeni, were driven by John Nkadimeng. Andrew Mlangeni recalls sitting in the Lobatse Hotel on the evening of their arrival, where they were accosted by a Bechuanaland (now Botswana) Special Branch policeman named McCabe...

"We had to tell him who we were, but we gave him false names of course. I was travelling under the name of Percy Mokwena, Ray had some other name - Petrus somebody. He then asked us to accompany him to the police station. We got there and he interrogated us for hours and hours, went through our luggage and found I had two letters, one addressed to [Joe] Gqabi, who had already left before me, and the other to [Patrick] Mthembu. These were from their wives, from their families, and he opened them.

"I remember on one occasion during the interview of the interrogation Raymond said he was going out to the toilet; he went out, came back and just out of the blue he said ... 'Yes, we are leaving the country, we are going to Ghana, so what?'

"Gee, I fantasised the ground to be open underneath my feet and I could go in. We could not understand the attitude of Ray - suddenly. Later on he said he was just fed up. We had been kept there for so many hours, repeating the same denials over and over again and these fellows asking the same questions.

"To our surprise, he [McCabe] said, 'Gentlemen, why didn't you tell me this a long time ago? I would have released you.' He said, 'Take your stuff,' and we said to him, 'Look, it's now late.' I think it was after eleven o'clock. We had nowhere to sleep, and we said, 'We are now your responsibility, you have got to find us accommodation.' He said to me, 'I am a policeman.'

"We changed our attitude now towards him, we became more aggressive, 'We want accommodation from you.' ... You know he took us to his house. He gave us dinner and we slept there, and he said, 'Gentlemen please, tomorrow morning very early I don't want people to see you leave my house.'

"The plane was already waiting for us the following day to take us out to Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Then, at half past four or five o'clock in the morning we had our coffee, and out we went from his house, and we went to an airstrip and we found our plane there, that's how we left."

- The road to democracy in South Africa, Vol. 1 [1960-1970], Cape Town, Zebra Press, 2004, pp. 84-85


Studying guerilla theory in China

Following discussions, the Communist Party took a resolution to send some of its members outside South Africa for military training. Mhlaba was one of them. This is an extract from an interview conducted by Tomas Karis with Mhlaba.

Raymond Mhlaba: I was not involved in discussions leading at the high level. But I was involved in the discussion in a certain level, you see. No, no, there was a debate in the Communist Party on the question [of armed struggle] for two years, discussing this problem. '58, '59 and round about '60...

I ... left here [South Africa] in October 1961 before the announcement for military training. MK [Umkhonto we Sizwe] was not formed yet. I went ... The other people I got them there. Some of them I found them already in China. For instance, some fellows like Wilton Mkwayi. He was involved in trade unions overseas; and he was drawn in the list to join. I found him in China in Peking (now Beijing) ...

Now what we did there [was], we formed ourselves into a group. We had a group leader; and I was appointed as group leader. And then we discussed with the Chinese our aim and what we went there for, and [that] we would like to have some knowledge of military science. And then we decided that four chaps should go South, Nanjing Military Academy, to study guerrilla theory. And then we would go to the north to study radio operations and so on. That's how we divided ourselves.

Wilton Mkwayi went to the South, the late Joe Gqabi, he went to the South - he passed away. And I am sorry to tell you that the other one is now dead, Mthembu - Patrick Mthembu. Another Indian chap who was a law student in London, who was assigned the task of joining us, Steve Naidoo ... from Natal. There were only six people. And the sixth, including myself, would be Andrew Mlangeni, from Johannesburg.

Tomas Karis: So then you were in Nanjing for ...?

Raymond Mhlaba: For about 10 months. I think the training was good. These were the chaps, by the way, the generals who were running the academy and, in fact, some of them were involved in the Korean War. I had a discussion with one chap who was actually the chief, the Commander General in the Korean War - a short chap.

Tomas Karis: Then after 10 months?

Raymond Mhlaba: We returned back home... In January I was assigned to go to Algeria and to Czechoslovakia. Then it was during this trip that I via-ed Morocco, Rabat, and visited our military camp there. It was during this trip that I visited our military camp in Algeria, in Algiers.

Tomas Karis: And then you came back to South Africa just in time to be arrested. 

Raymond Mhlaba: Just about seven days before the arrest. In spite of all the messages that were sent out to Botswana to stop me - not to come back; I missed all those messages. I missed them all.

- Interview with Raymond Mhlaba conducted by Tomas Karis, Port Elizabeth, 7 December 1989 (Wits Historical Papers: Karis-Gerhart Collection, A2675 [Interviews: Reel 2, Folder22]


"No malice intended"

"On our way to China, [Andrew] Mlangeni and I met Joe Gqabi, Wilton Mkwayi, Patrick Mthembu and Steven Naidoo. Mkwayo was working at the World Federation of Trade Unions at this time. He joined us from Prague. Naidoo was a Party member based in London. He joined us from London. I was selected as the head of this unit.

"Mao Tse-tung met and welcomed us in China... We received specialised training in guerrilla warfare. Amongst other things, the Chinese taught us hit-and-run techniques. We learned to make and use light weapons for these techniques. We met Chinese women soldiers and they taught us various skills and techniques. We found the training extremely interesting and useful. Most of our training took place in Southern China.

"On our way back from China we met Oliver Tambo in Tanzania. Tambo was surprised to see us. He did not know about our military training in China. This was because the ANC national executive had not yet decided to move towards organised violence at the time we left... We explained to Tambo that there was no malice intended... Tambo listened and accepted our explanation.

"From Tanzania we proceeded to Lobatse [in Botswana] and then arrived in Johannesburg in October 1962."

- Raymond Mhlaba's Personal Memoirs: Reminiscing from Rwanda and Uganda, narrated to Thembeka Mufamadi (HSRC and Robben Island Museum, 2001), pp. 115-17



Following the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960 and the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress in April of the same year, some ANC leaders seriously considered the armed struggle. In December 1961, Umkhonto we Sizwe was launched.

"By now the South African Police had arrested [Nelson] Mandela, who was the chief commander of MK. I was then asked to take over as the commander-in-chief of MK. My responsibilities included supervising the training of MK soldiers and acquiring weapons both inside and outside the country. In January 1963 Joe Modise and I went on another military mission into Africa and Czechoslovakia.

"In Algeria we negotiated with Ben Bella, the president of the country, to establish a depot for our military equipment. Ben Bella agreed and gave us money for MK military training... From Algeria we proceeded to Prague. Dr [Yusuf] Dadoo flew out from London and assisted us in our negotiations to obtain plastic explosives from the Czechoslovakian government.

"Moses Kotane was in Moscow at this time. He contacted us from Moscow. He asked me to assist in drawing up an estimate for military budget that would cover the training of MK soldiers. He wanted advice from me on then type of weapons and the amount of money needed for our military mission...

"I was expected backing South Africa by the 1st of July 1963... The South African government was introducing new rules and regulations to tighten up on the illegal entrance and exit of people at its borders. I crossed the border between Botswana and South Africa on the night before the 1st of July 1963, according to schedule... During the week that I was organising recruits around Johannesburg for military training, the police raided the Lilliesleaf farm. They found Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and me there. The police loaded us into their van and took us to the Pretoria prison, where they kept us during the period of our trial."

- Raymond Mhlaba's Personal Memoirs: Reminiscing from Rwanda and Uganda, narrated to Thembeka Mufamadi (HSRC and Robben Island Museum, 2001), pp. 117-23

back to the Raymond Mhlaba memorial page

"I opened the way for others to defy an unjust system."
Raymond Mhlaba
Raymond Mhlaba
Picture: Courtesy of Thembeka Mufamadi


In this lesson plan, learners will have an opportunity to study Raymond Mhlaba's memoirs as he related them to a historian in 2001. They will be able to think about the value of oral history and how it provides new insights into events.

Lesson plan
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