I first took note of Mongameli Lwana in 1985. He was commonly called Mnayama (Blackie). He, together with many other young men called amabutho, were guarding Mono Badela’s house in New Brighton, as part of the defence and protection of the UDF leaders’ homes.
They were half naked as they were being strengthened by a reputed ixhwele (a specialist medicine man).
He was smearing them with some medicine on their upper bodies, and using a razor blade to cut three marks (ukuqaphula) on their foreheads, elbows and above their belly buttons.
A black substance was being rubbed into the wounds, so as to make them “invisible” to the police.
I was fascinated with Lwana’s well-built body, noting that he was physically fit. His black body was so well conditioned that he could easily be mistaken for any of the Jamaican short distance sprinters. He had a perfect six pack. I bumped into Lwana again in December 2007, at K K Sport Tavern (Kwa Kwekwe), a day after returning from the Polokwane conference that elected Jacob Zuma as president. My spirits were at their lowest. I was angry, disgruntled and was feeling I had lost all I sacrificed for because Zuma was now at the helm.
Lwana was one of the big group that was in celebratory mood.
Zuma’s election signalled a chance for real freedom. Drinks were flowing like the river Nile, with no fear that the money would be depleted.
Lwana says, “I worked tirelessly for change”, as a volunteer in branches to oust Thabo Mbeki.
“I then believed that he was too obsessed with the African Renaissance and was travelling too much overseas. I also thought he either did not want, or had no time, to implement the Freedom Charter.”
Another serious Mbeki “offence” was his “failure to do away with labour brokers”.
Lwana then believed that Zuma was a “listener and a friend of the working class”.
As an ardent unionist, Lwana hoped that the dreaded labour brokers would be abolished by Zuma.
However, after 10 years of Zuma’s presidency, Lwana is a deeply troubled man.
“I am very disappointed with Zuma,” he says. He counts among Zuma’s most glaring failures: the existence of labour brokers and the recent decision to set the minimum wage at R3 500.
“No man with a family can live out of this amount.”
He also says he saw with his own eyes the economy stagnating under Zuma with no prospect of growth.
Other issues that he says have stripped the ANC’s dignity are Nkandla, the swearing in of Brian Molefe as an MP and the violent treatment of the EFF MPs at parliament.
Lwana is a man whose hopes have been raised and dashed so many times.
Despite all that, he is still hopeful that somebody is going to remember the objective and the values of the ANC and the Freedom Charter.
He is not swayed by rhetoric, he is governed by daily realities that confront the society.
The broken promises of the post-apartheid South Africa are a “bitter pill to swallow for me”, the man who wanted just to serve his country and people says.
“When [Nelson] Mandela was released, I was excited,” Lwana recalls, as he sips small drops from his bottle of beer. “We were told we must be patient, things were not going to happen overnight.”
He trusted the leaders, he says, though he could not understand the delay in delivering the freedom objectives.
Lwana is one of three children of his single parent mom, Nomakhaya, a domestic worker in Port Elizabeth’s suburbs.
Due to hardship she had to send the two children she had then, Mnyamana and his sister, Nomonde, to Butterworth to their uncle Benson Bhungane Lwane, who was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island days before they arrived at his house.
Their aunt, who could not find a job due to the stigma of his uncle’s stint on prison, faced an uphill battle herself.
After enduring unbearable hardship at his aunt’s house, who was doing every practical thing “in the most difficult times” to put something on the table, Lwana managed in 1979 to raise R1.50 and got on a taxi from Butterworth back to where his mother was living, eNobathana, Kwazakhele in the Port Elizabeth townships.
By this time he certainly wanted to study and become a lawyer.
He set his sights on the idea of using education to fight against the hardship and the injustices he saw in the black community.
He wanted to protect the people. From the word go, Lwana believed that a living wage and education were two instruments that could lift black people from their poverty.
In Port Elizabeth he joined the students and youth organisations that were fighting for freedom.
He was particularly attracted to the Port Elizabeth Youth Congress (Peyco) and the Congress of South African Students (Cosas), that both were propagating the Freedom Charter.
“Freedom to me was about the implementation of the Freedom Charter,” says Lwana. “The Freedom Charter was our gospel.”
He believed in the clause that was promising compulsory and free education. Another clause that he felt was very attractive to him was the one that says there shall be work, comfort and security for all.
Losing two schoolyears in 1985-86 delayed Lwana’s educational prospects. During that school boycott, he found himself as one of the most wanted pupils by the security police.
After being hunted, he and four other guys decided to leave the country for military training outside South Africa.
However, they were nabbed by patrolling soldiers in the bushes of Ladybrand while trying to cross the river to Lesotho. That was his first setback.
They were brought back to Port Elizabeth and released after rigorous interrogation.
“The ANC can change,” Lwana believes. He also argues that a change of leadership is the only solution.
“I still recognise the ANC as a liberation movement that can change things. The ANC has good leaders. These leaders are on the periphery.”
The Lwana of 2017 is a disappointed one from that happy and celebrating one of 2007. He knows that he is a responsible man, who was never shy to serve his country.
He has been working for the same company for 18 years.