Mabhida was an outstanding leader of humble origins who became a dominant figure in the trade union movement, the African National Congress (ANC), South African Congress of Trade Uninons (SACTU), uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) Commissar and the Communist Party
Moses Mbheki Mncane Mabhida was born in Thornville near Pietermaritzburg on 14 October 1923, into a poor family which was later forced off the land.
Mabhida could not pursue his studies because of the financial constraints experienced by his family. His formal education was perpetually interrupted and ended when he finished the ninth grade in 1942. After leaving school, he worked as a waiter and manual labourer.
Mabhida’s two early political motivators were his father, a dedicated member of Clements Kadalie's Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), and Harry Gwala, a young teacher in Mabhida's last year of school, who introduced his students to socialist ideas. Mabhida was drawn to trade unionism and joined the Communist Party in 1942. After many unionists were banned in 1952-1953, his colleagues in the newly revived underground party urged Mabhida to undertake full-time union work. In the next decade, he organised scores of workers in Natal. He was a central participant in the development of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and was elected a vice-president at its first congress in 1955. He also served as secretary of the ANC's Pietermaritzburg branch in the mid-1950s, and had a close working relationship with Chief Albert Luthuli. Mabhida became a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee (NEC) around 1956, and in 1958-1959 was acting chair of the Natal ANC.
A week after the declaration of the 1960 state of emergency, Mabhida was sent abroad by SACTU to represent the organisation internationally. For the next three years he organised international solidarity activities in Prague with the World Federation of Trade Unions, and with the developing African trade union federations. In 1963, however, following his re-election to the NEC at the ANC's Lobatse conference in October 1962, he was asked by Oliver Tambo to devote himself to the development of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Mabhida then underwent military training, as MK commissar became the chief political instructor of new military recruits, and later served as the commander of MK. Mabhida's repeated re-election to the NEC, his appointment to the Revolutionary Council on its creation in 1969, and later to the Politico-Military Council which replaced it, reflected his popularity among ANC members and his close friendship with Tambo. Throughout his years in exile, Mabhida enjoyed wide respect for his practical wisdom and earthy style.
After Morogoro he was instrumental in setting up the ANC's department of Intelligence and Security, and in 1979 he served on the elite Politico-Military Strategy Commission that produced the Green Book, a landmark policy document. A strict Marxist-Leninist and loyal supporter of the Soviet Union, he was elected general secretary of the Communist Party in November 1979, replacing Moses Kotane who had died the previous year. In his travels across Africa, Mabhida came into contact with Frelimo leader Samora Machel at Kongwa, the first training camp that the Tanzanian authorities allocated to Frelimo and ANC. Both were leaders in the camps of their respective movements.
In the 1980s, Mabhida continued his work of political and logistical planning for MK, based at various times in Lesotho, Mozambique, and Swaziland, where his strong attachment to Zulu culture and history is said to have earned him the affection of the aged King Sobhuza. In 1985, while on a mission to Havana, Mabhida suffered a stroke, and after a year of illness, died of a heart attack in Maputo and was buried there in March 1986.
In a eulogy at his state funeral, Oliver Tambo observed that Mabhida had been educated in "the stern university of mass struggle.... It is rarely given to a people that they should produce a single person who epitomises their hopes and expresses their common resolve as Moses Mabhida did. In simple language he could convey the aspirations of all our people in their magnificent variety, explain the fears and prejudices of the unorganised, and sense the feelings of even the most humble among our people."
Following his death his friend and fellow revolutionary, Machel, said: “We shall be the guardians of his body. Men who die fighting, who refuse to surrender, who serve the people and the ideals to the last breath, are victors. Mabhida is a victorious combatant”. His body was embalmed with the hope that one day it would be transferred to the liberated South Africa to be reburied. Indeed this hope was realised when his body was exhumed from Maputo's Lhanguene cemetery and repatriated to a liberated SA in November 2006, twenty years after his death.
The exhumation ceremony was attended by ANC Deputy President Jacob Zuma, Mabhida’s family members, members of the Kwa-Zulu Natal provincial government, Premier Sbu Ndebele and Finance and Economic Affairs MEC Zweli Mkhize and South African High Commissioner to Mozambique, Thandi Rankoe. Members of the Mabhida family broke down with emotion during the exhumation, saying they had always longed to bury him in South African soil.
"This is a moving moment for us. The tears that you see are not tears of pain but tears of joy, because for years we have been trying to get our father reburied in South Africa," said one of Mabhida's daughters, Nokuthula Mabhida. "The last time I saw him alive was when I visited him in Mozambique in 1980," she said.
The transport of his body gave occasion for stop-over rallies in Piet Retief in Mpumalanga, KwaDukuza, Mkhuze, Empangeni, Durban Curries Fountain Stadium and he finally came to rest in government Heroes' Acre at Slangspruit, Pietermaritzburg, in his native province of Kwa-Zulu Natal on 2 December 2006. In 2002, President Thabo Mbeki posthumously awarded the Order of the Baobab to Mabhida, for having played a significant role in the liberation struggle as an exiled leader of the SACP.
• Hlongwa, W. (2006) ‘Victorious Combatant’ Still fighting for alliance, City Press, 3 December 2006, p 30.
• “Body of Moses Mabhida Repatriated.” https://allafrica.com/stories/200611220660.html (22 November 2006)
• Fauvet, P. 2006. Stalwart Mabhida to have reburial in KZN. The Star [Online]. Available at: iol.co.za [Accessed 06 October 2006]