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Moses Mabhida was a humble cadre of the liberation movement who rose through the ranks to become a giant of the struggle. He was born on 14 October 1923 into a poor family at Thornville, Pietermaritzburg. The family was later forced off their land. In his early years Mabhida lived on a farm, working as a herd boy. In 1933 he attended school at New England in Pietermaritzburg, where he completed standard four, before moving to the Buchanan Street Intermediate School, which later merged with another school at Slangspruit.

It was at Slangspruit School that Mabhida met Harry Gwala, a young teacher and a firebrand communist, who later became an ANC leader. Gwala had a great influence on Mabhida, introducing him to trade unionism and the Communist Party. Mabhida was forced by his family’s financial situation to leave school at the end of standard nine, and he worked as a waiter and manual labourer.

His father, Stimela, who had worked as a labourer in the Electricity Department in Pietermaritzburg and was a dedicated member of the Industrial and Commercial Worker’s Union, also had a huge influence on him. His fathers’ political views were founded on his belief that white colonialists had stolen land from the African people. Mabhida joined the South African Communist Party in 1942 and later became involved in the ANC.

In 1956, he became a member of its National Executive Committee. About this time the Communist Party asked him to work full-time in the trade union movement and he was a prime mover in the formation of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu). He was elected its vice-president in 1955. He organised hundreds of workers and led a strike of Durban stevedores, after which the daily pay system was abandoned and a weekly system and a minimum wage, was introduced.

It was at Sactu that he met other liberation stalwarts such as Billy Nair and Stephen Dlamini and led a stay-away campaign from 14 to 16 April 1958. The following year, he became the acting president of the ANC in Natal and took part in the potato boycott organised by the party. In 1960, Mabhida became chairman of Sactu, and was a leading member of the “one-pound-a-day” campaign. After the declaration of the state of emergency that year, Mabhida was sent abroad by Sactu to represent the organisation internationally. In 1963, he was asked by Oliver Tambo to devote himself to developing the military wing of the ANC, Mkhonto we Sizwe (MK).

He became Secretary General of the SACP after the death of Moses Kotane in 1978. Mabhida underwent military training, and rose in the ranks of the MK to become its commissar and Chief Political Instructor of new recruits. In the 1980s, he operated in Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland. Mabhida and his wife, Smangele Linah Mabhida (nee MaNdulini), now 85, had four children. Both girls, Nokuthula and Thuthukile, became teachers. One son, Mhlonipheni, died when he was just a day old, while Mpumelelo died in 1997, aged 39.

Thuthukile said she and her siblings were very young when their father went into exile and the family made many sacrifices. She remembers their mother used to work hard to support them and was a dedicated cadre in her own right. Mabhida suffered a stroke in 1985 while on a mission to Havana, and after a long illness, died of a heart attack in Maputo on 8 March 1986. He was buried there, but his body was embalmed in the hope that it would one day be transported to a free South Africa. More than 20 years later he was exhumed and reburied at Heroes’ Acre, Slangspruit, on 2 December 2006.