Harry Gwala

gwala_hNames: Gwala, Harry (Mphephethwa) Themba

Born: 1920, Pietermaritzburg, Natal (now Kwazulu-Natal), South Africa

Died: 1995, Pietermaritzburg, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

In summary: Teacher, member of SACTU, SACP and ANC.

Politician and teacher Harry Gwala, known as Munt′omdala or The Lion of the Midlands, grew up in the Pietermaritzburg area. After completing his teacher′s diploma at Adams Colege, Amanzimtoti, he taught at Slangspruit, in the Pietermaritzburg area.

Among his students was Moses Mabhida secretary, who later became a prominent figure among SACP members in exile. Gwala joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1942 and the ANC Youth League two years later. It was during this time that he began organising workers in the chemical and building industries and established the Rubber and Cable Workers′ Union in Howick. However, as many of the workers were migrant labourers, it was difficult to maintain permanent structures. In 1950 he was one of the organisers of the national stay-away of workers. He was consequently listed under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1952 and was served a two-year banning order.

He found employment at the Edendale Hospital, but was dismissed for recruiting hospital workers to become members of the South African Council of Trade Unions (SACTU). After the banning of the ANC in 1960, Gwala became active underground until his arrest in 1964 for sabotage and for recruiting members for Umkontho We Sizwe. He was sent to Robben Island for eight years. He was released in 1972, but was restricted to Pietermaritzburg. As a result he could not pursue his teaching or trade union activities. He then ran a laundry collection business in the area.

Despite the restrictions he was subjected to, he remained at the forefront of attempts to revive SACTU, which at the time was dormant, owing to the many detentions and bannings. He was detained again in 1975 and towards the end of 1976 Gwala and a number of other ANC stalwarts were arrested as a result of their involvement in a workers′ strike that took place in August of that year. In 1977 he was sentenced to life imprisonment at Robben Island. Gwala became known for his Marxist-Leninist teachings, particularly among the youth while at Robben Island. While he was in prison his wife, Elda, passed away, but he was not allowed to attend the funeral. In the 1980s a motor neuron disease robbed him of the use of his arms, leading to his release from prison in November 1988.

This disability did not deter him from working for the cause and despite all these hardships he continued to inspire many people in the struggle for democracy, peace and justice. Gwala was elected the first Chairperson of the ANC in the Natal Midlands after the unbanning of the movement in 1990. He became a member of the Internal Leadership Core and in 1991 he was elected to the ANC National Executive, in which capacity he served until 1994. He was nominated to the SACP Central Committee in 1994, but was suspended in the same year. He nonetheless remained a loyal member of the SACP until his death.

Gwala was sometimes described as too blunt and too emotional about issues. He was also regarded as a harsh warlord because he was unremittent about when it came to the need to defend people. These negative aspects could, perhaps, be attributed to his single-minded dedication to the struggle. He was a great political teacher who taught generation after generation. He became known for his teachings at Robben Island, which was often referred to as ′our university′. He introduced members of the younger generation to Marxist theory and communism.

Among others, he mentored Terror Lekota and William Khanyile of SACTU. He was also an ardent and strident theorist who believed that everything could be explained in theoretical terms. He read voraciously although he had no academic background. At Robben Island he used the Bible – the only book provided – to teach communism. He loved history, both local and international, and hardly ever answered any questions without referring to history. On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the ANC on 8 January 1992, Gwala was awarded the Isitwalandwe, the highest honour bestowed by the ANC on members for dedication, service and selfless commitment. President Nelson Mandela said in his address at Gwala′s funeral that it was ′precisely because of the recognition of Mphephethwa′s tenacity that the ANC awarded him this honour′.

After the April 1994 General Election Gwala was nominated as a provincial member of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature, where he also served as Chief ANC Whip. Gwala and his wife had three daughters, Mfana, Linda and Lindiwe.


  • Mseleku, T. 1999. The new dictionary of South Africa biography Volume 2. Vista University, Pretoria.