Last Sunday an official funeral was held for the late Eric ‘Stalin’ Mtshali, who passed away at the age of 87 at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital in Durban.
Nicknamed ‘Stalin’ for his admiration of the Soviet Union leader, Joseph Stalin, Mtshali was a committed member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), which he joined in 1957. He became involved in workers’ rights at a young age, having recognised the inequality of the apartheid system while still at school. In an interview with the Daily News Mtshali said that it was while growing up in Clermont, that the poor standard of Bantu education made him aware of the racial divide:
The apartheid system was vicious. I was young, but there was no question I would join the struggle.
In his early twenties Mtshali became active in the trade union movement in Durban. Initially involved with the Dock and Harbour Workers Union, he went on to assist with the establishment of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU). In the same year, 1955, Mtshali was part of the group of men and women recruited to collect ‘freedom demands’ which would form the basis of the ANC’s Freedom Charter.
A year after he joined the SACP, Mtshali joined the ANC, and in 1961 became one of the founding members of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC. As an underground member of MK, Mtshali was forced into exile in July 1962 and left South Africa without being able to say goodbye to his wife or children. Eight years later, Mtshali’s wife passed away without having any contact with her husband.
After he left South Africa, Mtshali received military training in the USSR and Cuba. Commenting on his time in Russia, he spoke of the realisation that the overriding problem in South Africa was the political system, not the different race groups:
We were being trained and lived as brothers with the Russians. That had an impact on me as it became clear to me that the enemy back home was not an individual white person, but the system”
Mtshali became Chief of Personnel for MK in Tanzania on his return to Africa. In the mid 1960s he helped to found the ANC’s intelligence division, and was involved in a number of rescue operations. In 1971 he was appointed as the ANC’s Chief Representative in Tanzania, as well as being elected into the Central Committee of the SACP.
In the late 1970s Mtshali returned to his role as a trade unionist, representing South Africa at the World Federation of Trade Unions in Czechoslovakia. He worked with trade unions in Anglophone and Francophone Africa, Argentina and the Philippines, and during the 1980s helped to revive the trade union movement inside South Africa.
In 1991 Mtshali returned to South Africa and became the Deputy-Commissioner of Criminal Intelligence in KZN in 1994. In 2000 Mtshali served as an ANC councillor for eThekwini, eventually being elected as a Member of Parliament in 2004.
In 2014 Mtshali’s lifetime of devotion to democracy was honoured with the opening of the Eric Mtshali Secondary School in Wyebank, and a year later he was awarded South Africa’s prestigious Order of Mendi for Bravery in silver. Speaking of these accolades, Mtshali said:
To have seen democracy was privilege enough. So many of us fell in the struggle, they were never recognised, which is why all of this is so humbling”