Elombe Brath with Nelson and Winnie Mandela in Harlem
A South African Reflects on Elombe Brath
It is really a blessing and an honor for me to pay my tribute to brother Elombe. You see, not many people who are in South Africa would say they know Elombe and yet they do, especially those of the African National Congress who were stationed in New York and around America. When Playthell’s article, “Remembering Brother Elombe,” was posted on my FB timeline, it really brought my experiences in South Africa to the fore. You see, I was fortunate enough to meet Elombe through the ANC cadres during my forays into the US in the very early eighties. Although I didn’t belong to the ANC they were nonetheless my friends and I had a lot of contact and consultations with them.
You see, before I knew who Elombe was, I always thought he was a brother from South Africa, the way he fused and melded with the leadership of the ANC, when the movement was allowed to have an apartment and a tiny office at the UN. At that time, the ANC was labeled to be a “Terrorist” group by the American government, and they were not welcome in the US. Even though the ANC never had an office in Harlem, Elombe and the people of Harlem fully embraced them.
Elombe was involved in all matters and issues that concerned the ANC. He was present at their meeting(anchoring and MC-ing ANC events throughout New York), and whenever the ANC celebrated the June 1976 students revolts in Soweto in halls throughout Harlem, or held their speechifying rallies in Central Park, City College, and throughout America. Many times I would see him hanging with the ANC brothers at the Grant’s Tomb Jazz concerts. He acted as a buffer between the harassing US officials and the targeted ANC movement without fear or doubts.
One would see him at the Slave Theater, introducing eminent African American Scholars like Amos Wilson, Dr. Clarke, Dr. Ben and a host of other great scholars, and one could also tell that his involvement was that of a person completely and thoroughly embedded within his community. He lived in the Schomburg Towers, named for the great Afro-Puerto Rican who founded the world-famous Schomburg Collection on black history and culture, around 110th Street in Harlem. In Elombe one could see the Afro-American counterpart of some of the unsung and unknown political stalwarts of the Ghetto of Soweto in South Africa.
One is immediately reminded for instance of James Sofasonke Mpanza, who today is famously known as the “Father of Soweto.” He was the man who took all the folks who had moved from the rural areas to work in the Crown Mines of Johannesburg, and helped them to find work where they could live with their families. Many of them were forcefully removed from the newly found shacks they called homes, which were very close to the city and the mines, by the police forces of the Apartheid state. These areas were in violation of South Africa’s Native Areas Act – which was part of the Group Areas Act that reserved 80% of the nation’s best lands for the white minority – and were considered to be “Black Spots” by the Apartheid masters, who therefore justified their forced removal of the inhabitants of these ramshackle tin-can-corrugated-iron shacks. This was a crime against humanity, but the US and other western “democracies” looked the other way.
James Sofasonke Mpanza
“The Father of Soweto”
These places were known as the “e-Maplatini”(By the Shacks), which were sprouting up twelve miles away from the city limits of Johannesburg, and were nestled next to a river called the Klip – “Small Stones” – River. Mpanza went to the Johannesburg City Council and demanded better housing for his people. Mandela, in those days, was not as powerful as he came to be known by the world; Mpanza was also their leader. Mandela and Tambo had offices of law wheret they were practicing in what could be called Downtown Johannesburg.
But Mpanza, who lived in Orlando East, had his family living in the houses that he had managed to cajole Oppenheimer – the largest owner of Gold and Diamond Mines – into helping to build, despite the fact that the apartheid regime did not want them built. Mpanza eventually managed to get funding from De Beers/Anglo American Gold Mines, owned by Oppenheimer, which put down money and built Orlando East and West, and other Townships which are known as Soweto, today. Mpanza never left Orlando East, instead he owned racing horses, and kept them in his yard. One should understand that it was impossible to move elsewhere under the apartheid police state of his time.
Soweto: Legacythe Apartheid Era
South Africa’s Version of American Indian Reservations
But he was a man who worked tirelessly to make sure his people got housing, engaged in strikes, and took care of the poor and homeless, got them houses, jobs – what Mpanza was doing was in the Garvey mode of hands-on action and tangible results that people could see. He loved soccer and was an ardent member and follower of the local soccer club, formed in 1937 and called “Orlando Pirates” with their black and white uniform and Skull and Bones Insignia to go along with that.
One of the club’s war cries is “Ezikamagebula za gebula umhlaba” (Those that scoop/took and scooped/took the earth”), and in this sense, Mpanza was of the people and the people were for him, they were referring to Mpanza himself as the stalwart of the team. One could always see Mpanza walking street by street in the Township of Orlando, going in into every house and finding out what the people’s problems were – and immediately worked toward solving them.
What has this got to do with Elombe? Well, reading the eulogy by Playthell, the way he recalls all about Elombe and describes what he was doing for the community of Harlem, his comportment/’intelligence in the struggle, and his understanding of the realpolitik, locally and internationally, is paralleled by what leaders like Mpanza were doing in South Africa. Mpanza was not formally educated as such, but he was a social worker and activist. He did not use ideological rhetoric but effectively changed the material well-being of his people by being a serious thorn in the side of the Apartheid regime. He also had a great and permanently lasting impact on us all as children.
Mpamza formed a party, which was unheard off during apartheid, called the “Sofasonke” –“We Are Going to Die Together” – Party which was at the forefront of the African struggle against Apartheid. They used to be clad in their white and red uniforms – akin to Marcus Garvey’s Universal Improvement Association, which had a serious impact on the people of South Africa. All the known leaders of South Africa lived in Soweto – Sobukwe lived in Mofolo and Mandela lived in Orlando West – in the houses that Mpanza built for his people, financed by mining interests. This is where, as kids, we were introduced to the politics of action – by the Sofasonke Party. We followed our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and family when they marched and protested.
This led us to come to understanding the complexity, depth and breadth of our struggles in South Africa. We came to recognize and understand that the issues being protested were our issues; our bread and butter matters. We needed housing, food, work, schools, churches, and roads; Mpanza oversaw this whole project, but still remained in the community and lived amongst us. If Mandela and his friends were hanging out in the White suburbs with all the different ethnic groups, Mpanza was wholly involved with his people in the Townships, and lived and socialized amongst us, and never left the Township, nor accumulated riches for himself.
He lived in a house in Orlando East he helped build, with family – which looked the same as all the other houses around it. Playthell says of Elombe that he was exposed to many opportunities to escape the trials and tribulations of the USA, but he chose to always come back among the people of Harlem; he carried out his art of education through art and many other means; he attended many meetings in all kinds of places, and was well grounded with his brothers and sisters ( like Dr. Walter Rodney, “Groundings with my Brothers”) in his community.
One could buy Audiotapes on the pavements on the Street in 125th in Harlem about African History: it might be one of the many speeches of Clarke, Ben, Asa Hilliard, Amos Wilson, and many others, but one would often find that the Master of Ceremonies was Elombe, just as when Mandela visited Harlem. He would introduce the speakers and then offer a summary after their speeches before opening the floor for question-and-answer sessions with them.
Elombe’s radio program on WBAI, “Africalidescope,” was fantastic and one had to make time to listen to it. There was always something new and beneficial/informative for the listening audience, and in particular African people of New York, USA, Caribbean and Africa: most particularly South Africa. He critically examined issues for the African American people and used the radio to educate them about South Africa.
Elombe’s involvement in the ANC was selfless and he was, at times, more committed and involved than some of the people he was helping. He was the rudder and radar for the ANC in the US. He connected them with relevant people who were prepared to help the ANC fight the Boers in whatever way they could. Whenever one watched him in action making things possible, especially with the ANC, you could see that this was not a person who was ‘helping’ the ANC, he was one with the ANC for all intents and purposes.
I know this because I witnessed ANC cadres do a lot of consulting with him, and saw his involvement in many of their events and activities. Elombe was at the forefront in helping the ANC and extending the struggle of the people of South Africa into the community of Harlem. He demonstrated the same intensity and passion for both people (African Americans and South Africans) as he worked to raise the awareness level about the reality of both struggles.
To me, Elombe was and will remain the Mpanza of Harlem and Soweto, because he was not just talk; he was a man of action with a sense of urgency one could read on his intense and intelligent face. Getting things done was what he was all about, and this impression of Elombe has not left my mind to this day. So that, when I saw Playthell’s essay on Elombe, it took me back to the days of Mpanza; who made it possible for us to be raised as the Students who rebelled and overthrew Apartheid, witnessing the beginning of June 16th 1976.
We were fearless, and we wanted real and substantive change. We knew the Boers, and had met them as children in the protests organized by Mpanza, and now we were the 1976 Youth, and we really took the battle to the Boers. They butchered us, but we prevailed to eventually see to it that the ANC took over power, to at least rule South Africa politically. But this just did not begin in 1976, it was from Mpanza and his activism, strength, fortitude, focus, belief as a man of action that we learnt, and we perfected the art of struggling against Apartheid in June 1976.
What I am saying is that the ANC was able to survive in New York in particular, because there was a man named Elombe Brath, and he took them by hand, shielded their bodies, helped them raise funds, find accommodation in housing, funds to move about the US and world, furnished them with necessary political information and hipped them to the local and national political realities, the intelligence agencies and their ways of working, and taught them how they should deal with such issues. To me, he was pivotal in helping the ANC maintain some modicum of existence here in the United States where, as I have pointed out, they were labelled a terrorist group and were unwelcome.
He took their issues onto the radio, and utilized every means of communicating the struggle of South Africa. Yet I say it was not just Elombe helping the ANC, it was his struggle too; he was the embodiment of the struggle of the Africans of South Africa here in America. So that, when I finally met him, and watched him work politically, I was reminded of Mpanza, who propounded no theories, but changed the living and material conditions of his people without expecting or wanting to be remunerated for that. Mpanza remained the same as the people who lived with and around him. So did Elombe.. He was Harlem personified.
Had I not met him, I feel that I would have missed the essence and reality of the people of Harlem and what they were all about. Because Elombe knew how to ‘work’ the people and remain one with the people, he knew how to swim amongst the masses of people of African descent; he never lost his touch and thrust. He was always in the mix. Thus I pay respect, in my own paltry way, to this ‘great man for whom nothing seemed impossible; who believed that through persistent and selfless struggle we could make our freedom dreams real.” Elombe always kept it real.
I learnt much from him, and reinforced what I believed in my heart about the seriousness and discipline required for the liberation struggles of the people to triumph. This is a very serious undertaking indeed, and we need to pick up the struggle where Elombe, and leaders like him world-wide, left off.. Globally, you were and are still the brightest and strongest light in our darkened hovels , Elombe.. Rest in Peace…..
Skhokho sa Tlou
June 1, 2014
New York via Soweto, South Africa