Compiled by Indhrannie Pillay
In keeping with our features on the road and street name changes of memorable icons in South African history, this month we feature Masabalala “Bonnie” Yengwa. NMR Avenue in Durban is now known as Masabalala Yengwa Avenue.
Yengwa was born on 5 December 1923, near Mapumulo, in Kwa Zulu Natal. His father had fought in the Bambatha Rebellion in 1906, and was also arrested for participating in the ANC anti-pass campaign in 1919. This inspired Yengwa’s opposition to apartheid.
After matriculating in 1943 Yengwa worked for the Liquor and Catering Trade Union. In 1945 he was forced to apply for a pass which limited the movement of black people. This initiated his political activity and he joined the Durban Branch of the ANC. In 1951 he was elected to the Natal Provincial Executive Committee of the ANC, under Chief Albert Luthuli as President and helped to promote Luthuli’s political career. In the 1952 Defiance Campaign, Yengwa was appointed as Natal Volunteer-in-Chief and was jailed for two weeks for being a passive resister. A year later he was banned from attending gatherings and entering certain districts. He was elected to attend the Queenstown Conference of the ANC with Oliver Tambo and this was the start of a long and personal association with Tambo and Former President Nelson Mandela.
In 1955 Yengwa was banished to Mapumulo for two years and could not attend the historic Congress of the People held in June that year at Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was adopted. In 1956 he was charged with high treason along with 155 other activists but was discharged a year later. In the midst of his political activities Yengwa was studying law and served his articles under Durban attorney, J.N. Singh. In 1960 he obtained his Bachelor of Commerce degree and subsequently his attorney's admission certificate a year later.
In 1964 he and 21 others were arrested for ANC activities and were sentenced to two years' imprisonment. Following an appeal the sentence was reduced to 18 months and he was released in November 1965. However, he was then confined to Mapumulo, forbidden to go beyond 25 yards from his home and only his immediate family was allowed to visit him. In April the following year he escaped to Swaziland, where his wife, Edith, and their four children joined him later on. In Swaziland he practiced as an attorney until they were deported in 1969. Yengwa and his family entered the United Kingdom as refugees.
Aside from his political activity, Yengwa was also a very religious man. At a young age he became secretary of the Durban branch of the African Congregational Church, later becoming a deacon of that church. He represented the ANC at the World Council of Churches' meeting in Geneva to draw up a programme to combat racism. Yengwa was appointed director of the Luthuli Memorial Foundation following his close association with him and was present at its launch in 1970 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In the same year he attended the World Congress on religion in Japan as an ANC delegate.
In March 1971, while serving as chairman of the ANC London Region, Yengwa had suffered a stroke which left him without the ability to speak fluently for almost three years. However, through his determination and fighting spirit he made a remarkable recovery and was re-elected on numerous occasions to chair the regional London meetings.
Yengwa’s supreme dedication to the quest for freedom led him to occupy important positions within the leadership of the ANC and he worked relentlessly toward that goal. He was known by younger comrades as Comrade V.K, short for Vikayi Bambe, a nickname he dearly treasured because of its literal meaning – he who uses and seizes the moment, the ever-youthful, who will not falter when called to action.
On 21 July 1987 Masabalala Yengwa died suddenly. His funeral was held at the Golders Green Crematorium in London on July 26 and was attended by many relatives, friends and comrades in exile. His dedication and contribution to the cause for freedom played a prominent role in events which shaped the political history of South Africa. So is this road not blessed to have the name of such a person?