Fanele Mbali was born on 1 December 1937 in a village called Eqolweni. Mbali’s father, Charlton Babana Mkhonto and his brother William Ntozakhe decided on the Mbali surname as it was more appealing and adopted it instead. Mbali was the main stem of the Mkhonto family tree line. He spent the first four years of his life at Eqolweni where he and his sister, Liziwe lived with his paternal grandfather, Gadu and his wife, Mas’Thathu. His biological mother, Nomanundu, worked as a domestic worker in Queenstown at the time.
Mbali left his birthplace with his mother and sister for Queenstown in 1941 then moved to Middledrift, his mother’s birth place the following year. Here he began his primary school education and looking after cattle as a herd boy. He started secondary school in 1952, the year of the Defiance Campaign. In 1955 he transferred to Newell High School in New Brighton, a township of Port Elizabeth as the school in Middeldift did not offer matric. It was at school that Mbali became politically aware. One of the students Vuyisile Mahaia introduced him to The Clarion, a leftist publication which was later banned by the aparthied governemnt. The paper highlighted the oppression of black people by the Aparthied governemnt.
At fifteen Mbali attended his first political meeting. This meeting was addressed by Doctor Bokwe (Dr. “RT”), who was the incumbent African National Congress (ANC) Treasurer of the Cape Province (during the years from 1940 to 1954). It was Bokwe’s speech that inspired Mbali to resolve joining the African National Congress (ANC).
After completing his matric in 1956, the following year (1957), his family moved from one section of New Brighton to a newly built one. Mbali looked for work and did odd jobs as a gardener while he was searching for more stable employment. Later in the year he found work atat the South African Co-operative Creameries Agency (Sacca) as a ‘Delivery Boy’ and was later promoted to ‘Packer’. He worked there for the entire year of 1957.
In 1958, he enrolled at Fort Hare University College in Alice. This was also the year in which he formally joined the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and became actively involved in its programs. He continued to work for Sacca Ltd during the holidays. He graduated from Fort Hare with majors in English and History and in 1961, he obtained a teacher’s diploma University Education Diploma (UED).
Soon after writing his UED examinations, Mbali was approached by Stanley Mabizela who presented him with a proposal to study abroad. This was part of the Mandela-Plan (M-Plan) driven by Govan Mbeki (known as oom Gov). Included in the briefing were Elijah Monwabisi from East London, Zamile Mpoza from Transkei (whose name has been changed as he declined the invitation), Zolile Ngcakani from Uitenhague, Mandla Tshabalala from Johannesburg and Fanele Mbali.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the Volunteer-in-Chief, briefed the group after they arrived in Johannesburg. Sindiso Mfenyana was introduced to them and he briefed them on the route they were to follow to slip out of the country. Mbali left South Africa on 8 Jnaury 1962 through Botswana, then into Southern Rhodeisa (now Zimbabwe) into Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and then to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. They then travelled to London and on to the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), where their academic studies were to start at the University of Lamanosov. Mbali and other members of the group graduated in August 1966.
Fanele returned to Dar es Salaam where he joined uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) at the suggestion of Boitumelo Phakedi. He, however, needed to return to the USSR for further training. Subsequently, in 1967 Fanele and Koos Segola were selected from the group, sent to Baku (now Georgia), for a six month training in sea navigation and clandestine landing. Upon his return Mbali was deployed in Kongwa camp for six months. In 1968 he was chosen to join the Reconnaissance Unit operating along the Zambezi River during the Wankie and Sipolilo Campaigns.
He became part of a commissariat of ten men in Lusaka, under the leadership of Flag Boshielo, to assist with the preparation of the Morogoro Consultative Conference (held between 25 April and 1 May, 1969). This was where new leadership was installed in the form of O R Tambo and the Revolutionary Council (RC) was established. After the conference Mbali was deployed in Zambia and attached to the office of Thomas Nkobi, the ANC Treasuer General.
Alongside Moses Mabhida and Yusuf Dadoo, he was part of the Avantura (boat) negotiations in 1971 in the Soviet Union. He became the commander for training in clandestine landings for the Aventura as this was his expertise. The boat was eventually sabotaged and the mission was aborted.
On his return to South Africa in 1972, there was the possibility that he would be arrested and he thus escaped into Lesotho. While living in Lesotho he initiated the establishment of an ANC branch. On 9 December 1982, the safety of Lesotho was shattered by the South African military who raided Maseru and massacred forty-two people. Pressure applied on Lesotho by the South African government compelled ANC members to leave the country. Mbali was sent back to Lusaka in 1984 where alongside Mbeya, a fellow comrade, they restablished an ANC branch in Lilanda, and Mbali was elected as the chairperson. He also did some research work for the ANC and together with Norman Levy, co-authored a report enttiled A Profile of Black Skills in South Africa. Then in 1988, he went to Australia to study for a Masters Degree in Development Studies. At the end of 1990 he returned to Zambia.
As the process of negotiations for transition to democartic rule gathered momentum, Mbali returned to South Africa in April 1991. However, fearing arrest, should he come directly to South Africa, he went to Mthatha in the Transkei as he had not yet been indemnified. He was accomodated by friends while Lawyers for Human Rights and the South African embassy in Mthatha worked modalities on how he could visit his family.
Mbali found work at the University of Transkei (later called the Walter Sisulu University) where he taught Economics, Economic History and Development Economics. Here he acted as the Head of Department and established the local branch of the National Tertiary Education Staff Union (NTESU) of which he was President for many years.
Mbali is presently the Treasurer General of the ANC Veterans League.
Mbali, F, (2012), In Transit Autobiography of a South African Freedom Fighter, (South African History Online).