Faced at home with powerful, white-led security forces and an all-pervasive secret police, the would-be freedom fighters played a cat-and-mouse game to avoid detection as they planned their journey to China as representatives of the outlawed African National Congress and South African Communist Party.
Outside South Africa, the activists relied on a network of exiles to arrange passage for Mr. Mlangeni and the rest of the group, who slipped out of their own country to neighboring Botswana, then called the Bechuanaland Protectorate, and traveled through Tanzania, Sudan, Ghana, Zurich, Prague, Moscow and Irkutsk, in Siberia, before reaching China, according to a series of interviews in 2019 with a prominent South African journalist Pippa Green.
During their training, the South Africans said later, they were amazed to be visited by Chairman Mao Zedong — the head of the Chinese Communist Party — and other leaders, including his deputy, Deng Xiaoping, and Premier Zhou Enlai.
Mao “looked me straight in the face and I did the same, trying to be as great a soldier as I could,” Mr. Mlangeni said, according to his biography.
Their training comprised schooling in the techniques of secret communications, bomb-making, booby traps and the Maoist philosophy of insurgency. But their ability to put their lessons into practice turned out to be short-lived.
After he returned to South Africa in late 1962, Mr. Mlangeni became a member of the insurgents’ high command. He disguised himself as a priest with the nom de guerre the Rev. Mokete Mokoena and traveled around South Africa recruiting young people to go abroad for training as insurgents. But in June 1963, he broke the rules of his tradecraft by staying at his home in the Dube section of Soweto rather than in a safe house. The police raided it.
They were subsequently accused of sabotage along with others who had been arrested at a farmhouse in the Rivonia District of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs to face charges of plotting to overthrow the state with a campaign of sabotage that could have brought the death sentence.