Former cellmate of Nelson Mandela receives honorary degree

Dr Joyce Leeson and Archie Sibeko a.k.a Zola Zembe (front) with Thoko, his granddaughter; Sula, his daughter; Helen and Patsy, Joyces daughters. Picture by David Turnbull.
Dr Joyce Leeson and Archie Sibeko a.k.a Zola Zembe (front) with Thoko, his granddaughter; Sula, his daughter; Helen and Patsy, Joyces daughters. Picture by David Turnbull.

A former prison cellmate of Nelson Mandela has been presented with a top honorary degree.

Archie Sibeko, better known as Zola Zembe to his family and friends, received an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law, the same presented to Dr Martin Luther King by Newcastle University 50 years earlier, during a special ceremony.

Archie Sibeko a.k.a Zola Zembe receives the same honorary doctorate of law that Dr Martin Luther King received from Newcastle University 50 years earlier. Picture by Newcastle University.

Archie Sibeko a.k.a Zola Zembe receives the same honorary doctorate of law that Dr Martin Luther King received from Newcastle University 50 years earlier. Picture by Newcastle University.

Zola, 89, was among the University’s special guests on Monday for the presentation, and saw first hand the unveiling of a new Martin Luther King in the university’s grounds.

Now living in Tynemouth, Zola had joined Nelson Mandela and fellow freedom fighters to bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa, being arrested, tried and jailed in 1956.

In 1990, after more than two decades in exile, Zola returned to South Africa, where his rigorous work for the Trade Union movement contined.

After a stroke in 1992, he was advised to retire, relocating to North Manchester with his second wife Dr Joyce Leeson before eventually moving to Tynemouth to be nearer to Joyce’s daughter Helen Frankenberg.

Archie Sibeko a.k.a Zola Zembe receives the same honorary doctorate of law that Dr Martin Luther King received from Newcastle University 50 years earlier. Picture by Newcastle University.

Archie Sibeko a.k.a Zola Zembe receives the same honorary doctorate of law that Dr Martin Luther King received from Newcastle University 50 years earlier. Picture by Newcastle University.

During the ceremony on Monday, Helen gave Zola’s speech on his behalf, saying: “My background is that of a peasant, then worker, then ANC activist and Trade Union organiser, driven by oppression to become a freedom fighter.

“So it is a great honour for someone like me, educated only in the school of life to receive a doctorate from this wonderful Newcastle University, especially following in the footsteps of the great Martin Luther King.

“I take this honour to be not only for myself but also to be for all my comrades in the struggle to free Southern Africa from Apartheid and Colonialism, and for all those progressive people all over the world who supported us in words and action.”

Zola was a village boy who had to work in a city greengrocer’s for a year to raise the money for high school.

The new Dr Martin Luther King statue at Newcastle University. Picture by Newcastle University.

The new Dr Martin Luther King statue at Newcastle University. Picture by Newcastle University.

Paid £2 a week with food and accommodation, he insisted on his employer arranging a permit for him to live and work in the city.

This small success was the first step towards him becoming a founder member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions in 1955, and a member of the African National Congress.

Sitting under a photograph of Zola presenting a smiling Mandela with the latest of his four books, Joyce said: “Tynemouth has made us very welcome.”

As well as Monday jazz afternoons at Cullercoats Crescent Club, Zola – who has a diploma in agriculture – can be found working on his allotment.

He also joined the Labour Party two years ago, keen to help make a difference locally.