Morwa Kotane, born in 1912 and a widow to the late former general secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa and Treasurer General of the African National Congress Moses Kotane. Picture taken at her home in Dieploof, Soweto, Picture. Alf Kumalo
A MONTH after the ANC was formed in Bloemfontein in 1912, a beautiful little girl was born in the small town of Thaba Nchu on the outskirts of the Free State city.
Little did she know that her life would intertwine with one of Africa’s big liberation movements – Rebecca Seditle married Moses Kotane, an erstwhile and prominent ANC and SA Communist Party leader.
It proved to be a marriage that tested her vows and devotion.
“I started asking myself questions. I’d said I wanted marriage, not knowing what I was getting myself into,” said MaKotane, as Kotane’s widow is affectionately known.
Her husband wasn’t a patriarchal and domineering man who undermined her role in the relationship – nor some old-school partner lacking in grace and affability– so she was happy with him.
“He was a responsible and intelligent man who loved reading. Whenever he was home, he always made time to spend with his children. He also helped with household chores like washing dishes, fetching water from the tap at the street corner. He was committed to the struggle, but he was always a loving and sweet husband.”
However, the constant raids by the apartheid security police looking for her “terrorist” husband, annoyed her.
“Each time I heard the dogs barking at night, I would just wake up to open the door because I knew they (the police) had come for him. When I asked them why they broke my stuff, they said ‘dis fokkol’ (it’s f*ck all),” MaKotane recalled.
Defining as her marriage to Kotane was, it happened by sheer chance.
Rebecca, a domestic worker, was spending the day at her married, elder sister Mirriam’s home in the Western Native Township when she met Kotane, a friend of Mirriam’s husband, Gawa Radebe.
“I’d put on a Georgette dress and a yellow headscarf, with pencil heels to match,” said MaKotane.
Moments after she arrived, “a handsome young gentleman” walked in, “looking smart in a suit”.
Kotane was love-struck.
“I heard Moshe (Kotane) saying to Gawa: ‘I think I like your sister-in-law. She is so beautiful…’ ”
Although also smitten, MaKotane initially avoided Kotane’s advances.
But in him, she had found a resolute suitor. He would not give up.
“He kept pestering me, asking me out on a date. He even pursued me at my workplace,” quipped MaKotane.
The couple eventually tied the knot in 1945. MaKotane gave up her job and went to stay with her husband in Cape Town.
As the ANC celebrated its centenary anniversary in , she reflected on apartheid’s trials and tribulations: the constant raids, endless detentions.
“It was totally crazy. We became so used to the raids that we would crack jokes about it,” she said in her Diepkloof home.
It all took a nasty turn in 1950, when the Communist Party of SA (later the SA Communist Party) – of which Kotane was a national executive committee member – was banned under the National Party’s Suppression of Communism Act. The law effectively meant that any anti-apartheid activity was a death knell.
MaKotane immediately felt its effect.
Kotane – who like other “terrorists” was banished to house arrest – relocated from Cape Town to Alexandra, north of Joburg.
“Life in Alex was hell,” MaKotane said.
“We suffered constant harassment by the apartheid police raiding the house looking for ‘Kotane the terrorist’.”
Come 1952, Kotane defied his banning in order to take part in the Defiance Campaign – the first large-scale, multi-racial political mobilisation against apartheid’s unjust laws.
There was short-term relief for MaKotane – her husband escaped with a suspended nine-month sentence.
But he didn’t stay at home for long.
MaKotane soon found herself alone as Kotane spent time representing SA at a conference advocating peace and independence of Third World leaders, in Indonesia in 1955. By then, MaKotane had decided that she could no longer afford to be on the political sidelines.
She attended the watershed Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955, where the celebrated Freedom Charter was adopted.
“The government looked at the Freedom Charter and they didn’t like it. They saw ‘die rooi gevaar’ (the red danger) in it…” she said, referring to the communists.
MaKotane’s initiation into politics was a baptism of fire. She was among the women detained for two weeks after taking part in the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Building in protest against the introduction of passes for women.
“What I found strange was that the protest was on Kotane’s birthday. I thought taking part was the way to honour him.” .
MaKotane was detained at Number 4 jail with the likes of Lillian Ngoyi, Violet Wynberg, Amina Cachalia, Albertina Sisulu and Helen Joseph.
She initially thought prison life wasn’t all that bad. “There was the hot showers, the meat, plus we were allowed to sing freedom songs.”
Then there was a rude awakening.
“They made us strip, stand in a queue and poured ice-cold water on our bodies using buckets. I just went numb with cold. And before we could eat, they would first make the tripe get colder.”
She also had to cope with the constant thefts, including the gifts that Kotane brought her.
“Not even my underwear was spared. Prison life is so cruel, but fortunately we had (lawyer Nelson) Mandela, who took care of us and fought for our release.”
Out of jail, the harassment continued.
The police were so determined to capture Kotane that they even started tempting MaKotane with promises of a mansion if she divorced him and became a spy.
“My lawyer Pitjie asked me to pretend I had to divorce him. Even Moss (Kotane’s nickname) said I must agree for the sake of the children. But I refused. For me it was a matter of principle and conviction.”
Meanwhile, the Freedom Charter had heightened the persecution of freedom fighters. Kotane was arrested and charged with treason along with other leaders.
They were handed five-year prison terms before the charges were withdrawn.
And then came the declaration of the notorious state of emergency in 1960, when anti-apartheid organisations were banned.
Kotane didn’t go unscathed.
He was detained for four months, despite not being charged, and later released and placed under 24-hour house arrest. In 1963 Kotane fled to Tanzania, where he became the ANC’s treasurer general in exile. That was the last time MaKotane saw her husband alive.
He suffered a stroke in Tanzania and was sent to Moscow, Russia, for treatment where he remained until his death in 1978.
Makotane could not be at the graveside in Heroes Acre at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, where Kotane is buried alongside JB Marks and Nikita Kruschev, the former president of the Soviet Union.
Eyes teary, she said: “Walter Sisulu tried to organise for us to see the tomb. The Boers refused. I was very sad and angry.”
She recalled how, one day, when “the Boers came to Alex looking for Kotane, he hid me in the kitchen and said: ‘If I die in foreign nations, the nation must bury me there. The family must step back to allow me to be buried by the nation.’ ”
MaKotane has resisted attempts by the ANC to exhume her husband’s remains in Moscow.
“If there is anything I wish to ask, it is that his remains must be left alone in Russia. But then there is this persistence from the ANC to exhume his remains that worries me.”
MaKotane, who had five children with Kotane, preferred to speak only of Mandela and refused to be drawn on the state of the ANC and President Jacob Zuma’s leadership style.
She celebrates her 100th birthday on Sunday, nearly 50 years after her husband skipped the country.
Article published in The Star on the occasion of Mama Rebecca Kotane’s 100th birthday https://www.iol.co.za/the-star/makotane-shares-100-with-anc-1231464