Mothopeng: An Indefatigable Revolutionary Leader

By Jaki Seroke

The late Sam Ditshego would certainly have decried the crass ignorance of popular media political  content decision-makers for missing out on timeously bringing to the fore the thirty years, on 23 October 2020, when Zephania Lekoame Mothopeng, popularly known as the Lion of Azania, died on the same day in 1990.

This was a highly significant occasion for the Azanian tendency in the liberation struggle that could  only be missed by subjective  editors soaked in biased preconceptions and the standard fare of fixation with the narrative of the Rivonia Trialists.

Ditshego would have used his sharp criticism in their letters to the editor pages to condemn this confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is when the journalists write stories that confirm their existing blinkered beliefs, and reject the unvarnished truth that goes against what they are prejudiced to believe. Heaven help thina sonke who have to read lies and distortions under these circumstances.

The saving grace is that a new book on Zephania Mothopeng is hitting the bookshelves in late November 2020, and readers would now have unrestricted attention to get to grips with the unbiased life story of the Lion of Azania.

It will reveal why the ‘condemnation of his memory’ in the official South African historical records by the powers that be is such a sacrilege. Sectarian prejudice, such as the unavailability of the statue of this powerful Africanist leader – who played a crucial role during the dark days of apartheid – when a heavily funded state project on struggle heroes has unleashed more than a hundred of historic figures.

Suppressing collective memory by using state resources is similar to taking the low path, leading to ghastly doom.  Empires have fallen in world history for choosing to lie to the multitudes. The truth will always out.

In ‘The Lion of Azania – The Biography of Zephania Lekoame Mothopeng (1913 to 1990)’, Ali Khangela Hlongwane, an activist with Azanyu forces then and now a research fellow of the Wits History Workshop, meticulously records the life of a freedom  fighter from the days of his early education in St Peters Secondary School, Adams College and even through correspondence with the University of  South Africa.

Mothopeng was a student leader in the same class with an equally prominent historic figure, OR Tambo. The class picture, which is exhibited at the Wattville-based Oliver Reginald Tambo Centre  in the City of Ekurhuleni, shows Mothopeng in ragged army boots and khaki clothing towering over others in suits and ties at a very young age. He was rebellious against  colonial power structures.

Hlongwane details the interaction with Pixley ka Isaka Seme, then ANC president, in Mothopeng’s journeys to Daggakraal in the eastern Transvaal of the time where both of them lived. Seme advocated African Renaissance and made a lasting impression on young Zeph.

Mothopeng’s family was impoverished by the draconian laws of settler colony that restricted cattle stock numbers to only a few and deliberately sabotaged enterprising African farmers by removing them off fertile land.

He vowed to himself to change these oppressive conditions. He took to education as a weapon to acquire knowledge and a better understanding of the struggle for national liberation.

Revolutionaries are equally affected by the full spectrum of the human condition too. Mothopeng fell for a young Sophiatown beauty, Urbania Bebe Lonake. She says ‘the poor chap suffered’ for a long time before they could get to a yes. They later married and raised a family. They secured a municipal house at the corner of Pela and Maseko Streets in Orlando West.

Mothopeng associated with the young intelligentsia in Orlando, and co-founded the Congress Youth League in 1943 with Muziwakhe Lembede, Ashby Peter Mda, Peter Raboroko, and others. They became the rockbed of the Africanist Movement in the African National Congress  and went on to successfully  sponsor the adoption of the 1949 Programme of Action at the Bloemfontein conference. The ANC from then onwards changed from an elitist organisation to a mass based movement.

In the field of education, Mothopeng, Es’kia Mphahlele and Isaac Matlhare were founder members of the Transvaal African Teachers Association and mobilised teachers in the Transvaal to vigorously oppose the Bantu Education Bills.

For their troubles, the trio were  expelled and banished from teaching. Mothopeng went to teach in Lesotho for eighteen months. He found the Basotholand Protectorate equally disdainful of any African progress.  He worked with political leaders of Basotholand Congress Party (BCP) in mobilising a power base of anti-colonial struggles.

Zeph Mothopeng had used his house in Orlando West to host the new thought leaders disenchanted with the 1955 Freedom Charter, and to plan and hold engaging debates with their rivals. They became the most organised African-centred ideologues. They advocated an Africanist position within the framework of the broader ANC.

Mothopeng was the first to speak at the historic 1958 Transvaal conference held at Orlando Communal Hall, presided over by the then president Chief Albert Luthuli and deputy OR Tambo, when the vexation over the Freedom Charter was discussed.  He stated that ‘the struggle was between oppressor and oppressed, coloniser and colonised.’ The Freedom Charter rubbished that position with aimless sophistry, he told conference.

Albert Luthuli said the Africanists were proponents of narrow nationalism. Robert Sobukwe, a Wits University academic, responded that African Nationalism was continent wide and embraced all descendants of Africa wherever they were in the world. He said narrow nationalism could be described as tribalism and ethnicity, while their brand of African Nationalism was inspired by a new democracy that recognised the right to self determination of all indigenous people.  Sobukwe stood four square behind Zeph Mothopeng in the conference debate.

The conference was eventually  split into two opposing views. Luthuli and Tambo organised their supporters to bring in armed groups from Alexandra township  the following day on 2 November 1958. It was a clear bifurcation on the grounds of policy differences. The rest is the history of the origins of the Africanists.

The Pan Africanist Congress was established five months later at the same hall. Mothopeng was the Speaker at the ‘Convention of the Africanists.’ He was held in high esteem by both supporters and opponents in the contested political leadership of the struggle.

The PAC’s Basic Documents consisting of Sobukwe’s Speeches, the Constitution, which was drafted by Mothopeng, the Africanist Manifesto drafted by Peter Raboroko, and they jointly with ZB Molete worked on the Disciplinary Code. The first three aims and objectives of the PAC Constitution were taken from the 1949 Programme of Action.

Hlongwane’s book issues out lesser known information to point out that Mothopeng was indefatigable in the resistance of apartheid and settler-colonialism. He kept rising up each time he fell, he came back for the next round each time the break in boxing ended and the bell rang.

On 21 March 1960, he accompanied his wife to the hospital taking their son, John, for treatment  when he had severe glaucoma. He then rushed to Orlando police station afterwards for the Positive Action Campaign against the pass laws. He was convicted with Sobukwe and twenty one other leaders for undermining the settler state.

He was convicted again in 1963 for leading the underground Poqo Insurrection. He spent time on Robben Island prison. He was afterwards banished to Witsieshoek in the rural Orange Free State province. When his restriction orders were relaxed, he returned to activism in his home base of Orlando West.

He worked with the leaders of SASO and Black Community Programmes. In 1975 he declined to take presidency of the Black Peoples Convention, without disclosing his underground leadership role in the banned PAC.

He was with ‘your grand parents in 1945, your parents in 1960, and with you, the youth of 1976.’ He refused to throw in the towel in 1990 when the CODESA negotiations were first mooted by FW De Klerk. He taught his followers that negotiations were a site of struggle. Mothopeng stood for total national liberation.

To young people, Mothopeng was a pearl of wisdom and a fountain of struggle knowledge.

The secret Bethal Trial is an indictment of his leadership of the underground PAC front from1963 up to the countrywide events of 1976. In 1979 he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, with seventeen other co-accused. They had used Paulo Freire’s ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ to mobilise the illiterate in order that they grasp that theirs was a cornerstone role in the national liberation struggle.

He told the ‘hanging judge’ in the Bethal Trial, Judge Curlewis, that for him revolutionary ‘Pan Africanism was a way of life’.

The Central Committee of the PAC Mission in Exile, in consultation with the underground leaders, nominated him president in 1986 while he was in prison. He was ailing of throat cancer at the time. In 1988, he was released unconditionally on humanitarian grounds, with the ANC’s ailing Harry Gwala.

Young people in the trenches of the struggle agreed with the description first made by Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, in a telephone conversation with the PAC representative at the United Nations, David Sibeko, that ‘uyibhubezi uZeph.’ The monicker ‘lion of Azania’ was popularised.

The book includes a moving letter to Zeph, hand written by his only daughter, Sheila Masote. It also has Mothopeng’s documents and political responses to the challenges he faced once out of prison.

The author first submitted the biography as part-fulfilment of a masters thesis at Witswatersrand University. He researched further information and accessed the security branch files on Zeph Mothopeng. It’s an ongoing study. Certainly, Zeph Mothopeng will continue to inspire new generations of scholars and writers.

Ditshego would have gladly boasted the publication of a Mothopeng biography, written by one of his colleagues in the Pan Africanist Research Institute of Azania.

The book is available at leading book stores. 

Jaki Seroke is PAC Secretary for Publicity and Information

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