Zephaniah “The Lion of Azania” Mothopeng
During the apartheid era – from 1948 when the National Party came into government until 1994 when a new political dispensation was ushered in – the settler regime treated Zephania Lekoane Mothopeng (1913 – 1990) as the number one enemy of the state. The strength of his Pan Africanist convictions, his moral courage and personal values of democracy and intellectual honesty, put Uncle Zeph through the crucibles of character that made his leadership to stand out in the national liberation struggle.
On 27 April 2014, the Jacob Zuma administration cited Mothopeng as a recipient of a lowly medal under Orders of Luthuli to celebrate the twenty years since the new phase of constitutional democracy in South Africa. Arguably, Zuma made this award as a grudge acknowledgement. He had no other choice. The struggle history is written in blood, sweat and tears, and it is personified in the life and times of Uncle Zeph Mothopeng. In treating him this way, the new government is however deliberately having Mothopeng marginalised in the same way that the settler state intentionally suppressed information about his patriotic deeds. This behaviour has since grown into a blind spot for academic researchers of the struggle period. Even modern talking heads (pundits) in the mass media tend to treat Uncle Zeph Mothopeng disdainfully as if he never happened.
This treatment is cynically in compliance with the secret Bethal Trial in which the racist state preferred to hold court proceedings in camera against Uncle Zeph and seventeen of his co-accused, to prevent the public from having access to the struggle objectives and the modus operandi of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania. The state opposed an accessible, open court. In his lifetime, Uncle Zeph was widely acknowledged as the second most senior personality in the PAC leadership after Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.
His life in the anti-apartheid struggle is described as “an epic of suffering and endurance”. Developing in stature from among the founders of the Congress Youth League in the mid-forties, he went on to lead the teachers’ campaign against the Bantu Education bills in 1953 and was expelled from teaching by the state. He defended the 1949 Programme of Action against the rise of the Charterists from 1955 when they took control of the African National Congress. He led the processes that brought about the formation of the PAC in 1959, and he was at the forefront of its ground breaking Positive Action campaign against the pass laws on 21 March 1960. Positive Action was defined by Pan Africanists as the application of non-violent mass action in the form of strikes, boycotts and non-collaboration with the oppressive authorities. Uncle Zeph played a leading role in the PAC underground movement that started the armed insurrection through mass-based organisations like Poqo, AmaJakopa and others in 1961-64. He also pledged overt support for the Black Consciousness movement in the early seventies, and is credited for masterminding the popular uprisings of 1976. Upon his release on grounds of ill health in 1988, the new struggle generation called him the Lion of Azania.
His contemporaries in the leadership of rival organisations seemed to all agree that Mothopeng was the most tortured among them: In April 1996 Govan Mbeki testified at the TRC that while in detention in 1962 at the Pretoria Central Prison under the 90 day law, he witnessed torture wounds on Mothopeng’s body, and had heard him writhing in agony in his cell at night. Mothopeng fearlessly continued to register his protest against the security police. Mbeki was four cells down from Mothopeng.
Harold Strachan, a progressive journalist, wrote that while in detention he saw Mothopeng in an inner courtyard, tied all over in a straitjacket and rolling around on the floor, screaming at the top of his lungs. No other detainee or leader at the time was at the receiving end of this type of hot stick, beastly torture and violation of human rights.
The indictment in the secret Bethal Trial catalogues Uncle Zeph’s revival of the PAC on Robben Island maximum prison from 1963; his position as a nodal point for covert activities of the banned PAC’s internal operatives and the mission in exile; and overt alliance with youth, students, women, workers, rural folks, business, political formations and faith-based communities.
The deputy attorney general of the Transvaal, PG Haasbroek, in leading the prosecution, argued against an open court and convinced the judge to hold a secret trial. He said his 165 witnesses would be imperilled and ‘have their throats cut’ since the PAC was known for getting rid of its traitors and defectors. The court ruling was that no person without a press card from the Commissioner of Police would be admitted to report on the Bethal Trial.
The Newspaper Press Union, an organisation of newspaper owners, colluded with the police to selectively issue the press cards out to hacks, to the exclusion of black reporters. The South African Press Association (SAPA) and the Argus stable newspaper, The Star, withdrew their journalists from covering the Bethal Trial, saying it was costly to send staff 200km from their offices and provide allowances for food and accommodation. They became part of the conspiracy of silence against the PAC.
A political scientist from the Rand Afrikaans University, Chris Johannes Van Der Merwe, gave expert witness that the PAC’s official ideology meant ‘that in the future the wealth in the present settler-colonial society will be owned and consumed by all the people, first according to their individual productivity and ultimately in accordance with their actual needs.’ This, he argued, was a brand of communism espoused by the Peoples Republic of China. He said the PAC had chosen armed revolution as its principal form of struggle, and people’s war as the highest form of that struggle. In this way, the RAU academic justified the reasons for a secret trial.
When Uncle Zeph read out a statement refusing to plead before a whites-only judiciary, Justice Curlewis stopped him in his tracks and then struck the statement off the court records, adjourning the court for the day. These incidents started the eighteen months long proceedings. The transcripts of the court records are more than 7000 pages long, excluding exhibit documents. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in a version of the story of the PAC from 1963 to 1976.
Evolving from being outlawed in 1960, the PAC focused its renewed energy on transforming itself into a revolutionary Party with an advanced scientific theory and methods of practise. It could no longer be everything to everybody. It also reformulated the Army into the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA), adapting Mao Zedong’s guerrilla warfare strategies. Working in tandem with mass-based organisations in a patriotic United Front was also part of the strategic objective. The philosophy of Pan Africanism, as a basis for unity, accommodated all persuasions and schools of thought to work together for the emancipation of African people from white domination and colonial subjugation at home and in the diaspora, and to attain the right to self-determination in order to assume state power and improve their quality of life. It opposes colonial borders and advocates for a single unitary government for Africa.
Forever the able choirmaster, Uncle Zeph crafted together all the discordant, promising and best voices into a harmonious national symphony orchestra singing from the same score sheet. Even those who were laid back or trapped in the stagnant past, he patiently brought them into the fold. To those who broke down during torture and were forced to become state witnesses against him and his comrades, including in other unrelated cases, he extended a hand of forgiveness and reconciliation. Uncle Zeph was a true and trusted democrat.
In detention under the draconian Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, four Party operatives linked to the Bethal Trial were murdered by the security police. Samuel Malinga – underground operative and courier between the PAC leaders in exile, Uncle Zeph in Soweto, and Mangaliso Sobukwe in Kimberley. Aaron Khoza – ex-political prisoner and activist working with youth in Kagiso Township. Dr Naboth Ntshuntsha – an intellectual with a keen sense of the mass line and a PAC leader in the Soweto underground unit. Bonaventure Sipho Malaza – student leader at Masupatsela High School in Kagiso.
Johnson Nyathi accused number fourteen, survived death after being thrown from a four storey security police building in Krugersdorp. He charged officers Schoeman and Smith for the deed, in which they were assisted by black policemen, but the matter was dismissed by the courts. He attended the trial with crutches and plaster of Paris on both of his legs.
A pack of notorious torture specialists and seasoned policemen were assigned from security branch head office at Compol building in Pretoria to deal with potential witnesses and the accused during detention. Spyker Van Wyk already had the blood of Imam Abdul Haron on his hands. The Imam was martyred whilst in detention for PAC underground activities in Cape Town in 1969. The other officers were Gert Visser, Andre Van Heerden Beukes, Theunis Adriaan Steyn, Cornelius Botha and their leader Major Erasmus.
Dealt out worse treatment by the security police, a coterie of brave women comrades stood out, whom the courts also regarded as accomplices and hostile witnesses. These are Frozzy Shandu ka Mbatha – who criss-crossed the length and breadth of the country with former Robben Island prisoner and political commissar returned from the PAC headquarters in Tanzania, Saki Mafatshe; Cindy Radley – a teacher at Alexandra High School ridiculously detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act for having been introduced to Mark Shinners and Bennie Ntoele; Lenah Mawela – a beautician and fashion model responsible for transporting recruits for military training abroad and taking members of the Soweto Students Representative Council leadership to Swaziland and Botswana; Victoria Makheta – who led a special PAC underground communications unit and was forced to testify against her common law husband, Moffat Zungu; and, Mado Dorcas Mosweu – an adult literacy practitioner and colleague of both Dan Matsobane and Uncle Zeph at the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre and the Urban Resource Centre respectively.
Contrarily, some fairly credible PAC members, with the experience of joining the Party from inception in 1959 and participating in its early campaigns, shamelessly turned their backs on Uncle Zeph and the other trialists, and willingly gave damaging evidence in favour of the state. The prosecution had said that the PAC’s oath of allegiance had taken the place of religious vows among its hard core members. It was difficult to get defectors. They however found in this group their true partners in crime.
Enoch Mngomezulu, the first witness, was seen during breaks getting briefings from security branch police. He was the Zondi branch chairperson in 1959. In 1962 he was found with a name list of underground leaders in the Transvaal, leading to mass arrests. He then served six years in prison from 1963. He admitted to betraying the leadership’s trust in him. He formed a faction to divide the Party with Selby Ngendane in prison. Mngomezulu blatantly sold out Sam Malinga and John Ganya to the police.
Pascot Vakalisa revealed details of the source of funding for the underground activities. He connected Malinga and Ganya to their several visits to Sobukwe. Vakalisa and Mngomezulu were old friends.
Joas Baker Mogale confessed to having led an anti-communist group within the PAC on Robben Island. With Mngomezulu, Vakalisa, and others, they belonged to a faction that followed Selby Ngendane. They refused to identify with the PAC’s Marxist views. He testified against Mark Shinners and Bennie Ntoele. Mogale said the majority of PAC members identified with Uncle Zeph’s leadership until his release and with member of the Presidential Council, John Pokela, when he arrived on the Island in 1967.
John Moeketsi Mahapa pointed Ganya out at an identity parade. He sang like a canary and worked with the police in Krugerdorp against his own comrades. Mahapa had belonged to the Orlando East branch, and on Robben Island prison he was with the so-called Inner Core grouping under Ngendane’s guidance. They refused to acknowledge the rural folks arrested for Poqo activities as bonafide PAC members. They were also opposed to the teachings of Uncle Zeph on revolutionary Pan Africanism. According to Mahapa, Ngendane taught them about African Nationalism and the concept of Five Social Butterflies. He denied even having attended the wedding ceremony of Mark Shinners up the street from his place in Orlando. The defence submitted a photo of the wedding ceremony in which he appears.
The others in this league included Mountain Mathebula, Joseph Mogashoa, Silas Ntengo and Stephen Kwapeng. They had become disgruntled with the struggle after the 1963 swoop on the PAC underground. They looked up to Ngendane, who had a fierce communist phobia, and according to Mothopeng in the court records, ‘was a stubborn man who wanted to have the last word in a debate’.
Bathembu Bethuel Lugulwana of the Comrades Movement in Cape Town knowingly testified against Vuyisile Dlova, Mpazamo Yonana, Julius Landingwe and Zolile Ghost Ndindwa.
Young Masupatsela High students testified against Uncle Zeph and Mike Matsobane. Adam Kunupi and Papuis Rasegomela Seroka both gave evidence that at a meeting organised by Matsobane in Kagiso around April 1976 Uncle Zeph briefed the more than fifteen participants on the impending strikes that would be started by school children and spread throughout the country. The PAC would take over the leadership of stay-away and boycotts to weaken the economy. The date was not fixed for these uprisings but an alarm would ring. This will be the beginning of the end for white rule. The witnesses told the court that Mike Matsobane in closing the meeting said the tree of liberation is watered by blood. Then on 16 June 1976 in Soweto, Uncle Zeph’s prediction happened.
Mike Sello Matsobane organised the youth into the Young African Religious Movement, as a platform to raise awareness of the inequalities in society. The bible could be used for good purposes and contextualised in advancing the national freedom struggle. He interacted with the South African Council of Churches, mobilising the then Anglican Dean of Johannesburg, Desmond Tutu, to participate in social activities in Kagiso. He revived the PAC underground and worked with Uncle Zeph in the Urban Resource Centre.
Mark Shinners, Bennie Ntoele and Saki Mafatshe, in the greater Pretoria area, painstakingly started afresh from where they left off in 1963 after serving ten years each in prison on Robben Island. They familiarised themselves with new developments in the Party and led the development of a cell system with units of up to three. They learnt not to repeat the mistakes of the sixties with bigger units making room for enemy infiltration. They distributed banned literature with disguised covers and titles such as Uhambo Lomhambi, Izibongo Zamakhosi, Buka ya go Buisa, and Modisa ea Molemo. These were the PAC’s Basic Documents, Policies and Programmes of the PAC (1972), Azania News, Azania Combat and New Road of the Revolution.
Mafatshe skipped the country but came back after a year to establish pockets of dynamizing groups and underground cells to work on Party building and continue recruiting for the Army. He travelled to all the major cities and areas where PAC operatives stayed in the four provinces distributing literature and giving political instructions. On the advice of Uncle Zeph, he was based in Lobatse, Botswana, where he worked with Black Consciousness leaders like Bokwe Mafuna, Welile Nhlapho and Jeff Baqwa, but was disappointed when the envisaged united front with Azania Tendency formations broke down. The police dragnet inside South Africa that hunted Mafatshe high and low failed to nail him down. He was the real Scarlet Pimpernel character who was never caught.
Like Mafatshe, Vuyisile Dlova established a network of underground operatives in the Transkei and Western Cape and linked them up with contacts in the Witwatersrand and the PAC in Swaziland and Botswana. Dlova interacted with the Black Consciousness structures and with select study groups following the ideas of the All Africa Convention. The Bethal Trial records portray his sweeping swift movements throughout the country linking up with leaders of the underground cell units, providing logistics support. He also evaded the police and was sent to exile.
Working with John Ganya, they had operated with Sabelo Phama (Victor Gqweta), Ngubeni April kaNkophe, and university lecturers like Mbulelo Mzamane and Kwesi Kwaa Prah in Botswana. Ganya was arrested using a nom de guerre at a safe house in Dinokana near Zeerust, after travelling clandestinely to and from the PAC headquarters in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He worked with Ntshuntsha and Sithembele Khala to politically guide the rising militants behind the Soweto 1976 uprisings.
During the trial, Ganya was not allowed inside the court because he ‘interfered with witnesses or took a threatening attitude and made it impossible for the continuation of the case’. Ganya believed that the court was an instrument of the oppressors, led by a white presiding officer naturally biased against the accused in a case like that in Bethal. The security
branch police had tortured him severely with no protection from the magistrate who visited detainees under the Terrorism Act. On why he did not trust good cops, he said: “A mouse will never go along with a cat, no matter how liberal and nice the cat was. The mouse will always expect to be caught by the paws of the cat.”
Giving defence testimony, Uncle Zeph stamped his belief that Pan Africanism was for him “a way of life, an entire outlook with political, social and economic sides to it. Pan Africanism had grown to become a philosophy of life. All the states in Africa must eventually unite into one country and one government – that would be the best thing for the African people and for the continent.”
The Mothopengs were family friends with the Sobukwes. SASO leader, Mapetla Mohapi, brought a message from Robert Sobukwe to Uncle Zeph in June 1975, at a leadership conference held in Hammanskraal that Prof urgently needed to see him. He then arranged two trips, with the assistance of news reporter Joe Thloloe, to pay a visit to Sobukwe in Kimberley. On 22 July 1975 at a lunch hosted by Prof’s friend, Ahmed Laher, Sobukwe asked him to tell the world that the security branch police poisoned him on Robben Island. Sobukwe said he was taken to the hospital when he reacted to the poisoning, and kept away from contact with his family and legal representatives. When the illness subsided, he was then banished to Galeshewe in Kimberley. Sobukwe’s health was deteriorating as a result of the poisoning. State witness and Drum magazine photographer, Mike Mzileni, accompanied Uncle Zeph to the Kimberley.
The Bethal Trial named Sobukwe as the chief co-conspirator to overthrow the state. There were 87 other co-conspirators. The interview by journalist, Les Payne, conducted with Sobukwe on 27 November 1976, and re-published in Azania Combat in the January to April 1977 edition, quotes the PAC president saying, “Soweto has been a lesson in overcoming the fear of the gun. Now we too can get the gun, and it appears that confrontation is inevitable.” Sharpeville was a lesson in overcoming the fear of prison.
Towards the end of the trial, Judge J Curlewis mockingly refers to the visit to the Swazi king, Sobhuza, by the PAC’s Acting President after which the Bethal Trial’s named co-conspirators based in Swaziland were arrested. These are Joe Mkhwanazi, Joe Moabi, Pitika Ntuli, Bicca Maseko, Dan Mdluli, and APLA high command members Garson Ndlovu and Enoch Zulu. The Swaziland authorities expelled them from the country after a long spell of detention without trial.
In this essay we try to demonstrate with cold facts how the PAC – led by Uncle Zeph, his co-accused, and co-conspirators – spread its tentacles into the broader society, side by side with mass organisations, sharpening the life and death contradictions with apartheid settler-colonial regime. In return the racist authorities clamped down on the Party and regarded its leadership as enemies of the state. No doubts about it, counter-intelligence forces infiltrated the Party and sowed seeds of division at every level to liquidate the growing influence of the PAC. As a result, there has been a stunted growth of the Party. This setback affected the progress of the struggle, but could not completely stop it. The PAC in present times needs to renew itself and continue with the national mandate of leading the African Revolution. The new generation of Party membership and students of geopolitics would need to access as clear and truthful history of the PAC as possible in order to carry their rich inheritance with them into the future. None should have the excuse to say, we did not know.
By Jaki Seroke
The writer is a strategic management consultant, chairperson of the Pan Africanist Research Institute (PARI) and a former Secretary for Political Affairs in the PAC (1992-1994).
1. The Bethal Trialists, with their ages in 1978 in brackets, were: 1. Zephania Mothopeng (65) – founder member of the PAC and chairman of the inaugural conference; 2. John Ganya (48) – mineworker and senior cadre of the PAC underground; 3. Mark Shinners (37) – PAC leader and strategist based in Pretoria; 4. Bennie Ntoele (38) – PAC leader and underground operative in Mamelodi; 5. Hamilton Keke (42) – PAC leader in Border area of the Eastern Cape; 6. Sithembele Khala (24) – Orlando West high school delegate at the SSRC and operative of the PAC underground unit; 7. Alfred Ntshalinthsali (47) – Swaziland national and taxi driver; 8. Julius Landingwe (30) – Black consciousness leader and organiser of the National African Youth Organisation; 9. Zolile Ghost Ndindwa (26) – Cape Town based Black Consciousness leader; 10. Moffat Zungu (28) – chief photographer at the World newspaper; 11. Mhlophe Goodwill Moni (24) – student leader in the Western Cape and PAC operative; 12. Jerome Kodisang (26) – APLA guerrilla trained in Uganda, Sudan, Egypt and Libya; 13. Sello Mike Matsobane (36) – PAC leader and founder of the Young African Religious Movement; 14. Johnson Nyathi (32) – long standing PAC operative and Kagiso community leader; 15. Themba Hlatswayo (21) – Chairperson of the SRC in Kagiso and PAC underground operative; 16. Molatlhegi Tlhale (22) – student representative council leader in Kagiso; 17. Rodney Tsholetsane (20) – student leader in Kagiso; and, 18. Daniel Bizza Matsobane (31) – SASO member and adult literacy head at Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre.
2. SAIRR, Security trials 1958 – 1982. Box 4 – Bethal Trial. In the Supreme Court of South Africa, South-Eastern Local Division, 1978. http://www.historicalpapers.wits.ac.za/?inventory/U/collections&c=AD2021/R/V
3. Pogrund, Benjamin. (2000): War of Words – Memoir of a South African Journalist. New York. Seven Stones Press.
4. Hlongwane, Khangela Ali. The Lion of Azania – the Biography of Zephania Lekoane Mothopeng. (Unpublished manuscript)