One of long-standing contentious points regarding the recognition of the contribution of other struggle stalwarts belonging to liberation movements other than the ruling ANC has been assuaged, although begrudgingly welcomed by the family of the subject concerned, when the City of Johannesburg renamed Pela Street in Orlando West after the late erstwhile Pan Africanist Congress of Azania president, Zephania Mothopeng – on the eve of the 26th anniversary of his passing.
The street renaming ceremony took place outside the notable family’s house which itself has been turned into one of the country’s monuments, on the corner of Maseko and Zephania Mothopeng streets – presided over by new MMC of Community Development, Clr. Nonhlanla Sifumba.
Sifumba was helped to unfurl the veil on the brand new street sign by Mothopeng’s nephew, Tseko – whilst the PAC stalwart’s son, John, daughter, Sheila, extended family members as well as friends and party comrades such as Dr Motsoko Pheko looked cheeringly on proceedings.
Situated on a corner of vicinity described as a hotbed of struggle, the Mothopeng house is a stone’s throw away from the Holy Cross Anglican Church where he was a choirmaster, and adjacent to the famous Uncle Tom’s Hall and the Hector Pieterson Museum – and on Saturday, it also formed part of his legacy’s commemoration when symbolic wreaths were laid in its grounds by the MMC and Mothopeng’s daughter, Sheila Masote as part of a re-dedication of the heritage plaque.
Part two of the day’s proceedings had the sizable party adjoining to the nearby Uncle Tom’s Hall for the delivery of a lecture on the life and legacy of an indomitable figure referred to as a lion by Mangaliso Sobukwe back in 1977 – by academic, Professor Sipho Shabalala.
Before Shabalala’s address, the audience, who included music impresario and Mothopeng’s son-in-law, Mike Masote, party prisoner on day parole, Kenny Motsamai, Executive Director of the Press Council of South Africa, Joe Tlholoe, diva Abigail Kubeka, past and present councilors, rank and file comrades and young and old enthusiasts – caught a glimpse of a speech Mothopeng once delivered at the Harare International Conference Centre, which was beamed from flat TV screens.
Bitter-sweet reminiscences of the lion of Azania’s life were heard and ranged from lows such as how the then apartheid regime had to force Mothopeng to literally view the proceedings of his only daughter, Sheila’s wedding celebration from his bedroom window, since they had him under house arrest and how his wife, Urbania was banished from teaching indefinitely – to the mention of a distinctive high such as when his choir was chosen to entertain King George on the monarch’s visit to South Africa.
Once a member of the ANC Youth League and later, part of a group of Africanists who broke away from the ANC in 1958 to form the PAC, Mothopeng back in the 60’s garnered a reputation as something of a serial political prisoner when, in 1960, he got arrested and sentenced to two years for his role in organizing PAC campaigns, under the suppression of communism Act.
Upon release, he was re-arrested in 1963 and convicted in 1964 for promoting the aims of the PAC and his detention saw him spend time in several prisons such as the Pretoria, Boksburg and Robben Island. Released in 1967, he immediately got slapped with a banning order which had him banished to Witsieshoek in the Free State.
In the 70’s, he continued doing underground work for the PAC and together with former Robben Island inmates, a recruitment programme was established with the movement in Swaziland. 1976 saw him arrested once again and at his trial, he was charged with promoting the aims of the PAC and together with his co-accused, refused to plea, arguing that the court was illegitimate and did not have a mandate from the African people. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
A Mathematics teacher at Orlando Secondary School from 1941
and an instigator of the 1976 student revolt, the PAC elected him president in 1986, and in 1988 Mothopeng was released from Robben Island. “Nobody can chain me while I am in Africa”, he had declared back in 1969.
When Shabalala’s allotted moment arrived, he begun by recalling what fellow academic, Ezekiel Mphahlele had to wonder regarding Mothopeng back in 1977, “I could never fathom it Zeph, wherever you derived the stamina, the grit, to keep going back in there like a boxer who is dazed, throwing himself upon his opponent in the ring for more punishment.”
Shabalala described Mothopeng as a highly motivated and skilled mobiliser of people who used all sorts of fronts including scouts, religious, music, academic and student groups to mobilise youth against racist settler colonialism – adding elsewhere in his speech that the ideals for which he and his colleagues sacrificed their own and family lives were socially, politically and economically sacrosanct and non-negotiable.
Under Mothopeng’s leadership, the Transvaal Teachers Association in June 1952 in Witbank passed a resolution against Bantu education in toto and pledged themselves to the restoration of a free and universal education – pointed out the speaker.
For the most part deviating from a prepared speech which touched on issues such as decolonization, ideological outlook, socio-economic pyramids, racism, violence and crime, inequality, education, etc. – Shabalala went from chiding the ruling elite’s courting of capitalists to questioning just how is it in the present order that local business sits with a largesse of unused capital yet accompany the finance minister on international trips to seek foreign investment.
“They are,” he mockingly offered, “on an investment strike!” This got the attentive crowd cheering in acknowledgement.
He rolled on to suggest that the national fiscus should pay for education, and underlined that we should have an Act against hate speech. “You can’t start being an internationalist before you are a nationalist”, declared the bespectacled professor.
“Where is Zephania Mothopeng’s statue?” He wondered aloud whilst expressing disquiet that a foreigner who once referred to Africans as kaffirs, such as Gandhi can be honoured on these shores.
Shabalala’s question has been on the Mothopeng clan’s and party comrades’ minds for quiet a while too since engagement with authorities regarding some form of recognition for the late leaders’ role in the country’s transition to a democratic order.
In media interviews at the family home just after the re-dedication of the heritage plaque, Mothopeng’s son, John, and daughter, Sheila as well as some family members expressed their gratitude to government whilst also pointing out that the recognition of the patriarch could have went some more way than were the case.
John even noted that the newly renamed street happen to be on a short track of all routes it could have been mapped across.
‘Twas a day where young nephews, nieces, granddaughters and sons who accompanied adults and elders were made aware of one of the prominent contributors to the country’s history tapestry – and observing them sing and chant whilst also giving the raised open palm salute, the scene made for a compelling case that uncle Zeph’s legacy is truly being preserved for posterity by partly immortalizing it with a street name!