PELA village, a rural settlement deep in the North West where villagers still live side-by-side with their livestock – from cattle, goats, pigs to ubiquitous donkeys that former Bophuthatswana strongman Lucas Mangope at one time ordered culled for “population control”, is least associated with the liberation Struggle.
Yet Pela, or Matlhako, formerly Tampostad, gave to SA one of its most illustrious sons, a political leader extraordinaire who prompted Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela to declare that without this revolutionary – Moses Mauwane Kotane – the ANC would not have grown in stature as it did.
Kotane is also credited with bringing the ANC and SACP closer by persuading stalwarts including Mandela to withdraw their suspicions of the communists.
Kotane and Govan Mbeki, father of former president Thabo Mbeki, were close comrades.
Last weekend, I was privileged to be invited to Pela for the official launch of the Moses Kotane Foundation and given a tour of the building that will be used as the headquarters.
The building is under construction in the yard where Kotane was born and bred before his anti-colonial mission drove him to spent most of his adulthood away.
Thandi Modise, the North West premier and ANC deputy secretary-general, delivered the keynote address.
Also in attendance were Kotane’s widow – MmaKotane – who recently celebrated her centenary amid well-deserved fanfare in Kliptown, Soweto, home to the founding of the Freedom Charter.
Others included Kotane’s sons – Joe, SA’s ambassador to Algeria, and his younger brother Sam, the ambassador to Senegal.
The Rev Frank Chikane, a trustee of the foundation, also attended, as did provincial leaders of the ANC, chairman Supra Mahumapelo and secretary Kabelo Mataboge.
Usually in the news for their in-fighting, that time the provincial leadership were united in their show of togetherness.
For the villagers of the little-known Pela, young and old, who braved the unfriendly, fierce August winds sweeping their dusty, meandering streets, the celebrated Kotane appears to give them a sense of importance, and perhaps political relevance.
For what one of their own means to the Struggle, and given their usual omission from the script of freedom, just looking at them milling around the new Kotane Foundation offices they resembled a forgotten community suddenly remembered.
In her speech Modise, who met Kotane in the Tanzanian capital Dar-es-Salam, where then president Julius Nyerere had allocated the ANC and PAC a part of his country to soften the hardships of life in exile, said: “In his entry to South African politics Comrade Moses Kotane, whose legacy we are also celebrating today through the opening of a foundation that honours him, advocated for an African nationalism anchored by African leadership.
“He advocated for a ‘Native Republic’ until he migrated deeper into the realities of non-racialism as a condition for building a proper working class-inspired national democratic revolution.”
To the family, Modise said: “Many in this country and the world have been named after Moses Kotane simply because he chose their freedom above being your father, brother, uncle and many other blood related titles that can be given to an individual.”
Kotane was born in abject poverty in 1905 and like many oppressed Africans, was self-taught and rose through the ranks of trade union and ANC to become one of the most highly-esteemed leaders of his era.
In the 1950s Defiance Campaign trial pictures, Kotane can be seen next to Mandela, both in elegant suits and Kotane wearing a hat.
Kotane is credited by many in the ANC as the man who single-handedly persuaded former ANC president Oliver Tambo not to quit in anger during the watershed Morogoro conference in 1969 where the ANC adopted the famous strategy and tactics plan and endorsed Tambo as legitimate president.
Tambo had been acting president after the death of Chief Albert Luthuli in 1967.
The death of Kotane in the Russian capital Moscow, where his remains lie buried to this day, reflects the close ties the ANC has had over many years with Russia – ties formed and cemented by Kotane who was also chief fund-raiser for the party during the early difficult years in exile.
Joe, in an interview this week said that SA’s membership of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa business communities) , is, in part, a continuation of important political and economic ties between traditional allies.
“I is a privilege to belong to Brics and my hope is that there will be many spin-offs for our people coming out of it.
“You must remember that throughout all our years in exile there were many times when it seemed like we would never return to our motherland. Countries such as Russia and China in particular contributed a lot in our Struggle for freedom,” he said.
Such is the importance of Moses Kotane in our body politic that whenever South Africans visit Russia, visiting the grave site of Kotane is as certain as day follows.
Also buried with Kotane in Moscow is another SA political giant, JB Marks.
Kotane is credited with “Africanising the early Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), which was predominantly white.
His famous quote was: “My first suggestion is that the party becomes Africanised, that the CPSA must pay special attention to South Africa and study the conditions in this country and concretise the demands of the masses from first-hand information, that we must speak the language of the (native) masses and must know their demands, that while it must not lose its international allegiance, the party must be Bolshevised and become South African not only theoretically, but in reality.”
The greatness of Kotane is indeed the greatness of Pela.
l Abbey Makoe is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Royal News Services.