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PAC Struggle icon Mothopeng: service, suffering, sacrifice

Zephania ‘Oom Zeph’ Mothopeng, co-founder of the PAC. Pictured with his wife, Urbania Mothopeng.

Zephania ‘Oom Zeph’ Mothopeng, co-founder of the PAC. Pictured with his wife, Urbania Mothopeng.

Published Nov 14, 2023


Thembile Ndabeni

It’s unfortunate that when one political movement is in power it forgets the heroes who come from within and across the board.

Heroes and heroines here are people who fought for our freedom. It is not about whether they belonged to the ANC; the ANC does the same to its own heroes and heroines.

In the PAC, Zephania Lekoane Mothopeng, “the lion of Azania”, was mostly popular with the radical section, “the hawks”, and not the moderates, “the doves”. But comprehensively he was popular in the PAC.

Mothopeng was present in each decade of the Struggle since he joined the ANC Youth League. He was part of the formation of the ANCYL in the 1940s.

The ANCYL of his generation, the Lembedes, the Mdas, the Mandelas, the Sisulus and the Tambos, played an instrumental role in radicalising its mother-body, the ANC. They demonstrated to it that the time for taking off the hat when talking to white people was over.

This youth compelled the mother-body to adopt the 1949 Programme of Action. The programme was aimed at seeing the use of boycotts, strikes, stay-at-homes, civil disobedience and non-collaboration methods directed at the apartheid system.

The 1950s was a special decade when it came to mass-based Struggles. In 1952, the Defiance Campaign emerged. Again, “Oom Zeph” was there as an activist, not a bystander or by accident.

After the banning of the CPSA/ SACP, some of its members from the white community formed a white formation, the Congress of Democrats.

They started to have the upper hand in the ANC and that was clear enough, though hidden, and not reported in the drafting of the Freedom Charter.

This sudden shift bred Chartists, but some remained Africanists and were discontent. They tried their best to air their views, articulate their position, but unfortunately, they were not successful, resulting in the Africanists breaking away from the ANC to form the PAC. “Oom Zeph” was among those Africanists and his name also featured as a candidate for PAC president.

But he could not make it; instead, it was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe who took the reins.

The 1960s came, hardly a year after the PAC’s inception. On March 21, 1960, the PAC led an anti-pass campaign.

“Oom Zeph”, as an activist, was there again in that Struggle that captured international attention. He could not dodge prison as he became a regular, released-arrested-released-arrested. He became involved in the PAC underground work when he was out of prison.

In his sixties, he was part of the 1976 students uprising. The students of that Struggle were on average 18 years old, which is why he once said he was in the Struggle with his children/ grandchildren.

Not surprisingly, he was in that Struggle on a high note, military involvement. After he was Accused No 1, he was sentenced to a long period in jail. As Lodge and Nasson (1991:193) put it: “In 1978 he was sentenced to 15 years under the Terrorism Act”.

For health reasons, he did not finish his full sentence in prison. Lodge and Nasson again point out that: “He served 10 and was released in late 1988 a very sick man.”

Though he was late attending the “class” (participation in the Struggle) because of prison and health, after his release from prison Oom Zeph started where he left off, but from another angle, as conditions dictated.

He died on October 23, 1990, two years after his release from prison. But within a year of that decade, before he passed on, he made his presence felt, in the real sense of the word.

As a revolutionary and radical, he was opposed to negotiations, arguing that talks/negotiations should only be about the handing over of land to the people it was taken from.

He argued that what was not achieved on the battlefield could not be achieved at the negotiating table.

His stance and radical approach made him the real “lion of Azania” and therefore a darling of the Africanist youth and other radicals/ revolutionaries.

Cancer could not deter him from continuing with the Struggle, as if he was not sick.

Whether you differ with him or not, you cannot take away that he was a revolutionary from the beginning until the end.

Sobukwe died from cancer after he was released from prison, then it was his comrade.

He never divorced his “second wife”, the Struggle; instead, he was there for “her” until death did them part.

As much as attempts were made to force him to “divorce her”, including losing his teaching post, banishment, imprisonment and severe torture, he never turned his back on “her”.

October 23 marked 33 years of the death of one of the greatest freedom fighters, an Africanist from the beginning until the end. He might have not been perfect, but he clearly demonstrated what he was made of.

You might disagree with his stance on negotiations, but if you experienced and know oppression and exploitation, you will understand his take.

At times it is not about agreeing with the person, but understanding where he/she comes from and what informs their position.

There are two important things many people do not know about him – even those from his party. He wished reconciliation and unity between the PAC and the ANC to happen one day, and that one day white people might consider themselves as African.

The latter was clouded by the fact that he was a radical against negotiations and that land must be given to the people it was forcefully taken away from.

He exemplified the motto, “service, suffering, sacrifice”. He is not covered in the democracy we are living under in the history curriculum. His year of birth is historic. He was born in 1913, a year after the first national liberation movement he joined was formed. He was born in the year the notorious and historic Land Act was promulgated.

Ndabeni is a former history tutor at UWC and a former teacher at Bulumko Senior Secondary School in Khayelitsha.

Cape Times