Zephaniah “The Lion of Azania” Mothopeng

The 23rd October 2010 marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) founding member and its second President, Zephaniah Lekoane Mothopeng. He was fondly known as “Uncle Zeph” and “The Lion of Azania” because of his uncompromising and non-collaborationist stance. Zephaniah Mothopeng is one of those great African thinkers and intrepid freedom fighters whose contribution to our struggle for liberation has not been acknowledged the way it is supposed to be.

Uncle Zeph was also a founding member of the Congress Youth League in 1943 with Anton Lembede, Ashby Peter Mda and those we always hear about in the media. Born in the Free State on 10 September 1913, he attended Primary school there and completed High School in St. Peters, Rosettenville in 1937 where he was three grades ahead of the late Professor Eskia Mphahlele. As fate would have it, they also worked together as teachers at Orlando High School and later expelled together in 1952 and went to teach in Lesotho.

Mothopeng was among the first graduates in the country to complete a post matric Teachers Diploma. He completed his Teachers’ Diploma at Adams College after which he went to teach at Orlando High in 1941 and subsequently became Deputy Principal. He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree through UNISA in 1946. His Alma Mater, under Barney Pityana still seems unwilling to honour its former student posthumously or naming something at UNISA after him.

As a teacher at Orlando High he used to invite his friends Lembede and Mda to give lectures to students and this we hardly hear about in the media. Those who are ignorant of the relationship between Mothopeng and Lembede would be forgiven to think they never knew each other. He was an excellent Mathematics teacher and a superb Choir Master. One wonders why the PAC doesn’t have a choir of its own to emulate its second president and to honour him.

Mothopeng fought for better working conditions and remuneration for African teachers in the 1940’s and was eventually elected President of the Transvaal African Teachers Association (TATA), now known as the Professional Educators Union (PEU) which hasn’t made an effort to honour him. Mothopeng was known for his hard-hitting speeches as TATA President.

The Einselen Report of 1950/51 which recommended that African children be taught an inferior type of education called Bantu Education was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Mothopeng was fiercely against the introduction of Bantu Education and rallied support against it far and wide until Apartheid authorities expelled him. Mothopeng’s campaign generated resistance against Bantu Education. Had Apartheid authorities heeded Mothopeng, there wouldn’t have been the June 16, 1976 student uprisings.

Mothopeng was one of the leading Africanists who broke away from the ANC in 1958 and formed the PAC in 1959. They had their publication called The Africanist. I don’t think he would be impressed with the idea of a Media Appeals Tribunal and the Protection of Information bill which makes a mockery of the freedom for which they fought with their lives. The Lion of Azania was one of the organizers of the 1960 Anti-Pass campaign together with PAC founding President Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe which culminated in the shooting of peaceful demonstrators at Sharpeville and Langa on the 21st March 1960.

He was arrested following the anti-pass campaign and sentenced to a two year jail term which he served at Stofberg Prison. After his release he was rearrested in 1963 and convicted in 1964 for promoting the aims of the PAC and served time on Robben Island. On Robben Island he was kept in isolation because the Apartheid regime feared him just as they feared Sobukwe. He was released in 1967 and immediately banished to Wietsieshoek in the Free State. By the end of the year his banning orders were amended to permit him to return to his house in Phomolong. In the 1970’s he continued his underground work and also visited Sobukwe who was banished to Kimberly.

During the heydays of the South African Student Organisation (SASO), Uncle Zeph was occasionally invited to address them as in 1974/75 when he gave a lecture on Imperialist Penetration of African Universities. This was when the Soweto Uprisings were nigh for which he was jailed after the end of the marathon Bethal Treason Trial held in camera for having predicted and organised the Soweto Uprisings. At 65 Mothopeng was sentenced to 30 years in jail in 1978 and was released in 1988.

We in the PAC believe he was poisoned by the Apartheid authorities because his health deteriorated precipitously following his release. After his release from Robben Island he paid a courtesy call to Botswana’s President Dr Ketumile Joni Masire and persuaded him to release Apla cadres from Gaborone prison. Masire obliged. Among those prisoners was Letlapa Mphahlele, the current PAC President and its sole Member of Parliament. Mphahlele wrote in his autobiography that other PAC leaders had abandoned them and left them to languish in a Botswana jail. Mphahlele was greatful and said Mothopeng showed he was a great and genuine leader.

Some of us thought that after liberation, which leaders like Mothopeng fought and died for, the democratic government will live up to our people’s expectations and turn over a new leaf, work out new concepts and try to set afoot a new man instead of an obscene caricature of Europe. The spirit of Mothopeng has flown into our hearts and shall never be dampened by a media blackout or falsified history which is written in the corridors of power as long as there are those who knew and still talk about him.

By Sam Ditshego

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