Uncle Zeph first grabbed my attention in the 1980s when I was a young member of the Azanian National Youth Unity (AZANYU), an internal youth front of the then banned Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, and I first began to think about the meaning of his life as I prepared for a talk titled Profile of a life lived solely for struggle, which I delivered at one of the organisation’s rallies.

A few years later I enrolled for a Master of Arts degree at the University of the Witwatersrand and wrote a thesis on the life of Uncle Zeph titled To independence now! And tomorrow the United States of Africa! A biography of the life and times of Zephania Lekoame Mothopeng. After completing my studies I continued to delve deeply into Uncle Zeph’s activism, tribulations and life history to understand their meaning and implications for our society.

In his book Devil on the cross, author Ngugi wa Thiongo says:

“Our lives are a battlefield on which is fought a continuous war between the forces that are pledged to confirm our humanity and those determined to dismantle it; those who strive to build a protective wall around it, and those who wish to pull it down; those who seek to mould it, and those committed to breaking it up; those whose aim is to open our eyes, to make us see the light and look to tomorrow […] and those who wish to lull us to closing our eyes.”[1]

This war is not fought in messianic lives only but in all people. The struggles for a humane world encompass even the invisible and oftentimes voiceless masses. The individual who “is because we are” as described in African humanism can emerge as a warrior whose struggles, endurance and importantly vision can tell us something deeper about ourselves, the world we live in and the unfinished quest to radically transform our societies in contemporary Africa and the world.

The life of Uncle Zeph – already an elderly radical activist during my youthful days – provides a vehicle to grapple with the past in the present to better understand the challenges and hurdles of contemporary struggles.

Looking back as a way of forging ahead is uncomfortable, what with the many gaps and silences in the histories of people’s struggles, African struggles in particular. Fortunately for us, Mothopeng left a substantial trail of political thought including autobiographical notes, letters, songs, articles, interviews and speeches – an archive that should continue to circulate and contribute to new ideas, to the contemporary decolonisation agenda. What new liberatory perspectives do we glean from understanding Uncle Zeph’s life story?

As we commemorate his life we should probe some questions including attempting to understand the deeper significance of Uncle Zeph’s consistent struggles at various stages of his life. In his high school days, he used the debating platform to express his uneasiness with his society; during his post-high school education he revolted against the injustice of the institution where he was studying; as a teacher and parent he joined hands with others fighting against the inferior education imposed on the oppressed; as a composer, choirmaster and organiser in the arts he joined hands with others to explore cultural expression before it was referred to as ‘a weapon of struggle’ and also joined hands with others and engaged in the craft as a producer of knowledge for liberation; and in politics, he joined others as a member of the oldest liberation movement on the continent before becoming a co-founder of the Pan Africanist Congress.

Mothopeng suffered at the hands of the apartheid State, first in 1960 when he was hauled to jail with comrades of his generation; then in 1963 with comrades young enough to be his children; then in 1978 when he was 65 years old with many young enough to be his grandchildren. In the last days of his life, he was a magnet that attracted young faithfuls.

Mothopeng’s story has clear lessons for today’s students who are clamouring for decolonised education, a “decolonised today and tomorrow”, marching, protesting and demanding -language that dictated his life so many decades ago, the same vocabulary of “decolonisation”, “self-determination” and “national liberation”.

Uncle Zeph, described by the apartheid government as a “corrupter of youth”, would be happy that the youth today are not content to be caricatured as “confused, lost and self-destructive”, victims of neo-colonialism and neo-liberalism.

As we commemorate Uncle Zeph’s life, we should ask why was he so loyal to his organisation, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania – a vehicle of struggle that has been demonised and surviving many attempt to be sidelined. Was being troubled justification to cover up, obscure, distort, reverse, outlaw any trace of its positive contributions to the struggle for emancipation in South Africa? What about the vehicle’s meaning for South Africa’s freedom struggle, its victims, ideas, and victories?

Yes, there are many contributors to South Africa’s freedom struggle. Many spent their young lives or more mature years in prison and exile. Yes, there were many whose lives were cut short. And yes, many disappeared and remain mysteries. Yes, there are relatives of activists who did not consider themselves “involved” in politics but inadvertently made more sacrifices and contributions to the struggles and their experiences remain unknown. They remain as the silenced actors in the part-birth and part-miscarriage of the Azanian liberation struggle. Should they remain silent?

For us, Uncle Zeph’s life encapsulates what Ngugi wa Thiongo describes: “Resistance is the best way of keeping alive. It can take even the smallest form of saying no to injustice. If you really think you are right, you stick to your beliefs, and they will help you to survive.”[2] Throughout his life, Mothopeng refused to acquiesce whenever he saw injustice. 

by Dr Ali Khangela Hlongwane

Coming out early in November:



Ali Khangela Hlongwane

Skotaville Publishers.

[1] Nanda Dysson interviews Ngugi wa Thiongo, April 23, 2017[Accessed 30/01/2020].

[2] Kyla Marschell, Ngugi wa Thiongo: ‘Resistance is the best was of keeping alive.’ with the devil interview. Accessed 17 January 2020.