Nchaupe Mokoape – a hard-boiled patriot


I was in the same Standard Six class with Nchaupe’s younger sister Barbara Makgadi Lebelo at Lethabong Primary School in Wallmansthal, just north of Pretoria. The Mokoape family are among those of us who were forcefully removed by the minority regime from that freehold area, which is now home to an army base. As we all know, the regime hated ownership of land by blacks, no matter how small.

There can be no doubt that that forced removal business must have added a layer of his consciousness about the unjustness of the system of settler-colonialism that he fought against almost all of his adult life. 

He might also have been aware of the peri-urban police who raided our homes in the small hours of the morning enforcing influx control laws. That might have added even more meaning to his involvement in the anti-pass campaign. 

In the year of that Standard Six class in 1964, I had no knowledge of Nchaupe or what he was up to. I had no idea that Makgadi, my classmate, had an older brother who was in prison or had been in prison for fighting against the pass laws. Although Nchaupe was just three years older than me, I was behind my cohorts in school due to circumstances related to our oppression. I should not have been in the same class with Makgadi.

It was only when I was active in SASO at university that I became aware of Nchaupe, but even then there was no person-to-person engagement. At a distance, I was hugely impressed by his immaculate command of the English language and his elegant articulation of the issues of our condition as black people. And he seemed to be conscious of that fact and enjoyed displaying his prowess in that respect, it seemed to me at a distance.

I later became aware of his contribution as we worked to build and grow the Black People’s Convention, the BPC, and his sterling role in that connection. It was only much later that I understood his passionate participation in the commemoration of March 21 as Heroes’ Day. After all, he was an active participant in those events. While many of us understood and supported the commemoration, to him it was just as political as it was emotional. 

His younger brother, Keith, was among the most vociferous proponents of SASO aligning itself in some way with the armed struggle at the 1972 General Student Council in Hammanskraal. He and those who felt strongly about this matter subsequently left the country to pursue the struggle from exile.

It was only much later that I was able to make the connection between the militant Mokoape brothers and my classmate, Barbara. 

And it was only on Robben Island that Nchaupe and I had a much more direct interaction. Although we were in different sections, we communicated through the clandestine courier networks managed by the prisoners. For that we had pseudo names to cover ourselves, just in case the missives fell in the hands of the system. I believe he is the one that gave me the pseudo name “Naledi”, which was probably in recognition of the fact that I was the first BC prisoner to land on the Island. Naledi became my travel name when I later went into exile.

He formed part of a number of AZAPO delegations that journeyed to Harare in Zimbabwe to confer with the BCMA, especially during the hectic periods of the Kempton Park negotiations.

He was one of those that would ask military related questions that could not be answered due to their security nature and the “need to know” imperatives. He would often not take kindly to that, considering that, as leadership, they needed to be given a little bit more information. However, we knew he wasn’t being silly, but impatient with the pace with which the liberation struggle was going.

We also knew that Nchaupe supported the armed struggle with all his heart. He would sing Mshini’wam, mshini’wam with oomph, gusto and infectious enthusiasm. He did not earn the nickname: Mshini’wam for nothing.

In my book, Triumphs & Heartaches, there is a photograph of him, Strini Moodley, Mpotseng Kgokong and myself outside the BCMA house in Harare. More often than not, he and Strini would be among those pushing hard line positions in our deliberations. Both Nchaupe and Strini had sharp tongues that could be quite bruising to those with fragile egos.

Most of us knew that Nchaupe Mokoape would not easily suffer fools. He crossed swords with many of us in the struggle, not out of malice, but out of his absolute commitment to the struggle for freedom. He could at times be a hard task master, difficult to convince or please.

He was one of those that flew into Harare to participate in consultations involving AZAPO, the PAC and the BCMA at Kadoma, meant to fashion a common position towards the negotiations taking place in the country. The discussions were often difficult, with Nchaupe Mokoape, in his unpredictable nature in meetings, being both a pain and a provider of solutions. He would make radical proposals that would be considered impractical by many, and then come up later with a written resolution that would satisfy all sides. He was particularly good at written formulations that would be just as elegant as they were functional.

From Harare, we one day received reports to the effect that the Deputy President of AZAPO, Nchaupe Mokoape, had moved a motion at a Council of the organization meeting in Seshego, Polokwane, to the effect that the military wing of the BCMA, AZANLA, should re-locate back into the country. After a tempestuous debate, the motion was actually carried. After all, the motion was moved by the Deputy President, who was also an excellent debater.

In Harare, where most of the BCMA leadership was based, the issue was discussed with sheer astonishment and disbelief.

Firstly, it put him at risk of immediate arrest by the regime.

Secondly, the regime would in all probability be forewarned by such a public demand that military people be located in the country, that is, if it was implemented.

Thirdly, it would place the cadres so re-located in mortal danger and the mission would have amounted to a suicide mission.

There were feverish clandestine consultations during the night, in Harare, in the country and across the border. The following morning, Nchaupe Mokoape moved a motion to rescind the resolution he had sponsored, to the relief of all involved.

Most of us knew that Comrade Nchaupe Mokoape was not being malicious in any way. He was an impatient man in as far as the pace of the struggle was concerned. But we also knew that in addition to his formidable intellect and oratory skills, he was also a man possessed of considerable courage.

I remember as we discussed the re-location resolution in Harare, some of us referencing the fact that Nchaupe is the same man that in his teens, joined Mangaliso Sobukwe in the anti-pass campaign. A man who in those teens of his, had shouted slogans about “No bail, no fine, no parole.” Slogans about “Service, suffering and sacrifice”. The slogan: “Forward ever, backward never”. During those teens, he had also shouted the pledge: “Never surrender”. 

These are no idle slogans. Those of us who had been arrested and or imprisoned, would tell you that it is no small matter to forsake bail and parole. Most of us wanted to get out of prison at the earliest opportunity.

So, whatever amount of time had elapsed between his teens and the resolution, a residue of that spirit of service and sacrifice had remained embedded in his inner being. 

Some among us would remember that some IFP people came up with this crazy idea that all non-Zulu speaking blacks must leave Natal, as it was known then. He had his surgery in Umlazi and he was under threat of attacks.

Comrade Raleigh Maesela talks about him and his comrades in AZASM visiting Nchaupe to persuade him to re-locate to Soweto. He told them he was going nowhere. What if this thing was to happen in Soweto as well? What then? And indeed the madness of black people maiming and killing one anther did spread to Soweto. 

One or two of our trained cadres did go to Umlazi to keep him company, just in case he was attacked. One of them told us how brave he was during those trying times and that he would say he was psychologically and politically troubled by black people wanting to harm one another in that way. But all the same, and much as he loved black people with all his heart and being, he was not going to allow anybody to harm him.

Those of us who knew him, know that he did not die a happy man. We know that he was not charmed by the democracy we have got, which does not have liberation as its content.

He was not charmed by the fact that, 26 years after the attainment of that democracy, we still haven’t instituted any meaningful land reform; that the black majority continue to own almost nothing in the South African economy; that we have not democratized the economy; that poverty has increased under our watch; that we have become the most unequal society in the world; that the education system is a shambles; that we can’t heal ourselves when sick because the hospitals and clinics are not where they are supposed to be; that we have become a lawless society; that we abuse, rape, brutalise and kill women and children; that under this democracy, we seem to love and value one another even less. 

Admitting this, those of us who are still alive should declare very clearly that the attainment of democracy was a major advance in the liberation struggle, albeit an imperfect one. At least we can now vote; we are no longer being harassed, detained, tortured and imprisoned by the minority regime. That if we had the will and the inclination, we could impact the lives of our people through our management of the budget and running an efficient, effective and corruption free state administration.

But we must also declare very clearly, that the struggle is not over, not by a long shot. The young, in particular, should gird their loins and, standing on the broad shoulders of Nchaupe Mokoape, take the struggle forward. He has bequeathed to them a proud legacy of struggle, strength and fortitude. They could look up to him as one of their shining ancestors. 

Nchaupe Mokoape’s work is done. We will miss him, for he was not only struggle and nothing else. He was also fun to be with: that easy smile; the naughty chuckle and the raucous banter.

The Mokoape family, while understandably grieving, should at the same time be proud of his work and contribution to the struggle for the liberation of his people. They should be proud of the great human being that he was. He did not just be born, ate and died. He lived a life of purpose and service to our nation.

They should weep and finish, so that the tears do not blur their vision going forward. They should produce more Nchaupe Mokoapes for this nation. They have shown us they can. 

  • Mosibudi Mangena is the former President of the Azanian People’s Organisation, ex-Minister of Science and Technology and former Deputy Minister of Education.