Moses Kotane

In South Africa, Freedom Day is celebrated on the 27th of April of each year. In honour of the many heroes and heroines that contributed to our freedom and political dispensation, the theme for this month’s Friday Feature covers four anti-apartheid activists who, in some way or another, contributed to South Africa’s freedom. This week, we cover Moses Mauane Kotane.

Moses Mauane Kotane was born in Tamposstad, Maphusumaneng Section, in Rustenburg in Transvaal (now North West) in 1905 on the 9th of August. He was raised in a Christian household of Tswana origins.

Growing up, Kotane received little formal schooling before entering the workforce; however he was an avid reader and taught himself in various subjects. At the age of 17, Kotane began working in Krugersdorp, there he worked as a photographer's assistant, domestic servant, miner, and bakery worker. Around the same time, he also enrolled in the Communist-run night school in Ferreirastown, Johannesburg, where he became known for his ability to master the most complex writings.

Six years later, in 1928, Kotane joined the African National Congress (ANC) but left the party, considering it weak and ineffective. Later that year, Kotane joined the African Bakers Union, an affiliate of the Federation of Non-European Trade Unions then being formed by the South African Communist Party (SACP). A year later, in 1929, Kotane joined the SACP, soon becoming a member of the party’s politburo and vice-chairman. Three years later, in 1931, Koatne became a full time functionary of SACP.

Within the Communist Party, Kotane worked on Umsebenzi, the party's newspaper. As a promising young party member, Kotane was sent to Moscow to study Marxism-Leninism at the International Lenin School for a year. In Moscow, Kotane studied under Endre Sík, a Marxist theorists and 1967 recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize,

Kotane returned to South Africa in 1933, and over the coming years he advanced through the SACP ranks to the point where he became the Party's General Secretary in 1939. Kotane held his post as general secretary until the Party was banned.

In 1943 he was invited by A.B. Xuma, then president-general of the ANC, to serve on the Atlantic Charter committee that drew up African Claims, and in 1946 he was elected to the ANC National Executive Committee, a position he held until bans forced his resignation in 1952. Following the 1946 mine strike, Kotane was subjected with other leaders of the Communist Party to two years of futile legal proceedings, while the apartheid government tried to demonstrate its determination to deal with the "Red Menace," as the Party was referred to. As in the late Treason Trial, when Kotane was also a defendant, the government eventually failed to make its case, although in the meantime the burdens on the accused were heavy.

When the Party was banned in 1950, Kotane moved from Cape Town, which had been the Party's headquarters, to Johannesburg, where he opened a furniture business in Alexandra Township. He was one of the first to be banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, but he ignored his bans to speak in support of the Defiance Campaign. In June 1952, Kotane was arrested with one of the first batches of defiers. Occasionally critical of cautious leadership in the ANC, he did not hesitate to thrust himself forward as an example of militancy. In December 1952 he was tried with other leaders of the Defiance Campaign and given a nine-month suspended sentence.

In 1955, he attended the Bandung conference of Third World leaders as an observer and remained abroad for the better part of the year, travelling widely in Asia and Eastern Europe. It was in 1956, that Kotane was charged with treason alongside fellow South African leaders Nelson Mandela, Joe Modise, Albert Luthuli, Joe Slovo, Walter Sisulu and 151 other anti-apartheid activists. Kotane remained a defendant in the Treason Trial until the charges against him were dropped in November 1958. During the 1960 state of emergency he was detained for four months; and in late 1962, he was placed under 24-hour house arrest.

In early 1963, Kotane left South Africa for Tanzania, where he became the Treasurer-General of the ANC in exile; he held this position until 1973. In the elections held in Tanzania in April 1969, he was returned to the National Executive Committee; however, Kotane later suffered a stroke and went for treatment to Moscow, where he remained until his death in 1978 on the 19th of May.

On the 1 March 2015, Moses Kotane's remains were returned to South Africa and he will be reburied on 14 March at Pella, North West.

Kotane was a well-respected member of the struggle for majority rule in South Africa by even non-communist leaders Walter Sisulu credited him as a "giant of the struggle" because of his logical and non-dogmatic approach. Kotane combined his strong convictions as a Marxist with a commitment to the goals of nationalism and a firm belief in the importance of an African leadership and initiative in the struggle for equal rights. As he rose to leading positions in both the Communist Party and the ANC, his loyalty to one organisation did not appear to be subordinate to his loyalty to the other. Even staunch anti-communists in the ANC held him in high regard for his clear-headedness as a thinker and his courage and pragmatism as a leader.

He was honoured with the Isitwalandwe Medal by the ANC in 1975. A local municipality is named after him in North West Province, South Africa, and has a memorial lecture in his name.


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