The occasion to celebrate the lives of the South African liberation struggle stalwarts, Moses Kotane and John Beaver (J.B.) Marks, offers us an opportunity to reflect on the common histories shared by the peoples of Russia and South Africa.
As we march towards the end of the celebrations of twenty years of South Africa’s freedom and democracy, it is important to acknowledge the pivotal role that the international community played in support of our struggle for liberation. Russia or the Soviet Union, as it was called at the time, was always a reliable companion of the South African liberation movement at different stages of our struggle. They did not only pledge solidarity with our cause, they also occupied the frontline trenches in the South African anticolonial and anti-apartheid struggles.
If we were to give a title to this address, I would call it “Sharing Common Histories; Inventing Our Future.” I would say so because both Kotane and Marks are prominent figures in the history of the relations between Russia and South Africa. Their life stories are intertwined with the rich history of the relations between these two countries, thus laying a solid foundation for a common future.
When the African National Congress (ANC), which is the ruling party in South Africa today, was listed as a terrorist group by many countries, it was the Soviet Union that supported our struggle unequivocally, offering education opportunities to political activists, providing military training to ANC cadres and financial support to the liberation movement. The ANC representatives even held a diplomatic status in Russia while many countries were turning their backs on us.
The early pioneers of the South African liberation struggle initiated contact with Moscow as far back as 1927, when one of the founding fathers of the African National Congress (ANC), Josiah Gumede, visited the USSR with a view to establishing relations. The ANC had only been in existence for about fifteen years and was overly optimistic that through political persuasion, the colonial government would ease the yoke of oppression on the indigenous people of South Africa.
The USSR was always known for producing some of the most renowned scholars and philosophers in the world, thus becoming one of the most desirable destinations for knowledge and information. It was against this backdrop that in the early 1930s, our forebears in the national liberation movement who were also members of the South African Communist Party (SACP), came to Russia to study the science of socialism. This pioneering group of cadres was comprised of key figures that were to play a prominent role in the national liberation movement, including the likes of Albert Nzula, J.B. Marks, Moses Kotane and others.
In fact, these three icons of our struggle were later to be buried in the Russian soil. Kotane was an active member and the longest serving Secretary General of the South African Communist Party (SACP), served as the Treasurer General of the ANC, and was a key figure in the formation of a progressive trade union movement in South Africa. He was sent to Russia for medical attention after being struck by a severe stroke in 1968, and succumbed to death in 1978.
Similarly, Marks had been a trade unionist, the President of African Mine Workers Union, which later changed to be the National Union of Mine Workers and the President of the Transvaal province of the ANC. He was a key figure in the Defiance Campaign and, like Kotane, he was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. He went to Russia to receive medical attention in 1971, and suffered a fatal heart attack in 1972.
These two legends played a paramount role in solidifying relations between the ANC, SACP and the South African Congress of Trade Unions, which was later to be transformed to become the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), whose alliance exists up to this day. Kotane and Marks are embodiments of the revolutionary alliance in South Africa. No other two individuals personify this alliance better than these two esteemed leaders. Highly principled, they lived the values, the ethics, and the essence of what this alliance was, and continues to be.
We will recall that the liberation movement in South Africa began in a peaceful and non-violent manner for almost five decades of its existence. The apartheid government had turned a deaf ear to negotiations and the passive resistance proved ineffective while the brutal killing of unarmed protesters continued. After the introduction of apartheid as a government system in 1948, followed by more vicious laws and continued carnage of innocent victims, the national liberation movement was forced to take the struggle to a different level – to embark on armed struggle.
When the time came for the national liberation movement to seek support from international partners, Moscow was one of the first partners to be identified. A delegation comprised of Moses Kotane, Yusuf Dadoo and other representatives of the SACP came to Moscow to discuss support for the liberation struggle in South Africa. The Soviet Union offered more than just monetary support and military training. They provided substantial humanitarian support, which included food supplies, clothes, music instruments, and vehicles. The Russian support to our cause was unconditional.
The Soviet Union was also one of the first alliances we looked up to for the training of the ANC cadres. Subsequent to the unwavering support of the Soviet Union and other parties, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, was formed in 1961. Between 1963 and 1965, over 300 ANC cadres had received military training in Russia.
After the maiming of young people during the student uprisings in 1976, followed by the killing of Steve Biko in police custody a year later, the ANC saw the need to intensify its armed struggle. In 1978, President O.R. Tambo led a delegation to the USSR where he requested assistance in the organisation of MK cadres in Angola.
At this stage, there were hundreds of MK cadres who had received intensive military training, guerrilla warfare and other methods of military confrontation, which the cadres of our movement engaged in and executed in their confrontation of apartheid operatives.
Malume Kotane and uncle JB, as they were affectionately known, were the living examples of the successful implementation of the four pillars of our revolution. The first one, Mass Mobilisation, they excelled in it through their involvement in mass action in the country and involving the array of motive forces of workers, youth, women, intelligentsia, et al.
The second pillar of our revolution, which the Underground Movement, they were the pioneers of this terrain of struggle. They mastered this terrain through building and consolidating underground work as a potent force for change.
On the third pillar, which is Armed Resistance, they ensured that many cadres of our movement received intensive military training and effectively used this pillar to overthrow a system which was dubbed by the United Nations as a “Crime against Humanity.”
The fourth pillar, the International Solidarity Movement, Kotane and Marks passed this test with flying colours. They mobilised the entire world to rally behind the liberation movement in South Africa against this colonialism of a special type.
Through the universal execution of the four pillars of our struggle as alluded to above, the South African government was forced to come to the negotiation table, thanks to the tireless efforts by Kotane, Marks and their generation who laid a firm foundation for our liberation.
This resulted in the first democratic elections held in 1994, which the ANC, under the leadership of the late President Nelson Mandela, won with a resounding victory.
It was natural for the enduring cordial relationship between the ANC and Russia to continue in the post-apartheid stage. During his state visit in 1999, President Mandela expressed his gratitude for the “solidarity of the Russian people in the South African fight against apartheid for freedom.” This visit by the President of the Republic of South Africa consolidated the bilateral relations between the two countries and laid the foundation for a different kind of relationship, where trade and investment would prosper.
After two decades of the democratic dispensation in South Africa, it is important that we acknowledge and cherish the role of these selfless revolutionaries in the attainment of the freedom and democracy that we enjoy today. As part of celebrating the unfolding culture of democracy in our country, we reclaim the fragments of our heritage that have been scattered in different parts of the world. It is in this context that we are returning the mortal remains of Marks and Kotane to their ancestral land.
Throughout our struggle history, Kotane and Marks continued to shine bright as symbols of unity of purpose between the two countries. I can assure you that the repatriation of their mortal remains would not be the end of the bond that ties South Africa and Russia. Instead, it will serve as the reminder of the common histories that are shared between the peoples of the two countries. This moment will be engraved in our collective consciousness as the people of South Africa. I am confident that they are smiling down at us – proud that we have finally attained the free and democratic society that they both fearlessly fought for.
To us as the government of the Republic of South Africa, the return of the mortal remains of Moses Kotane and J.B. Marks is an acknowledgement of the role that our international partners played in contributing to our struggle for liberation. It is also an affirmation of continued cordial relations as we take our nations forward. We are cultivating our collective futures while celebrating our common histories.
There may be potholes, detours and hurdles along the way, but the challenges that we face today are not insurmountable and cannot match the blight of slavery, colonialism and apartheid over which we have triumphed. Marks and Kotane’s lives were sacrificed in order to create a better South Africa and contribute to a better and safer Africa and a just world order.
We dare not fail them!
>> Nathi Mthethwa is a member of the ANC NEC and Minister of Arts and Culture