Lessons from Moses Mauane Kotane

Lessons from Moses Mauane Kotane

“In the life of every nation, there arise men who leave an indelible and eternal stamp on the history of their peoples; men who are both products and makers of history. And when they pass they leave a vision of a new and better life and the tools with which to win and build it.”

Such were the poignant words delivered by Yusuf Dadoo at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow on May 26, 1978, where and when Moses Kotane was buried.

The human mind and spirit surpasses material conditions

Moses Mauane Kotane, Isithwalandwe/Seaparankwe, is the foremost example of how one’s lowly status in society could never hold back their human mind and spirit’s flight to greatness in life. He only attended school for the first time at the age of fifteen and left when he was seventeen to seek work. He would work as a farm worker, a domestic worker, a waiter, a baker, a mineworker and photographer assistant. It was through his participation in the Party’s night school that his literacy would improve, so too his ideological grounding. In his own words,

“It was at that night school where English was taught to me in the right way and where many English terms which I could not understand clearly from dictionaries were explained to me… It was there that many things and concepts were made clear to me, and where I began to understand the capitalist society, its class divisions and national oppression and exploitation.”

From this point on, having joined the ANC in 1927, becoming a member of the African Bakers’ Union and later the Communist Party of South Africa in 1928, his learning and development grew phenomenally. It is said that Kotane never stopped reading and studying. His desire to learn and understand could not be quenched. Recognising the quality of his character, the Movement entrusted him with greater responsibility and leadership.

To lead, to follow and to act

The greatness of Kotane goes beyond being, at one point, one of the longest serving and active members of the ANC or the General Secretary of the SACP for almost forty years. His greatness was in his leadership role, not only in the Party but also the liberation movement as whole, in the decades preceding the banning and in the early decades of illegality, armed action, underground and exile.

It is upon the backs of men such as Moses Mauane Kotane, Albert Nzula, JB Marks, Edwin Mofutsanyane – the early core of African Communist leadership before the banning of the Party in 1950 – that the Movement’s passage from one phase of struggle to another could be possible. These are comrades who had been toughened by the suffering from the Great Depression; the iron heel of the racist, brutal Hertzog government in 1929, on the one hand, and the internal Party divisions over the Native Republic thesis, on the other hand. Despite their seniority in the Movement, they were also ready to be led and to take up the tasks before them.

It made sense why at the historic 1962 Conference in Lobatsi, the first to be held under conditions of illegality, OR Tambo – as Head of the External Mission, specifically requested Moses Kotane’s help in advancing his work abroad. It was, after all, the same OR Tambo who said that at every point the President-General of the ANC – Chief Albert Luthuli – needed to make a serious decision, he consulted with Moses Kotane. On such gallant shoulders our struggle could only grow stronger.

Understanding of theory and its application to reality

Moses Kotane was a theoretician, a great debater and a strong Marxist-Leninist. Upon his return from his studies at the Lenin School in Moscow, he argued that the Party should be rooted in its South African situation instead of being far removed from it due to its focus on theory alone. In his words,

“My first suggestion is that the party becomes Africanised, that the CPSA must pay special attention to South Africa and study the conditions in this country and concretise the demands of the masses from first-hand information, that we must speak the language of the native masses and must know their demands, that while it must not lose its international allegiance, the Party must be Bolshevised and become South African not only theoretically but in reality.”

These are articulations of a comrade who understood that Marxist-Leninist theory could best serve revolutionary advance by analysing the concrete realities faced. At the same time here was a cadre who had come to understand that his struggle was fought within a particular context, a South African reality. This was a context where the contradictions of race and class pertained at one and the same time. Hence his assertion to the senior leadership of the Party;

“I am first an African and then a communist.”

This understanding of theory gave rise to his explanation of him being both a member of the ANC and the SACP. It helped him interpret what to him the ANC was, and also the SACP. Therefore, he had a theoretical and practical framework of the relationship between these two organs in the context of the South African struggle. As he reasoned;

“The ANC was and always has been a broad national organization and not a sectional or class party;
The political demands and aims and objects of the ANC and the short-term or immediate of the CPSA were similar” 


In a similar vein, Moses Kotane’s despising of white supremacy and refusal to tolerate its approach to the African people was rooted in theory. He sought to realise the theoretical underpinnings of the resolution of the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, which adopted the resolution on the national question in South Africa,calling for “an independent native South African republic as a stage towards a workers’ and peasants’ republic, with full and equal rights for all races, Black, Coloured and white.”

Kotane, however, did not believe in a mechanical approach to the matter of African leadership.  As he said;

“Some people say there should have been more African people in the leadership. Well, Marxism has no colour…
The executive is a policy-making body which directs the activity of the membership, and you must choose the best man for the job irrespective of his colour.”

Fundamentally, this is an elaboration on African leadership of the liberation struggle. Yet it is an explanation that is not narrow in content, thereby being Africanist. It is fundamentally an articulation of what non-racialism means.

Building Unity

Moses Kotane understood that for the liberation struggle to achieve its stated goals, it had to unite all forces in society. Hence in 1929 he assisted in forming the League of African Rights, which in his view was an attempt to implement the Party’s 1924 resolution “to fulfil the united front line,.. that the problems of the working class can only be solved by a United Front of all workers irrespective of colour.”

This initiative happened at an uneasy time in the relations between the Party and the ANC. Josiah Gumede who had just returned from Moscow was under attack from inside the ANC for his pro-Soviet stance and his support for the Native Republic thesis. At the same time, Communists had just been expelled from ICU. Yet Kotane, even later in his reflections, never understood why some in the Party poured cold water over the initiative, thereby leading to its collapse. He reflected;

“Why would we not work with them in the cause of national liberation? Through the League of African Rights we tried to build up a united front with the ANC, the ICU and all other African groups, including the so-called bourgeoisie..”

For Moses Kotane unity was paramount. He saw it as the very measure by which the revolution would succeed. He is credited for his sterling work in nurturing the unity of what we have now come to know and appreciate as the alliance. As stated elsewhere;

“More than any other individual, he helped lay the foundations for the life-giving unity between the working class and national movements, which expresses itself in today’s firm alliance of liberation forces.”

This was not unity for the sake of unity, but for the realisation of a noble objective – the liberation of the people of South Africa.

Commitment, hard work to the cause of the people

From the moment he joined the Bakers’ Union he threw himself wholeheartedly in the cause. He wanted his name to appear in the “Book of Life” that contained the “names of all those who had rendered service to their people”. He had joined the ANC on the spot.

But he would soon become restless again, realising that the ANC seemed not to progress beyond meetings and protests. What was even more frustrating for him was that, the leaders of the ANC seemed middle class or intellectual, lacking the common touch – people with whom he couldn’t identify.
Kotane’s sustained stay and passion to the cause of the people was helped by him joining the Communist Party. As he says;

“People came and went in those days, … I too might have faded away if I had not joined the Communist Party”

Moses Kotane worked hard, sparing neither life nor limb in the cause of his people. When asked to join the external mission, he immediately plunged into his task and took on numerous responsibilities of preparing for the newly formed Umkhonto Wesizwe and taking on various international engagements on behalf of the ANC. As described in Sechaba;

“His conviction, devotion, dedication and commitment to the cause of his people was to him more than just a question of principle: it was a way of life.”


Yusuf Dadoo said,

“But if there is one quality in Moses Kotane which I would single out before all others, it was that he was incorruptible. He was incorruptible not only in his politics but also in his personal life. Moses Kotane was a man you knew could never let you down, never do something behind your back, never deceive you. You always knew where you were with Moses Kotane. Sometimes his words were harsh and hurtful, but they were never dishonest.”

What other better quality of leadership would one yearn for even in today’s world, if not a leader beyond reproach? This quality seems to have been highly regarded too by the SACP which Kotane had joined at the time. It is said that Bunting in his 1929 report to the Comintern conference recognised that;

“There is no doubt that our Johannesburg group of native members, though backward from the point of view of literacy and experience, is far ahead of any other local body of natives in the matter of honesty, cleanness and understanding of the class struggle”. (By cleanness Bunting was referring to qualities not of hygiene but of character) 

Kotane seemed to have internalised these values. In turn, he would have brought them to bear on the Movement he became a member of and also one he led.

In summary, Moses Mauane Kotane left us invaluable attributes by which we should assess our own individual character and the conduct of our struggle in today’s world, that is;

  • The ability to soar beyond and above the material conditions that seek to keep us inferior and non-actualised. We should always aspire for and seek to create a better self and a better world.
  • That we should be ever ready to follow others as we are prepared to lead in the revolution and, above all, we must be people of action. This suggests that we must aspire to be leaders for all seasons.
  • That we must understand the theoretical underpinnings of what we do and apply them to our lived reality. Such an understanding enables clarity of thought and action.
  • That non-racialism should be our guiding principle in word and deed. We are challenged to transcend narrow sectarian thinking and behaviour.
  • That unity is paramount if we are to make progress in struggle. Our mission is to pull together all our people on our march to creating a better life for all.
  • That working hard and being focused on the people is the reason we struggle. The revolution is about people, not narrow self-interest.
  • That we, in our personal and political conduct, must be beyond reproach. It is absolutely important for cadres to be men and women of integrity.

These are the qualities we require of every member of our Movement. They should be outcomes of the Decade of the Cadre, as designated by the 53rd National Conference of the ANC.

As such in the second century of our Movement generations that would follow us could, with pride, say

“In the life of every nation, there arise men who leave an indelible and eternal stamp on the history of their peoples; And when they pass they leave a vision of a new and better life and the tools with which to win and build it.”

And our forebears were such cadres,

Gwede Mantashe is the Secretary General of the African National Congress

Moses Kotane will be reburied in Pella, North West Province on the 14th March 2015

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