Exactly eighteen months after they had started their Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group held a special protest on 19 October 1987 to mark the first day of the trial in South Africa of Moses Mayekiso and his co-accused – collectively known as the Alex[andra] 5.
Moses Mayekiso (Bra Moss) was, at the time, the General Secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and Chair of the Alexandra Township Action Committee in Johannesburg. Along with Paul Tsabalala, Richard Mdakane, Obed Bapela and his younger brother Mzwanele Mayekiso, Bra Moss was accused of treason for his part in the leadership of the 1986 uprising in Alexandra township where he lived and organised. During that rebellion in February 1986, the South African army was kept out of the township for six days after they had attacked a local funeral. The indictment against the Alex 5 alleged that in 1985/6 they set out to:
“seize control of the residential area of Alexandra and/or render the area ungovernable by the State, by establishing so-called organs of people’s power … forming the Alexandra Action Committee … organising and uniting the residents of Alexandra into yard, block and street committees under the AAC … forming their own courts (herinafter referred to as People’s Courts) … forming a group known as the Marshalls and/or Comrades.”
The uprising in Alex was bloody and brutal, several alleged police informants and collaborators were burnt to death with ‘necklaces’ (burning car tyres). For a brief period, the apartheid regime lost control of Alexandra and the local youth demonstrated the possibilities for an urban revolutionary movement originating in the grassroots self-organisation of the townships. Indeed, Moses Mayekiso was (at the time) a critic of the ANC and South African Communist Party’s two-stage revolutionary strategy in South Africa – for him the struggle for national liberation (against apartheid) needed to be part of a revolutionary struggle for socialism.
Given Mayekiso’s challenge to the political strategies of the ANC/SACP, it is not surprising that the national Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain barely lifted a finger in his defence. Instead, the AAM leadership actively undermined attempts by socialists and trade unionists to mobilise solidarity with the Alex 5 through the Friends of Moses Mayekiso campaign – accusing is of being a ‘personality cult’ and arguing the British trade unionists should restrict themselves to building solidarity only with their direct counterpart unions inside South Africa. At one meeting organised to highlight the case of the Alex 5 by Hammersmith and Fulham Trades Council in West London, AAM officials tore down a banner depicting an image of Mayekiso alongside that of Nelson Mandela and ripped up leaflets advertising the March for Mayekiso that City Group had organised for 10 October 1987. That demonstration went ahead, with the support of several Labour and Liberal MPs, trade union branches and campaign groups – approximately 1000 anti-apartheid activists marched from Clerkenwell Green to the South African Embassy in the pouring rain. News of the demonstration is said to have reached the Alex 5 through their lawyers.
Moses Mayekiso and the others were finally acquitted in March 1989. Despite his earlier opposition to their political strategy, Mayekiso was named one of the SACP’s 22-strong interim leadership when the Party was unbanned in February 1990. He went on to become a member of the SACP’s Central Committee and was an ANC Member of Parliament from 1994 – 1996, before pursuing a career in business. Despite his chequered and at times controversial career, City Group were correct to support the case of Moses Mayekiso and the Alex 5. This case highlights just how much the national Anti-Apartheid Movement did to demobilise solidarity with the most radical elements of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Further reading: Belinda Bozzoli’s (2004) book Theatres of Struggle and the End of Apartheid, published by Ohio University Press offers a rich analysis of the 1986 uprising in Alexandra Township, drawing heavily on evidence presented at the trial of the Alex 5.