To mark the 29th anniversary of the founding of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, on 6 April 1988, the PAC launched a petition for the release of its President Zephaniah Mothopeng. Known affectionately as ‘Uncle Zeph’, Mothopeng was serving a 30-year prison sentence for his opposition to apartheid and had just been diagnosed with throat cancer.
Zephaniah Mothopeng was a founding member of the PAC in 1959 and had previously been a founding member of the ANC Youth League alongside Mandela and other more widely known names. With the PAC’s founding President, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, he was a key organizer of the 1960 Anti-Pass Laws campaign which led to the banning of the ANC and PAC. In the wake of the banning of the PAC, Mothopeng was arrested and imprisoned for two years. After his release he was rearrested in 1963 and jailed a second time in 1964 for furthering the aims of the PAC. Following this jail term, he was served with a banning order and banished to Wietsieshoek in the Free State in 1967. In the early 1970s, with Black Consciousness a growing trend in the anti-apartheid struggle, Mothopeng spoke on a number of occasions to the South African Students Organisation (SASO). Following the school students’ uprising in Soweto in June 1976, Mothopeng once again found himself on trial. He was accused number one in the lengthy Bethal Treason Trial – the only political trial in apartheid South Africa to be held in complete secrecy. In 1978, at the age of 65, he was sentenced to thirty-years in jail for “organising and predicting” the Soweto Uprising. It was during this period on Robben Island that Uncle Zeph was elected President of the PAC.
Uncle Zeph was also known as “The Lion of Azania” for his uncompromising commitment to Black Majority rule in South Africa. Even as his health deteriorated, he rejected an offer of ‘amnesty’ from PW Botha as it was conditional on him renouncing the use of armed struggle in resisting apartheid.
The 1988 petition for his release also called for the immediate and unconditional release of all anti-apartheid political prisoners in South Africa. Although launched by the PAC, and announced in a press release issued in the name of Ahmed Gora Ebrahim, the Acting Secretary for Publicity and Information of the PAC in exile, the campaign was co-sponsored by various other organisations. The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, who had long campaigned for the release of Zephaniah Mothopeng, was amongst them. Other co-sponsors included the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, the Revolutionary Communist Group, the Workers Revolutionary Party, and Black Action for the Liberation of South Africa. The only other Southern African liberation movement to co-sponsor the campaign was the South West African National Union (SWANU) of Namibia.
The campaign press release called on “people of conscience and goodwill” to support it, to highlight the imprisonment of political prisoners in South Africa and to raise material aid for their support. City Group continued to campaign for Zephaniah Mothopeng until he was finally released later in 1988.