Celebrating victory for Moses Mayekiso

For three years from 1986 until 1989, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group campaigned for the release of Moses Mayekiso.  Mayekiso, a leading trade unionist in South Africa, was on trial for treason along with four others for their part in the leadership of the Alexandra Action Committee and the uprising in that township in February 1986.  The trial ended 0n 24 April 1989 with the acquittal of all the accused.  City Group sprang into action and mobilized its membership to support a victory rally organised by the Friends of Mayekiso campaign outside the South African embassy.  Like 10 October 1987, when City Group organised a March for Mayekiso, it poured with rain throughout.

City Group's March for Mayekiso, 10 October 1987 (Source: City Group)

The following day, City Group sent a congratulatory fax to Mayekiso via the offices of NUMSA, the National Union of Metalworkers (South Africa), of which he was the General Secretary.  The fax read:

Solidarity greetings to Moses Mayekiso, Richard Mdkane, Paul Tshabalala, Obed Bapela and Mzwanele Mayekiso on your victorious acquittal.

Your victory is our inspiration to continue non-sectarian support for all forces fighting apartheid in South Africa.

Viva the Alexandra Five

Viva the people of Alexandra

Onward to liberation and socialism


Although Moses Mayekiso was later revealed to be a member of the South African Communist Party [SACP], and joined its leadership after the organisation was unbanned in 1990, at the time his case was sidelined by much of the ‘official’ international anti-apartheid movement (particularly in Britain).  In this respect, the wording of the fax (despite its slightly archaic phraseology) is telling.  By referring to their ‘non-sectarian support’, the City Group fax not only reasserts the group’s core approach to solidarity work, but reminds the readers that the British Anti-Apartheid Movement did not actively campaign for Mayekiso during the trial.  NUMSA was an affiliate to the newly formed trade union  alliance COSATU and not the older, ANC-aligned union federation, SACTU. Unlike the majority of exiled leadership of the SACP, Mayekiso stood with the growing ‘workerist’ tendency in South Africa.  For him, socialist revolution and class struggle was inseparable from the fight to end apartheid.  He did not believe in the ‘two-stage’ theory of revolution advanced by the SACP – that national liberation (through the ending of apartheid) had to precede the fight for socialism in South Africa.

In his official history of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, Roger Fieldhouse (2005) explains the tensions around the campaign for Mayekiso in the following terms,

[Bob] Hughes [Chair of the AAM] also expressed concern that NUMSA was supporting a campaign for the release of Mayekiso, who had been charged with treason, that had been established by a ‘political grouping in Britain’ without consulting the AAM, the ANC or SACTU. (Hughes did not say so but the ‘grouping’ was the AAM’s old adversaries, the Trotskyist left, using the issue to further lambaste the Movement.) While fully supporting Mayekiso’s release from prison, AAM felt concerned that NUMSA’s actions gave the impression of conflict between itself on the one hand and AAM, SACTU and the ANC on the other. Moreover, Hughes complained, NUMSA was establishing its own network of supporters in Britain and deliberately excluding [the] AAM.  (Fieldhouse, 2005: 411)

As Fieldhouse goes on to acknowledge a few lines later, despite Hughes’ protestations to the contrary, the AAM was attempting to maintain its hegemony as the sole British provider of solidarity to those resisting apartheid in South Africa.  The Friends of Mayekiso campaign was indeed launched by the Socialist Workers Party, with initial involvement and support from other groups on the far Left and non-sectarian solidarity organisations like City Group.  They sought to build support for Mayekiso and his co-defendants amongst British trade unionists.  In working with this network, NUMSA was choosing to work with rank and file union militants who broadly shared its political perspectives, rather than deal with the trade union bureaucrats aligned with the leadership of the AAM.  It seems to me that in denying NUMSA the right to forge their own networks of support and solidarity, Bob Hughes and the leaderships of the AAM had fundamentally inverted the role of international solidarity organisations.  NUMSA, as a radical trade union resisting apartheid inside South Africa had found allies who supported their cause, but they were being told they had chosen the ‘wrong’ allies by a British-based solidarity organisation aligned with South African trade unions with very different perspectives.  In part, it seems likely that Hughes was articulating concerns expressed by sections of the exiled ANC, but his statement was consistent with the politics of the AAM – that, as a solidarity organisation, they had the right to choose for the people of South Africa who their legitimate representatives were and how they could be supported.

As South Africa celebrates Freedom Day today, and the 18th anniversary of the first non-racial elections in the country, it is worth considering how the seeds of ANC political hegemony (for good and bad) were sewn in exile and through the international anti-apartheid movement before the end of apartheid.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Celebrating victory for Moses Mayekiso

  1. A generally accurate item except for the fact that the Friends of Moses Mayekiso was not started by the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) or the “Trotskyist Left”. They did, indeed, join the campaign and the SWP became, in many respects, a mainstay of it. The campaign was started by myself and partner, Barbara,after consultation with the then Metal & Allied Workers Union (MAWU) that later became the core of the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA). We were directed to liaise with the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF) who agreed that we should launch a campaign around the “Alex 5” to be called the Friends of Moses Mayekiso.

    Although regarded as dissidents, both Barbara and I were, at the time, members of the ANC and had returned to London from the ANC school in Tanzania where we had established the primary division. Initially, ther FMM campaign was based at our home but, as it grew, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), under Harry Conroy, provided office space and admin support.

    With the aid of various groups, including about a third of the member groups of the official Anti-Apartheid Movement and, in particular, the SWP, the campaign grew to become the largest ever trade union based anti-apartheid protest. At its height, the FMM could count among its supporters labour organisations representing more than 30 million members.

    Impressed by the apparent non-sectarianism of th SWP and by the state capitalist analysis of the USSR etc, Barbara and I subsequently joined the SWP while remaining, at least nominally, members of the ANC. After the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of exiles, including myself, we returned to South Africa. There we were required to formally rejoin the ANC (with which I had been associated since 1961). We declined. We instead helped to estabish an International Socialist group in Cape Town. However, when we refused to obey diktats from London, we and 22 other members the small IS group were subsequently expelled. But, that is another story.

    -Terry Bell, Cape Town December 27, 2013

    • Gavin Brown says:

      Terry, many thanks for clarifying parts of the history that the archival material at our disposal doesn’t fully cover.

      • Terry Bell says:

        Thank you, Gavin. Barbara and I have kept a comprehensive archiove of the campaign tyhat will be lodged (when we get around to catalogueing it) with the SA History Archive. I have also written a book that covers the campaign and a bit more, Comrade Moss — a political journey that I can provide to you digitally or in hard copy. In the cae of hard copy, I would require compensation for the cost of postage.

      • Gavin Brown says:

        Terry I would love to see a copy of your book. Thanks.

  2. Terry Bell says:

    Excuse typos. Done in a hury.

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