Zephania Mothopeng, President of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, was released from his third term of imprisonment in apartheid South Africa in October 1988 due to his rapidly declining health. In April 1989, he travelled to London for medical treatment. Along with three other members of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, I was lucky enough to be amongst the few non-PAC members who greeted him at Heathrow Airport.
I am conscious that in writing this blog I flip between writing in the first and third person – slipping between referring to City Group and the Non-Stop Picket as ‘we’ and ‘they’. It’s a topic I plan to address more thoroughly in a future post. This piece is very definitely written in the first person. It starts, at least, with my own reflections on meeting ‘Uncle Zeph’.
In April 1989 I was nineteen. I had been participating in the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy for nearly three years and for the previous six months I had been a member of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s committee (as Lesbian and Gay Officer). I was enrolled on a one-year art foundation course at Newham Community College and still living in my parents’ home in the comfortable middle class suburbs of north-east London. Although they did not try to stop my involvement in anti-apartheid activism, my parents were deeply suspicious and more than a little worried about the extent and intensity of my political involvement.
We, in City Group, had been informed by Gora Ebrahim, Foreign Secretary of the PAC, in February that it was hoped that Uncle Zeph would be coming to London for medical treatment (once a passport could be arranged for him). But, once his visit was arranged, we were given less than twenty-four hours’ notice of his arrival. I made a snap decision to miss college and go as part of the City Group delegation to greet him at the airport. My diary from the time records that, on the morning of 18 April 1989, as I was preparing to leave for the airport, I had a tense argument with my mother, who kept interrogating me “Who is this Mothopeng man? Why do you want to meet him? What do you have to do?” Try as I might, I couldn’t adequately explain to her how honoured I felt to have the opportunity to meet a (recently released) leader of the struggle against apartheid in person.
But, it was an honour – an honour to meet him and an honour to share that moment with exiled members of the PAC. As that small group of us waited for his flight to arrive, Comrade Rodney (the assistant representative of the PAC in the UK) was so nervous that he was pacing the arrivals lounge, chain-smoking. Once Uncle Zeph arrived, though, greeted with a huge hug from Johnson Mlambo (his Deputy President), Rodney just wandered around with a wide grin on his face. If I recall correctly, this was the first time Mothopeng and Mlambo had met in person since the mid-1960s.
Before being driven away to a safe house, Uncle Zeph took a moment to talk to those of us from City Group. He told us that even in prison he had heard about ‘the City Group’, that he hoped after treatment he would be able to come and speak to us more thoroughly, and congratulate us on three years of the Non-Stop Picket. Indeed, as I wrote recently, he did send a message of support to the third anniversary rally on the Non-Stop Picket the following weekend.
I have recently been given a photo [above] that records another meeting between Zephania Mothopeng and members of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. It shows Uncle Zeph beside his wife, Urbania, and Andy Higginbottom, Secretary of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. In the centre of the back row are Trevor Rayne and Richard Roques (City Group Treasurer) besides Rodwell Mzotane of the PAC (back right). Andy, Trevor and Richard were all members of the Revolutionary Communist Group at the time, and I believe this meeting may have been arranged, in part, as a briefing on the situation inside South Africa, but also to record an interview with Mothopeng for the RCG’s paper Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism. If that’s the case, I have not been able to trace a copy of the resulting interview [can any readers help with that?].
What intrigues me about this photo is that it shares the slightly forced informality of a snapshot taken at a family function; and I question what that says about the relationship between City Group, as a solidarity organisation, and the South African liberation movements they supported? Uncle Zeph kept his promise to speak to the PAC’s supporters in the UK and, following his medical treatment, in July 1989 City Group assisted the PAC in organising a rally for him in London. Nearer the anniversary of that event, I will post extracts from his speech here.