We were saddened to learn of the death last week of one of the Non-Stop Picket’s staunchest South African supporters, Zolile Hamilton Keke. Comrade Keke, as he was universally known to non-stop picketers, was the Chief Representative in the UK of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in the mid-1980s. A former Robben Island prisoner and a defendant in the Bethal treason trial, Keke died in South Africa on 6 February 2013. He was 68.
In the 1960s, while still a teenager, Zolile Keke served ten years (1963 – 1973) as a political prisoner on Robben Island, sentenced for his involvement in Poqo, the armed wing of the PAC underground. As for many political prisoners of the period, despite the brutal prison regime, this was an opportunity for intense political education. Although already a committed supporter of the PAC, it was on Robben Island that Keke deepened his understanding of Africanist thought. As he articulated in his unpublished memoirs (quoted by Tom Lodge in Sharpeville: A massacre and its consequences 2011, p. 29),
It was commonly said by members of the Congress Youth League that the African way of life was not individualistic and that personal power, success and fame was no absolute measure of values. Africans are inclined towards unity and aggregation, toward greater social responsibility and the harmonious corporate culture where communal contentment was the absolute measure of values. Language ties, psychological inclinations, institutions like tribal democracy and our past rural life linked the Africans in the south to their brethren north of the Limpopo. Africa has her own contribution to make to the sum total of human civilization and culture.
It is worth remembering that, at this point in the early 1960s, the bulk of the political prisoners on Robben Island, numbered in their hundreds, were PAC or Poqo members (Pogrund 1990, p. 190). Also imprisoned on the Island at the time was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, a founder and President of the PAC. Although he was kept in solitary confinement, the other prisoners occasionally caught glimpses of him, under escort by prison guards. For the young Keke, “it was a privilege to see the greatest politician in Azania in the flesh,” (Pogrund 1990, p. 191).
On Robben Island, Keke also met Johnson Mlambo, a future Deputy President of the PAC. In an obituary for Keke published in the Daily Dispatch a few days after his death, Mlambo remembered Keke, at the time, as an “ardent member of the PAC,” but also “a staunch Christian”. In prison, Keke was prepared to question the prison authorities and frequently spent time in solitary confinement as a result.
When Keke was released from gaol in 1973, having complete his sentence, he returned to the PAC and the efforts to rebuild the organisation’s underground structures inside South Africa (particularly in East London, where he was based). At this time, he was also in contact with Steve Biko and, like many Pan-Africanists, worked alongside the Black Consciousness Movement. Zolile Keke was arrested on 29 April 1976 and kept in detention, charged under the Internal Security Act, until November that year. Although he and he co-defendants were found not guilty, Keke was immediately re-arrested and detained for another thirteen months. In December 1977, he became one of the defendants in the Bethal Treason Trial alongside Zephania Mothopeng and sixteen other PAC and Black Consciousness Movement cadres. Keke was the youngest of the eighteen accused. He received a five-year sentence, suspended for five years on condition he ceased his involvement in the political activity of the banned PAC.
Keke chose exile, initially in Lesotho. In exile he accepted a PAC posting to the United Kingdom. By 1985, he was the PAC’s Chief Representative in the UK. This is when he came into contact with the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. The first mention we can find of Zolile Keke in the City Group papers is a letter from Andy Higginbottom, Secretary of the group, dated 4 September 1985. That letter informed him that City Group had recently passed a motion affirming its support for the PAC and all South African liberation movements, and inviting the PAC to send a representative to one of the group’s meetings. On paper, the national Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain supported the PAC alongside the ANC; but, in practice, it put all of its efforts into solidarity work with the ANC. In 1985, Keke reportedly told Mike Terry, the Executive Secretary of the AAM, that “the reason the PAC did not attend AAM National Committee meetings was that it wished to avoid ideological conflict with staunch supporters of the ANC,” (Fieldhouse 2005, pg 285). Even Roger Fieldhouse (2005, pg 269), no friend of the PAC, accepts in his history of the AAM that the London ANC often refused to share a platform with the PAC and, in 1987, complained to the AAM when they believed the PAC had been invited to attend the AAM’s Annual General Meeting.
City Group launched its Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy in London on 19 April 1986. Comrade Keke was there at the rally that started the Picket to speak on behalf of the PAC. Excerpts from his speech can be seen here (at about 9 minutes into the film). A few months later, Keke was sent to represent the PAC in Baghdad. Nicki wrote to him on behalf of City Group wishing him success in Iraq and saying,
how much we enjoyed working with you… we appreciate your unsectarian attitude and we will always remember your intervention at the AAM AGM. We continue to give our unconditional support to the PAC.
He continued to correspond regularly with Norma Kitson and with the City Group office, often sending them press cuttings from South African newspapers about PAC activities. In October 1986, Keke wrote to City Group from Iraq:
I received all the brilliant reports about the activities of the City Group. If we would have worked together from May 1982 when I came to the UK I believe the opportunism which has sneaked within the ranks of the AAM would have been stamped out.
Whenever he returned to the UK, he continued to work with City Group, often speaking at rallies held on the Non-Stop Picket, attending the group’s meetings and educational dayschools, and providing expert evidence in the trials of arrested solidarity activists. In December 1987, alongside David Kitson, he presented the Non-Stop Picket with an award after it had been voted “Demo of the Year” by the readers of City Limits magazine. As a former Ruskin College student, Zolile Keke added his voice and authority to the Justice for Kitson Campaign, demanding that the long-promised fellowship for David Kitson at Ruskin should be reinstated. He also appeared on the Non-Stop Picket on Christmas Day 1988 as ‘Father Freedom‘.
Throughout his time in London, Comrade Keke worked hard to raise the profile of the PAC amongst British solidarity activists. In addition to City Group, he worked alongside organisations like Black Action for the Liberation of South Africa and others who shared a Pan-Africanist perspective. He met and shared ideas with revolutionaries from around the world. Paul Trewhela (in an email to Helen Yaffe, 14 February 2013) recalled, “I had the privilege to be brought by Zolile to a meeting with CLR James at James’ flat in Brixton”.
Zolile Keke helped educate a generation of British solidarity activists that it was not enough to achieve a ‘democratic South Africa’, Azania had to be fully decolonized.
Hamba Kahle Comrade Keke.