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Launch of 'Mokgomana – The life of John Kgoana Nkadimeng 1927 – 2020'

- Wits University

The book launch weaves another important thread into the story of the everyday activists who made the anti-apartheid movement what it was.

Panel at the book launch of Nkadimeng

Closing the gaps in the story of the struggle means enlarging the focus to individuals who didn’t show up in the spotlight but who took up roles which mattered; also the roles that should not be forgotten.

For Professor Emeritus and historian Peter Delius this guided his writing of Mokgomana: The life of John Kgoana Nkadimeng 1927 – 2020 (Jacana) that he co-wrote with Wits alumnus Daniel Sher. The book forms part of the Department of Military Veterans project to record and publish the experiences of those in the liberation struggle.

At the launch that took place at Wits at the beginning of July, Delius told a packed Senate Room of how he first crossed paths with John Nkadimeng. It was in the mid-1980s while he was doing research relating to the Sekhukhuneland Revolt. Everyone he interviewed kept telling him to speak to the same person: Nkadimeng. Nkadimeng was the man in the know, but he himself was a relative unknown.

“I found little bits and pieces. But in fact there was remarkably little about the man. But as I spoke to more and more people it became clear that he played a pivotal role in a whole series of struggles from the 1940s onwards. So that was sort of a revelation to me and recognition that the formal documentary record of history had very big gaps in it.

“Our primary objective in writing this book was to try and capture something about the man behind the lists of positions he held, to explore the nature of his character, what made him such a significant figure and why he was in so many places doing so many things? Who was this person who played so many key roles over such a long time? His career spanned from the late 1940s well into the 21st century. This extraordinary long period bridges many critical transitions in the history of South Africa,” Delius said.

The book is, as Delius set out, the story of man whose life follows an “incredible trajectory”. It’s the story of a boy who grows up in a rural village in Sekhukhuneland and suffers early in life the loss of his father, a miner. He goes on to receive schooling at a mission school but also undergoes the traditional teachings and rites of initiation school. As Delius spelled out at the launch it would be the mark of a man who could straddle worlds and build bridges between different worlds.

As he left his village he took up domestic work in Johannesburg then went on to be a factory worker on the East Rand. The factory floor would be the springboard to trade union activism before Nkadimeng was recruited to the Communist Party and also the African National Congress in 1950. He played a leading role in the South African Congress of Trade Unions at critical moments in its history

His activism saw him being arrested and detained numerous times. He was banned by the apartheid state and eventually had to flee to Swaziland in 1976, later moving to Mozambique and then Zambia. His struggle work continued throughout.  

Delius described him as “a man who could move between worlds”, adding: “He became a critical bridge between town and country. He spoke many languages and he could communicate with people in their everyday places,” said Delius.

Nkadimeng would rise through the ranks of the ANC, serving on the NEC for over 20 years, acting as a close confidant of Oliver Tambo and going on to be the ambassador to Cuba in 1995. In 2013 he was conferred the Order of Luthuli in Gold. Throughout his life, Delius said, he would be consistently recognised as a man who never pulled rank, who engaged with humour and integrity, and stood firm in his loyalties and principles that were rooted in communism and non-racialism.

At the start of the book launch a video interview with Nkadimeng from 1993 was played. He was speaking in the troubled months ahead of the birth of democracy the follow year. Nkadimeng painted a picture of the brutal realities of the world he was trying to change for black South Africans under apartheid.

“Life in the townships was hell – it was evil,” he said plainly, describing how people living in Soweto had to begin their day at 3.30am in order to get to Johannesburg to start work by 7.30am. He spoke of the crush of people having to rely on the trains and how even on cold winter days people didn’t wear coats because of the risk of being trampled.

“The coat is also an impediment. If they trample on it they will go onto you and you will go down. This is our lives, it’s how we live. White South Africans, employers of labour, they don’t know this, they only see these people when they are here [in the city]. That’s how our people live and this is still how they live today – it’s like that,” he said in that interview.

Nkadimeng also had a warning for the incoming ANC presidency at the time. He said:  “We must not forget the struggle that continues in Parliament to make the lives of our people better. If you go and live a comfortable life, running around in posh cars but you are leaving people down there and forgetting the promise then you can forget it; I won’t go for anything like that.”

The launch was attended by many members of the Nkadimeng family as well as former President Kgalema Motlanthe, who was a personal friend and comrade to Nkadimeng. Family life, Delius added was “critical to the story of JK… Often when we read about political leaders and we read about people’s contribution to the struggle it’s outside of our understanding of what this meant in their immediate world – their family, children and in this case Evelyn, his wife.”

Speaking at the launch Barbara Masekela, former ambassador to the United States, ANC member, arts and culture advocate and poet said the stories of struggle fighters like Nkadimeng hold vital lessons for the present day.

“What is striking for me in the book is that people like Ntate John came from the community; and I think one of the most challenging things for the leadership of our times is that we talk about community, but we really don't come from communities, we are still fragmented. And when we speak to each other we are speaking to the converted most of the time. We really have not devised a system whereby the majority of the people in our country can participate in the conversation,” she said.

She also warned against politics becoming  personality cults about celebrities, and that this tendency is why the everyday person has been forgotten by political leaders.

“Ntate John’s politics was about the human being, not about the politics; it was about the human being from whom the politics is derived,” she said.

Masekela called for the book to be translated and made available in schools. She added: “Our children must have a direct experience  of this history.” [ or exposure to this history}

Former Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs, human rights activist and a comrade of Nkadimeng’s also spoke at the launch. He echoed the need for more to be written about the people in the struggle who did not go on to become the most prominent. 

“Please tell other stories of other people in the struggle. It’s not a competition but it’s the stories of people who were not in top leadership that people can identify with,” Sachs said. He concluded saying of Nkadimeng, a mentor who “watched me grow up in the trade union movement was so precious because of his quality of openness, his generosity, and his softness in a hard struggle. He was one of our great, great leaders; great precisely because he didn’t see himself as  great.”