Edwin Thabo Mofutsanyana was born in 1899 in Witzieshoek (now known as Qwa Qwa), a tiny African reserve squeezed into a valley on the south-eastern border of the Orange Free State with Lesotho. 7His mother, Linkhapa, was a daughter of Molapo, a son of King Moshoeshoe, the founder of the Basotho kingdom. His father's side was descended from the Nhlapo, a clan originally from the Pietermaritzburg area that were forced to leave after colliding with Matiwane's Ngwane during the intensified conflicts of the 1820s throughout the area. A branch of the Nhlapo under Mfuzunyane settled among Basothos in Witzieshoek and were assimilated as Sothos. Mfuzunyane was 'Sotho-ised' into Mofutsanyana. 8
Although attached to the Basotho kingdom, Witzieshoek was cut out from Moshoeshoe's kingdom during the Basotho-Orange Free State war of 1865, when its leaders signed a separate peace treaty with the Afrikaners. Witzieshoek's inhabitants worked out understandings with Afrikaners in other areas as well. Because Afrikaner farmers owned so much land that they could not farm it on their own, it was common practice for African farmers in Witzieshoek to establish sharecropping arrangements with Afrikaner farmers. Edwin's father, Jane (pronounced Jannie) Mofutsanyana, became a prosperous farmer in this way. Indeed, his ties to Afrikaner farmers were so strong that when Africans began raiding Boer cattle at the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, Jane objected to breaking the understanding with the Afrikaners. Because his stand was unpopular with other Africans, he was identified with the Afrikaner cause. When he received word that the British were going to arrest him and his supporters, he refused to flee with his compatriots across the nearby border into Basutoland. Instead, he actively supported the Boer cause. For his collaboration the British sent him to internment camps in Pietermaritzburg and St Helena for the duration of the war. Upon his release Jane was unrepentant and continued to cooperate with Afrikaners in the coming years.
The south-eastern Orange Free State was a stronghold of Afrikaner nationalists that rebelled against the fledgling Union government in 1914. Although the 1913 Natives' Land Act was already beginning to undermine the African sharecropping economy, Jane hid Afrikaner rebels at his Witzieshoek homestead. 9In retrospect, Edwin found this ironic because 'these people he was helping are the ones who are persecuting me now'. However, as the Land Act began to undercut Jane's livelihood, he eventually turned against the government and gave his blessing to his son when he began engaging in anti-government activities.
Like other boys in rural areas, Edwin entered school after spending several years herding cattle in the mountains surrounding Witzieshoek. Because Witzieshoek's only school went up to Standard IV, he and his sister MaTreaty could not acquire much formal education there. At the age of seventeen Edwin left for Johannesburg to earn money to continue his schooling. A friend arranged a job for him as a guard at a mining operation where gold was smelted into bars. He described the process as 'cooking gold'. He thought he was hired because he was young and could be trusted not to steal the gold. When his boss, a Mr Bush, left to take up a job in Saldanha Bay in 1917, Mofutsanyana accompanied him, but Bush committed suicide and Mofutsanyana had to search for another job. He ended up working at a Stellenbosch jam factory.
By 1919 he had saved up enough money to resume his education at Bensonvale Training Institution, a Wesleyan Methodist school in the Herschel district of the Cape Province, which borders Lesotho. He took a teachers' training course for the next four years, a course, he recollected, that did not really prepare him for the teaching profession.
When you graduated they used to say you are a qualified teacher. It's a merry-go-round. The first year of the teachers' course [Standard V] is a repetition of Standard IV. What they call the second year is a repetition of Standard V. And the third year is a repetition of Standard VI (with a bit of School Management). That's all the education we had. But what else could we do?
Although Mofutsanyana had light brown skin and blue eyes, his classmates nicknamed him the 'boy from Central Africa' because he 'used to talk about the colour of the skin that was the trouble of this country'. According to Mofutsanyana, South Africans perceived Central Africans as the blackest Africans. 10One of his Bensonvale classmates was Albert Nzula, whose life would later intersect with Mofutsanyana's when they both joined the Communist Party.
After leaving Bensonvale, Mofutsanyana was offered a post teaching business in Witzieshoek, but declined because he wanted to further his studies. He returned to the Johannesburg area and found employment as a clerk at New Modderfontein mine in Benoni. At this time the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU) was fast gaining strength and the mine owners distrusted educated African clerks because they were more receptive to trade union organisers. Mofutsanyana's primary job was that of checker, monitoring black miners as they went down the mineshafts and keeping an eye on workers in the compounds to find out why they did not arrive for a shift. He also issued special passes for miners to leave the compounds on Sundays. For this he received a salary of two shillings and sixpence a month.
By the time he started working in Benoni, Mofutsanyana had developed a political consciousness. Inspired by the African National Congress's (ANC) heightened activism after World War I, he joined the ANC after leaving Bensonvale. The ANC were fighting campaigns on a number of fronts - challenging Pass Laws, the second-class status of Africans on trains, and laws prohibiting Africans from walking on pavements in white towns. As Mofutsanyana put it, he and other ANC members were not as concerned with governing South Africa as they were with obtaining equal rights: 'All we were fighting for was to live like people in the country, before we had many ideas of revolution and other things.' He regarded himself as an ardent African nationalist who believed that race dictated the main lines of the freedom struggle and organisation. 'To me it [the struggle] was a question of colour. When I joined the African National Congress, it was for the purpose of fighting the whites.' Reading Marcus Garvey's The Philosophy and Opinions reinforced his perspective, and the issue of race coloured his views even after he joined the Communist Party.
Mofutsanyana's decision to join the Communist Party in 1927 was the result of two related incidents. The first was when his best friend at the mines, Jacob Majoro (later a prominent trade union organiser), was arrested for getting into a scuffle with a train conductor at Jeppe railway station. A fellow had tried to jump on the train as it was pulling out of the station, and as the conductor tried to push the fellow off the train, he grabbed hold of Majoro and all three tumbled to the ground. Majoro, an innocent bystander, was arrested and charged with pulling the conductor off the train. Although Majoro won his case when it came to trial, the incident so outraged Mofutsanyana that he quit his job at the mine and went to work full time for the ANC.
Soon after the incident Mofutsanyana went to spend a week in Witzieshoek, but as he was passing through the African location in Vereeniging, he spotted Jimmy Shields, a British Communist and chairman of the CPSA, who was addressing a crowd of Africans. T. W. Thibedi, then one of the few African Communists, was interpreting. Mofutsanyana assumed Shields was 'bluffing the people', but as he listened, he realised the speaker was talking sense about the political situation in the country. When the police arrived to arrest Shields, he counselled the crowd to remain calm. 'These police are telling me that I'm arrested. So you must go quietly away. I shall have to face the case.' But the crowd surrounded the car and refused to let it move. After the police implored Shields to speak to the crowd, he convinced them to let the police take him away. He was subsequently released without charge. Mofutsanyana concluded: 'To me it was a funny thing for a white man to be arrested for the black people. We must be arrested and not this white man. We must bloody fight for ourselves.'
This experience piqued Mofutsanyana's curiosity about the Party. Because of the reluctance of the ANC and ICU to engage in militant protest, he was looking for an alternative. After taking down the address of their office - 41A Fox Street in downtown Johannesburg - he headed on to Witzieshoek. But on his return to Johannesburg, he visited the Party offices to learn that Shields had already returned to Britain, where he served on the British Communist Party's executive and edited its newspaper.
Mofutsanyana's baptism into Party affairs and ideology came through its night school, launched in Ferreirastown in 1925. People who attended the night school were clearly looking for more than improving their command of English, and students were drilled in Bukharin and Preobrazhensky's ABC's of Communism as well as basic literacy. From the outset Mofutsanyana was an enthusiastic student who quickly absorbed the basics of Marxism. The first time his name appeared in the Communist Party newspaper, the South African Worker , was when he addressed a night school audience on 'The Way to Freedom'. 11'To contend with your enemy', Mofutsanyana advised, 'you must know his language'. He stressed the importance of unity and developing leaders who were willing to sacrifice for workers, and drew on his own experiences in describing conditions in the mines.
Boys 14 and 15 were bought and sold like slaves in Basutoland. They were enticed to join [the mines] under false pretences. The recruiters cheated them and never fulfilled their promises. These babies were bound under a six months' contract. They went underground for a shilling a day.
He also referred to the missionaries who had been proselytising for a century in Basutoland. Although he acknowledged they were committed sophisticated propagandists, they were spreading beliefs that did not serve the working class.
The missionaries promised heaven, but did nothing to help them in the fight against evils under which they suffered here. When they claimed their rights the missionaries called silence and preached heaven. Why did missionaries come here to save them and leave their own people to go to hell?
Throughout this study I have relied extensively on interviews I conducted with Edwin Mofutsanyana in 1981. Unless otherwise attributed, Mofutsanyana's personal reminiscences on aspects of his life come from these interviews. Edwin's family history is supplemented by an interview with his nephew Etienne, born in 1905 (interview, Mahlapong, Witzieshoek, 27 April 1985).
As a student in the 1930s, Govan Mbeki used to earn spending money over holidays by selling newspapers in Johannesburg. Because he admired Mofutsanyana as a politician, he gave Mofutsanyana's middle name to his son, Thabo, the current president of South Africa.
The main source for Nhlapo history is J. M. Nhlapo, " ' The S S tory of Nhlapho. " ' African Studies 4.2 (1945): 97 - - 101 and U Nhlapho Nezakhe, Mbabane : , 1953. Nhlapo was then editor of the Bantu World . In a letter to me, Mofutsanyana said of Nhlapho's work: " ' Its value is that it is the story of Mahlapo (sic) by Mahlapo for Mahlapo and no alien ideas in it. " ' (Letter, Edwin Mofutsanyana to Robert Edgar, 24 May 1985.)
One of the Nhlapo chiefs, Mlambo, was a favourite of Moshoeshoe. Mlambo was an emissary to Zulu king Shaka, taking animal skins and ostrich feathers as tribute to insure that Shaka's army did not attack the Basotho kingdom. As a sign of Moshoeshoe's gratitude, he named one of his sons Molapo (a Sotho version of Mlambo) for Mlambo. Mlambo's heir, Mhlangana, was forced to flee to the Daggakraal area after a dynastic dispute; and in 1860, he and his followers sought sanctuary in Moshoeshoe's kingdom from Afrikaner settlers. Moshoeshoe sent his son Molapo to accompany the Nhlapho to the Caledon river area near present-day Fouriesburg. After the war with the Orange Free State concluded in 1867, Mhlangana moved his people across the Caledon to Butha Buthe, Lesotho , where they still reside. The Nhlapho, though removed by over a century from their ancestral home and living in a seSotho-speaking area, still retain their Nguni language and customs.
The house where they hid the rebels was still standing when I visited there in 1985.
Mofutsanyana used to visit me at the campus of the National University of Lesotho and would engage in discussions with students, especially from South Africa. He used to call one of them the " ' boy from Central Africa " ' because of his darker skin. That student was Tito Mboweni, currently the governor of South Africa's Reserve Bank and a former Minister of Labour.
South African Worker , 17 February 1928.
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