Helped build student, trade union and political formations, trade unionist, member of the UDF, ANC and MK, political prisoner and Secretary of South Africa’s Parliament
Lives of Courage
Michael Coetzee was born in 1959 and grew up on a farm in the Eastern Cape. His parents were both teachers. In 1978, he enrolled for a B.Sc degree at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). He was drawn into reading groups and introduced to the Freedom Charter, the African National Congress (ANC), Marx’s theories, and theories of revolution and organisation.
He contributed to the ferment of grassroots organisations that took place in the Western Cape in the early 1980s, to building the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the Eastern Cape, to strengthening the ANC underground, to building national networks inside the country, and to the formation of the South African Youth Congress (SAYCO). As a trade unionist in the Chemical and Industrial Workers Union (CWIU), he assisted in the formation of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and facilitated the participation of Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) unions in the new federation.
Together with Headley King and Zelda Holtzman, he travelled to Lesotho to brief the ANC on political developments in the Western Cape and to receive training in underground methods. Later, he became part of underground structures in the Eastern Cape.
In 1982, the Maseru Raid took place in Lesotho. Forty-two people were killed. The South African Defence Force (SADF) seized documents that exposed the Western Cape networks. In 1983, Coetzee, Headley and Zelda were all detained. In the trial of Headley King that followed, Coetzee was called as a state witness. When the time came to take the oath, he shocked the court by saying: “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: so help me Oliver Tambo.”
The trial gave a public signal that the ANC had a presence in the coloured community of the Western Cape - just at the point that the Apartheid government hoped to woo coloured people to participate in elections to the tri-cameral Parliament.
After serving a sentence for perjury, Coetzee moved to Port Elizabeth, where he played a crucial support role to the UDF leadership – including to Matthew Goniwe, a teacher from Cradock who became the UDF Vice President and organiser, and whose skills in organising the small towns of the Eastern Cape were legendary. Goniwe had a profound influence on Coetzee, both personally and politically.
On 27 June 1985, Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mlauli were assassinated. They had been at a meeting in Port Elizabeth, held at Coetzee’s mother’s house. They set off for Cradock at nine o’clock at night, but never arrived at home. Their bodies were found some days later, burnt and mutilated.
Coetzee’s planning skills were put to use in the organisation of the funeral of the Cradock Four, which saw activists pour into Cradock from around the country, in mourning and solidarity. The ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP) flags were unfurled in a public display of defiance. On the same day, a State of Emergency was declared and the country entered a new era of repression.
In a context in which the townships were occupied by the army and the police, Coetzee’s was part of building and strengthening the networks of street committees that kept organisation alive. Thousands of people were detained in this period, including Coetzee. He was severely tortured in detention; this included being suspended over van Staden’s bridge.
In an interview, Michael said:
“The intention was to instil the fear of God into you, so that you reveal[ed] what they wanted. The most fearful torture was being hung over that bridge, and they would jerk you in a way that you could feel that if anything happens, you will fall and you will die. Now, out of that experience, I took stock of my life, I felt there was too much missing in it, I realised you can’t only be a permanent revolutionary, and I made some important decisions.”
Coetzee joined Parliament in 2002 as its deputy secretary after being secretary of the Gauteng legislature for a number of years, and was appointed secretary of Parliament in 2012.
He was married to Bridgette Prince – an activist in her own right, who played her own part in the struggle. They have a son, Matthew – named after Matthew Goniwe.
Characteristically, he did not allow his illness to compromise his commitment to Parliament during this period. He was still hard at work in May 2014, welcoming new members of Parliament after the elections. Days later, Michael Coetzee was taken from his office to hospital, in Cape Town, where he passed away on 13 June 2014.
• BDLive, (2014), Parliament mourns Secretary Michael Coetzee from BDLive, 14 June [online], Available at www.bdlive.co.za [Accessed: 23 June 2014]