General secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa and Treasurer General of the African National Congress
Moses M. Kotane was born at Tamposstad in the Rustenburg district of the western Transvaal in 1905, Kotane came from a devoutly Christian peasant family of Tswana origin. Largely self-taught, he received only a few years of formal schooling, but became an insatiable reader. Later as a young worker he enrolled in the Communist-run night school in Ferreirastown, Johannesburg, where he became known for his ability to master the most abstruse political writings.
Starting to work at 17 in Krugersdorp, Kotane was alternately a photographer's assistant, domestic servant, miner, and bakery worker. In 1928 he joined the African National Congress (ANC) but found disappointingly ineffectual organisation. The same year he joined the African Bakers' Union, an affiliate of the new Federation of Non-European Trade Unions then being built up by the Communist Party.
In 1929 Kotane joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), and soon became both the vice-chairman of the trade union federation and a member of the party's political bureau. In 1931 he became a full-time party functionary. Working as both a party and a union organiser, he also set the type for Umsebenzi, the Communist paper then edited by Edward Roux. As one of the CPSA's most promising African recruits in a period when the party was promoting the goal of a "Native Republic", Kotane was offered an opportunity to go to the Soviet Union, and for a year in the early 1930s he studied at the Lenin School in Moscow.
In 1935, because of an ideological dispute with Lazar Bach, then chairman of the CPSA, Kotane was removed from the party's political bureau. He was later restored to his position, however, and in 1939 he became general secretary of the party, a post he continued to hold through the CPSA's subsequent phases of legality, illegality, and exile. Kotane combined his strong convictions as a Marxist with a commitment to the goals of nationalism and a firm belief in the importance of an African leadership and initiative in the struggle for equal rights. As he rose to leading positions in both the Communist Party and the ANC, his loyalty to one organisation did not appear to be subordinate to his loyalty to the other. Even staunch anti-communists in the ANC held him in high regard for his clear-headedness as a thinker and his courage and pragmatism as a leader.
In 1943 he was invited by A.B. Xuma to serve on the Atlantic Charter committee that drew up African Claims, and in 1946 he was elected to the ANC national executive committee, a position he held until bans forced his nominal resignation in 1952. Following the 1946 mine strike, he was subjected with other leaders of the Communist Party to two years of futile legal proceedings, while the Smuts government tried to demonstrate its determination to deal with the "red menace." As in the late Treason Trial, when Kotane was also a defendant, the government eventually failed to make its case, although in the meantime the burdens on the accused were heavy.
When the Communist Party was banned in 1950, Kotane moved from Cape Town, which had been the party's headquarters, to Johannesburg, where he opened a furniture business in Alexandra Township. He was one of the first to be banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, but he ignored his bans to speak in support of the Defiance Campaign in June 1952 and was arrested with one of the first batches of defiers. Sometimes critical of cautious leadership in the ANC, he did not hesitate to thrust himself forward as an example of militancy. In December 1952 he was tried with other leaders of the Defiance Campaign and given a nine-month suspended sentence.
In 1955 he attended the Bandung conference of Third World leaders as an observer and remained abroad for the better part of the year, travelling widely in Asia and Eastern Europe. Charged with treason in December 1956, he remained a defendant in the Treason Trial until charges against him were dropped in November 1958. During the 1960 state of emergency he was detained for four months and in late 1962 he was placed under 24-hour house arrest.
In early 1963 he left South Africa for Tanzania, where he became the treasurer-general of the ANC in exile. In elections held in Tanzania in April 1969 he was returned to the national executive committee. He later suffered a stroke and went for treatment to Moscow, where he remained until his death in 1978.