David Wilcox Hlahane Bopape was the son of Pedi-speaking farm workers, Levi and Jerita Bopape. He was born in 1915 at Houtboschdorp near Pietersburg in the northern Transvaal. In 1916 his father fought against Germany in the First World War. David was born on a farm approximately 25km from Pietersburg (now Polokwane). He grew up shepherding his father’s and the farmer’s livestock, growing maize and processing fruit.
Bopape's primary education started at Kratzestein, at a Lutheran mission school where the family stayed for a short while before moving to his uncle’s farm in Kgokong. Here Bopape continued his primary education to standard six. He took two classes a year to make up for lost time, having begun his schooling at 10. He finished his secondary education at the Botshabelo Training Institution in Middleburg, Transvaal.
Beginning a nine-year career in education in 1936, he enrolled at this same institute for a Teacher's diploma which he completed three years later. He then taught English, Physical Science and Agriculture for one year in Chief Letswalo's district in Tzaneen. After this, in 1940, he moved to Tsakane location in Brakpan. He secured a teaching post at the Berlin School, where almost upon arrival he became a member of the Transvaal African Teachers Association that enlisted most teachers in the area.
A short while later, Bopape became the secretary of the Teacher's Salary Campaign for the years 1940 and 1941. He initiated a ‘Blanket Campaign’ for a raise in teachers’ salaries from five pounds a month. During the march, the teachers were to wear blankets to symbolize their inability to afford decent clothing.
Moving left in his politics, Bopape joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA ) in 1940 under General Secretary Moses Kotane and, finding no contradiction between communism and his faith, he remained a Christian. He was elated to find that in the Communist Party there was no race or gender discrimination. In the late 1940s, he also served on the editorial staff of Inkululeko, a CPSA newspaper. The CPSA called on members to belong to national organizations arguing that they were the ones fighting for liberation.
In 1942 he joined for the ANC under President Dr. AB Xuma and General Secretary, the Rev. James Calata; his Transvaal chairman was C. Ramohoane. Shortly after joining the ANC, he was tasked as secretary of the Anti-Pass campaign of 1943-44. Bopape was also a central figure in the Alexander bus boycott of 1943 – 1944, when thousands walked eighteen miles to and from work rather that submit to an increase in bus fares from 4d to 5d.
Bopape’s teaching career was terminated when he rejected the municipality’s criminalizing of traditional beer brewing in the township, and their creation of beer-halls. This was designed to generate revenue for the White’s-only council. Bopape was elected to represent the Brakpan community on matters such as the housing shortage and the removal of White managers of municipal township beer-halls. From 1943, Dr. A Language was the township’s manager for Native Affairs. A Stellenbosch University graduate, he had been an activist of the right wing organization, Ossewa Brandwag appointed ostensibly for his ‘expert knowledge of natives’. When Bopape publicly contradicted Dr. Language, the latter corresponded with the Department of Education. Bopape was summoned to the Department’s offices and instructed to resign from the Communist Party and the ANC, or face expulsion. Bopape’s response was that as a representative of the people, he was responsible to them, and that the nation was more important than him as an individual. His expulsion sparked protest action by teachers, school children and parents. On August 10, 1944, some 7 000 residents participated in a stay-away, chanting “No Bopape, No Schooling”. In addition to the reinstatement of Bopape, they demanded the removal of Dr. Language as township manager. As support for the protest action grew, the municipal authorities made attempts to quell the situation. The protest action finally came to an end when the Town Council promised Bopape’s reinstatement and to hold an inquiry into Dr. Language’s conduct. Neither the inquiry nor the reinstatement occurred however.
When Bopape left teaching he formed a real estate business partnership with JB Marks. In 1944, Bopape was elected Transvaal ANC Secretary. In the same year, Bopape helped found the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and served in its first National Executive Committee with Anton Lembede, Oliver Tambo, AP Mda, Godfrey Pitje,Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. The founding meeting was held at the Bantu Men's Social Centre in Eloff Street, Johannesburg, and was attended by a selected group of 150 men. In his new occupation, Bopape organized ANC branches in virtually every town in the Transvaal (today, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West and Gauteng provinces). Bopape was an organizer of the 1948 Votes for All Convention, and in March 1950 he participated in the Defend Free Speech Convention as a joint secretary. This campaign attracted 10 000 men to Marshall Square in Johannesburg, and called for a one-day general strike on May Day (1st of May). This was an effort to call on the government to abolish the Pass Law and all discriminatory laws. On that day, 18 Africans died and many were wounded in unprovoked attacks by the police.
After Dr. H.F. Verwoerd introduced Bantu Education Bopape together with Bernard Molewa, became instrumental in organizing ANC ‘Cultural Clubs’. These were meant to counter inferior state education of Black children and to teach them to love their people and country.
Bopape held the position of Provincial Secretary until a banning order forced him to resign. At the time of the Defiance Campaign, Bopape was banned along with Yusuf Dadoo, Moses Kotane and John Beaver Marks and again ordered by the apartheid government to resign from the ANC and CPSA. But his experience as an organizer and leader of mass action made him an asset to the movement. Undeterred, the four rejected their banning orders and addressed mass meetings calling on others to defy their banning orders. In 1953 Bopape was arrested and imprisoned for four months at the Johannesburg Prison. Whilst in prison, he was served with a lifetime banning order under the Suppression of Communism Act. Although banned, Bopape continued with political work, secretly helping to organize the Defiance Campaign.
As the ANC prepared for the Congress of the People, which adopted the Freedom Charter, he traveled to Cape Town to mobilize people to attend the meeting. He held a meeting on top of Table Mountain and succeeded in organizing 100 people to attend the Congress. He then went to Knysna, Port Elizabeth, East London, Umtata, Tsolo and Qumbu. At this time, he was arrested for entering the Transkei illegally and was sentenced to 24 days hard labour. After returning to Johannesburg, he continued to defy the orders by attending the Congress of the People at Kliptown.
Bopape was arrested again following the declaration of the State of Emergency after the Sharpeville shootings. Although the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) and SACP went to exile, he opted not to follow suit. Instead he continued with his underground activities, stating that "when in exile you are only safe from police harassment and imprisonment, possibly death also, or, safe from possible enemy attack. But one cannot organize membership from there or organize in fear of death; Remember the highest sacrifice to the struggle is death. Secondly, there is no suffering in exile. The leadership would organize food and other necessities for the camps. At home you suffer”.
In 1972, Bopape qualified as a lay preacher in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In 1983 he attained membership of the Estate Agents Board. In his last years, Bopape founded the Maropeng Resettlement Committee, a land restitution body, and served as its chairman. This organization sought compensation for people forcibly removed from the Old Brakpan Location, of which he was a part. Bopape died on 2nd September 2004.
Gerhart, G.M. & Karis, T (eds)(1977).