top of page

From humble beginnings to a great leader

In 1929, a young bakery worker called Moses Kotane joined the Communist Party of South Africa. He rose to become the Party’s Secretary General as well as a member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee. Learn and Teach visited his widow, Ma Rebecca Kotane, to learn more about the life of one of our greatest leaders.

One Thursday morning, in 1944, Rebecca Sebitlo, a domestic worker in Berea, Johannesburg, decided to spend her day off visiting her elder sister, Miriam, who lived in Western Native Township.

She put on her smartest outfit — “a yellow headscarf, a Ju-jet dress, one of the best dresses of that time, with pencil heels to match” — and a few hours later she knocked at the door of her sister and her husband, a chap by the name of Gawa Radebe.

Not too long after she arrived, one of Gawa’s friend’s —” a handsome young gentleman, in a suit and clean” — came to visit. He was introduced to Rebecca as Moses Mauane Kotane, a member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). The rest, as they say, is history.

Today Ma Rebecca Kotane is 78 years old. Learn and Teach visited her in Diepkloof, Soweto, where she lives. She gave us a warm welcome and agreed to speak to us about her late husband, who held the position of Secretary General of the Communist Party for almost 40 years.


“Moshe (Moses in Tswana) was born on 9 August 1905 at Tampostad, near Rustenburg,” says Ma-Kotane. “He started schooling at a late age and only went up to standard four. In 1922, when he was 17, he left school and went to work in Krugersdorp.

“Moshe worked as a photographer’s assistant, domestic servant, miner and a bakery worker. He became interested in politics and joined the ANC in 1928.”

That same year, while working at the bakery, he joined the African Bakers’ Union — a union founded by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). This union was affiliated to the Federation of Non-European Trade Unions (FNETU).

Moses Kotane was soon committed to the workers’ struggle. He became attracted to the ideas that the CPSA stood for and joined the party in 1929.


The Party ran an adult school in Ferreirastown, Johannesburg. Kotane joined this school and attended classes in order to improve his education.

He became a great reader during this time. Soon, he started to write articles about the workers’ struggle. In 1931 he left his job at the bakery and worked full-time for Umsebenzi — the Party’s newspaper.

As years went on he came to be respected by other members of the Party and those of the ANC. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Party and was elected onto the Politburo of the Party. In addition, he was elected president of FNETU.

Kotane visited the Soviet Union in the 1930’s. He stayed in Moscow for a year while studying at the Lenin School.

In 1935, because of an ideological difference with Lazar Bach, the then chairperson of the Party, he was removed from the Politburo. He was, however, later put back in his position.

In 1939 he was elected Secretary General of the CPSA — the most senior position in the party. In that year he moved to the Party headquarters in Cape Town. Kotane was to hold this position for nearly forty years of the Party’s different stages of being lawful, unlawful, and of being exiled.


Throughout all these years Kotane continued to be a loyal member of the ANC. He was committed to the ANC’s goal of national liberation. At the same time he was committed to the Party’s goal of socialism. His loyalty to one organisation was never at the expense of the other organisation.

Kotane firmly believed that the African majority — as the most oppressed and exploited group — had to take the lead in the struggle. His famous words, “I am an African before I am a Communist” continue to ring in the ears of many activists even today.

In 1943 the ANC President, Dr AB Xuma, invited Kotane to serve on the Atlantic Charter committee. This committee drew up the demands — known as the Africans’ Claims — the ANC made to the government in 1944. In 1946 Kotane was elected onto the ANC National Executive where he served until he was banned in 1952.

In 1949 he served on the committee which drew up the ANC’s Programme of Action which was to turn the ANC from a “gentlemen’s club” into a militant mass based organisation.


Kotane’s job as Secretary General of the Party kept him busy. He travelled to many parts of the country and overseas. But he always left himself some time for seeing friends and relatives. For example, when he was in Johannesburg he spent time — and sometimes slept — at the house of Gawa Radebe, who was also a Party member. It was during one of these visits that he met the woman who was to become his wife.

Ma-Kotane remembers clearly what happened on this day. It was an important event in her life. “I was sitting and chatting to my sister when Moshe came in,” says Ma-Kotane. “I looked at this gentleman and he was really handsome. Later, I heard him saying to Gawa: ‘I like your sister-in-law. She is beautiful’.”

Rebecca and Moses had a few minutes’ chat. They agreed to see each other. “So from this day Moses visited me at work whenever he was in Johannesburg. We ended up marrying in 1945. I left my job and went to stay with Moshe in District Six in Cape Town. We had four sons,” says Ma-Kotane.


The marriage was a happy one but there were many difficult times. Ma-Kotane tells us how she often missed her husband. “Moshe travelled a lot and we missed him at home. Sometimes he was detained by the police.

“In 1946 many communists, including Moshe and JB Marks, were put on trial for organising the big miners’ strike. They were charged with sedition. The case lasted two years and at the end all the accused were found not guilty.”

Ma-Kotane says that even though Moses was a committed and busy activist, he was also a loving husband and father. “When he was home he would play with the children. Besides that, he helped me in the house, for example, with the washing of dishes. Sometimes he fetched water from the tap at the corner of the street.”

Moses Kotane also found a little time to relax: “We also went out to visit some of the people who were in the Party with my husband. Among them was the late Braam Fischer.

Talking to Ma-Kotane, it is clear that she loved her husband deeply and supported him in all that he did: “In the beginning I used to ask myself about my husband’s travels and why I married him. But I soon got used to staying with the children when he was not at home. And gradually I came to understand what his work was. I also accepted that he did not only belong to me, but also to the people.”


In the meantime, the National Party won the elections in 1948. Soon after, in 1949, a law was introduced in parliament which was to be used to ban communism in South Africa. Realising that the organisation would be banned, Kotane and his comrades decided to disband the Party in the same year.

The government finally passed the law, the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950. That same year the Party was banned — but it had already disbanded. After this Moses Kotane left Cape Town with his family. They settled in a two-roomed house in Alexandra.

Kotane was one of the very first people to be banned under the Suppression of Communism law. As a result, he could not work so he opened a furniture business in Alexandra. He was a carpenter, making furniture and selling it to the people in the township.

On weekends, when he was not busy, he liked watching soccer. His favourite team was the Alexandra Gunners of which he was an official. He used to leave the house in the morning, carrying a lunch box. And he would spend the whole day at the Alexandra Stadium.


This was a difficult time for Moses and his comrades, but for them, the struggle continued. The Communist Party started again in 1953 under a new name, the South African Communist Party (SACP). This time the Party did not work in the open — it worked underground.

In 1952 Kotane defied his banning order to take part in the Defiance Campaign. He led a group of people in the defiance of unjust laws. He was charged after this and given a suspended sentence.

In April 1955 Kotane, together with Maulvi Cachalia of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), represented South Africa at a conference of 29 Asian and African nations in Bandung, Indonesia. The conference spoke about world peace, and the struggle for liberation and independence of Third World nations. Kotane spoke about the struggle in South Africa and he impressed many delegates.


In 1955 the Congress of the People was held at Kliptown and the Freedom Charter was drawn up. Ma-Kotane was there and she remembers the time well: “This was one of the biggest political gatherings that I ever attended. I believe this was a great milestone in the history of our struggle.

“The government looked at the Freedom Charter and they did not like it. They saw ‘die rooi gevaar’ — ‘the red menace’ in it. So they started to accuse the ANC and other organisations of furthering the aims of communism.”

On 5 December 1956, 156 leaders from the Congress Alliance were arrested. Among them were Moses Kotane, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Helen Joseph, Albert Luthuli, Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, Alex la Guma, Reggie September, Joe Slovo and Ruth First. They were charged with treason.

The main evidence against the accused was the Freedom Charter which the state saw as a ‘communist document’. Charges against Kotane and others were dropped in November 1958. When the case finished in March 1961 — nearly five years later — all the remaining accused were discharged.


In 1960 the ANC and the PAC were banned and a State of Emergency was declared. Kotane was detained for four months and released without being charged. In late 1962 he was placed under 24 hour house arrest.

That same year, 1962, he attended a secret congress of the SACP where a programme “The Road to South African Freedom” was drawn up. In early 1963 Kotane left the country and went into exile in Tanzania where he became treasurer-general of the ANC.

Ma-Kotane remembers the day her husband left. “On that day the police checked him at the usual time, midday. Soon after they had left, Moshe also left. Thirty minutes later, the police came back to ask him to sign something. He was gone.”

Ma-Kotane was never to see her husband again.


“Since that day the police visited us regularly — and they harassed us. They wanted to know where Moshe was. But I did not know. The only link between us and him were the letters he wrote to me.”

Ma-Kotane never kept the letters from her husband. She destroyed them after reading them in case the police found them.

After her husband left, Ma-Kotane had to find a way of making a living. She found a job as a domestic worker. “I did not earn a lot but I had no choice. We struggled for many years — sometimes sleeping without eating enough. I then got sick and I had to stop working. Luckily, the children were big enough to start working and they looked after me.”


Moses Kotane lived in Tanzania for seven years. In April 1969 he was re-elected onto the ANC National Executive Committee. Later that year he suffered a stroke. He was sent to a hospital in the Soviet Union. He did not recover completely.

On his 70th birthday on 9 August 1975, the ANC gave Kotane its highest honour, the Isithwalandwe Award. Isithwalandwe means the wearer of the feather of a very rare bird. In traditional African society it was awarded only to the bravest warriors.

Kotane was honoured “in recognition of his outstanding contribution and role in the South African revolution and for his long, tireless, consistent and principled record as a fighter for the birthright of Africans.”


Ma-Kotane never stopped loving her husband — nor did she give up hope of seeing him again. His letters gave her courage and strength for many years. As the children grew up, they came to understand why their father left the country. Two of her sons also went into exile, but she remained.

One morning, on 22 May 1978, Ma- Kotane was sitting in her small kitchen listening to the news on the radio. This is how she heard about the death of her husband. “I still remember the exact words: ‘Moses Kotane, Secretary General of the South African Communist Party passed away in Moscow yesterday after a long illness.”

Ma-Kotane mourned for her husband. She could not be at the graveside to see her loved one laid to rest in the Heroes’ Acre at the Novodevichy Cemetery, in Moscow. Kotane is buried alongside his comrade, JB Marks, who passed away in 1972, and Nikita Kruschev, the former President of the Soviet Union.

Soon, many people — like Moses Kotane — who left the country because of apartheid, will be coming back home. There will be tears and joy as husbands, wives, sons and daughters meet for the first time after many years.

But not so for Ma-Kotane and many others. In the months ahead, we should not forget about those who have lost their loved ones. They need our care and support. It is perhaps in this way that we can best honour the memory of our fallen comrades.

NEW WORDS politburo — the top leadership of a Communist Party a menace — a danger or threat to something or someone. Also, when you call somebody a menace, you could mean they are simply a nuisance consistent — to remain the same, and not to chop and change principled — if somebody is principled, it means they stand by their principles and beliefs through thick and thin


If you would like to print or save this article as a PDF, press ctrl + p on your keyboard (cmd + p on mac).

bottom of page