top of page

The old man in the mountains

We travelled a long way to find Edwin Mofutsanyana — all the way to the mountains of Lesotho.

When we got to his little house, a tall, gentle man with very grey hair got up to greet us. He was pleased to see us. He wanted to know if we had a newspaper for him – newspapers are hard to get in the mountains. We gave him a newspaper and sat down to hear the story of his life.

It is a story of a struggle – a long and difficult struggle for freedom. And it is a struggle that he did not fight alone. He worked and fought together for many years with his comrades in the ANC and the Communist Party.

Edwin is now 86 years old and he can’t fight like he used to. But far away in the mountains of Lesotho, his dreams are still the same. He has not forgotten about the struggle of his people. And so we too must not forget what he has done. If we remember, maybe our children will remember too. And that is the way it should be.


Edwin Mofutsanyana was born in 1899 and he grew up on a farm in Witsieshoek in Qwaqwa. When he was 17 years old, he went to work on the mines. He wanted to get money so he could go back to school. The school in Witsieshoek only went up to standard four. Edwin wanted to study further.

So he worked on the mines for a while. When he had enough money, he went to a school called Benson­vale in the Eastern Cape.

When Edwin finished at Bensonvale, he went back to the mines in Johannesburg. He was a clerk. He gave other workers passes for Sunday. It was an easy job.


Edwin’s best friend was a young man called Majoro. One day Majoro got into trouble, on a train at Jeppe Station. Just as the train was leaving the ticket inspector got on the train. He grabbed Majoro and both of them went flying off the train. The ticket inspector then charged Majoro in court.

Edwin and Majoro were angry about this. They decided to get help. They went to the African National Congress. They did not know where else to go.

The ANC helped Majoro win his case – and Edwin and Majoro decided to become members. But they did not do much work for the ANC at this time. A few years later, something happened that changed Edwin’s life very much.


Edwin and Majoro were going home to Witsieshoek for a holiday. They stopped in Vereeniging on the way. There they saw a white man with a big crowd around him. They thought he was one of those mad preachers. Majoro said to Edwin:

Come, let’s go and hear him bluff the people.”

They got a big surprise. The man was talking about the problems and suffering of the black people. Suddenly the police came. They took him away.

Edwin wanted to know who this man was. Not only did he talk to black people, but he was arrested for them as well. Somebody told Edwin that the man worked for the Communist Party.

When Edwin came back from Witsieshoek, he went to the Communist Party office in Fox Street in Johannesburg. He asked about the man he saw in Vereeniging. They told him the man had gone back to England. But the people in the office were very kind to Edwin. They told him all about the Communist Party. They told him to come to their night school to learn some more.


Edwin went to the night school. But he did not learn much. The books were very difficult, with very difficult English, all about money and workers and profits. But he liked the way that every­one worked together.

Then in 1928 the Communists asked Edwin to work for them in Potchefstroom – a backward place for mad people, that’s what Edwin thought. Edwin had a hard time in Potch. The superintendent did not like him. He refused to give Edwin a permit to live in the township.

For months Edwin slept in the veld. And every week they arrested him because he did not have a permit. In the end, even the magistrate asked if there was no one else to arrest.

In Potch Edwin led the people in the fight against lodgers permits and passes. Once Edwin and the people there made a big fire — and then they burnt their passes. Edwin never carried a pass again.

In Potch Edwin met two people that became very important in his life. One was a woman called Josie Mpama. Josie was a church worker and she and Edwin worked together. They soon lived together as man and wife.


The other person was J.B. Marks. He used to translate at meetings for Edwin. He later became a full time worker for the Communist Party. Edwin remembers one meeting when J.B Marks was translating.

The day before this meeting, a young woman called Hilda Nyembeni came to Edwin. She worked at the Superintendent’ s office. She said she heard the superintendent talking. She said they were planning to shoot Edwin at the meeting.

Edwin thought that they just wanted to scare him so he would call off the meeting. He did not listen to Hilda — even after she told him what clothes the gunman would wear.

At the meeting, while Edwin was talking, he saw a man take out a gun. Now he knew that Hilda was not lying. He grabbed J.B. Marks and quickly pulled him under a table. There was a loud bang. But the bullet missed. Edwin Mofutsanyana and J.B.Marks lived to see another day.


Josie and Edwin left Potch and went to live in Sophiatown. But soon afterwards the Communist Party sent Edwin to work in Durban. Edwin did not stay in Durban for very long. After just two months, the police arrested him and put him on the train back to Johannesburg. Edwin was banned from Natal.

Then the Communist Party gave Edwin a scholarship to study in Russia. Edwin was very excited. But he had a big problem ­ how to get out of South Africa without the police finding out.

Edwin decided to borrow some­ body else’s passport. He went to one of his friends, a man by the name of Eddie Roux. And so Edwin left Johannesburg with Eddie’s passport. That same day the police started to look for Eddie Roux.

When Edwin got onto the boat in the old Lourenco Marques, he was a worried man. He thought the police would be waiting for him. But they were not waiting and a few hours later, Edwin was on his way to Russia.

Edwin stayed in Russia for over two years. He was cold and lonely. But he learnt a lot. While Edwin was in Russia, Josie gave birth to their first child at home in South Africa.

When Edwin came home, he was very worried about his passport. When he got off the boat in Mozambique, he decided not to use Eddie Roux’s passport again. He dressed up like a worker from Mozambique and got a special pass to visit Johannesburg.

Edwin got back to Johannesburg safely. But the police knew he had been away. They came to the Communist Party offices. They said they had not seen him for a long time. Then one police­ man said: “Ah, but we know that you have been in the Transkei.” The police laughed and left.


Edwin was a busy man when he came back from Russia. He was now secretary of the Communist Party. He also worked on the Communist Party newspaper, Umsebenzi. And he later became the editor of Inkululeko.

Edwin and his old friend J.B. Marks also worked for the ANC. At this time the ANC was weak. Edwin worked hard to make the ANC strong again.

Edwin also became a member of the Native Representative Council. These councils did not have much power. They could only advise the government. The Communist Party was against these councils but Edwin thought he could use these councils to teach the people about communism.

He travelled up and down the country talking at meetings. And when it came to talking, you couldn’t find anyone better than Edwin Mofutsanyana.


In 1946 there was a big strike on the mines. Edwin’s friend Majoro was working for the miners union. Edwin often helped him. Edwin remembers going to a mine near Benoni. The police were all around the compound. No one could go in or out. But Edwin and Majoro wanted to give out some pamphlets.

Then Edwin saw a lavatory in the wall of the compound. There were planks at the back for the bucket. He crept up to it. He pulled the planks up and crawled inside. The next minute, there were pamphlets everywhere, inside the compound. The police never knew how they got there.

But Edwin went to jail because of the miners’ strike. The police arrested many people. They said they started the strike. Edwin was found guilty for the first time. He had to pay a fine of 60 pounds. And we don’t have to tell you ­ sixty pounds was a lot of money in those days.


At this time Edwin was also on the Orlando Advisory Board in Soweto. When people voted for the Advisory Board, Edwin and the other person both got the same number of votes. So the superintendent took a penny and said: “Heads for Tema, Tails for Mofutsanyana.” The penny landed on tails and Edwin got onto the Advisory Board.

There was a big problem with houses. Many new factories started. And there had been no rain. People from the homelands -­ or reserves — came to town so that they would not starve to death.

The government did not want them in town so they did not build houses for them. People were sleeping everywhere, in the veld, in old cars, on verandahs. Then a man called Sofasonke called the people together and they went and built shacks in the veld next to Orlando.

The government did not want shacks. So they tried to get rid of Sofasonke. They put Sofasonke on a train to Natal. Then Edwin got a lawyer. They stopped Sofasonke’s train. Later there was a court case, and Sofasonke won. They could not send him away again – thanks to Edwin.


In 1950 the government decided to ban the Communist Party. The Communists called a big meeting. No-one knew what to do. In the end they decided to break up the party before the government banned it.

The Communist Party did not have any plans and the members did not know what to do. Edwin was not very happy about this. So he got together with some of the old communists and they worked together in secret. They worked in small groups. They taught others about communism.

One Saturday, while Edwin was resting at home, the police arrived. They said he must go with them. But they did not have a warrant to arrest Edwin. So he refused to go with them. The police told Edwin that he must come and see them on the Monday – with his suitcase ready for jail.

Edwin thought that the police were just trying to scare him. But on the Monday, the police came again. Edwin hid away from them. But now Edwin knew the police were not joking. He decided to go to Lesotho. He thought he would be safe there.


When Edwin got to Lesotho, he began to farm – like everyone else there. But farming in the mountains in Lesotho is difficult. The weather is bad. There is snow and bad frosts in winter. And the land is very steep so the fields are small.

For a long time Edwin was very poor. He had no money at all. Once he went to speak at a friend’s funeral. It was raining and Edwin had nothing to cover himself with. He went to the funeral in an old sack.

Today life is a little better for Edwin. He has a few kind friends who help him. He gets a small pension and he sometimes gives talks at the university.

But Edwin Mofutsanyana, like so many others who were forced to run away, is homesick. Yet he is not without hope. He knows that others are carrying on with the struggle that he spent so many years fighting. He is old now and wants to come home. He wants to come down from the mountains .


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