By: Thami ka Plaatjie
“In 1960 I went to prison with my peers, in the 1964 I went to prison with my children , now in 1976 I am going to prison with my grand children.” Uncle Zephaniah Mothopeng stated in his valedictory address to his friends at the conclusion of the Bethal 18 Treason Trail in 1978 where was he was accused of being the main driving force behind the 1976 Soweto Student Uprising.
Ordinarily you would not find any socio-political or economic resemblance or affinity between Soweto and the nondescript eastern transvaal town of Bethal. Not at all. The former is urban and the latter secluded on the fringes of rurality and the two are also very much miles apart. Separated by more than 150 kilometers they were heinously and ironically joined by history like reluctant siamens twins.
The regime of Prime Minister John Vorster and Jimmy Kruger Minister of Police had embarked on a national swoop after the Soweto June 16 Uprising to peel the layers of organizational resistance that was at the center and heart of the uprising. The student uprising caught them with their pyjamas down hence they reacted like frantic hyenas seeking the smell of hound and beast. The hollow apartheid crown had lost its luster and the bearded khokho clad boers were not in a comical mood.
It was a known fact that student’s disenchantment with Bantu education was the main driving issue, behind the protest but this uprising was too advanced in its organization and too political in its overall temper to just have been the workings of students alone. There were other forces and formations behind the sustained planning and painful strategizing. Student qualms were a front in an affront against the regime.
The state gestapo was unleashed and scores were arrested, detained, interrogated and innumerable documents were seized and studied. Communication was also intercepted and paid agents could not be beaten in this game as they handed records audios and leaflets to prove their story.
The results was a marathon secret trail where 18 activists of the PAC and the Black Consciousness Movement were tried. This treason trial became known as Bethal 18 Treason Trial and it commenced in December 1977. Zephaniah Lekoane Mothopeng, aged 64 stood at the dock as the main culprit and accused of 1.
The trail was held in Bethal to ward off national and international publicity. Judge Curlewis who was famous for hanging decreed that the trial be held in camera. Few state sympathetic journalists were accredited and the entire town was cordoned off amid strict security presence. The main charge was the contravention of the Terrorism Act of 1967 and many other alternative counts.
Mothopeng’s struggle against an unjust system of education started in 1950 when he was elected as the president of the African Transvaal Teacher’s Association(TATA) This organisation was formed to deal with the Aparthied government’s Eiselen Commission. In 1951 TATA launched a vociferous campaign against the Eiselen Commission’s report that was to result in the recommendations of the Bantu Education law by passing a scathing resolution in its conference held in Witbank.
They embark on the anti Bantu Education campaign by means of pamphleteering through the Voice, and writing scathing articles in their mouthpieces called ;The Good Shepherd. Leading members of TATA were suspended from teaching and they included Zeph Mothopeng its president, Eskia Mphahlele secretary general and editor of its mouthpiece, Isaac Matlare. Zeph has been a teacher at Orlando High for thirteen years teaching Maths and Science. He was also a choir master of the school and won many awards at the various Eistedfords .
Between 1960 and 1969 Uncle Zeph was arrested twice. He was sentenced to two years in 1960 and to three years in 1964 which he served in Robben Island. After his release he was banished to Qwaqwa for four years. Upon returning to his home in Orlando he was instrumental in the formation of SASO in 1969 where he gave the main address.
In an interview granted just after his arrest in 1976 Mothopeng explained his clandestine organizing activities in Gauteng;
“ In my present trial I was detained in August 1976. At the time of my arrest I was employed as a director of the Urban Resource Centre, a voluntary community organization. It conducted many programmes in Kagiso Township, Krugersdorp, among others adult education, community bulk buying, youth organization. It had a training centre at St Ausgar’s, Roodepoort, which trained people in some skills and arts and crafts. It had study centres at Soweto, Thembisa, Natalspruit, Sebokeng and Evaton. I have been studying a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Unisa.”
Zephania worked very close with the Black Consciousness movement, SASO, with the NGO’s, religious bodies, the underground movement and students in general. Together with John Ganya , Zeph was instrumental in securing a teaching post at the Morris Isaacs High school in Soweto for Onkopotse Tiro in 1974 where Tsietsi Mashinini was a student.
Zeph Mothopeng’s wife Urbaniah and her daughter, Sheila, were both detained by the apartheid state, even though they were not directly related to the trial in any shape or form. The intention was to torture them to turn into state witnesses. Urbaniah was held in solitary confinement from December 1976 to April 1978. Sheila was also held in similar conditions for three months during 1977.
Mothopeng, in one of his only personal accounts recorded into a document just before being imprisoned in 1979, states, “As the doors of prison lock us in, this time our spirits are very high because we realize that victory is in sight and freedom is on our threshold. We are fully aware that the oppressors are confronted with formidable onslaughts from every angle.
Four members of the PAC and Bethal Treason trialists died in detention in 1977 due to torture and they were Dr Naboath Ntshuntsha, Samuel Malinga, Aaron Khoza, and Sipho Bonaventura Malaza. Zeph sustained prolonged session of torture and interrogation but remained defiant.
The other 17 arrested with Mothopeng were John Dlavalile Ganya (48); Mark Shinners (37); and Hamilton Keke (42), Bennie Ntoele (38)’; Michael Sthembele Khala (24); Alfred Ntshali- Ntshali (47), Julius Landingwe (30); Zolile Ndindwa (26); Moffat Zungu, Chief Photographer of the banned The World newspaper; Goodwell Moni (24); Jerome Kodisang (26); Johnson Nyathi (32); Themba Hlatshwayo (21); Mothlagegi Thlale (22); Rodney Tsoletsane
(20) and the two brothers Michael Matsobane (36 and Daniel Matsobane (31).
During the 18 month trial, 168 state witnesses were brought to testify against Uncle Zeph. One of the key witnesses was a former member of the national executive of the PAC Themba Selby Ngendane. Uncle Zephania was sentenced to 15 years and was once more returned to Robben Island for the second time, just two of his accused John Ganya and Hamiltonian Keke.
Robert Sobukwe was also accused in this Treason Trial as a co-conspirator but due to lack of evidence that link linked him he was released. Upon his acquittal Sobukwe is quoted to have said ;
“In 1960 we overcame the fear of prison and emerged as prison graduates.Now the regime relies on its ultimate weapon of brute force, now that we too can get guns, confrontation is inevitable.”
As we reflect and remember the heroic deeds of 1976, we must dare never forget the towering sacrifice of Uncle Zeph Lekoane Mothopeng. Let’s give a thought to the heroic and daring steel courage of this trucelent Noble Son of the Soil.