Brian Bunting. Moses Kotane, South African Revolutionary
Moses Kotane, one of the main architects of the Congress Alliance and its policies, was not in South Africa during these hectic months of 1955. In February of that year he and Indian Congress leader Maulvi Cachalia left the country without passports to attend the Asia-Africa conference in Bandung, Indonesia, as representatives of the South African liberation movement. Both men had been refused passports by the South African Government, but on arriving in London met Krishna Menon and Pandit Nehru at the Indian High Commission office and were given Indian travel documents.
During the few days they stayed in London, Kotane and Cachalia canvassed as many representative groups as possible, including the parliamentary group of the Labour Party. They also had talks with Fenner Brockway M.P., a long-standing protagonist of decolonisation, and Canon John Collins of St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the founders of Christian Action and later to head the International Defence and Aid Fund which did so much to assist South African victims of the apartheid regime.
Their host while they were in London was Dr Max Joffe, the South African exile, whose political activities as one of the Johannesburg leaders of the Communist Party had led to his internment by the Smuts Government at the outbreak of the second world war. It did not take long for Kotane to notice that Dr Joffe’s house was being watched by British security police, and the two men were followed wherever they went in London, even when they visited a cinema. Nor was it only British security who were interested in them. On one occasion, walking down St. Martin’s Lane near Trafalgar Square, Kotane passed the South African Minister of Justice C.R. Swart, who was accompanied by a South African special branch detective known to Kotane. The encounter seemed to surprise both parties, and Kotane and the detective stopped in their tracks and looked at one another before continuing on their respective ways. After that Kotane and Cachalia had a police shadow right up to the moment they left the country.
On arriving in Cairo on the next stage of their journey Kotane and Cachalia again found themselves detained by the police. Kotane’s name happened to be listed in a publication of the United States Congress as one of “The 500 Most Dangerous Communists in the World”, and he and Cachalia were grilled by interrogators as to the purpose of their visit. It took all Kotane’s combination of diplomacy and aggression to be brought into the presence of Aly Sabry, head of political affairs in the office of Premier Nasser. After explaining that they were joint South African delegates representing the ANC and the SAIC on their way to the Bandung conference, Kotane added: “We have a message for your Prime Minister”, and Aly Sabry made an appointment for them.
When they eventually met Premier Nasser, the two men talked about the situation in South Africa for some while. Kotane found Nasser an attentive and well-informed listener who was immediately prepared to accept their credentials, hoping only that the delegation’s standing vis a vis the African nations would not be impaired by the knowledge that they had received help from Egypt. He did not want to be accused of trying to dominate Africa.
Kotane went to the point.
“What has happened to Egypt?”, he asked. “From time immemorial Egypt has been a leader in Africa. We don’t see why Egypt now belongs to Europe.”
Nasser replied: “That’s why I made the revolution — to assert our independence.”
Kotane replied that the African people of South Africa wanted Egypt to identify herself with their struggle for equal rights. When they arrived at New Delhi on the next stage of their journey, they learnt that Premier Nasser had in fact issued a statement declaring his support for the peoples fighting against apartheid and for national liberation in South Africa.
“Nasser was a fine and impressive personality”, Kotane recalled later. “He seemed to be groping a little in his foreign policy at the time, and possibly our meeting helped him to define his attitude towards Africa, as he expressed the fear that Africa would reject Egypt as an ally. I would like to think that our visit helped to open the road to better relations between Egypt and Africa in later years.”
At one meeting, Nasser had said to them: “I was a soldier, not a politician.” Preoccupied with Eygpt’s problem of steering a course independent of British and other foreign control, closely involved as he was with the Arab cause in the Middle East, Nasser nevertheless was increasingly turning his mind to the problems of the rest of Africa.
“We are the victims of the sins of imperialism”, Nasser said. “As long as I am here, we will fight colonialism and racialism to the finish.”
Nasser was a sincere and impressive figure. “He did not stay in the same place saying the same things all the time, but developed steadily in a progressive direction. His death was a tragedy for Egypt and the world”, said Kotane later.
For the remainder of their stay in Egypt, Kotane and Cachalia were the guests of the Egyptian Government. Just as while in London they had canvassed as many representative groups as possible, so here in Cairo they were on the go day and night carrying the message of the South African liberation movement to all interested parties. They met the North African Committee of political exiles from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, some of them under sentence of death in their own lands, but at that time representing their country’s independence cause abroad and within a few short years to be amongst the leadership of their free peoples. They met, too, the general secretary of the Arab League, who pledged the wholehearted support of the League members for the cause of South Africa’s oppressed.
Their next stop was India, and here they were provided with every facility by Nehru, who regarded them almost as his special proteges. At a press conference in Delhi Kotane and Cachalia attacked Strijdom’s South Africa as a police state and called for international support for the cause of the oppressed black majority in South Africa. Kotane — described baldly in the South African press as “a Native” — told the press conference that although the Africans formed the majority of the South African population, they had no rights, and were subjected to restrictions, denied education and paid the lowest wages. They were denied freedom of speech and association, had no votes and were not allowed to own or lease landed property.
After India, Kotane and Cachalia went on to Bandung, stopping off en route at Singapore, where they lobbied Indian and Chinese organisations. In Bandung they met Nehru and Nasser again and through them were introduced to most of the top leaders who attended the Bandung conference.
The purpose of the Bandung conference was to mobilise the forces of Asia and Africa to promote peace. In his speech opening the conference, President Sukarno said:
“No task is more urgent than that of preserving peace. Without peace our independence means little. The rehabilitation and upbuilding of our countries will have little meaning, our revolutions will not be allowed to run their course. What can we do? The peoples of Asia and Africa wield little physical power. Even their economic strength is dispersed and slight. We cannot indulge in power politics.
“Diplomacy for us is not a matter of the big stick. Our statesmen by and large are not backed up with serried ranks of jet bombers. What can we do? We can do much. We can inject the voice of reason into world affairs, we can mobilise all the spiritual, all the moral, the political strength of Asia and Africa on the side of peace. Yes, we the peoples of Asia and Africa, 1,400 million strong, far more than half the human population of the world, can mobilise what I have called the moral violence of nations in favour of peace. We can demonstrate to the minority of the world that we the majority are for peace, not war, and that whatever strength we have will always be thrown on to the side of peace.
All the countries of Asia and Africa were invited to the Bandung conference, excepting apartheid South Africa; but messages to the conference were sent by the African and Indian Congresses, the Congress of Democrats, and personally by Chief Lutuli and Dr Dadoo. In a 32-page memorandum to the conference, Kotane and Cachalia on behalf of their peoples appealed to the delegates “to use their good offices internationally to persuade other civilised and freedom-loving nations of the world to prevail on the Government of the Union of South Africa to abandon its unjust and disastrous policy of apartheid and racial discrimination. We are convinced and confident that the Government of South Africa could be forced to reconsider its reactionary and inhuman policy if all the nations who do not approve of policies and practices of racial oppression and discrimination, particularly the Governments of the United States and Britain, would boldly take a firm stand against such practices.”
The memorandum set out in detail the vicious effects of South Africa’s apartheid policies. Kotane and Cachalia held another press conference and lobbied hard for their cause.
In a report from Indonesia published in New Age, Kotane wrote: “Although the conference has been in close session for a week, the interest of the local population in it is unflagging. Every day crowds collect in front of the hotels and houses where the delegates are staying. They stand there from six o'clock in the morning to ten o'clock at night. There is great excitement whenever ministers or heads of delegations come and go. Then the crowds surge forward and have to be driven back by the military police who are in charge of security.
“However, there is nothing violent or hostile in the relationship and attitude of the military police to the population. Everything is peaceful and friendly. There are many unofficial observers here and hundreds of pressmen. Some American gentlemen have been carting around a group of Kalmuks, who have held conferences and propagandised against the Soviet Union. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem is here, the Archbishop of Cyprus. There are unofficial delegations from the French colonies at Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and from South Africa. To my mind, only the last two — the North Africans and the South Africans — are important. They have a legitimate case, and everybody concerned here recognises and acknowledges this fact. They enjoy the sympathy and support of all the delegates.”
By this time Kotane was on friendly terms not only with many of the delegates, but also with the journalists covering the conference. The former Times man Ralph Parker, at that time Daily Worker correspondent in Moscow, described in a booklet on Bandung his impressions of the people he met there — Chou en Lai, Nehru — and also “a man who had no seat among the official delegations on the conference floor but to whom many bowed and nodded a warm greeting when he entered the hall — Moses Kotane”
Cedric Belfrage, editor of the American National Guardian who was deported from the US by the McCarthyite witch-hunters, wrote that Kotane could be taken for Paul Robeson’s younger brother, giving the impression of “a man who will wait for the right time to move, because he has a grasp of history and the disposition of forces
Everywhere he went, Kotane was accepted as the authentic representative of the oppressed South African people, but more than that he was respected in his own right as a tried and tested leader, a man of experience and sober judgment, schooled in the struggles of his people, steeled and determined and above all full of unbounded confidence in the future.
Kotane felt the Bandung conference was an extraordinary success. It had opened in an atmosphere of cold-war suspicion and intrigue, but ended with the consolidation of the bonds of Asia and Africa in the fight for peace and against colonialism.
“The attempt of the Americans to disrupt the conference was a complete failure”, said Kotane later. “All the 29 delegations unanimously endorsed the conference resolutions contained in the final 5,000-word declaration.”
The conference issued a call for world-wide disarmament, and also laid down a 10-point “good neighbour” policy for peaceful co-existence among the nations. Under the heading of human rights, the conference responded to the South African appeal by declaring:
“The Asian-African conference deplored the policies of racial segregation and discrimination which form the basis of government and human relations in large regions of Africa and in other parts of the world. Such conduct is not only a gross violation of human rights but also a denial of the fundamental values of civilisation and the dignity of man.
“The conference extended its warm sympathy and support for the courageous stand taken by the victims of racial discrimination, especially by the peoples of African and Indian and Pakistani origin in South Africa; applauded all those who sustained their cause, reaffirmed the determination of Asian-African peoples to eradicate any trace of racialism that might exist in their own countries; and pledged to use its full moral influence against the danger of falling victim to the same evil in the struggle to eradicate it."
After the Bandung conference, Kotane and Cachalia returned to India, where they were again received by Nehru and treated as his guests. Nehru impressed Kotane as an international statesman of great charm and understanding, alert and well-informed. He expressed intense hate for national oppression and injustice, and was greatly disturbed by the vicious racial policies pursued in parts of Africa, especially South Africa. Kotane felt it ridiculous to claim, as South African Foreign Minister Eric Louw had done, that Nehru was motivated by the desire to conquer Africa as a home for the surplus population of India. It was quite apparent that he genuinely believed in the freedom of all oppressed people in the world as a matter of right and justice.
Kotane was especially impressed by a speech he heard Mr Nehru make in New Delhi.
“Mr Nehru spoke with intense emotion in condemning the barbarity and tyranny of the South African Government”, he said.
“It is clear to me that India, far from restricting its interest to the fate of South Africa’s Indian population, is deeply concerned about the position of all victims of the Government in South Africa.”
Part of the mission of Kotane and Cachalia was to secure material aid for the South African liberation movement. They presented their case to the Indian Congress Executive and were promised 100,000 rupees. Cachalia remained behind in India to tie up the loose ends, while Kotane moved on.
He flew first to England, where he received an invitation to be an honoured guest at the World Festival of Youth and Students at Warsaw. In company with British Communist leader Willie Gallacher and other British and South African delegates, he flew to Prague and completed the rest of the journey to Warsaw by train. The Festival was a wonderful celebration of peace and friendship, but what impressed Kotane more than any of the festivities was a visit to a Nazi death camp near Warsaw. It was then that he first fully realised the nature and scale of the horrors perpetrated during the Hitler regime, and he was haunted by the memory of his visit for years afterwards.
While in Warsaw Kotane received an invitation to visit China, and on October 1st, 1955, he was one among more than 2,000 guests from foreign countries who were on the reviewing stands in Peking when military and civilian paraders celebrated the 6th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Doves and model areoplanes were released as half a million paraders, 80 abreast, marched or danced in formation to the Gate of Heavenly Peace. A turn-out of young athletes included a big contingent of girls in bathing costumes doing graceful exercises. Tableaux from popular plays and operas carried on floats, lion and dragon dances and other dances of national minorities from all over China were presented.
Other -guests on the reviewing stand with Kotane included the British lawyer D.N. Pritt, the Italian Socialist leader Pietro Nenni and French writer Jean Paul Sartre and the mayors of six Japanese cities as well as prominent figures from over 50 countries.
“China in 1955 was a land of song and dance”, said Kotane later.
“Everybody seemed happy and determined, and they were very clear about their political line. Everywhere we went, they praised the Soviet Union to the skies for helping them and giving them all the assistance they wanted. At the Bandung conference they had made it very clear that they regarded United States imperialism as their main enemy. Every statement about ‘imperialism’ or ‘the forces of reaction’ had to include the phrase ‘headed by U.S. imperialism’. Other delegates argued with them until they were blue in the face, but the Chinese wouldn’t budge. “But when I visited China again in 1963, everything had changed. I was there with Oliver Tambo and Duma Nokwe on a mission for the ANC. This time they pretended they didn’t know the Soviet Union. It was as though it didn’t exist. If anybody did talk about it, they blamed all their mistakes and failures on the Soviet Union who, they said, had taken away all their blueprints and technicians and left them in the lurch. To my mind this was all nonsense. They were making a mess of things and they wanted to blame somebody else."
Early in December 1955, Kotane returned home. New Age of December 8 reported: “Jan Smuts Airport witnessed dramatic scenes last Sunday when over 400 members of the four Congresses gave Moses Kotane, banned people’s leader, a royal welcome on his return to South Africa after an 11-month absence overseas. The Non-European enclosure was a riot of Congress flags, pennants and bunting. Specially painted banners bore the words ‘Welcome Home Kotane’. While they waited for the BOAC Skymaster from London to land, the crowd sang songs of the Defiance Campaign and the Congress of the People.
“Who are they waiting for? asked many a puzzled spectator. The answer was not long in coming: As the plane touched down, a great roar went up: ‘We want Kotane’. Minutes ticked by, as one by one the passengers descended ... . a business man with his attaché case, a middle-aged woman, another woman and then, there, framed in the doorway, stood the man for whom they were all waiting his hand raised aloft in the Congress salute.
“Airport officials on the tarmac momentarily turned to stare as a thunderous roar of ‘Afrika!’ broke from 400 throats, and the beautiful strains of ‘Nkosi Sikelele Afrika’ floated over the airfield. Moses Kotane has returned.
“Outside the immigration office a long double line of Congressmen formed, waiting for their banned leader to emerge. As he did, he was mobbed by supporters, and presented with garlands from Basupatsela and Young Democrats. But Moses Kotane could not stay with his supporters, and left quickly. His banning order still operates.”
Before he drove off he told the New Age reporter: “I am glad to be back, and I congratulate the people who have been carrying on the struggle.” The report concluded: “Judging from the reception, the people of South Africa are equally glad that Moses Kotane is back.”
Kotane and Cachalia were not the only Congressmen to travel overseas in 1955. Many, many others of all races, some with passports, some without, also made their pilgrimage to the socialist countries which had given them such staunch support in their struggles over the years. Typical of their reaction were the remarks of Mrs Elizabeth Mafekeng, President of the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union, who said on her return to Paarl after attending a trade union conference in Sofia: “I was so happy that I even forgot that I was black."