Advocate Chris Madibeng MOKODITOA RIP: An Appreciation

For many of us who were contemporaries with Chris on this journey as comrades and fighters for justice, it is  a sad moment today to be here to bid farewell, to bid a respectful and fond farewell to one with whom we have travelled together such a long journey to freedom and beyond. We gather here, however, to thank God for the life of Chris Madibeng Mokoditoa who labored so long and lovingly, courageously, triumphantly, filled with revolutionary hope, all for the love of the people of this land and for the freedom we all cherish. We celebrate a life so dear,  for memories so treasured and for the human being, a husband and a father to the remarkable women, Johanna and later Sibongile, his dear widow. We pay tribute to them and to his children and grandchildren for the sacrifice they all bore on his behalf. Chris Mokoditoa was no ordinary man – he was extraordinary, gifted, loving and caring, full of resolve for what is good and right, stubborn where necessary and determined in the cause of right and justice, sociable among friends and family. Chris Mokoditoa was more than a comrade to many of us. He was a friend; he was a comrade who was as much a comrade as a friend. 

I know that there are many who would have loved to be here with us at this time, but circumstances have been such that they could not be. Among them must be two I may just mention. One, Madikwe Tom Manthata whose failing health has meant that he was hospitalized for some time lately. I trust and pray that Tom is on the mend and we shall soon have him in our midst. The other is Bakone Justice Moloto who, perforce, has had to be elsewhere at this time. He sends his sincere apologies. May I also take this opportunity to mention that Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana has urged me to mention that he too is unable to make it this week in part because of the conflicting arrangements associated with the death of Minister Edna Molewa. To the 70s (WhatsApp) Group that Chris was so much an embodiment of I salute you and I thank you for the solidarity and comradely support you have been giving to each other and to the family. For me it is an honour to be here present as among the early pioneers of the Black Consciousness philosophy and the activism of youth and students that shook the political environment of both the apartheid state and the liberation movement in its time. It is a mark of pride that we stand tall as that generation of activists that gave sacrificially of their best, often without reward.

I first met Chris Mokoditoa at the then University College of Fort Hare in Alice, Eastern Cape. He was a more mature student than the rest of us. He was , I think, already a family man and to be at university for him was both a sacrifice and a commitment to education and to better his life. We were, I like to think, younger, a little restless and reckless, we were far too confident and angry. Chris came with a proud record of activism in the PAC during the Robert Sobukwe and Sharpeville days. For him Sharpeville was not just a piece of history, it was a personal experience. And yet he slipped into Fort Hare as if unnoticed and he merged into the social and political environment as one among us. 

There was a group of students from Johannesburg who were, I believe, the envy of many of us. They were smart, trendy, clever, loud mouthed, strident and spoke English with a flair, much better than most of us could. They dressed in labels we could only dream of – arrow shirts, florsheim shoes, and they spoke words we could not understand, like moccasins, and very knowledgeable about fashions. And in their language of that time they made us envious in their appreciation of jazz. Some of them had been at Turfloop and they had the measure of the student politics of that time. No wonder they also seemed to impress the ladies. They managed to date the most attractive women at Eluk. Of course, some of us were jealous, but in the civility of our time we were also hugely intellectual – in debate and argument. In scholarly pursuits, in intellectual acuity, and in sports, Fort Hare was also a competitive society and so much of it, I argue, had to do with impressing the women. This gave rise to an element of boastfulness.

Chris Mokoditoa did not seem to fit among this kind of student. He stuck out like a sore thumb. He was a much more sober-minded, regular in church, somehow was not as  flamboyant in dress, and his words were few, but short and sharp. He was one of us. He was however very sociable and somehow we soon drifted together. We found ourselves in similar or the same social and political circles. He was active in the Catholic Society and I was in the Anglican Club. His dress sense did not seem to be flashy like that of his homeboys. He was an ordinary bloke amidst the Joburg crowd that we envied so much. He was a Political Science major. The professor was a man called Prof Crouse. It is said that Chris, the Pan Africanist, just could not take Crouse’s jibes against Kwame Nkrumah and his scathing remarks about Pan Africanism in his lectures. One time, Crouse went on about how he was not impressed with this Pan Africanism and Nkrumah. Chris could not resist. He interrupted him midstream and pushing the bridge of his even then trade-mark black rimmed spectacles, he challenged him. “Professor, Professor”, he said, “Why are you de-pressed?” Crouse was not amused, but the rest of the class burst out laughing.

At Fort Hare those days there was something of a ritual. Every year we debated whether we should have an SRC or not. Many of us, largely from the Cape, felt that we had a tradition of resistance against the university and of non-cooperation since the university was Bantustanised in 1960. Others were drawing from the experiences of Turfloop or Ongoye, universities that were a creation of the Separate Universities Act, 1959. We argued that unlike the other universities, Fort Hare had a reputation to protect since it was established in 1916, and that is both a reputation of high quality higher education, but also of academic excellence and student activism. The others argued that student governance was important for student life. This was an occasion for the best orators to show forth their skills – as well as howlers! Justice Moloto, who was often elected to chair these student mass meetings, was reminding me recently that we would argue at the CU Hall till the early hours of the morning, until a group that had gone to sleep, were woken up to vote. They would then come in in numbers and shout “Asivote BaThembu!” and without having participated in the debate or understanding the respective arguments, would cast their votes. That was it.

During our time at Fort Hare, Chris and others took pride in the rather clandestine meetings they used to have at the Tyhume River with some of the NUSAS chaps from Rhodes. That is, until a group of us established a University Christian Movement (UCM) Branch at Fort Hare. UCM was competing with SCM which we declared to be an apartheid creation, and it was championed by the likes of the late Ambassador Arnold Makhenkesi Stofile. UCM was to be a radical alternative to the SCM, we insisted. The university refused to recognize it, but we continued participating at FedSem nearby. In June 1968, we attended the UCM Conference at Stutterheim. It was at that conference that the beginnings of what later became known as SASO could be traced. At Stutterheim Steve Biko called for a Black Caucus, and there, students from the Black campuses organized themselves for the first time without the presence and agency of white people. A seed was planted.

Upon our return to Campus we organized a Campus Mission at which Steve, rather by default, was the guest speaker. Out of the Mission a list of demands was addressed to the university authorities and a strike was called. Prior to that week-long sit-down demonstration Chris, Archie Mrara and I, I can now disclose, got up in the middle of the night and we painted the campus with slogans. And, we got away with it. We never disclosed that to anybody. What brought the strike to an end was when the authorities  announced the university was shut down and we had all been dismissed with immediate effect. As if from nowhere, we were surrounded by armed police who were handling fierce dogs. It was a scary moment. The police declared that we were all under arrest. Unceremoniously, and under the guard of armed police, we were evicted from the university with military efficiency, some of us never to return again. When the university re-opened, 17 of us were dismissed, Chris included. We were in our final year, and he too was. I presume that he as others did, took up the offer to write the final exams from home. I did not.

We then found ourselves actively involved in a new project: the establishment of SASO, activism in our home areas, recruiting students from all universities, establishing branches everywhere, including in Soweto. Chris was very involved in all these activities. And yet he was also, as Fr Smangaliso Mkatshwa has testified, much involved in the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, and in the UCM. When the Soweto Student Revolts erupted in 1976 Chris and many others were at hand to lend support. He was active in the Committee of 10 founded by the late Dr Nthatho Motlana. 

Justice Moloto tells me the story that when he was President of UCM, he travelled by car with Chris to the UBLS in Lesotho. There they came across a former fellow student at Fort Hare who they knew to be an informer. To their surprise, he was very close and a friend of Jama Mbeki, then SRC President of UBLS. They tried to warn Jama about this man Thabo from Matatiele. Jama however, suggested that they confront the man directly. Indeed, a meeting was arranged with the SRC that night in Jama’s room and through the night bit by bit they exposed this man as an informer. It was Chris who dealt the coup de grace in the early hours of the morning when  he confronted Thabo with information of meetings he participated in when he was home during holidays. Afterwards, Justice asked him, “But Chris, how did you know what this man was up to at his home in Matatiele?” Justice says that Chris just laughed and replied in his typical one-liners: “Counter-espionage.”

Chris became Vice President of BPC at the founding convention of BPC in Soweto under Mrs Winnie Kgware as President. When the wave of banning orders followed, it was inevitable that he would be banned as well. Under banning orders, as I was in Port Elizabeth at the time, I understand that Chris was undeterred. He continued his grassroots work in the townships. He did his law studies and when he qualified he did articles, and later got engaged in legal advice as a volunteer. Upon qualifying he sought admission to the Johannesburg Bar without success. Undeterred, he was admitted as an Advocate, and he went to Bophuthatswana at UniBo where he ran a Law Clinic and, back in Johannesburg, he became a founding member of the Independent Bar. He was also active in BLA, and he was passionate about public interest law practice that BLA was pioneering at the time. I knew nothing about the Independent Bar when Chris appeared before us for appointment as a member of the IEC in 1996. I remember with bemusement how Arthur Chaskalson was derisive and unimpressed about this Independent Bar. Needless to say, Chris was not appointed. Ever so resilient, Chris was nominated more recently for appointment as the Public Protector. When they were trying to make much of his age, he characteristically confronted them with his fitness, and how he at 77 he was training younger men in boxing! He was not appointed.

Nonetheless in his later years, he told me how much he appreciated the support he received from colleagues in the legal profession both lawyers and judges. He valued the friendship he enjoyed with the likes of Judge Ratha Mokgoatlheng and other judges who often invited him to serve as an Assessor in the criminal trials that they presided over. Although as a practicing advocate he had limited success, he valued the professional relationships that he developed within the legal profession for all the years that he served. Chris was a human rights lawyer to the core. He was resilient and stubborn. He took pride in his exploits in the courts both civil and criminal. I have no doubt that his Memoirs will tell some riveting stories about his work.

With the assistance of his daughter-in-law Zoya we met with Chris for lunch in Killarney on 10 August 2017. I found that he was rather frail, and he shared with me his challenges with health beginning with a series of strokes that he had had, and that he could no longer drive himself which was a big handicap for Chris. He was lovingly assisted by his daughter-in-law. He told me what a blessing his wife Sibongile had been to him since his wife Johanna whom I knew passed away. He was a very happy man. We spent much time catching up and reminiscing about home and politics, about our journeys in law and academia. Chris was writing his Memoir hence he was anxious for us to meet. He needed his memory jogged about a certain then fellow student with us at Fort Hare who sold out on us. I dismissed him and said, “You know Chris, yes there were informers, but you and I cannot say that all that we were arrested for was not true. We should now rather plead guilty!” Chris laughed knowingly.

But Chris was not at an end. In June he joined the community of the Alumni of Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto on June 16 for the Tsietsi Mashinini Lecture that I was giving. In his memorable animated fashion he insisted on recounting to the audience how he and Tom Manthata used to go about organizing students and young people in Soweto ahead of the 1976 Revolts. I do not recall exactly what he said in detail, but he was reminding us about the civic organization and civil activism that brought about the change that we enjoyed today. Chris was in his element, but he was not well, I could observe. I am aware that he was active in the reunions of the 70s WhatsApp Group at their June gathering in Sandton. By that time Chris’ health was failing but he was irrepressible. He spent spells in hospital. We hoped and believed that he would be back among us. But it was not to be.

These days one is sure to find a lawyer behind every bush of corruption and state capture in our country. Lawyers have become business people rather than professionals and public interest and service providers. During these times of so much maladministration and mis-governance in both public and private spheres lawyers can be found on both sides of the fence. It is salutary and heartening to affirm that Adv Mokoditoa has never been found to be engaged in such wrongful activities. He was not to be found among the “Get Rich Quick” Brigade, hence he was destined perhaps to die a pauper. That is the price one pays in our country for honesty and for an upright life. In his professional dealings Chris took seriously his responsibilities and professional ethics.

Second, whatever may be the status of Black Consciousness today one can say without any fear of contradiction that the generation of Black Consciousness activists of the 1970s has bequeathed this nation with men and women of integrity, intelligence, leadership and a connectedness to the people they seek to serve. They have done so in all political parties that I can think of; and they have done so in the public and in the private sectors. They have done so in business and in professional life whether it be in medicine, or law, or education, or in the church, BC continues to bring value to  the lives of generations of South Africans. But it has not been easy. Please allow me to cite the examples from three of our comrades. Henry Isaacs joined the PAC in exile and devoted himself to offering the PAC the very best that BC had given and guided him. He found himself serving in the highest echelons of that organization, but in the end, he was broken and had nothing to show for the years of devotion he gave to the cause of the PAC. Johnny Issel offered the UDF and the ANC years as a community activist, with skills as a grassroots organizer. In the end he died with questions in his heart about the direction that the ANC and the country were going under Jacob Zuma. My good friend, comrade and sister is serving as a diplomat in our Foreign Service. She gave years as a freedom fighter to command structures of the MK, leadership in the SACP and in all structures of the ANC. With all of that the ANC has failed to heed the wisdom and drive of people like Cde Thenji Mthintso. I daresay that if they had this country and the ANC would not be in the mess that we find ourselves in today.  Now we have in leadership comrades who have climbed the greasy pole of politics. Terror Lekota has found himself leading COPE with dubious credentials, the latest fling with AfriForum being the lowest point, I believe, in his political career. We saw the tussle between Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, both graduates of the BC leadership school. The result is a stalemate and a paralysis for the country the outcome of which is yet to be determined.

The question must then be asked where is Black Consciousness that Chris gave so much of his life for?  BC campaigned hard for a nation that valued Blackness but which also through an understanding of Blackness strived for a nation that recovered its true humanity. And yet this nation has never been more racially and tribally stratified along race and ethnic lines, ask the people of Westbury, or of Eldorado Park. Language in the public discourse has never been more about the enhancement of tribal identity since Jacob Zuma’s rise to power. Crude racism and xenophobia are rampant in our country, and government and the rest of us do not seem to have a clue how we can arrest this dangerous tendency. 

The young people of our nation, so they tell me, are made to believe that this country has no future for them at whatever level one looks at it. Black Consciousness, it must be admitted, has never had a focus and a strategy on women advancement and empowerment, but the plight of women and children, especially girl children in our country is nothing short of crisis, and a Black Consciousness social ethics should have a counter to such brigandry. Even in the matter of a professional public service that is people oriented only those among us who love and care for our people in the matter than the BC taught and trained us can offer this nation values to achieve what the Constitution promises. Finally,  the cornerstone of BC thinking and training was self-development and social upliftment. How is it then that today there is so much dependency across all communities on hand-outs from government. Where are the initiatives of communities to work together to advance their own communities.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, South Africa today is in dire need of a good dose of Black Consciousness.

Given all that then, why is it, I asked colleagues a while ago, (most recently Nchaupe Mokoape and Bennie Khoapa) why is it that political organisations that espouse Black Consciousness have been such a spectacular failure in our electoral politics? Why is there such a dispersal of Black Consciousness and its insignificance, if not organic invisibility and influence, in the public sphere? I go around the university campuses of our land, I come across some smart student activists who are hungry for BC. They are animated by a desire, and an eagerness to embrace BC, a thirst to know and to understand Steve Biko. Much of BC philosophy is being studied with enthusiasm across this nation, I suspect much more than I find than Nelson Mandela. Then why it that so much BC thinking is being distorted in political language and ideas? Who is the custodian of BC ideology that should capture the imagination of the people of our country? To the young people in our midst, I can only say, there is work to be done. It is at a time like this that Chris has left our shores. Where he has gone none of us have been, and where he has been, he has left us with much work to do. We all have work to do. Our struggle for liberation is not yet complete. It may never be, but we must not rest.

Robala ka Khotso, Ntate Mokoditoa. Hamba kahle Comrade Chris. As they say in my language, Uzusikhonzele. To Sibongile, the children and grandchildren we say Thank you. May you be comforted by the example of his life, and his faithfulness to the cause of justice, and by his courage against all odds. Remember him and smile with pride that in your life you could count one so dear and special as husband and father, and grandfather. Be at peace at all times.

N Barney Pityana GCOB

Memorial Service: Roman Catholic Parish Church of the Assumption

Molapo, Soweto

3 October 2018.