Even during his exile years the name John Kgwana Nkadimeng continued to inspire a new generation of freedom fighters in the rural villages of Sekhukhune. ANC member and nephew Charley Nkadimeng pays tribute to a freedom fighter

On Thursday 06 August 2020 the nation and the world woke up to the devastating and unexpected news of the death of one of the country’s most illustrious revolutionaries, John Kgwana Nkadimeng.  

He was known among his peers in the ANC alliance structures as comrade JK. In the villages of Mašite where he was born 93 years ago and in Manganeng where he grew up, he was known by the elders as Ngwato a Ngwato, Mokgomana or Kgwana.

 Ntate JK’s grandmother and my mother’s grandmother  were direct sisters. Traditionally, he belonged to the Marutla regiment—the group that went to the initiation school in between Matjedi and  Mathamaga regiments. Despite him being senior in years and rank by far, I will refer to him in this tribute as Comrade JK as he was known in the alliance circles.

Back in the days of the Struggle against apartheid my mother, aunt and uncles were fond of relating to me stories about Kgwana soon after they discovered my interest and involvement in the struggle.

This was  particularly so between 1984 and 1986 when the young people of Sekhukhune rose up and joined the rest of the country in the fight against apartheid.  

They told me of their brave cousin who had disappeared to other countries in pursuit of the struggle. They shared with me invaluable information about his leadership role in the 1950s Sebatakgomo uprisings in Sekhukhune.

They narrated to me circumstances surrounding the 1958 revolt in  Manganeng village, the apex of which was when the community fiercely revolted against the intended arrest of their chief Hlabirwa Phaswane Ramphelane Nkadimeng.

This was a painful situation that resulted in the loss of lives and permanent injuries to some in the community. We learnt during the 1986 uprisings that the white lawyer that Ntate Nkadimeng had brought to the village in 1958 to offer legal assistance to Chief Phaswane was in fact Joe Slovo. Although Slovo was indeed a lawyer, he was also an erstwhile leader of the ANC and the then banned SACP who later became chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe in exile. 

Whilst I was already inducted in congress politics and had become part of the underground, the narration about a family elder that  was part of the leadership in exile had an additional influence and a profound impact on both my ideological outlook and commitment to the struggle for freedom.  

Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans present the ANC flag at the funeral service of John Nkadimeng. Photo: GCIS

This was the case with several other activists in the community who took pride in one of their own being at the helm of a noble struggle for the liberation of black people in general.

As a rural community of Manganeng and Sekhukhune, we too had a share of this towering giant. He was an inspiration to many of the unsung heroes and heroines, amongst which was the late ntate Selwane Nkadimeng who was banished to Ingwavuma (KwaZulu Natal) from 1958 to 1968 and whose family constituted the core of our underground in the 1980s.

As already postulated Ntate Nkadimeng’s influence was enigmatic in many ways. When in 1986 the soldiers of the notorious South African Defence Force established a base in our village we knew it had to do with John Nkadimeng.

Rather than being deterred we introduced semi underground zonal structures and became the most organised and vibrant youth organisation in the area.

We established a mass cultural movement and defiantly named it Kgwana Cultural Project (KCP) conscious of the fact that the soldiers only knew John but not his traditional name. 

KCP produced outstanding activists and leaders and today stands tall as the Kgwana Community Centre (KCC) for development.  Ntate Nkadimeng almost shed tears when during his welcome rally in 1991 stories of his influence and inspiration were narrated.

I vividly remember the proud and joyous mood that engulfed the entire community during the occasion, as well as the general optimism that the impending ANC government would bring freedom and development to the rural hinterland and to society as a whole.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura presents the SA flag to the family of fallen freedom fighter and unionist John Nkadimeng. Photo: GCIS

Since the official announcement of Ntate Nkadimeng’s death, a broad spectrum of people in the country and abroad have narrated mouthwatering stories about this outstanding political luminary.

Ronnie Kasrils has spoken highly of a principled and respected man who garnered the highest votes after those of officials during the 1985 Kabwe Conference of the banned ANC. Together they spent many years either in the Political Military Council (PMC).

They were also together  in the crucibles of the underground in Mozambique, in Zambia or in house number 43 Trelawney Park in Swaziland (Kwa magogo).

He also spoke of how comrade JK revered his mentor, martyred MK soldier Flag Boshielo, who was instrumental in recruiting him and who was the best man at his wedding (Kasrils) in Dar es Salaam in the early 1960s.

His contemporary Josiah Jele had spoken fondly of a comrade of many years who always exuded determination and bravery, and epitomised everything good that the alliance was all about.

Mme Ilva Mackay of the SACTU Lusaka office has aptly reminded the nation of cde JK the internationalist who crisscrossed the world mobilising support for the trade union movement in South Africa as well as international solidarity broadly.

We heard Thozamile Botha and those who were in the trade union movement in the country giving scintillating testimonies of a tireless and focussed unifier who was in the forefront of the formation of COSATU in December 1985.

As many have attested, it was comrade JK who used his proximity to the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) to organise several delegations of the leadership of the trade union movement to various countries, only to be surprised by his presence at such meetings.

For this outstanding role he was honoured with the Elijah Bharayi Award during the COSATU Eighth National Congress in 2003.

Omry Makgwale wrote about a father figure who was the first to give them a proper lecture on ANC politics when they arrived in Swaziland in early November 1976.

Archie Palane, the former deputy general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, praised comrade JK as a humble leader who had the patience to listen and that he taught him to be meticulous and professional in his work.

The Collins Chabane Foundation has urged all of us not only to be consumed in the pain of his loss but to find space to celebrate the life of an architect of our democratic order.

Many have proudly narrated about the fruits of his sweat and his inerasable footprint in the uprisings in Zeerust, Pondoland, Witsieshoek and Ga Matlala during the reign of Queen Makwena Matlala in the 1950s.

This was comrade JK, the most prominent of ANC national organisers and SACTU’s former full time shop steward, NEC member and later its General Secretary.  

I have always harboured resentment at the decision by President Nelson Mandela to appoint comrade JK  as the country’s Ambassador to Cuba so shortly after spending many years in exile.

Finally, I got relieved when during the memorial service the Cuban Ambassador to SA, HE comrade Rodolfo Benitez Verson, disclosed that JK was a natural preference of his old friend and comrade Commandant Fidel Castro.

His appointment had more to do with the strategic interests of two great nations than our narrow selfish interests as a family and a people.  As an illustration, The Nelson Mandela Fidel Castro Medical Training Programme owes its success to the hands on and visionary leadership of comrade JK.

Mokgomana as he was affectionately called by his older generations belonged to royalty. He was an uncle, advisor and confidante to the late Kgoshikgolo Rhyne Thulare II. A few days after his passing, the leadership requested contact with the reigning King of the Bapedi nation, His Royal Highness Kgoshikgolo Thulare Victor Thulare III.

It was befitting that such protocol be observed in recognition of his stature as well as his standing as an uncle and grandfather to those of Sekhukhune royalty. During the funeral service, the representative of his Majesty eloquently illustrated the significant role that Mokgomana played in promoting the unity of the Bapedi royalty and the advice he always proffered behind the scenes.

Members of the SANDF at attention during the funeral service of John Nkadimeng. Photo: GCIS

Contrary to the mood in 1991/1994, and notwithstanding great strides registered since the dawn of democracy, our country is today simmering at the edge of hopelessness and despair.

It is itself a telling cry away from the ideal so aptly envisioned by those of ntate Nkadimeng’s generations and forebears.  Even at his advanced age, this towering gallant freedom fighter was concerned about signs of degeneration and backwardness that were beginning to characterise both his movement and the country as a whole.

As Makoko Nkadimeng, the representative of moshate wa Batau Ba Nkadimeng (royal palace) eloquently said during the memorial service Ntate Nkadimeng had consitently raised concerns about lack of development in his ancestral villages of Sekhukhune.

He had decried poor school infrastructure, lack of water and sanitation, poor health services, lack of proper road infrastructure, tribal offices not being given attention and general lack of development.  We can only hope, in his honour, that all of us will do a serious introspection and collectively do what is right for our communities.

Community members in Sekhukhune pay tribute to one of their own John Nkadimeng following news of his passing in early August. Photo: Supplied

There is no doubt that his allround understanding of the dynamics of traditional communities assisted a great deal in his interactions and mobilisation of traditional leaders in the period leading to the 1994 election, and in his leading role as head of the ANC-IFP Peace Committee that worked towards the success of the Kwa Zulu Natal peace process. 

We thank the government for conferring on comrade JK the Order of Luthuli in Gold. We salute the ANC for bestowing on him its highset honour, the Isithwalandwe/ Seaparankwe award in early 2019. We thank the SACP, his ideological home of many years, for conferring on this internationalist of note, the Moses Kotane Award for outstanding service to the Communist Party and the working class.

In his honour, the SACP also calls for a thorough investigation into the disappearance of comrade Flag Boshielo who vanished in 1972 on his way from Zambia to South Africa. We also thank the University of Fort Hare for the  Honorary Doctorate bestowed on him in 1996.

We pay gratitude to President Ramaphosa for according this towering giant a special official funeral and for the profound message of comfort and courage he delivered during the funeral service. 

As the President said, “it is of the gravest of concern that we are being confronted with the misdeeds of those abusing their access to political and state power to enrich themselves…  Now, more than ever, we have to hold fast to the lessons that our veterans have taught us about serving our people, about respecting them, about heeding their concerns and about acting in their best interests’’.

Finally we thank his dear wife, his children and grandchildren for sharing with the Alliance and the nation, the selfless revolutionary and champion of the working class who has always been principled and consistent in his love for the people of South Africa.

Rest in peace Ngwato’ a Ngwato

Charley Nkadimeng is a member of the ANC, a consultant and a community development activist.

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