Dr Motsoko Pheko was recently honoured with a degree in law by the University of South Africa. Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni pays tribute to a Pan African giant and intellectual
IN analysing the discourse of South Africa’s volatile history, one cannot help but notice the many forms of erasure that people like Dr Motsoko Pheko have suffered because of their affiliation to the PAC and to Robert Sobukwe.
This erasure has meant that as a people we have been unable to fully come to terms with the reality of how deep the scars of apartheid’s legacy are. To date, poor black people in many parts of South Africa are still seen as being dispensable. The tendency to conclude that the only way to engage or converse with black people who are disgruntled is with the use of violence is one of many things that were carried over from apartheid into democracy by government.
Dr Pheko, an author of more than 30 books and over 3000 articles was recently conferred with an honorary degree in law by the University of South Africa in recognition for his role in the field of law and liberation politics. The University said Dr Pheko has been tenacious in his quest for the acquisition of epistemology, the science of knowledge and believes that relevant education is the only type of education that can define the destiny of African’s children and nation.
After the honour by Unisa, the Vaal University of Technology hosted a webinar in celebration of Dr Pheko’s decorated life and all his achievements.
Among the speakers was photographer Malcom Phafane who used the occasion to share a lesson on “the true history of Sharpeville must be told.”
While one might have expected the webinar to contain a series of praises and stories about the celebrant it became more than that. In the true nature of anything that relates to Dr Pheko, his birthday celebration turned into yet another opportunity of teaching and robust engagements on the many roads our country and its people must traverse to reach its full potential.
It is often said that the true measure of a man is what he attracts and if this webinar was anything to go by one can only conclude that Dr Pheko is a true example of the many ways in which black South Africans are custodians of nuance.
More than just being the scenes of oppression and violence, we are a people whose lives are shaped by the sensational and the beautiful all at once and this is a teaching often reflected by the Pan Africanist giant that is Dr Pheko.
On the day Dr Motsoko Pheko was conferred with an honorary doctorate degree by the Unisa he remarked during his acceptance speech: “This degree is not only for myself, but for the thousands of people who have worked with me, lifted me, shared their stories of injustice with me, and trusted me in various positions of leadership to be a voice that speaks for millions living on the margins of the African society.”
Such is the nature of the man whose life has resembled the tenacity reflected by the name of the place where he was born. Sehlabathebe, which means “pierce the enemy’s shield” – is the land that gifted the world this pioneer of Pan African thought.
It was after the sudden passing of his parents that Dr Pheko and his brother were moved from Lesotho to come and live with their late mother’s sister E.M. Moerane.
It was in the midst of this volatile nation that the young shepherd would grow up into a political giant while finding his feet in a place called Mangoloaneng in what is today known as the Eastern Cape province.
Perhaps the most beautiful of the many contradictions that have become part of the story of Dr Pheko’s life is that Mangoloaneng is a Sesotho word which means “the place of letters.”
This was perhaps a presage to a future where young Pan Africanists shall find divine guidance from letters written by Dr Pheko himself.
With works such as The Rise of Azania, the Fall of South Africa, Betrayal of a Colonised People and The Land Is Ours: The Political Legacy of Mangaliso Sobukwe, to name a few, Dr Pheko’s words have spanned decades and have become an important documentation of the complicated ways in which the betrayals of the poor and black are yet to be accounted for by those who have perpetrated violence on them.
In his teachings about land and the manner in which it relates to an oppressed people Dr Pheko often reflects his vast knowledge of the law which intersects with his love for the people he has dedicated his life fighting for.
“The historical and legal fact is that, in fact, this African country, when colonised, was not terra nullius empty land. It was not res nullius, honourless, belonging to nobody. It was not filius nullius, occupied by people who have no rights,” he has said on the matter of land dispossession
Dr Pheko lived in apartheid South Africa, he grew up in a tumultous period of the liberation struggle and has reached his elder years in a South Africa that is still marred with ample confusion created by the many neglects of the, so called, victory of democracy.
It is his passion for the tangible liberation of black people that led Dr Pheko into a lifelong battle for the humanity of black Africans.
At 90, he has published multiple books that have become a documented, historical archive of our country’s complex history and how it often fails to reconcile with our present.
Dr Pheko joined the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) in 1960. His activities with the organization, which was mostly feared and regarded as being too radical for its time, led to multiple stints in prisons in South Africa Mozambique and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
He spent 30 years in exile and served the PAC at different capacities such as organiser, branch chairperson, country representative and Member of Parliament. He was a party representative to the United Nations in New York and the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.
Dr Pheko was also a representative to the UN. He holds a BA degree from UNISA with majors in Political Science and Systematic Theology; a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of Zambia, a Master of Law in International Law from the University of London and a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from the University of Kensington.
His work as a theologian has focused on among other things, the intersection of Christianity and African identity.
Dr Pheko, who also served as the PAC’s president is an advocate to the Supreme Court in Zambia and South Africa and he is the founder of Daystar University in Kenya.
The father of two who once said, land distribution is a matter of justice, truth, morality and African national survival, is a tree from which a new generation of Pan Africanists can receive shade. In his book The land is ours: the political legacy of Mangaliso Sobukwe, which was published in the euphoric period of 1994, Dr Pheko argues that perhaps one of the errors with the model of freedom we inherited in 1994 was based solely on transforming the state and it’s apparatus; more as opposed to transforming society, and particularly black society to create an ecosystem where the black condition created by apartheid is transformed and where black people thrive holistically.
Though the book is a biography on the life and times of the late Robert Sobukwe, it is also a deeply thoughtful and engaging account of the narrow, one-sided historical and political narrative of the liberation struggle which deliberately excludes the contributions made by Sobukwe and those he worked with.
At 90 years old, Dr Pheko is living in a South Africa where the paradigm of decolonial thought is shifting through various spaces and where the identity of what was, in 1994 a beautiful fairy tale about the rainbow nation, is fast losing its optimistic and rosy identity. In his elder years, the lawyer, theologian and academic has not stopped challenging the various conflicts of South Africa’s past and present.
His wisdom has permeated generations and has birthed a new generation of Pan Africanists who continue to fight for a society where black people of every class are able to function in a society that provides them the autonomy to think and make decisions regarding their own conditions.
Dr Pheko was born to a lineage of a people whose last name is ‘Pheko’ – which loosely translated means remedy. His elder years afford him the gift of wisdom. In the belief of Africanism, elders are revered and regarded as being the carriers of knowledge because of their vast experience and perhaps in venerating Dr. Pheko’s unsurpassable legacy in the fight for black people in South Africa; we must look beyond the material idea of a decolonised Africa and search for ways in which we can attain a decolonial legacy that helps black people take back their humanity is a physical, transcendent and holistic manner.
It is our duty to rewrite a history that is inclusive of all the people who contributed to the democracy we now enjoy and ensure that it’s freedoms are available to all, so that we can remedy the pains of our agonizing past.
Dr. Pheko continues to teach and pour his knowledge to those who are ready and willing to attain it, such is the nature of a man who spent a great deal of his life in exile, imprisoned and persecuted in the fight for black liberation in South Africa. During the webinar to celebrate his life many of the speakers pointed out the fact that Dr Pheko is a man with diverse characters, the kind of Pan Africanist whose self awareness and knowledge was so dangerous that it led to him being imprisoned by three colonial regimes. When he was awarded the honorary doctorate, he said in his acceptance speech: “Huge lads were sized from Africans by colonialists in what they called the Cape Colony, Orange Free State, Transvaal, Natal and this is why there are war poems that remind us that indeed the land is ours. Thus proclaimed the likes of Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe and other warriors of Africa, such as Muziwakhe A. Lembede long declared that the complete overthrow of colonialism, which is a white man’s privilege must happen. That is all I can tell you tonight. Izwe lethu!” – Mukurukuru Media