South Africa

TRIBUTE

John Kgwana Nkadimeng (1927-2020): Struggle stalwart and working-class hero

John Kgwana Nkadimeng (1927-2020): Struggle stalwart and working-class hero
Struggle stalwart John Nkadimeng. (Photo: Twitter/@KathradaFound)

Follow the trail of John Kgwana Nkadimeng’s humble origins from poverty and deprivation, through an epic struggle for freedom and justice against all odds to understand why a grateful people bow their heads and the country lowers its democratic flag to half-mast.

How very sad to commemorate the life of yet another Struggle stalwart, John Kgwana Nkadimeng, born into rural poverty in the remote village of Mashite, Sekhukhuniland in 1927. He died in his modest Johannesburg home after declining health on 6 August, at the end of a stellar life serving our people and country. He was 93.

One grasps at a myriad of images of an adored friend, a working-class hero, underground leader, freedom fighter. I see his broad-browed friendly face, large laughing eyes, and hear his engaging chuckle. That’s an indelible imprint. I used to observe, as he cooed at the babies of friends in exile, how stamped he was with a generosity and kindness that drew their gaze into his; and how they instinctively trusted this man with a throaty laugh. 

Struggle stalwart John Nkadimeng and the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. (Photo: Book Cover / Through the Eye of the Needle)

We all adored John Nkadimeng, for all the qualities associated with that glorious generation of leaders: moral integrity, courage, wisdom, self-sacrifice, honesty, dignity and sheer decency. They stand out in different ways – each noble life of those unforgettable women and men – shaped by a commonality forged in struggle. Each with their own distinctiveness. 

Read the lengthening list of obituaries as they pass on, and as with John Nkadimeng’s, follow the trail of humble origins from poverty and deprivation, through an epic struggle for freedom and justice against all odds, that forged them. Understand why a grateful people bow their heads and the country lowers its democratic flag to half-mast.

John Nkadimeng’s father was a farm labourer, who could only afford to see his offspring educated in rural primary schools. Like so many of the rural landless, the teenager migrated to the Witwatersrand industrial belt to the south in search of work. The first rung on that ladder was domestic work as a gardener or cleaner, later followed by work in a tobacco factory. By 1949 his leadership qualities saw his election as shop steward for the African Tobacco Workers’ Union. He was fired from his job within a couple of years after leading a strike. 

He settled in Alexandra township with his young wife Evelyn, where they struggled to make ends meet. He was soon drawn into the ANC-led liberation movement, was a leading volunteer in the 1952 Defiance Campaign, jailed for a month before the apartheid regime enacted far severer penalties for such disobedience. His qualities saw his election to high positions in the ANC and newly formed Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu). He was one of the 156 Treason Trialists arrested at the end of 1955, until the case collapsed in 1961. By then he was involved in underground work for the newly banned ANC, serving a two-year prison sentence for membership of an illegal organisation. 

He was fortunate that an attempt by the state to charge him with Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK) sabotage actions failed to stick but he endured torture treatment during solitary confinement. Following imprisonment, he maintained a low profile while striving to renew the ANC’s destroyed underground network with Winnie Mandela and others. Soon after the June 1976 uprising, in which he played a guiding role, he slipped into exile.

I first met John Nkadimeng in Maputo, in 1980. He had been operating in Swaziland, leading underground structures for four years in increasingly perilous conditions. A “safe” house blown up on the Mozambique border; a comrade abducted; another’s hand blown off when collecting a parcel; his driver killed in a suspicious car accident; his son Vernon (MK name Rogers) assassinated by a bomb in Botswana. And that was before apartheid agents stepped up their murderous activities in the 1980s. 

The ANC had decided to remodel its political and military structures to advance the struggle at home. Oliver Tambo personally arrived in Maputo to brief the joint command, appointing Nkadimeng as chairman. I was privileged to have been deployed under his command. It was easy to befriend this affable man; and for a while we shared sleeping quarters. I learned much from this most unpretentious of human beings, as he quietly regaled me with the stories of past experience.

Struggle stalwart John Nkadimeng and his wife Evelyn. (Photo: Twitter/@KathradaFound)

He invariably enjoyed a ritual single smoke for the day as he settled in bed for the night, puffing away with his head propped comfortably on a pillow, and that’s when the anecdotes emerged. As he drew lovingly on the cigarette, I realised that this singular habit originated from the time he worked in the tobacco industry. 

He learnt that his great friend and mentor, Flag Boshielo – likewise from Sekhukuniland, had been best man at my marriage in Dar es Salaam in 1964. Boshielo, an MK commissar, was captured in an enemy ambush in 1972 crossing the border into South Africa and never seen again. He told me that Boshielo had recruited him into the Movement, sold copies of the left-wing Guardian weekly, and would walk 14km from Joburg’s city area to Alexandra township every Saturday to do so. Not only to bring the likes of him the latest copy but to insist they discuss the previous week’s issue. Such exemplary commitment had deeply impressed Nkadimeng. He would turn to this example time and again; and hold that as a benchmark of service. They complemented one another in building trade unions, and true to their origins were both founder members of Sebatakgomo, a migrant worker-based movement formed in 1954, which played a leading role in the 1958 Sekhukhuneland Revolt, against the government’s imposition of obedient chieftains. Despite their many tasks both had worked with Helen Joseph’s Human Rights Welfare Committee, established to trace and assist those banished by the state to remote parts of the country.

PHOTO: SUPPLIED

After a stint in Maputo, Nkadimeng was called to chair the ANCs Revolutionary Council based in Lusaka; and later its successor structure, the Political-Military Council. From that time too, in 1983, he led Sactu both in its international work, and forging clandestine trade union links back home; pressing for the emergence and recognition of Cosatu, to inherit the mantle of the former. There was much debate over this in exile, with Nkadimeng strongly countering those with a more sectarian bent fearing that their positions would be eclipsed by the emergence of the new federation.

Following the unbanning of the ANC and SACP, he emerged in leading positions of both and was sober-minded about the nature of the transition process and negotiations. I recall him among a delegation welcoming Mandela back home at Joburg Airport from a trip abroad in 1992, and leading us all in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” when most of us had inexplicably forgotten the date.  

It was his nature to be generous of others, but never a simple cheerleader. He was very much like the tactful Walter Sisulu in this respect. He was honoured to assume duty as democratic South Africa’s first ambassador to Cuba, where he enjoyed a close relationship with Fidel Castro. When I met him there, and he showed me around, I recall how impressed he was with the revolutionary achievements; informing me: “You know, here you can see that non-racism is absolutely natural. Racism was the child of colonialism and imperialism.” He shook his head, as though contemplating all the wounds of apartheid he and his people had to needlessly suffer.

John Kgwana Nkadimeng, survived by his devoted wife Evelyn and six children, 10 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, will be laid to rest, with full state honours, on Friday 14 August. I think of those grandchildren, how they would have adoringly gazed into “Papa’s” eyes; and imbibed his values.

President Cyril Ramaphosa described Nkadimeng as a selfless, exemplary and courageous stalwart who contributed immensely to South Africa’s democracy and freedom. He holds both the ANC’s and the country’s highest awards, Isitwalandwe/Seaparankwe and Order of Luthuli in Gold respectively.

The generous, kindly man with a throaty laugh will be sorely missed. DM 

Ronnie Kasrils, is a Struggle veteran, author, and former government minister.

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