Oscar Mpetha — the remarkable life of a pioneer in multiple sectors beyond trade unionism
Oscar Mpetha was an extraordinary leader who pioneered black trade unionism, black residents’ associations and consumer rights, while demonstrating a self-aware, intellectually curious and authentic outlook that contrasted with the many one-dimensional and narrow-minded current leaders.
Oscar Mpetha, the civic, trade union and former ANC Cape chairperson stands out as a self-aware, intellectually curious and authentic leader with a broad-view outlook, in contrast to the many cartoon character, one-dimensional and narrow-minded current and ANC-spinoff leaders.
Mpetha, who pioneered black trade unionism, black residents’ association movements and consumer rights is now almost forgotten. His sterling contributions are now largely overshadowed by incomparably lesser leaders whose unique contributions are often solely because they scream violent slogans, shout outdated ideologies and insult those who do not conform to groupthink as “sellouts”, pawns of “white monopoly capital” or “promoting” Western interests.
Mpetha never proclaimed himself from podiums that he was a “revolutionary”, as seem to be the practice by many currently who claim to be ‘activists’, political ‘leaders’ or ‘intellectuals’. He never stopped learning, seeking new knowledge or questioning received traditions, assumptions, and ideologies.
It appears that it is now a badge of honour to see seeking new knowledge as “Western”, to attack those who question outdated communal assumptions as “clever blacks” and to blame South Africa’s often self-inflicted problems on ready-made foes, such as foreign Africans, NGOs and or as conspiracies by supposedly evil forces, the so-called “Stellenbosch Mafia” or “Western imperialists” or the media.
Mpetha was a pragmatist, a builder of institutions — not a breaker of it, and provided active service in communities, not the toxic “revolutionary” variety which verbally attack others, shout slogans and mouth off so-called ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric. His feet were firmly planted on the ground, fighting high township rents, expensive public transport, rising local crime and campaigning for more generous employee benefits.
Mpetha was one of the extraordinary individuals who publicly excelled across multiple fields – all at the same time. He was a pioneer of the modern black trade union movement, a leading mover behind the early black consumer rights movement, and a critical builder of the country’s post-Second World black civil society movement.
Pioneer of post-Second World War black trade union, residents’ associations, and civil society, Mpetha was one of the pioneers of South Africa’s 1980s black civic movement which spawned off residents associations from Nyanga to Alexandra, fighting against rent increases, crime, and poor local public services. He was the founder and chair of the Nyanga Residents’ Association.
He was a member of that electrifying generation of black trade unionists that after the Second World War, established new trade unions. Mpetha was a founder member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions, the predecessor of the latter-day Congress of South African Trade Unions.
While working as a fish worker in Laaiplek, in the Cape, he joined the African Food and Canning Workers Union in 1947, becoming its general secretary three years later. He engineered the successful expansion of Sactu to many new sectors, and was behind many spectacular strike successes, including the 1980s Fattis and Monis lockout and led the bus boycott over high fares in Nyanga. Sactu’s members rose from 20,000 and 19 trade unions at its launch in 1955, to 53,000 and 51 unions in 1961.
He was born in Mount Fletcher in rural Transkei in 1909, from humble peasant stock. Throughout his life, he remained humble, in contrast to many current political leaders who are often arrogant, entitled, and self-serving.
His intellectual curiosity meant that unlike many of the current political leaders, he did not remain stuck in the parochial worldview of his village or township, nor was he a prisoner of the received, but in many instances archaic beliefs of his immediate family, village, or community, neither did he only surround himself in later life with those of his village, language, or colour group.
As a teenager, I often visited him at his humble Gugulethu, Cape Flats home, and was awed, inspired, and excited by the broad sweep of his vision, interests, and ambition, which went far beyond the parochial township, organisation, and tribe view of many of his leadership peers.
So, I was particularly grateful to be able to deliver the recent Oscar and Rose Mpetha Memorial Lecture at Stellenbosch University, since I had to defer the lecture invitation for many years because of my chemotherapy treatment. I am grateful, for the gift of life, to be able to do so now, to talk about Mpetha, his extraordinarily engaged life in service of South Africa, a life that was lived on multiple planes — such was his energy, involvement, and impact across diverse areas.
He passionately believed in non-racism. His close comrades spanned the race and ethnic divide. In 1958, he became the Western Cape leader of the ANC in a heavily contested election. In 1958 ANC members, dubbed “Africanists”, who were unhappy with the ANC adoption of the Freedom Charter at Kliptown in 1955, which calls for a non-racial South Africa, rebelled at provincial ANC conferences.
At the Cape ANC conference in 1958, held in Paarl, Mpetha pushed a non-racialist line. The “Africanists” boycotted the conference. As Cape ANC chairperson, he successfully fought off the Africanists, who were opposed to his inclusive South Africanness and tribalists, who only wanted to prioritise the interests of their group, not that of all of South Africa.
As Cape ANC leader, Mpetha built strong partnerships between the ANC and the Congress of Democrats, formed in 1953 to organise white South Africans who fought apartheid and with the South African Coloured People’s Organisation formed in 1953.
Mpetha, in 1957, strongly argued in the fiery debate at the 1957 South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) national conference, whether to defy the government’s 1956 Industrial Conciliation Act, which together with the Native Labour Settlement of Disputes Act of 1953, racially segregated the membership of trade unions and excluded Africans from the officially recognised and state-regulated trade union system.
Mpetha called for Sactu to defy the act. Mpetha asked angrily: “Sactu as a progressive organisation had to reject the Act … Why could we not negotiate from strength? … Have we no confidence in our own workers that they will change the tide in South Africa? We must not underestimate their strength.”
Mpetha was elected in 1983 as one of the co-presidents of the United Democratic Front, with Archie Gumede and Albertina Sisulu. The UDF was a truly non-racial movement, with all races and classes and multiple generations — it is very likely to be the most youth-dominated movement in SA’s modern history — working towards bringing down the apartheid government.
Internal democracy in organisations he led
For Mpetha, vigorous internal debate was the keystone of the struggle, not slavish groupthink, and trying to please the leadership at all costs. He embraced differences of opinions, cultures, and values — seeing these as strengths. Many remembered how he spent time listening to subordinates and made them feel seen, heard, and respected.
All the organisations he led nurtured a culture where differences were respected. His value-based leadership permeated the organisations he led — with many of his supporters often adopting his values. Currently, the personal or leadership values of many ANC leaders are corrupt, self-interested, and using violence — which have been adopted by many ordinary ANC members and supporters also.
Because he embraced diverse views, it made it easier for him to question, rethink and challenge his own assumptions, socialised beliefs, and ideologies. Diverse opinions bring forth alternative strategies which may not have been under consideration before. He did not have a fixed mindset, which only stuck to beliefs, ideologies and traditions learned from family, cultures, and political organisations. Only if one can challenge one’s beliefs, assumptions and cultures can one come up with imaginative solutions to complex problems.
Many present ANC leaders often deliberately surround themselves by yes men and women who tell them every day how supposedly clever they are — when they are not. They are put on pedestals, and their supporters and staff treat them with deference in similar ways feudal kings are treated. Mpetha was always surrounded by strong independent thinkers, whether Cheryl Carolus in the 1980s, or a Liz Abrahams or a Ray Alexander in the 1950s.
Mpetha did not believe he had all the answers. In meetings, he admitted easily when he was wrong. He was unlike the current puffed-up superficial political leaders that currently dominate politics — who hide behind empty slogans, struggle songs or hitting opponents over the head with jugs.
He had a clear set of values which guided his politics, which gave him purpose and meaning. These values included integrity, kindness, taking accountability for his actions. He was honest.
He took responsibility when he was wrong. He did not build support by attacking others, blaming others, and vilifying others. His ability to be vulnerable, to set aside his ego and rise above his insecurities fostered a safe space for others to be themselves in his presence.
He had large reservoirs of empathy, and could see a point from others’ view, because of this he had extremely productive relationships with his leadership peers. He believed in the empowerment of others. Mpetha recognised the contributions of others easily. He did not take credit for what others have achieved. He was widely respected — even by his opponents.
He was a visionary leader, who was able to see the big picture and pursued his goals through actionable steps and communicated his vision in a compelling way. His clear vision, warmth, and ability to evoke a picture of what is possible, engendered trust, commitment, and a greater sense of mission of those around him.
His boundless optimism, despite hardships, helped engender the idea that supporters are part of a just cause, bigger than their individual selves, and why they should press on, despite hardships and seemingly no immediate prospects of victory. He was a gift to others.
He had the courage to take difficult decisions — not to pander to populists, nor to be ideologically pleasing and crowd-pleasing. Many current ANC leaders appear to lack the moral courage to make the tough decisions which would be perceived to face opposition among ANC leaders and supporters yet are necessary to unlock system change — crucial for high levels of development, growth, and peace.
He had the flexibility to change with circumstances, situations, and environments. Mpetha was exceptionally resilient. He did not allow obstacles, whether suppression by the government or ill-health, hold them from his mission. He often focused relentlessly on achieving his goals despite formidable obstacles. He was known for his resourcefulness, his ability to leverage what appears to be even the most basic resources into opportunities.
He was very self-aware. He had a personal sense of purpose which guided him, sustained him, and gave him sustenance. His sense of purpose — working towards freedom in his lifetime, gave him direction, a sense of stability and certainty — and through his leadership, to others too.
He had high levels of individual agency, the drive to charter his own route even when the odds were stacked against him, path strewn with landmines and unknown territory. He did not sit back until the conditions in his environment were conducive, favourable, or familiar to act. He was solution-seeking orientated.
Mpetha eschewed thinking in extremes of black or white thinking or “polarised thinking”, which prevents individuals from seeing the world as “complex, nuanced, and full of all the shades in between”.
He did not fall into victimhood. He was the oldest political prisoner. Yet, he was not imprisoned by anger, resentment and revenge. He did not use his continued personal persecution by the apartheid authorities as an excuse to blame the past.
Overcoming limiting beliefs
To reach the extraordinary leadership maturity he showed, Mpetha, had to overcome limiting beliefs imbibed from his family, village, and political organisations. Limiting beliefs are described as “ideas we hold about ourselves and the world that prevent us from becoming the best version of ourselves”. Limiting beliefs could also be about other people, such as ‘all white people are racists’, or ‘all black leaders have good intentions’.
Mpetha had to overcome limiting beliefs about himself. We may not know what they were and can only speculate. Perhaps he could have felt he was not educated enough or that he comes from a rural background. If this was the case, he changed his own story, to become the mature leader that he would become.
Mpetha understood that he may not control outside events, circumstances, and pressures, how he reacts to these will shape his fate. Ultimately, for him, it was important to take firm responsibility for how he lived his life, not for it to be determined by outside forces, whether the apartheid government, the ANC, or the community.
He did not have a scarcity mindset, which is a belief that one has limited resources, focusing energy on what one does not have and failing to see the opportunities in one’s environment or within oneself. Mpetha had a growth mindset.
Catherine Cote writes that someone with a growth mindset does not allow his or her past, whether environment, experience, or failures, to define their future, and one can use one’s experience in one sector to pursue success in another.
He was not a passive observer of events, but an active participant in shaping his, his organisations and the country’s future. He built new organisations, which outlived him, and which provided many with jobs, experience, and purpose.
What for lesser leaders would appear like failures, such as his bannings, long imprisonment and chronic illness, he found lessons to be learned, to make better strategic decisions in new circumstances, and to work even harder to achieve his goals. Among the lessons from Mpetha is not to live in the past, to refrain from victimhood and to find a purpose.
Stay curious. Have a positive attitude. Do not seek external validation from others. Get involved — volunteer, from donating blood, filling potholes, establishing a sports club, to sitting on a school governing body or police community forum. Engage in life-long learning.
Finally, vote consciously, not based on the past — or on fear of an unlikely return of apartheid, nor vote for parties based on their past ‘struggle’ credentials. Vote on present performance. Similarly, do not vote for people only because they look like you, speak the same language as you and come from the same village as you, but they are corrupt, incompetent, and uncaring.
Do not see a political party as a football club to be supported through ‘thick and thin’. Importantly, a critical part of conscious voting is that one can vote for a party that one may not have a natural affinity for but which delivers the core services one — and the country needs. Moreover, voting against one’s party, if it does not deliver, is the only way to hold your party accountable. Not voting in such a case, will send the message to your party and leaders that you approve of their misgoverning — so the party need not be responsive. DM
This is an edited extract from Prof William Gumede’s recent Oscar and Rose Mpetha Memorial Lecture, University of Stellenbosch.