Moscow, 26 May 1978. Oliver Tambo, the exiled president of the African National Congress (ANC), delivers the oration at the funeral of Moses Kotane. “A valiant, courageous and stubborn fighter has fallen at his post, on the battlefield,” he says. “Our battle-steeled working class, our death-defying youth, our militant women, our tested peasantry and committed intelligentsia – our entire people, and in particular our national liberation movement headed by the ANC, today pay eternal tribute to the people‘s leader, Moses Kotane, for his monumental contribution to the great advances made towards the seizure of power by the people in South Africa.”
Kotane was buried at the prestigious Novodevichy cemetery in the capital of what was then the Soviet Union. In the following decades, the apartheid regime collapsed and a new millennium dawned but one woman never forgot Kotane or gave up on bringing him home.
Rebecca Kotane, now 103, is about to see her last wish come true when her husband’s remains are returned to African soil. He will soon be laid to rest at a second funeral in Pella, his birthplace in a remote rural settlement where farmers herd cattle, donkeys and goats.
A South African delegation led by the arts and culture minister, Nathi Mthethwa, left for Moscow on Monday to begin the exhumation, repatriation and reburial of both Kotane and J B Marks, a fellow activist also buried in the Novodevichy cemetery. They will return on 2 March.
The move follows a request by Rebecca last year to South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, who laid wreaths at Kotane and Marks’s graves during a visit to Moscow and raised the matter with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
The Kotanes’ son, Sam, expressed the family’s gratitude at a press conference at Johannesburg’s Market theatre on Monday. “We are saying, as Africans we believe that the spirit does not rest until [the body] comes back,” he said.
Kotane was general secretary of the South African Communist party (SACP) and a member of the ANC’s national executive committee, and is credited with aligning the two organisations. Born in poverty in 1905, he started life as a herdboy and only began school when he was 15, leaving at 17. He found work as a photographer’s assistant, domestic servant, miner and bakery worker. In 1928 he joined the ANC and a year later the SACP, which sent him to study in Moscow.
Kotane recalled years later: “It was at the Lenin School that I learnt how to think politically. They taught me the logical method of argument, political analysis. From that time onwards I was never at a loss when it came to summing up a situation. I knew what to look for and what had to be done from the point of view of the working class.”
He was a defendant in the 1950s treason trial and one of the main organisers of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Constantly harassed by the police and arrested several times, he decided to skip the country in 1963 and went in to exile in Tanzania. He later suffered a stroke and went for treatment in Moscow, where he remained until his death in 1978.
Sam Kotane last saw his father alive in 1977, when he visited him in a Russian sanitorium. He recalled: “He was bedridden. He no longer was vigorous, active, but he still cracked jokes. He spoke Russian to his caregivers.”
Kotane was a huge influence on Nelson Mandela, who said he was among the struggle heroes he thought of when South African held its first democratic election in 1994. “I did not go into that voting station alone on 27 April; I was casting my vote with all of them,” he wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
Verne Harris, the director of research and archive at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, said on Monday: “If you were to name the individuals who were a mentor to Madiba [Mandela’s clan name], Kotane would be one of them.”
Marks was president of the Transvaal branch of the ANC and was elected chairman of the SACP in 1962. He was also sent to the ANC external mission in Tanzania the following year. He became ill in 1971 and went to the Soviet Union, but died of a heart attack. The Soviets were allies of the ANC and SACP during the cold war and provided military training to Zuma and other activists.
On Monday Mthethwa described Kotane and Marks as two legends.
He said: “They championed the struggle for democracy in this country, in the African continent and, most importantly, in Europe, especially the former USSR now known as Russia. Russia was a country that gave our struggle unconditional support.
“The story of Kotane, Marks and the generation they represent captures and reflects how courageous men and women stood up for moral principles in the face of our shameful history that was characterized by conflicted divisive colonial and racist past. These two men, at a great personal cost to themselves and their families, chose to fight for freedom and democracy.”
Rebecca, who is as old as the ANC itself, was last year presented with a new house in Fleurhof, Johannesburg, by the SACP as part of a government programme for military veterans of the liberation struggle. She is a beloved and revered figure.
Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary general, once said: “Despite facing hardship and police harassment during apartheid, with her husband having been one of the first people to be banned under the Suppression of the Communism Act, Ma-Kotane consistently showed tremendous support for comrade Moses Kotane, her family and the liberation movement.”
A reception is planned at the Waterkloof air force base outside Pretoria to celebrate the repatriation on 2 March. Kotane will be reburied on 14 March and Marks in Ventersdorp on 22 March. Zuma has granted both special official funerals.