31 August 2020 | Story Dr Chitja Twala
R Chitja Twala
Dr Chitja Twala is the Vice Dean in the Faculty of The Humanities.

In the 1940s, the then (Orange) Free State produced a crop of female leaders whose role in the liberation struggle is unknown – or rather, for whatever reason – ‘neglected’. Among these leaders was one Moipone Martha Motlhakwana. Testimony to the above was an article published by the Mail and Guardian on 25 August 2016 under the heading 60 Iconic Women – The people behind the 1956 Women’s March to Pretoria. In this article, only four lines are dedicated to her, contrary to what has been written about other leaders, such as Lilian Ngoyi, Lizzy Abrahams, Lucy Mvubelo, and many others. This is an indication of the possible ‘neglect’ in highlighting the role played by other women in places such as the Free State. In this article, I argue that Motlhakwana’s role in the liberation struggle was by no means minimal, compared to the leaders mentioned above. 

When one evaluates her role and contribution to the struggle, it is important to always keep in mind the context of the time and the scope of possibilities that were available to the liberation movements. This article briefly examines her role at a crucial time when Motlhakwana’s beloved movement, the African National Congress (ANC), is experiencing its most difficult and trying times since coming to power in 1994.

The Defiance Campaign

Motlhakwana was born into the Makabane family in Leqwala in the Thaba Nchu district on 23 December 1906. She was a devoted Christian. Being a Christian did not prevent her from participating fully in politics. Long before the 1956 anti-pass march, Motlhakwana was instrumental in organising the 1952 Defiance Campaign in Bloemfontein. Meetings for organising this campaign were held in an open space where the Paradise Hall in Bochabela Location in Bloemfontein is situated today. She led a women’s support group demanding the release of those arrested and jailed in the Ramkraal Prison in Bloemfontein. It became known to the Special Branch that her house was, at the time, used as the ANCWL’s ‘headquarters’ in town; therefore, the house was monitored and kept under police surveillance.

Motlhakwana also participated in the 1956 anti-mass march to Pretoria. In the Bloemfontein area, she mobilised people in the burning of passes. Her fearless organising strategies earned her a nickname in the community as Motabola Pasa or Mochesa Pasa (the one instrumental in tearing of the dompas or the one burning the passes). She was among the people who were arrested and detained during the Treason Trial. After being acquitted, she was placed under house arrest. Together with her friend in the struggle, Pretty Molatole, they were involved in establishing the ANCWL in Bloemfontein. Most of the league’s meetings were held at Motlhakwana’s place. She used to travel around the province to establish ANCWL branches in places such as Bethlehem, Ficksburg, and Thaba Nchu, to name a few. It was during this period in the mid-1950s that she worked closely with the leaders of the ANC in Bloemfontein, such as Jacob B Mafora, Caleb Motshabi, and Leslie Monnenyane.

In her honour

In honour of her contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa and not only in the Free State, a tombstone was unveiled at the Phahameng Cemetery, adjacent to the Heroes’ Acre, on Thursday 5 January 2012; this unveiling coincided with the centenary celebrations of the ANC as the oldest liberation movement in Africa. Addressing the masses during the unveiling of the tombstone, the Chairperson of the ANCWL in the Free State and the current Premier, Sisi Ntombela, stated: “Most people have the concept that the anti-pass march started in Johannesburg in 1956, but that is not the case because the first march was started in the province by women such as Motlhakwana and Mei Likotsi and others who were leaders at the time, and mobilised the women for the march. As we unveiled the Motlhakwana tombstone, we also discovered that her grandchildren have kept the passes of those women whom she organised at that time. She made sure that women were developed, not only in politics but also in trade unionism. The Free State is the centre where everything started; this year [2012] is the ANC Centenary, but next year we will be holding the ANCWL Centenary for the Free State women.”

Owing to illness, Motlhakwana passed away on Thursday 27 July 1989. She was buried in the Phahameng ‘Magengenene’ Cemetery in Bloemfontein, not far from the Heroes’ Acre.

There are many women of Motlhakwana’s political stature in the Free State, whose histories should be documented in the form of biographies.

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