John Nkadimeng: deep commitment forged in the underground struggle

14 August 2020 - 11:39 By Chris Barron
John Nkadimeng at Cosatu's ninth national congress in Midrand, in 2006.
Enduring loyalty John Nkadimeng at Cosatu's ninth national congress in Midrand, in 2006.
Image: Mbuzeni Zulu

John Nkadimeng who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 93, helped to rebuild and then lead the ANC/MK underground after it had been shattered by the arrest and exile of almost the entire leadership in the early 1960s.

As a member of the ANC national executive committee he helped organise the adoption of the Freedom Charter by the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955. In 1956 he was charged with treason along with 155 other members of the congress movement, including Nelson Mandela. They were all acquitted in 1961.

He was jailed two years later under the 90-day detention-without-trial law and charged with sabotage. This was dropped but he was convicted and jailed in 1964 for furthering the aims of a banned organisation.

On his release under a 10-year banning order in 1966 he made contact with Albertina Sisulu, whom he established was one of the few ANC figures still active after most of the leadership had been jailed or gone into exile. Together they set about rebuilding the party’s underground network, a daunting task given that she was under house arrest, he was confined to Orlando West and both were being closely watched by the security police.

They built and maintained underground structures, taking great care to avoid engaging with those they considered security risks such as Winnie Mandela who had organised her own cell. They gave her a wide birth, considering her style of operation risky and likely to attract the attention of police agents. Their main activity was identifying recruits for MK, facilitating their passage out of the country and then helping to deploy them when they returned.

Nkadimeng, who briefed MK cadres infiltrating SA, instructed them to avoid all contact with their families. “You know who is your enemy now? It is your mother. Never go to your mother. If you do go to your mother you are finished. She will be so excited she is going to tell her cousin, her friend, and then it will be known that you are here. And the enemy is sitting there and waiting for this type of information.”

If their operations were to have any chance of success they must not see mothers, sisters or girlfriends, he would tell them sternly. “Not one of them.”

He called Thabo Mbeki, who drank Scotch, dined in the top hotel restaurants, mixed in lofty diplomatic circles and lived in the leafy suburb of Kabulonga, ‘the duke of Kabulonga’.

After the 1976 Soweto uprising there was a wave of arrests, ANC structures he had built were smashed, and Nkadimeng fled to Swaziland where he was assigned to look after other refugees from SA who were streaming in. After heading the ANC in Mozambique for a couple of years he went to Lusaka in 1982 where he rejoined the ANC national executive committee, servimg on the political and military council and as chair of the party’s political committee.

In a Radio Freedom broadcast in 1986 he in effect called for the assassination of IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi who was opposed to the ANC’s armed struggle and the sanctions campaign against SA. “The puppet Gatsha” was being “groomed by the West to become a Savimbi in a future free SA”, he said. “The onus is on the people of SA to neutralise the Gatsha snake ... it needs to be hit over the head.”

In 1983 he became general secretary of the ANC-supporting SA Congress of Trade Unions. He propagated the formation of one central federation of trade unions in SA and called on United Democratic Front-aligned unions to join Cosatu. After several meetings in Lusaka with Cosatu boss Jay Naidoo he agreed that Sactu should be absorbed into Cosatu.

A profoundly committed trade unionist and communist, Nkadimeng was critical of ANC leaders who lived the high life in Lusaka. He called Thabo Mbeki, who drank Scotch, dined in the top hotel restaurants, mixed in lofty diplomatic circles and lived in the leafy suburb of Kabulonga, “the duke of Kabulonga”, a barbed reference to his inherited position in the party as son of Govan Mbeki, aristocratic manner and privileged lifestyle. When his children requested special favours because of his leadership status he rebuked them so sternly that they believed he was more in love with his cause than with his children.

Nkadimeng was born on June 12 1927 in the Mashite district of Sekhukhuneland in what is now Limpopo province. After completing primary school he went to Johannesburg, got a job as a domestic worker, and worked in a hat factory and tobacco factory. He joined the African Tobacco Workers’ Union and became a shop steward. Following a strike in 1950, he lost his job.

The ANC bestowed an Isithwalandwe/Seaparankwe award on John Nkadimeng for his pivotal role during the days of apartheid.
Highest honour The ANC bestowed an Isithwalandwe/Seaparankwe award on John Nkadimeng for his pivotal role during the days of apartheid.
Image: File

Through the influence of his close friend and fellow rural migrant Flag Boshielo he joined the ANC and the communist party. He was arrested during the 1952 Defiance Campaign, charged with conspiracy and attempting to overthrow the state by violence, and released after a month when the charges were dropped.

He became a full-time organiser for the Transvaal Council of Non-European Trade Unions, which joined Sactu when it was formed in1955, and of which he soon became an executive member. He was active in the militant communist-initiated rural migrant workers’ organisation Sebatakgomo, which was formed in 1954, and played a leading role in the 1958 Sekhukhuneland revolt. Appeals were made to the ANC for weapons. The revolt was believed to have influenced the liberation movement’s decision to take up the armed struggle three years later. In 1961 he was jailed for entering Sekhukhuneland without a permit.

Nkadimeng returned from exile after the unbanning of the ANC. He was an ANC MP in the post-1994 government of national unity, and became SA’s ambassador to Cuba in 1995. He was there for four years and became a close friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He was a member of the Limpopo legislature from 2000 to 2004, by which time he was showing early signs of dementia.

In 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa bestowed on him the ANC’s top honour, the Isitwalandwe Award, at a ceremony at his house in Kew, Johannesburg.

Nkadimeng is survived by Evelyn, his wife of almost 70 years, and six children.

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