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Eastern Cape author unravels significance of Black Consciousness martyr

Zikhona Valela's 'Now You Know How Mapetla Died' traces the brutal death of Mapetla Mohapi and a widow's fight for justice

01 June 2022 - 13:30 By Gugu Phandle
Author Zikhona Valela reads a passage from her book on how Black Consciousness Movement member Mapetla Mohapi died in detention.
Author Zikhona Valela reads a passage from her book on how Black Consciousness Movement member Mapetla Mohapi died in detention.
Image: Supplied

SA’s liberation was waged in all corners of the country and was achieved by the contributions of many, including a number of vital Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) members.

According to historian and author Zikhona Valela, SA’s history has focused on one particular political organisation and drawn attention to Johannesburg and Soweto. Yet the stories of people such as Mapetla Mohapi, a social worker and leader in Dimbaza in the Eastern Cape who was the first person to die in detention in 1976, have not been given the spotlight over the years.

Mohapi took in people who were considered discarded by the apartheid regime and was instrumental in activists undertaking dangerous trips to meet the likes of Robert Sobukwe for BCM meetings.

“The movement emerged at a time of deep division. He was important in uniting people. Steve Biko took his first and last trip because of Mapetla’s death, to do the work he was doing. That shows the extent of the gap his death left,” Valela said.

“There is nothing wrong with speaking about the ANC or Nelson Mandela’s contribution to liberation, but for 1994 to happen and for there to be a black president take power among huge dispensation, you had to have people like Mapetla.”

Her book, Now You Know How Mapetla Died, traces the politics of that time and the convergence of biographies that led to the brutal and tragic death of Mohapi.

It was alleged he died by suicide, but the suicide note was later confirmed by an expert to be a forgery.

The inquest into his death was heard on January 31 1977, 45 years ago, and since then his widow Nohle Mohapi has worked tirelessly for justice.

“Doing research into the book, I called the magistrate in Qonce [formerly King William's Town] and they told me nothing stays in their system for more than 10 years,” Valela said.

With that information, she found it was more important to tell his story.

“During a time where the death of black people was neither here nor there, Mama Nohle didn’t just stop at the inquest. She sued the state for damages in the high court in Makhanda [formerly Grahamstown]. She refused to settle, and because of that there is now a document of what could have transpired during Mohapi’s death. This speaks to the resilience of black women, who are the reservoirs of history and archiving,” she said.

The Qonce-born author said the SA publishing industry was not particularly interested in history books. “These disciplines aren’t accessible to us — it is an economical privilege to write, and black women face so many material challenges.

“When you buy Now You Know How Mapetla Died, you’re not just doing so to support this family’s quest for justice, you’re also making other stories viable to be told, you’re shifting the focus — expanding it, so that we’re able to say the tapestry of our history was weaved from all fronts.”

She said growing up in Qonce, which still retains a colonial aesthetic, “you’re surrounded by history when you look around you ... Being black and being a product of history only made sense to my work as a historian.”

Valela said history is not just an academic process. “It is people living and breathing every day, shifting history forward.

“When you come from a small town like Qonce and the Eastern Cape, a province riddled with poverty, with discarded spaces where white suprematist machinery wanted it to be for black people, you land up falling into something like this.”

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