10 March, 2015

“National History” and Local Perspective: Thoughts on the Death of T. K. Mopeli

by Sayaka Kono

Tsiame Kenneth Mopeli passed away on 10 October 2014. He was the first and the only Chief Minister in the former Bantustan or “homeland” called Qwaqwa in the Eastern Free State of South Africa from 1975 to 1994. His death became news among local Africans because of both positive and negative perceptions of his contribution to community development and the liberation struggle. Here, I will try to discuss an issue associated with the ongoing South African nation-building process, which can be seen from the local perspective of T. K. Mopeli.

The territory of Qwaqwa expanded and developed under T. K. Mopeli's rule

The Bantustan policy was an extreme practice of 'divide and rule' in the apartheid system. The small territories called Bantustans were designated as “homelands” for all the “ethnic” groups and the “ethnic” government ruled its “citizens” or theoretically all the members of the “ethnic” group. Since such policy was the basis of the apartheid system, the Bantustan politicians were criticized by the anti-apartheid activists as collaborators or puppets. T. K. Mopeli was seen as such in the current ANC (African National Congress)-oriented “national history”. This perception is common among the majority of South Africans – as an African historian from Johannesburg told me, “don’t drop your tears at his (T. K. Mopeli’s) funeral because he is a puppet”. He was criticized, as were other Bantustan leaders, for supporting the apartheid system by accepting status within the system, monopolizing power for his “tribe”, or oppressing opposition by violence etc. These critics are correct in a sense, but we also need to turn our attention to the other dimension of history.

The reaction to his death by the local Africans in the Free State was a bit different. The news spread through local radio, local newspaper and by word of mouth. A teacher, concealing his grief, said that he was a great leader contributing the development of Africans’ education in the Free State. An unemployed old man told me how many factories were operated and jobs created in the area during his era. A woman in the media said that she strongly regretted not to be able to attend the funeral due to her work. Even a teenage girl related to me a short story about T. K. Mopeli that she was told by her family when our conversation came to the topic of Qwaqwa. I could see that there are still quite a number of the people in Free State who appreciate him as a local leader; as one who established so many schools for Africans, who helped his fellow “citizens” to gain land, who was always humble and standing the people’s side.

Nevertheless, the situation is not as simple as a “national discourse versus local discourse”. There is still a deep confrontation between ANC supporters and T. K. Mopeli’s followers in Free State, especially in places like Qwaqwa, where his influence was strong. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there was massive violence by young ANC sympathizers against his supporters during the late 1980s and during the transition era. On the one side, the victims remain traumatized about “ANC’s violence” and cannot openly speak out about it even now. On the other side, supporting Bantustan politicians still means to some people as supporting apartheid and having contributed to the legitimization and maintenance of the system. Secondly, complaints regarding the new ANC local government have risen but have been suppressed in the post-apartheid era. They arise from the failure of the new ANC government to develop the economy in these areas in comparison to the former Qwaqwa government, but they cannot always raise their voice because they might be disadvantaged if they do so. Thus, there remains a power structure even among the locals reflecting both history and today’s politics.

The funeral was a large one, but smaller than I expected considering his contribution to the region. Those in attendance were mainly his political supporters. There was some attendance from the ANC in the form of representatives of the public sectors as well. Although all the speeches praised what he did as a local leader, there was political argument over who should rule the region comparing now and then.

Of course, he was not a perfect leader, but no politician is. We, however, cannot ignore the fact that there are still those who strongly appreciate his governance. Twenty years have passed since the end of apartheid. Dissatisfactions have grown, and ANC is driven to emphasize its “central” role in the liberation struggle to keep its supporters. In this process, there will always be some people who would be excluded from the mainstream “national history”. The people’s sorrow at T. K. Mopeli’s death shows that he should not be evaluated by a “resistance versus collaborator” dichotomy. To understand the dynamics of today’s political situation, we need to reveal the complexity of the histories which have been undermined by “national history” discourse, and which have constructed the hierarchy in the interaction with the current politics.

A businessman in Qwaqwa said with an ironic smile: “To be honest with you, I hate the ANC with all my heart, but what can I do? I just say ‘Amandla’ to keep going on.”

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