Peter Mokaba, a noted anti-apartheid activist, was a native of Mankweng, in the Limpopo Province. He was born in Mankweng on January 7, 1959 and did his primary and secondary education there as well. He was an agitator and rebel rouser, who inspired South Africa’s youth to be proactive in the struggle against apartheid. Today, his contribution is still celebrated by youth around the country.
Peter Mokaba experienced, first-hand, the horrors of the apartheid system when his parents, Priscilla and Albert, were ejected from their home and forced to live as squatters in Mankweng. They soon found that the only way to eke out a living, was by working as migrant workers.
Early Student Activism
In 1976, when uprisings erupted in Soweto over the apartheid government’s mandate that Afrikaans be the compulsory mode of instruction in schools, Peter Mokaba led a swathe of popular school boycotts in the northern areas of South Africa. He was subsequently expelled from his school, Hwiti High.
Peter Mokaba then went on the run, seeking shelter in the mountains and other hideouts before being captured in November 1977. He was then 19 years of age. In the trial that followed, he was acquitted of charges of public violence, but was banned from ever returning to school. However, he continued with his studies, learning on his own and miraculously completing his matric in 1978, while also still participating in student uprisings. In 1980, he enrolled for tertiary education at the University of the North (now the University of Limpopo).
Activism in the 1980s
Mokaba’s activism continued through the 1980s. So did his tussles with the police. After a stint as a teacher, he was rearrested in 1982, under the Terrorism Act, and convicted of possessing arms and seeking military training in Angola, for the alleged purpose of furthering the aims of the ANC’s paramilitary group, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Peter Mokaba was given a six-year jail sentence and sent to Robben Island. He wasn’t there for long. He was released a year later in 1984, after a successful court appeal. Almost immediately, he was arrested again on much the same charges, and this time he received a three-year sentence which was suspended for five years.
State of Emergency
During the state of emergency declared by the apartheid regime in the 1980s, Peter Mokaba turned his attention fully towards his youth activism, and continued to whip up opposition to the apartheid regime. During these years, he joined the United Democratic Front (UDF) where he continued to pursue his activism with vigor. In 1987, Peter Mokaba’s leadership qualities were recognized when he became the first president of the South African Youth Congress (SAYCO), which was an affiliate of the UDF and the largest youth formation in the entire country at that time. He also became Education Officer for the Northern Transvaal UDF Regional Youth Coordinating Committee.
Peter Mokaba’s brush with the law continued. In 1988, he was arrested for the third time and was charged with directing the undercover operations of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, within northern Transvaal. But his co-accused declined to testify against him, and he was subsequently acquitted while they each received four-year jail sentences.
Through his youth activism and his arrests, Peter Mokaba continued with his education, and managed to finish a Masters in Development Management, at the University of Witwatersrand.
The Approach of a New Government
ANC Youth League Formed
In February 1990, when the ban against the ANC was lifted, Mokaba spearheaded the merger between SAYCO and other student activist bodies, such as the South African National Students Congress, the Young Christian Students, and the South African National Students’ Congress. This new conglomerate of student bodies was now known as the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). Peter Mokaba was elected the new league’s first president and remained its head, in the period between 1991 and 1994.
Overall, Mokaba’s ties with the ANC were expanding In 1991, Mokaba became an elective member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee. He was again elected a member in 1994, and 1997.
Member of Parliament and Death
In 1994 and in 1999, Peter Mokaba was elected member of parliament in the new ANC government. He was also appointed deputy minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in this Nelson Mandela government. He died aged just 43, on June 9, 2002. At the time of his death, he had been chosen to preside over the ANC’s preparations for the elections of 2004, despite having previously spent much time away from work due to illness. At that time, he was also studying for a second Masters’ degree, this time in Economics – at the University of Stellenbosch. His funeral was attended by then president, Thabo Mbeki his deputy, Jacob Zuma, as well as former, President Nelson Mandela
Peter Mokaba was survived by his wife, daughter and son. In early January, 2022, when delivering a memorial lecture on Peter Mokoba at the request of the ANCYL, President Cyril Ramaphosa, heaped praise on Peter Mokaba’s for his well-known activism against the apartheid regime.
Peter Mokaba Honoured
Mokaba’s contribution to the fight against apartheid and his youth activism was further recognized when the Polokwane Soccer Stadium was renamed after him. This happened in 2010, just before South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Peter Mokaba was a controversial figure all his political life. He had some strong personal views that he expressed in a blunt and reckless way and got into trouble over them.
Mokaba was slammed for his inflammatory “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer” mantra which he first used at a political rally following the killing of ANC leading member, Chris Hani in April, 1993, by a white rightwing individual. He went on to repeat this slur at other rallies, despite criticism. This was deeply embarrassing for the new ANC government under Nelson Mandela because these utterances by Peter Mokaba were coming at a time when the ANC was desperately trying to project itself as a champion of racial reconciliation. Moreover, in 2003, the South African Human Rights Commission proclaimed the chant to be a form of hate speech. Throughout the criticisms, Peter Mokaba remained a hero among the youth because of his strong youth activism in the tense years before majority rule and his continued closeness to them, thereafter. However, Makoba later softened his stance, in view of the ANC position.
Another Mokaba controversy that played out, was over HIV/AIDS. Peter Mokaba strongly denied that the HIV/AIDS disease existed, despite evidence of the multiple deaths it was causing, globally, and inside his own country. He also contemptuously dismissed the antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), calling them poisonous and declaring that the only people who benefitted from their use were the pharmaceutical companies that sold them. He stated: ‘We can’t allow ourselves to be turned into guinea pigs for these companies to play with our lives.”
He requested that these pharmaceutical companies be fought with the same passion and energy that was used to fight the apartheid regime. He also privately claimed to supporters that HIV and AIDS were, in part, a global plot by western nations to wipe out black people and “regain colonial control in Africa”. However, in the end, he backed the South African government’s stand on the issue and made no further controversial comments, at their request.
Mokaba’s failing health added confusion to his AIDS denialism. In June 1999, he took prolonged leave from parliament to deal with what he said was an acute respiratory illness. However, many claimed his illness was AIDS-related, a claim he always strenuously denied. Following his death in 2002, his doctor reportedly declared that he had died of “acute pneumonia, linked to a respiratory problem”.
‘Apartheid Spy’ Claims
In his book Askari, Jacob Dlamini claims that Peter Mokaba once served as an apartheid spy. He asserts that the apartheid regime transformed Mokaba from rebel to counter-rebel, during one of his stints in detention and before the coming of the new dispensation. He further asserts that the ANC leadership, holed up in Lusaka at the time, only agreed to let Mokaba off the hook for fear that drastic action against him might demoralize the Youth League over which he continued to exercise influence.