Shepi Mati

Some Reflections On My Encounters With Oupa Lehulere

By Shepi Mati,* a life-long friend and comrade

* Shepi was the third President of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS).

I speak here as one of Oupa’s friends. And I speak about how we met and worked together. And most importantly the kinds of conditions we grew up in and how we in turn shaped those conditions.

I do not make any claim to present a comprehensive picture of the life and times of Oupa Lehulere. The man whose mortal remains we are committing to the earth today is like a proverbial elephant – and we, are like the blind with each describing an aspect of his life as she or he experienced it. I am merely contributing my own personal account of the moments I was honoured to know and interact with this ordinary human being who was in many ways extraordinary.

An activist spawned by the 1976 moment I met Oupa in 1979 whilst a Std 9 student at Fezeka Secondary School in Guguletu. This was a year of the hanging of Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, of the formation of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) and of the commemoration of the Battle of Isandlwana. Oupa’s reputation had preceded him. He had been one of the leading activists of the August 1976 student uprisings in Cape Town. These were popularLy known as umbhumbhum. Oupa was detained following this uprising. He had just been released when I met him. We were each in our own way picking up the pieces and searching for a way out of the moment of 1976.

Fezeka Secondary School days were special. We called it esinaleni. Following a fire in 1976, the school had relocated to new but unimpressive premises in NY 2 from a double-storey building along Lansdowne Road in Guguletu. Today the Old Fezeka building is the offices of the municipality. This building has a story to tell from housing an institution seeking to shape the minds of the young and how they in turn sought to resist this process of socialisation, to housing an institution seeking to control the lives of and raise revenue from the residents of Guguletu, all in the service of Apartheid and exploitation.

Language and Consciousness

Another remarkable thing about Fezeka Secondary School was the fact that it was the only secondary school in the Cape province of those days that offered Sesotho home language in addition to IsiXhosa. Something noteworthy about Cape Town is the long history of the presence of people who spoke Sesotho sa Boroa, Sepedi and Setswana. This concentration was spread between Guguletu, Nyanga East and Langa. And so, all those who spoke one of the Sesotho languages often went to Lehlohonolo Primary School and then proceeded to Fezeka Secondary School. As a member of the Barolong clan, Oupa came from among this language community.

Our school life those days revolved around a weekly routine of morning assembly along with our grades, with the girls in front and the boys at the back of the formation. We would then end the morning prayers with the singing of the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. We still had prefects those days before we, through a concerted struggle for genuine representation, we replaced these with the SRCs. Those who arrived at school late would be forced to collect papers around the school yard under the supervision of the prefects. The latecomers often included students who lived as far away as eMbekweni, Paarl and in Zwelethemba, Worcester. Those who did not have relatives in Cape Town, commuted by train on a daily basis. And every Friday we would clean the school. We would comb the yard in groups singing freedom songs in both IsiXhosa and Sesotho and pick up papers, plastic and other rubbish. One of the leaders in the singing was a young man by the name of Tshayina Talakumeni. He was later to leave the country for military training and come back to engage in spectacular clashes with the fascists in Guguletu and in Mthatha in the Transkei where he fell. These cleaning sessions were also important spaces for political consciousness-raising and information sharing.

Living and Loving in the Township

What apartheid had done was to create the conditions for inter-class solidarity in the townships they created. And life in the township – the lingo, the music, the dance, the stokvels, the petty trade, the shebeens, the sports clubs and matches, the pickpockets and petty criminals, and the concerts were all our lived experience. These conditions were shared across the railway line that separated Guguletu from Manenberg and Heideveld and the tarmac road separating Langa from Bonteheuwel.

In fact it was at Oupa’s home where I first met his then girlfriend, Maria, who used to visit all the way from Manenberg across the railway line over NY4 to Oupa’s. I remember particularly the elegant way in which he introduced her to me – this is Maria, my mistress. We pursued romance and learnt to nurse our broken hearts when this collapsed in those Native Yards. And in the midst of all of this, we cultivated and nurtured a culture of reading and political discussion.

A Soccer Wizard

The Oupa I met in 1979 had a reputation as not only as a genius but as a soccer wizard. Friends like Peysta Lindi would provide a more substantive witness to this aspect of the life of Oupa. I can only testify that he was a brilliant left-footed midfielder for our school.
At home he played for United Aces at the time my one brother Pillay played for West City. And they both began in the under 14s of their respective teams. Oupa lived in an area often called eKak’Yard or eYadini. The field for the United Aces was in NY14 a stone throw from and opposite Oupa’s home. Here too was located the public baths of Guguletu where we used to occasionally go for a bath. A public swimming pool was located closer to where I lived in NY21. The story of Kak Yard, as Oupa’s area or engingqini was known, is yet be told. In this area lived a feared fellow by the name of Sajini. This same fellow was a goal-keeper for United Aces. It is said that the coach was so scared of his wrath should he decide not to pick him on his squad that he was often guaranteed a place.

Anyway, back to Oupa and his wizardry on the field, one of his techniques was to shuffle-run on top of the ball at a high speed whilst pushing it forward. The fans would scream ‘jikija Lehulehu!’ as he dazzled his opponents. Our contemporary was another all-rounder and wizard by the name of Araah from Langa High School. When we play interschool competitions, our hopes as Fezeka lay with Oupa and another brilliant soccer player by the name of Mabhe Twala. Langa High had the indomitable Araah. And ID Mkize had a lightning striker by the name of Senti Fasi.

A Mathematics and Chess Genius

Inside the classrooms Oupa distinguished himself as a brilliant student who was head and shoulders above not only his fellow students, but also some of his teachers. He was as excellent in mathematics as he was in history and languages. I remember moments when he would take on the mathematics teacher, demonstrating on the blackboard the formula to solve a specific problem. Or challenging the teacher on the finer aspects of a specific formula. And he was a master strategist in chess and for a long time was an unbeaten champion of chess at school and in Guguletu.

Smoking, Lingo and Juwish

And during school breaks, some of us who lived closer to the school would go home. Oupa and Kent belonged to this group as they lived closer to the school. Some of us would gather at the butchery and shops in NY43 for a delicacy of a jester if you did not have enough pocket money to your name for a bunny chow. Or we would opt for the shop at NY6 where they sold amagwinya stuffed with polony. This we would down with a small plastic bottle of a sweet juice.

As a smoker, I cannot remember what brand Oupa smoked. But in all likelihood, like some of us, it would have been Cavalla cigarettes, my favourite which came in tens, or Gold Dollar, Lexington. We had our lingo which emerged from the streets – fuu, nkaw’za, kwae, for cigarettes. Amazawatha for spectacles. Ingxaza for pants or trousers. Igawulo or icando for food. I had a habit when talking of saying ‘uyay’khetsha lawey?’ This I came with from the working class communities and sub-cultures of New Brighton and Walmer Location in Port Elizabeth. Oupa used to relish at this habit of mine and would retort, ‘uyay’khetsha lawey, Mshefano?’

As working-class children, we had aspirations and a sense of taste. We used to be particular about the clothes we wore. You see, some of us learnt to be caddies at the Pinelands Golf Course or worked as domestic workers or the so-called garden boys at White people’s homes during weekends. We would save up to buy ourselves our favourite items of clothing. This sometimes using catalogues and mail orders. We use to wear Navada pants with a straight bottom, Viella shirts, black beret, and Tiger jackets.

At Fezeka we wore a uniform consisting of grey pants, a white shirt, a black blazer with the school badge and a tie. Among our school mates were pickpockets, marijuana smokers, dice-gamblers, chess wizards, soccer magicians and mathematics geniuses and athletics champions. I remember moments when at the end of the fortnight or month the pickpockets invariably absent themselves from school. And then a rumour began to arrive at school as to a group of Fezeka students who have a tendency to staff ride the trains and pick the pockets of workers coming home with their pay slips still sealed. What gave them away was the uniform and ties. Among this group was another of our contemporaries by the name of Nokhala or Carlos. If there was a leading pickpocket in those days, his name was Carlos. He later was spirited out of the country under the pretext of going for a jorl in the Transkei only to land in Lesotho. He underwent military training in Angola. Apparently as old habits die hard, Nokhala distinguished himself as not only a sharp shooter but also a sharp spinner with his fingers. We used to hear how the fear those days was to deploy people like him was to risk presenting them with an opportunity to rob banks at gun point.

Our Teachers Responded to a Calling

We were a generation that was fortunate to have still in our classrooms teachers who were educated under the old colonial system called the Royal Reader. This was before the introduction of Bantu and Gutter Education. Our teachers at school included characters like Sojola. He was a mathematics teacher. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about him was his resemblance of Oupa. I use to tease Oupa and say ‘ekse Pule, wena ngeny’ i-dag uyaw’ze ufel’is’moko sikaSoj’ [Hey Pule, one day you would pay for the mischief of Soj]. Our Afrikaans teacher was Baloyi, whom we called Bucs, and who was very fond of Oupa. Jonas taught mathematics and would often be engaged in a tussle with Oupa over the finer points of a mathematical problem. One of the teachers who was particularly close to Oupa was Patrick Ngqukuvana whom we called Bra Pat. He too belonged to those activists who founded the South African Black Scholars Association (SABSA). He was one of our comrades among the teachers. And then there was Mam’ Mngxuma who taught South Sotho and if I remember well she used to call Oupa, Peter. Many people may not know Oupa’s other names were Peter and perhaps more importantly Kgosietsile. This means ‘the king has come’. I use to call him Pule.

Again perhaps very few people know that Oupa came from a family which boasted many women. He grew up surrounded by his mother and his sisters. Bridget Thompson reminded me of how his mother was a storyteller and used to tell Oupa stories. We were always welcomed warmly at Oupa’s place even as we would quickly retreat to his well-kept shack at the back of the yard. This was his pride.

Self and Political Education

And so, the disruption in the location and architecture I spoke about when I began did not interrupt the continuity of the struggle at Fezeka Secondary School. Together with Kent Mkalipi we formed an inter-school magazine initiative as well as a History Society. The inter-school magazine was an attempt to break down township barriers and forge solidarity among the oppressed in Cape Town. And the History Society was a cover for a Marxist study group. And so, besides myself, Kent and Oupa, the History Society included Peysta Lindi from Langa High and Mzi Mbangula from ID Mkize High.

On a Sunday afternoon we would gather at Peysta’s home in NY7 or at Oupa’s isigodi or backyard shack and bury ourselves reading, analysing and discussing The Communist Manifesto, paragraph by paragraph, section by section. Amongst our reading was The German Ideology by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Foundations of Leninism by Joseph Stalin, Moses Kotane: South African Revolutionary by Brian Bunting, Historical Injustice by Thabo Mbeki and The Bolivian Diary of Che Guevara. And this did not end with literature, we listened to music and followed soccer. Among the books was John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s. I remember listening to Miriam Makeba’s To those we love (KwaNongqongqo or Bahleli bonke entilongweni) with curtains drawn and in low volume lest neighbours hear us as the song and the singer were banned. This was our self-education to raise our political consciousness about life around us and how the present came to be. We were all driven by a passionate and a deep hunger for knowledge. And in the words of the Guyanese poet and revolutionary Martin Carter, we slept not to dream, but dreamt to change the world. I still often hear the words of The Communist Manifesto ringing in my memory, ‘The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.’ And the clarion call ‘Workingmen of all countries, unite!’, [you have nothing to lose but your chains].

A School For Activism

We were also together at the Spring School in Dora Falcke Centre in Muizenberg. These were organized on a yearly basis by the Churches Urban Planning Commission (CUPC). And among the organisers of these programmes were Anne Thomlinson and Michael Sedgewick. With a stutter, Michael was a militant from Hanover Park in the Cape Flats. He belonged to a generation of activists that had formed the South African Black Scholars Association (SABSA). He was later banned but managed to evade the fascist police when disguised as a medical doctor, he boarded an aeroplane and flew to Joburg on his way to exile in Swaziland. Someone who was almost a resident caretaker of the centre was another dear friend of Oupa by the name of Solomzi ‘Solly’ Ntebe. It was in these leadership formation workshops where we were together with activists like Jonathan De Vries, Simon ‘Lizard’ Fredericks, Peysta Lindi, Mzi Mbangula, Andrew Boraine, Sue Myrdal, Gavin Evans and many others I cannot remember well now. This was a formation school for our generation struggling to regroup and find a way forward following the 1976 historical moment. I remember those evenings debating the relationship between class and race and the strengths and limitations of black consciousness. And how we would recite poetry extolling the resilience of the working class and the unemployed, between spirited songs always keeping our morale high in times of despair. One of these songs is sung to the tune of the hymn What a friend we have in Jesus, and goes like this:

What a friend we have in Botha,
Not a truer friend is he,
If your telephone starts bugging,
Take it to the special branch,
If they take you to the showers,
Do not take your soap along.
If they take you to the tenth floor,
Take your parachute along.

Only much later I learnt this song was composed by a stalwart of the liberation struggle and student activist by the name of Ruben Hare.

Another song we would sing which emerged from the streets of the defiance and struggle of young people in those days went:

Gibisela ngamatye!
Iyhooo! Gibisela
Iyhooo! Gibisela
Gooi die klippe!
Gooi die klippe.
Gooi die klippe.
Gooi die klippe.

And another emblematic of the defiance of the youth of South Africa as we, in the words of Franz Fanon, sought to define our mission and fulfil it.

Thina silulutsha,
Lwase South Africa
Asoze sibulawe ngalamabhulu sisebatsha!
Sisebatsha, sisebatsha, sisebatsha!

This song signaled the mood of our generation which had gone beyond the lament of ‘Senzenina?’ and had decided to organise and fight back.

And then yet another song symbolic of our consciousness going beyond race to the class basis of our society:

In a city on a corner stands a house that’s mighty grand
Where in glory and in splendour live the magnates of the Rand
What a system! What a system! What a system, what a crime!
We can’t mend it, we must end it
End it now and for all times.
In a tunnel in a city, excavating in the mine
He digs the gold beneath the rockfall as they pay him ten rands ten
What a system! What a system! What a system, what a crime!
We can’t mend it, we must end it
End it now and for all times.
High above the mining compound where he joins the picket line
He’s a labourer agitator and his life’s not worth a dime.
What a system! What a system! What a system, what a crime!
We can’t mend it, we must end it
End it now and for all times.

Personal and social emancipation and commitment to social justice Whilst visiting Makhanda to deliver a talk at the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit in May 2017, myself, Eddie Cottle, Robbie Van Niekerk, Orla Quinlan had drinks with Oupa and Maria. He was pre-occupied with the preeminent role played by revolutionaries Albert Nzula, Moses Kotane and Jabulani ‘Mzala’ Nxumalo. And this, between frantically mobilizing everyone of us to locate a clip of St James 2014 @ St. Phil #2: Warazulwa available at url:

Such was the breadth of Oupa’s interests and pursuits stretching from politics to culture.

In April 2021 he was diagnosed with colon cancer. This was weeks apart with my own diagnosis with prostate cancer. We quickly exchanged WhatsApp notes. I wish to reproduce here his response to an Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya – Heineken Jazzaldia 2011 youtube link I shared with him as part of our mutual morale boosting exchanges. He wrote back:

Hi Sheppie, great to hear from you & we grateful for the solidarity from you & family. Maria, Searatoa & myself extend our solidarity to you & family in your struggle against the prostate cancer. We are indeed in another trench, against capital unleashing pathogens against society & on us as individuals. On the health front the treatment is proceeding well & I am now past my 3rd chemo session. I have as yet no side effects, and hope in the main it will remain like that. Besides the cold spell up here, I try to see comrades outdoors. Am fortunate in that Khanya has given me some time off for treatment & recovery. I also started on a number of reading & writing projects. Our motto must be the “pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of will”! Lets keep in touch. Solidarity. (Thanks for the musical inspiration. )

Oupa was committed to personal and social emancipation. He loved his family, life and humanity. Wherever he went, you would invariably see him with Maria, who in her own right is a formidable intellectual and activist. He loved his daughter Searatoa very much and you could read this in his face whenever he spoke about her. As I tried to share my grief at his death, I told my son that here we are talking about a man who was in many ways driven by the dictum of Che Guevara when he says: at the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality. I went on to tell my son that here we are talking about a man who could have easily become a mathematics or physics or engineering professor at any university in this country and in the world. Yet he chose to place his gift of genius and his intellectual energies at the service of the class from whose loins he was drawn.

Oupa had a fine and brilliant mind which he placed at the service of the struggles of the poor and working class for social emancipation. An organic intellectual who was to the very end committed to pursuing the dream of social justice. And was deeply concerned about making sense of, understanding and analysing the state of the ANC and the liberation movement as an instrument which at one time had embodied the hopes and aspirations of its social base in the working class. His analytical and polemical contributions sought to go beyond the superficial and throw light at the causes of the crisis we are facing and the moment we are going through in history. This not as a navel-gazing exercise, but as a necessary duty of a revolutionary committed to mobilising the social and class forces to effect genuine revolutionary change. Perhaps his analysis of the crisis of the ANC in the democratic era remains unequalled in its accuracy, depth and clarity.

To Maria, Searatoa and the extended family, we his comrades and friends as well as the working class of this country share your grief at a loss of in the words of Fred Hendricks, a man so young who still had so much to offer. We say akuhlanga lungehliyo, thuthuzelekani! He will live on in those who continue the struggle! A luta continua!

Robala ka Khotso Kgosietsile! Tsela tshoeu Morolong! Salute Soja! Mooiloop Grootman!







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *