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Oscar and Rose Mpetha Memorial Lecture 2023
Author: Cindy van Niekerk
Published: 18/12/2023

On 20th October 2023, the Transformation Office at Stellenbosch University (SU) hosted the Oscar and Rose Mpetha Memorial Lecture 2023. Oscar Mpetha, a key figure in the South African trade union movement, and his wife, Rose, a dedicated political activist, were honoured for their roles in shaping the nation's liberation journey. Held at Stellenbosch University Museum and titled "The Inclusive Politics of Oscar Mpetha," the event featured Prof William Gumede from the University of the Witwatersrand as the keynote speaker, offering valuable insights into Oscar Mpetha's impact on South Africa's democratic evolution.

In his opening remarks, Professor Nico Koopman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Social Impact, Transformation, and Personnel, extended a warm welcome to a diverse audience that included the family of Oscar and Rose Mpetha, SU staff, students, as well as keynote speaker Professor William Gumede and special guest Cheryl Carolus.

Acknowledging the significance of the occasion, Professor Koopman said that the memorial lecture served as an opportunity to honour two exemplary individuals who stood as examples and beacons of faith in the face of adversity. He highlighted the importance of revisiting their stories, noting that doing so would serve as a reminder of their ideals and enable those present to walk away from the lecture feeling empowered. Professor Koopman also recounted his first encounter with Oscar Mpetha as a first-year student at the University of the Western Cape, recalling the impression Mpetha's address left on him.

Dr. Zethu Mkhize, Director of the Transformation Office, introduced Prof Gumede, acknowledging his diverse contributions, including evaluating state-owned entities and his editorial work, particularly his book, "South Africa in BRICS," before inviting Prof Gumede to the podium to present the lecture.

In a compelling and reflective lecture on the life of Oscar Mpetha, Prof Gumede opened by expressing his appreciation for the opportunity to engage in a conversation that had been absent for many years. Recognising the importance of remembering individuals like Oscar and Rose Mpetha, Prof Gumede commended SU for the transformative act of honouring them.

“It is very important that the contributions of Oscar Mpheta, and others like him, should never be forgotten and that their ideas should never die."

Delving into Oscar Mpetha's legacy, Prof Gumede highlighted the critical role Mpetha played in shaping South Africa's socio-economic and administrative justice dispensations. He lauded Mpetha's advocacy for consumer rights, lamenting the decline of the consumer rights movement in contemporary times.

The lecture then explored Mpetha's multifaceted involvement, from the civic movement to trade unions and the ANC. Prof Gumede shed light on Mpetha's commitment to internal democracy, especially during pivotal moments like the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) National Conference in 1957, where Mpetha courageously advocated for defying segregation.

Prof Gumede revealed Mpetha's ability to foster enduring friendships across racial divides, a testament to his character and commitment to inclusivity. He also highlighted Mpetha's significant contributions to civic movements in the 1970s and 1980s, including his leadership role in addressing issues such as the removal of informal settlers from Crossroads and the 1980 bus boycott.

Throughout the lecture, Prof Gumede painted a vivid picture of Mpetha's humility and dignified approach, emphasising how it stood in stark contrast to the behaviour of contemporary political leaders. He encouraged young people to find their purpose and engage locally, echoing Mpetha's commitment to a life of purpose. He emphasised the importance of voting for a competent and inclusive future, tying back to Mpetha's lifelong dedication to democracy.

Following the lecture, Cheryl Carolus, General Secretary of the United Democratic Front (UDF), delivered reflections on the lecture and insights into the life and legacy of Mpetha.

Carolus recounted memories of Mpetha's fearless leadership, strategic acumen, and unwavering commitment to the cause of freedom. She highlighted key moments, such as Mpetha's triumphant return after imprisonment, where he defied the authorities by singing a song that had been used against him in court.

Carolus touched upon the formation of the UDF, its historical significance, and the ongoing struggle for transformation and accountability in South Africa. She urged citizens to actively engage in civil society, resist legislation silencing NGOs and the media, and participate in local structures like school governing bodies and community policing forums to drive meaningful change.

Themba Mpetha, son of Oscar and Rose, expressed his gratitude, excitement, and happiness, thanking SU for hosting the event and acknowledging Prof Gumede for his contributions. Reflecting on his mother Rose's pivotal role, Themba recounted how she urged Oscar to consider organising women workers when trade unions were being formed. Rose advocated for the formation of women's organisations, recognising the need for women's voices in the struggle.

Closing his remarks, Themba emphasised the importance of recognising all individuals who contributed to South Africa's liberation struggle, even those not frequently mentioned. He acknowledged the ongoing challenges in South African society but highlighted the progress made since the apartheid era, with a nod to the resilience of future generations in addressing persisting issues.