Oupa Lehulere, Renowned South African Marxist

Against the Current, No. 216, January-February 2022

James Kilgore

I FIRST MET Oupa Lehulere in 1992. He took a job at Khanya College where I was the coordinator. At that historical moment, the foundation of post-apartheid South Africa was being laid. It was an incredibly challenging, complicated, often confusing time. Oupa helped us make sense of it. He was the right person in the right place at the right time.

While many other activists positioned themselves for jobs in the post-apartheid government, positions in the ANC headquarters at Shell House, or set themselves up as consultants and rising stars of BEE (the government’s Black Economic Empowerment program — ed.), Oupa focused on building the power of the working class.*

When he arrived at Khanya, our only work was an academic bridging program that provided support for activists to enter the historically white universities. We operated under the slogan of “Education for Liberation,“ but we had no real connection to the organized working class. Oupa was instrumental in transforming Khanya from an academic bridging program to the house of social movements it has become.

While Oupa had a unique genius and an incredibly rich set of political lenses through which he viewed the world, his real talent was building and inspiring organization. At Khanya, Oupa became the founding father of the community division, a part of Khanya devoted to training shop stewards, community activists, student militants — people who were eager to study and learn but would never find a place in colleges or universities.

Their study was directed at building working class power. As South Africa’s freedom grew increasingly tarnished, many activists surrendered, choosing an individualist path that could lead them to Sandton (an affluent district of Johannesburg — ed.) or some such hub of luxury. Not Oupa.

He chose to build Khanya College as a source of permanent support and inspiration to the working class and genuine activists. While Oupa was the spark at Khanya in those days, he was never alone. He assembled around him a cohort of like-minded individuals who created a hothouse of ideological debate and revolutionary praxis.

Oupa attracted a circle of comrades who focused on how the working class should respond to the failures of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party — the adoption of  the neoliberal economic policy framework known as GEAR, the jettisoning  of nationalization, discarding demands to share the land “among those who work it” and the retreat from demanding reparations for the survivors of apartheid.

Oupa and the important set of comrades who surrounded him at Khanya — Ighsaan Schroeder, Zico Tamela, Neena Benjamin, Margaret Johnson, Bernie Johnson, the late Themba Nobatana, the late Bongani Shingwenyana, Dikeledi Molatoli, and, of course Maria Van Driel his life partner and comrade — became a political pole that kept the vision of liberating the working class and the principles of Marxism alive.

They taught each other and learned from each other. They also attracted key union activists, individuals like John and Patricia Appolis, Dinga Sikwebu, Debbie Byrne, Trevor Ngwane, and the late Heather Hills who became constant visitors to the offices of the college. It was the pedagogy of the oppressed in action.

This is where the roots of the present day Khanya were planted. And though not all the comrades from those days remained in the forefront of the struggle, Oupa definitely did, code-switching seamlessly from theoretical frameworks to popular discourse, from English to isiXhosa to SeTswana.

Pamphleteer and Chronicler

This was also the moment where he began to shape his talents as what he called a “pamphleteer,” a commentator on the politics of South Africa and global capitalism. As Oupa’s vision of working-class organization grew, so did his ability to chronicle in his writings the nuances of neoliberalism in South Africa and where the openings, the moments of opportunity for struggle for the working class were emerging. No one did this like Oupa.

Nearly two decades have passed since I worked with Oupa at Khanya. I was constantly learning from his wisdom, trying to absorb the many lessons he had learned from his years as an intense activist, a political detainee and a serious Marxist thinker. Though time and distance separated us, his voice remains in my head.

Even during my incarceration from time to time I received copies of articles from Karibu, Khanya College’s journal. Today in the complexities of the struggle for liberation in the U.S. heartland where I now live, as I ponder what political course to take, how to perceive movements like Black Lives Matter and events like the murder of George Floyd, I often ask myself the question: “what would Oupa do in this moment? How would he see it?”

Not long ago I was in a workshop where the facilitator asked us to name the most intelligent person we had ever met. Suddenly Oupa’s face popped into my head. He could have been a great academic, the person upon whom the scholarly and development world called  to translate the events of South Africa for them. He could have written dozens of books and articles for important journals. The policy experts and think tanks would have paid him a huge sum, celebrated him in conferences at Oxford and retreats in the Swiss Alps. But Oupa made other choices.

We are so thankful for that and thankful to his comrades and loved ones, Maria and their daughter, Searatoa, for being on the forefront with him. Oupa was a revolutionary for life. We are honored and blessed to have known him and worked with him. Long live his spirit, long live.

*A NOTE ABOUT OUPA: He was born in Cape Town in 1960. After primary school he went to Fezeka High School in Gugulethu. Fezeka High School had a history of political activism, with many senior students active in Black Consciousness-inspired student organisations. Oupa’s first introduction to resistance politics was the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools in 1975. But it was in 1976 with the students’ uprising that he became politically active. Although new to student politics, Lehulere became one of the student leaders who organized and directed the student uprising in Cape Town which took off on August 11, 1976.

Since 1976, Lehulere was involved in all the various uprisings: in 1980 as a student leader, in 1985 as a student activist at the University of Cape Town, in the 1990s as an activist linked to communities and the labor movement; and since then as an activist in the social movements that arose in the 2000s. Lehulere was introduced to Marxism in the late 1970s and since then framed his political activism in the broad Marxist traditions. Since the mid 1990s Lehulere was based at Khanya College, a movement building institution that arose out of the turbulent 1980s. There his work focused on cadre formation and political education in the labor movement and the social movements. He died on November 29, 2021.

For more information, about his life and writings, see https:/karibu.org.za/.

January-February 2022, ATC 216

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