Flaxman Qoopane, known as “the father of literature and arts” in South Africa, went into exile in 1979 and grew into the literary giant outside our borders. From Mozambique, Dar es Salaam and Tanzania to Rome and Germany, the Free State born author and poet told the world about the atrocities of the apartheid government.
Flaxman Qoopane, the literary activist and internationally recognised author, poet, journalist and biographer was born to Mosidi Rosetta Qoopane and Hermans Qoopane in in Mangaung in the Free State in 1955. He had three brothers and four sisters.
It is not easy to ascertain with precision when Qoopane’s political activism began but by the age of 24 he went into exile to escape arrest by the security police. As he left home, more questions than answers inundated his mind: how will he fare in exile? Will the mother of his three-month old daughter be able to raise their child single-handedly?
When news reached him that his home would be raided and he would be arrested, Qoopane made his way to the Bloemfontein railway station where he boarded a train with a one-way ticket to Lesotho. After leaving one of the stations, white railway police officers began searching the train and eventually reached his compartment.
Luckily shouts and screams from another carriage distracted them, and they did not return to his section.
Qoopane eventually reached the train’s final stop at the last South African station before the border and while waiting in the terminal’s waiting room a driver approached him and queried him about his destination. When the driver learnt that Qoopane was headed to the border post where transport is not easily accessible, the driver offered to drive him there after transporting a few other commuters first. He left Qoopane at the terminal, promising to return to ferry Qoopane to the border post.
Everyone had left and Qoopane remained pensive and alone at the terminal. Within half an hour he heard the sound of revving in the distance, which he immediately suspected to be a police van, fortunately it was the driver he had met earlier. To his delight he left the terminal and got a ride all the way to the border post.
There was the looming danger of arrest en route to the border and there were frequent police patrols due to the prevalence of livestock theft between the coterminous countries of South Africa and Lesotho. It was this same border which Qoopane used to smuggle newsletters, pamphlets, newspapers and other paraphernalia inside South Africa from Lesotho two years earlier whilst working underground.
Only a short distance before reaching the border, just when he thought they are fortunate not to have met the police, his intuition impelled him to look around. A vehicle with the two bright lights approached from behind and once again he suspected the police. As the approaching car was still far behind he asked the driver to stop the vehicle. He jumped out of the car, sprinted towards the fence dividing Lesotho and the Free State, and jumped the fence. Quick as the speed of light, he vanished from the scene and managed to get to Lesotho safely. Qoopane later learned that the car he suspected was indeed the police, who beat up the driver after he had fled.
Once in Lesotho, Qoopane stayed in his sister’s house in the town nearby.
Qoopane took up residence in one of the ANC quarters in Upper-Thamae, Maseru. There he met several other comrades. He later joined the ANC and was introduced to its military command. He was subsequently given refugee status and political asylum by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
After spending some time in Upper-Thamae, Qoopane relocated to another residence in Sebaboleng where he settled with another batch of exiles. The frequently held rounds of political discussions fully introduced him to the politics of the ANC. A panoply of revolutionary posters in their residence, as well as various sources, ossified his political stance. In Maseru the ANC community was active in galvanizing the Basotho people about the liberation struggle in South Africa. Political rallies, cultural events and memorial services were common occurrences. It was during these occasions where the party’s leaders addressed the revolutionaries.
But life in Lesotho was not an easy ride for those in exile, it had its own challenges. Several exiles were assaulted by some of the Lesotho youth. There were also those who informed the the Apartheid regime of the whereabouts of activists. On one particular Sunday in June 1979, during Qoopane’s visit to Mafeteng, his brother informed him that white South African security policemen were looking for him. When he found out that the police were aware of his underground activities for the ANC, Qoopane decided to leave the country and undergo military training in Angola. The ANC organised passports for him and other cadres.
In February 1981 Qoopane, and other members destined for military training, set off for Maseru International Airport. At the airport, there were approximately twenty companions, ready for departure. After all the necessary procedures at the immigration office, the travel began. The aeroplane landed for a short time in Manzini, Swaziland, then proceeded to Maputo International Airport in Mozambique.
From the airport Qoopane and his comrades were then transported by military truck to a residence in Matola, Mozambique. They were welcomed by many comrades on their arrival.
The residence was heavily guarded, 24 hours a day, by the cadres. The South African Defence Force carried out an attack a month earlier. Ten comrades perished in the fusillade. Many comrades were arriving in Matola en route to Angola for military training. Daily activities in the quarters comprised of military training as well as political discussions and cultural events.
Although Qoopane’s initial plan was to undergo military training in Angola, little did he know that health problems would thwart his aspirations. It was during this period that Qoopane flourished as a writer in Mozambique. He became the first South African whose poems were published all over the continent and later, the world. One of his literary achievements was creating a “Poet’s corner” in the Sunday News, the top newspaper in Tanzania, which he was widely praised for. More credit was attributed to the poems he churned out for years and his writing led to him visiting many European countries. He showcased his writing and poetry in countries including the Netherlands, Italy, the United Kingdom, Mozambique and Lesotho. He was particularly popular in East Africa.
In April 1981 he left Mozambique and settled in Morogoro, Tanzania and quickly learnt to adjust to life there. He spent time at Dakawa Orientation Centre where he learnt the ANC’s politics. He had earlier heard a lot about Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco) – a college built in 1979 for political exiles in Morogoro, Tanzania. He managed to enter Somafco at Standard Eight level in 1982 after successfully completing an assessment test which prioritised English and Mathematics. After five years at Somafco Qoopane received his ‘O’ level certificate. He went on to complete a General Certificate of Education (GCE) under the University of London School Board in 1990.
Qoopane travelled to Rome at the invitation of the Italian fraternity. Their delegation was welcomed by the Cies-molvis movement upon its arrival. He was the delegation’s spokesperson. While in Rome he did an interview with a local newspaper. During that time, he also performed in a powerful play titled “Bound in Chains”. Soon the South African embassy heard about the presence of the delegation and there was a bomb threat one afternoon at their hotel. Nonetheless, he and his cadre’s continued with their adventure. At Vatican City they had an audience with Pope John Paul II.
Upon leaving Rome, Qoopane and the delegation headed to Frankfurt, Germany. There Qoopane recited some of his poetry and participated in meetings with the Peace Movement. In these great cities Qoopane contributed in his own way to the anti-apartheid movement. He won the respect of both Romans and Germans alike for harbouring no feelings of rancour against the oppressors in South Africa.
In 1991, officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, visited Qoopane and other exiles in Dar-es-Salaam and they filled out forms for repatriation. Two weeks later he travelled to Lesotho to meet with his parents and siblings. It was very exciting being reunited with the family again after all these years. Qoopane found his father after suffering from a stroke – he could not even recognize his son. He died sixteen months after being reunited with his son.
When Qoopane was outside the country, it was not easy to contact his family back in South Africa. He learnt with dismay that the letters he wrote were intercepted. His mother recounted her victimisation at the hands of the security police while he was away and even his siblings were harassed. One of his brothers was even refused entry into the South African civil service for being related to him.
On July 7, 1992 he was reunited with his girlfriend Molebogeng Alitta Mokhuoa who goes by the sobriquet of Ndebu. It was an emotional encounter. Qoopane became disconsolate when he was notified about the passing of their daughter. Be that as it may, they remained together for the rest of their lives.
Between August 1992 and November 1993 Qoopane was appointed a coordinator of the Department of Arts and Culture in the Free State. Further still, he spoke tirelessly at workshops and seminars in the Free State on the role of the Department of Arts and Culture. He also played a pivotal role in the Ttam that engaged the Performing Arts Centre of Free State (Pacofs) in a process of transformation.
On March 20, 2001 eTV anchored a special Arts documentary titled “For the Love of Words” with a focus on the Eclectic Writers Club where Qoopane and other members of the club were shown in action and subsequently featured prominently in an interview.
Now, back home, as a well-known poet, journalist and painter Qoopane could dream of a new project of nation building and identify with the new spirit of reconciliation. He found it indispensable to motivate and inspire the youth. But most importantly, to play a developmental role within the broader community. And this is something he tried to achieve with all his might, despite all odds.
Qoopane died in 2017 but his memory and work lives on. He established and curated the Qoopane Literary Gallery, situated close to the University of the Free State, where profiles of local writers and journalists are displayed. He also developed a children’s library that caters for approximately 100 children. Qoopane dedicated his life to the struggle and worked to create opportunities for black writers in Bloemfontein and beyond.