This Sussex Life. Moss Ngoasheng: “Our debates at Sussex helped us shape the new South Africa.”
By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Monday, 25 April 2022
Sussex and IDS alumnus Moss Ngoasheng, a leading businessman in South Africa and former Robben Island political prisoner, remembers how Sussex supported the struggle against apartheid and helped him to later play a key role in his country’s government.
I grew up in a rural community in what is now called Limpopo, the last of 10 children. My father was a migrant worker in the City of Gold, Johannesburg. Like most African households of the time, my mother remained in the rural area to bring us up. My mother was a subsistence farmer, using the family plot to supplement transfers from my father. We used to come home from school and then assist my mum in the family plot. We used to take turns to look after the cattle, so if it was my turn then I would miss a day at school.
I was recruited into the African National Congress (ANC) at about 17 when I was at Hwiti High School, a boarding school that was next to the University of the North. We had lots of interaction with university students and that’s where I started my political activism. Radio Freedom of the ANC was a key educator and instigator those days and we used to religiously listen to its broadcast at school, and during school holidays. My mum found out that I was an ardent listener to Radio Freedom and one day she said to me ‘You’re going to to Robben Island one of these days’. Of course I knew it was a prison camp for political opponents of apartheid, and where Nelson Mandela was in jail.
I worked for the government in the homeland of Lebowa when I left school. This was after the 1976 student uprisings and political activism among students and communities was on the rise, despite the repression. I was stationed in the rural north, which allowed me to carry on working underground for the ANC. I was recruiting people, distributing ANC literature and making people aware of Radio Freedom. I was organising communities and students in the area. It sounds like normal work, but under apartheid African people were not allowed to join political parties or even organise themselves in political formations. It was illegal to be in possession of ANC literature, let alone join or promote it. The terrorism act and other repressive legislation made sure of that. So any political work associated with the ANC had to be done clandestinely.
When you’re 19 you don’t think about being arrested, but I think we were scared. We knew people were being tortured and killed. You had to be careful who you talked to. But we were trying to learn from the Angolan, Tanzanian, Zimbabwean and Ghanaian struggles. We were trying the work out why our people weren’t voting and why were we the last ones on the African continent left without our freedom.
I was on my way to an ANC meeting in Botswana when I ran into a security patrol at 4am. How do you explain yourself trying to cross the border at that time? I was arrested with a colleague. We were detained and charged under the terrorism act, and then sentenced to seven years on Robben Island. That was 5 May 1978, five days before my 21st birthday.
The ANC was a fully-fledged operation in prison and run on the basis that we are all of one struggle, even if we have different views about organisation formation. There were always debates on strategy and tactics. Newly arrived inmates who were associated with the ANC had to go through a political education programme, to immerse them on the history and key strategies of the liberation movement.. The first key subject of the programme was called ‘The Country We Live In’. This was based on all the historical work done by the ANC.
Political education was the core of our existence. I registered for my first degree in prison. I was going to do politics but the old comrades – Mandela, Sisulu - who had been there since the 1960s said we were going to need economists when we’re free. They encouraged me to study economics. In fact, Mandela gave me his Economics 101 notebook to start me off. So I did a degree in economics and politics through the University of South Africa.
Apart from formal university studies, the bulk of our debates focused on what would need to be done when we left Robben Island, we were debating the mass movement concept and how to build such a movement inside the country. Most of us who left Robben Island in the 80s and 90s got stuck into organising communities, students and workers in various formations which culminated in the formation of the United Democratic Front. The centrality of the anti-apartheid movement internationally moved from supporting detainees and prisoners to supporting civil/community and black professional organisations, and trade unions which were the backbone of the United Democratic Front.
On Robben Island, we ran classes so that people who came in with no education could learn to read and write. We were allowed two letters from home a month and one visit. I remember one old man going through all this education and then receiving a letter that he didn’t need to ask me or one of us to read to him. You saw how empowering it was to give tuition to each other.
I was 20 when I went into prison and 28 when I came out in 1985. I left prison with a list of political actions to do, and went straight into the thick of things again. In particular, I was working with university students and bringing more structure and discipline into their approach. But, a few weeks after my release, there was a big protest and I was detained - back in prison! Thankfully, that was a short detention of a week.
I applied for a research job at the University of Natal to look at youth unemployment. As soon as a moved to Natal, I linked up with the stalwarts in the ANC. On Robben Island we had been discussing economic and political systems, and I started to think about what I wanted to do next with my education. Universities that were relevant for the kind of education I was interested in included East Anglia, MIT and Sussex. All these institutions were regarded as progressive and central in development economics studies, especially how and what policies will be needed to overcome underdevelopment in the developing and emerging economies of the “third world”. I applied for an MPhil in Development Studies at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex and was accepted for the following year, with a British Council scholarship.
Sussex was a hub of anti-apartheid activity when I arrived in 1988. Anti-apartheid activist Raphie Kaplinsky was there, and Robin Murray, a stalwart of the British labour movement and the “new left” was also there. Robin Murray became my supervisor. The University had a very deep connection with South Africa, so it didn’t feel foreign. We felt appreciated for who we were and there was big support, such as the Mandela Scholarship. There were a lot of South Africans studying and working for the movement and were interested to hear about Robben Island. My intellectual engagement was almost immediate with the student body and the local anti-apartheid activists in the Brighton area.
Most importantly, I had the freedom to think outside of South Africa. In my class of 32 we were from 28 different countries. We were trying to understand the dynamics of the Philippines, the Nicaraguan revolution, the fascinating economic and political dynamics of India or what it means to be Mexican. You see that the anti-apartheid struggle is not the only struggle that exists. Others are equally important and there are lessons that we can learn from each other.
Sussex opened opportunities to engage with politics and with academia. In IDS you had people who were studying South American economies, the Palestinian question, agriculture and the development challenges in India and in Africa… such a wide range of issues. I got involved with the policy questions that the ANC was facing at the time – like what will we do when we get freedom? Are we ready to govern? With Raphie Kaplinsky, we conceptualised a programme called the Industrial Strategy Project, and run a series of research studies on 12 different sectors of the South African economy before 1994, which we presented to the ANC and COSATU in South Africa. Inputs from these studies and others informed what emerged as the re-industrialisation strategy of the post-Apartheid South Africa.
I had an amazing time at Sussex. We had a strong, anti-apartheid student association. The other South Africans and I shared a house together and we used to cook South African food and talk about South Africa, and then we travelled around UK campuses organising students from South Africa to become politically active and work with the British Anti-Apartheid Movement. We felt it was important to organise a UK student association. Besides the politics and the education, we had fun. We got artists such as Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim to play at Sussex in support of the anti-apartheid association and the Mandela Scholarship.
On the day in 1990 it was announced that Mandela would be released, there was a big party on campus. The next day I was on a plane back to South Africa. Robin Murray tried to persuade me to stay. I’d done my thesis on South Africa’s clothing and textile industry and Robin said that if I added a couple of chapters, I could get a PhD. But I said, no, Mandela is being released. I’m going home. There is work to be done.
When Mandela became president, there were more Sussex alum in that government than there has ever been in the UK. There was Thabo Mbeki, the Deputy President, the Pahad brothers, Essop and Aziz, Ketso Gordhan, the Director General of Transport, Zav Rustomjee, the Director General of Trade and Industry, Faizel Ismail, Pinky Mashigo, to name but a few. I was in the presidency as Chief Economic Advisor to Thabo Mbeki from 1995-2000. For a boy from rural Limpopo, being part of the first post-apartheid government and to drive the fundamental change that we all have been fighting for was more than surreal. The debates of different development models, the policy debates and lessons from other developing countries we all discussed and debated at Sussex were absolutely useful as we shaped the new South Africa.
It's important that we don’t lose that connection between Sussex and South Africa. We still have the challenges of development and still have to answer questions around poverty, employment, gender inequality and rural under-development. We still need the intellectual input to rethink policies and design new policies that can deal with the problems we have.
This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series