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African warrior honoured

Sixty years ago when he applied to do his first degree at Unisa, Dr Motsoko Pheko never had imagined that the biggest and highly respected African university would confer an honorary doctorate on him. He was very humbled to accept the degree of Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) on his 90th birthday, 13 November 2020.

Lebohang Pheko (Daughter of Dr Motsoko Pheko) (left) and Prof Mandla Makhanya (Principal and VC, Unisa) (right) congratulate Dr Motsoko Pheko on his honorary doctorate.

After Unisa’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mandla Makhanya, conferred the degree, the house sang a birthday song for Mkhulu, who was supported by his family and friends. “This degree is not only for myself, but for the thousands of people who have worked with me, lifted me, shared their stories of injustice with me, and trusted me in various positions of leadership to be a voice that speaks for millions living on the margins of the African society,” said Pheko.

The Unisa alumni is a political scientist, theologian, historian, lawyer, researcher and author of note. He was admitted as an advocate to the High Court of Zambia in Lusaka and as advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa in Pretoria. He was a member of parliament in South Africa between 1999 and 2009. Pheko is known as a bold and brave freedom fighter during the liberation struggle against colonialism and apartheid.

Dr Motsoko Pheko, one of the recipients of the honorary doctorates conferred by Unisa on 13 November 2020.

Under the liberation struggle, Pheko was imprisoned by three colonial regimes—SA, Rhodesia, and Portuguese Mozambique. The hardships did not stop him from calling for the release of political prisoners such as Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, and Nyati John Pokela.

One of the key issues that fascinates Pheko is the thorny and burning question of the redistribution of land in SA. In his acceptance speech, he briefly reflected on how colonialists seized huge lands from Africans and how the war poems regarding the issue came about. He said after the colonial settlers realised that Africans would not accept land dispossession, they distorted the history of the African people.

Pheko did not hold back in raising his concern about the misrepresentation of African history in higher education. “Unfortunately, many institutions of higher learning misrepresent African history or discredit African epistemology…There is only the history of Europeans in Africa, the rest in darkness, and darkness is not the subject of history,” expressed Pheko.

One of the noteworthy contributions that Pheko made during the liberation struggle against colonialism was to provide information to the leaders of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), a political party he belongs to, when they campaigned against the illegality of SA as a state at the United Nations (UN). His research strengthened the PAC’s case when they campaigned to have colonial SA expelled from the UN on the basis that it was a non-state according to international law.

Mentioning a declaration made by the late prominent South African politician, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, on the issue of colonialism, he concluded by boldly saying “Izwe lethu!”, meaning “the land is ours!”.

In his congratulatory address, the VC said “we are privileged to be in the midst of these honorary doctoral recipients”. He also congratulated Pheko on his 90th birthday and acknowledged how he dedicated his life to the liberation struggle.

*By Nancy Legodi, Acting Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2020/11/21