About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

John Nyati Pokela

John Nyati Pokela was born on 21 September 1921 in Herschel, near the border of Lesotho. He attended Healdtown High School and graduated at Fort Hare University College in 1949. He obtained his Higher Education Diploma in 1950. After working as a teacher for a number of years he was expelled from teaching because of his political activities in 1961. He went into exile in Lesotho, where he became a member of the Presidential Council of the Pan Africanist Congress. He was kidnapped from Lesotho by the South African Security forces and later sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. On his release he went into exile once more. He became chairman of the PAC in 1982. He passed away in exile and was buried in Harare, Zimbabwe, on 13 July 1985.

John Nyati Pokela
by Nkosana Dominic Tshabangu


I am not sure I ever quite understood John Pokela as a personality.

A teacher by profession, Pokela was part of the group that broke away from the ANC in 1959 to form the PAC. He had taken refuge in Lesotho, where was lured into a trap, kidnapped, brought to trial and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.

He arrived on Robben Island at a time when, despite our differences as rival liberation organisations, we felt an over-riding need as political prisoners to stand together and confront the harsh physical and psychological regime imposed on us by the prison authorities. The stark reality was that this regime was designed to brutalise and destroy us as human beings.

Nelson Mandela, from his first day in prison in 1962, engaged with Robert Sobukwe in search of a common approach. On Robben Island he continued this search through discussions with Selby Ngendane and Clarence Makwethu. We had reached a point at which all organisations in the isolation section agreed to form prisoners' committee. Although the ANC was the dominant force we agreed to allow the chair of the committee to rotate among the different organisation's representatives. We went so far as allowing the other organisations to occupy the chairmanship first.

John Pokela arrived at this point, and the process experienced an immediate set-back. Was it a failure on his part to rise above party-political rivalry; to recognise that as prisoners we needed to stand together so that we could each not only survive but endure prison with our ideal of freedom intact? Or, was he driven by the internal leadership rivalries within the PAC?

The prisoners' committee survived, but not without hiccups. Despite the virulent anti-communism and anti-Indianism of the PAC, I served as ANC representative on the prisoners' committee with Pokela. It was around this time that Pokela met with Mandela to express his surprise at and appreciation for the role I was playing in the committee: it seemed as if he was having difficulty reconciling his experience with his preconceptions.

It was difficult to engage with him beyond dogma, to take discourse to the point where assumptions are clarified and tested.

I have always felt that deep within him there was a reservoir of resilience. He had a long background of political commitment, and was highly regarded in his organisation, which could have formed the platform for greater achievements.

I was cautious about approaching him to contribute to this collection of essays, but we were pleasantly surprised that he readily agreed. His contribution is therefore something of a rarity, affording us an opportunity to understand his views and the paths along which his thought moved.

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