Ntwaesele “Fish” Keitsing

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Biographical information


Trade unionist, African National Congress (ANC) activist and 1956 Treason Trial defendant and politician

First name: 
Ntwaesele "Fish"
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
Location of birth: 
Kanye, Botswana (then Bechuanaland)
Date of death: 
Location of death: 
Gaborone, Botswana

Ntwaesele "Fish" Keitsing was born in Kanye, Botswana in 1919, the son of a peasant. At the age of 23, he came to South Africa as a mineworker and became one of the original members of the African Mineworkers' Union led by J.B. Marks.

In 1949, he left the mines, and moved to Newclare in Johannesburg where he became a factory worker. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1949 and became a leader of the Newclare Congress branch and its volunteer-in-chief during the 1952 Defiance Campaign.

In 1956, he was involved in an incident with the police, who had arrested a group of pass offenders. Keitsing took the lead in a crowd of angry onlookers, and ordered the police to release their victims, to which they complied. During the same year, he was arrested and charged for High Treason along with Chief Albert LuthuliNelson MandelaWalter Sisulu and other activists in the infamous Treason Trial.

Keitsing was later sentenced to 12 months in jail and lost an appeal to the Supreme Court in mid-1957. Charged with others in the Treason Trial, Keitsing was brought daily from his cell to attend the trial. He was released in 1958.

Keitseng was deported to Botswana in 1959, but the Treason Trial continued until 1961. Keitseng helped to organise “underground passage” for thousands of South Africans who went into exile, especially members of the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) which was launched on 16 December 1961.

After the ANC formally adopted a strategy of armed struggle in October 1962, former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki stayed with Keitseng in Lobatse before undergoing military training. Keitseng was arrested along with Mbeki and others in Zimbabwe (then Northern Rhodesia) later that year. However, Keitseng and others managed to escape when their train stopped in Palapye.

In Botswana, Keitseng was the founder of the Bechuanaland Trade Union Congress (BTUC), the forerunner of the current Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU), and was active in the organisation of farm workers in the Lobatse region. In 1963, Keitseng represented BTUC at an international conference in Moscow, where he met Kenneth Koma.

Keitseng was a founding executive member of the Bechuanaland People’s Party (BPP) and later Bechuanaland Independence Party (BIP), after the BPP split in 1962. He was also one of the founding leaders when the Bechuanaland National United Front, which later became Botswana National Front (BNF), was launched in 1965.

With his experience of working in the ANC, Keitseng defended the BNF from infiltration by agents of the South African Bureau of State Security (BOSS) in the 1970s. In 1989, Keitseng was elected as a BNF Councillor for Babusi Ward in Gaborone City Council, and retired after the 1994 elections.

Despite his retirement, Keitseng remained a respected community elder. He passed away on 28 March 2005 in Gaborone, and was buried at the Old Gaborone Cemetery.

• Gerhart, G.M. and Karis, T. (eds) (1977) From Protest to Challenge. A Documentary. History of African Politics in South Africa, Vol. 4, Political Profiles 1882 ”“ 1964. p. 49
• Personal Contribution by Edward Tswaipe (Secretary General, ABOTEL)

Last updated : 21-Jun-2018

This article was produced by South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011

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