Elias Motsoaledi was born on the 26 July 1924 in Phokoane in the Nebo District in Sekhukhuneland, Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo), South Africa. He was the third of eight children. At the age of 17, Motsoaledi came to Johannesburg. His first brush with the law in Johannesburg was his arrest for failure to produce his pass book – he was sentenced to work for a road construction. Later he found work in a leather factory. . He joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in 1945 and then the African National Congress (ANC) in 1948, and the Leather Workers Union in 1949. As a result, he was fired from his job for his union work.
Motsoaledi was one of several CPSA members elected to the ANC’s Transvaal Executive. He was involved in the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU), formed in 1941 with 100,000 members. CPSA activists led CNETU and reached about 150,000 members by the end of World War II.
Motsoaledi was elected chair of the CNETU in 1953. In the meantime, the State dissolved the CPSA and was replaced by the underground South African Communist Party (SACP) in1953.The 1950s saw the “Congress Alliance” – ANC, the Coloured People’s Congress (SACPO), the(white) Congress of Democrats (COD) , and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) – organise civil disobedience campaigns, including the Defiance Campaign of 1952, in which Motsoaledi was active. He was first banned in 1952.
In 1955 the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) was formed. Motsoaledi was a key figure in the federation, which had close links to the Congress Alliance and promoted interracial unionism.
The 1950s were characterized by growing repression, and Motsoaledi was among those affected. He was banned from holding any position in the union in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act (1950), and detained during the state of emergency declared in the after-math of the Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960, and imprisoned for four months. The ANC was declared an unlawful organization and banned in April. In June1961, the ANC and the SACP shifted from their previous emphasis on non-violence and organized an armed group, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) [MK], which engaged in sabotage from December onwards. Upon his release, he went underground and served on the Johannesburg Regional Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
Motsoaledi was detained in1963 under the new 90-day detention laws, and was sentenced to life imprisonment at the 1963–4 Rivonia trial for his MK involvement, along with former president Nelson Mandela and others.
He was released from Robben Island in 1989, after having served 26 years in prison. When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, Motsoaledi was elected to its National Executive Committee in 1991.
Elias Mathope Motsoaledi died on 9 May 1994