Madimetja Lawrence Phokanoka was born on 10 June 1938 in Raphahla Village in Sekhukhuneland, in the Middelburg District. His father, Jacob Marwale Phokanoka worked as a teacher while his mother was a housewife who earned money through dressmaking. His family moved from this village to Makgane, another village before finally settling in Swekwati Kamamole. In 1945, at the age of seven he was sent to live with his aunt in Alexander Township in Johannesburg. He started attending primary school at the age of eight at a Lutheran Church school. In 1947 he moved to join his parents in Vleisboom where he continued with his schooling at Mankopane Tribal School. In 1954 he went to Kilnerton High School and in November 1958 he completed his Matric.
Phokanoka’s political influence came from various places and experiences. At a young age he was intrigued by politics when he saw a picture of MB Yegwa an African National Congress (ANC) Executive Committee member on a calendar advertising the Defiance Campaign in 1952. Although he was too young to understand, it remained with him. While he was at high school, a protest was organised where students marched to the Department of Education and the bravery of the students in challenging authority sparked his desire to fight against injustice. When he went to do garden work in town, he read the New Age and Contact which opened his eyes to political developments in the country including the 1956 Women’s March and the 1956 Treason Trial.
After completing his high school education, he enrolled at the University of Fort Hare where he registered for Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. It was at the University that Phokanoka became politically active. In 1959 he joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) and then in 1960 he joined the ANC. Alongside Harry Khanyi, Stephen Gawe and others he became part of the organisation’s cell at Fort Hare which discussed student problems in hostels and relations between student bodies and the administration. He was later elected as one of the two delegates to represent Fort Hare at the launch of the African Students Association (ASA), a student body affiliated to the ANC. He was selected as one of the students to go to the Soviet Union, but he stayed behind and attended the formal launch of ASA in Durban. In 1961 he did not return to Fort Hare, but found work as a teacher at Hoymeyer High School in Atteridgeville.
When he returned to Fort Hare in 1963, he joined the command structure in Fort Hare and served as one of the people responsible for political education. By this time, the security police were looking for Phokanoka and he was advised to leave the country. In May 1963 he left Fort Hare and went to Johannesburg where he continued working closely with ASA structures underground. In July, he left the country through Botswana and met some of the comrades who had already left the county in Lobatse. Together, they travelled to Francistown before being flown to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In August 1963, Phokanoka, with others, flew to Moscow via Khartoum and Cairo. He spent a year in military training returning to Tanzania in August 1964. He went to Kongwa where he spent just over a year, and then he was moved to Morogoro in 1966 where a military expedition to South Africa was mapped out.
Phokanoka was part of the Wankie-Sopolio Campaign, launched jointly by uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA). He was appointed as the second commissar after Thembisile Chris Hani in the Luthuli Detachment. As the operation was carried out first, over the territory of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), their military forces assisted by South Africa intercepted by MK and ZIPRA guerrillas. As a consequence, Phokanoka was arrested.
He was transported back to South Africa where he was taken to Pretoria Central Prison and spent well over a year awaiting trial. He stood trial in Pietermaritzburg in January 1969 and on 26 March 1969 he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. After spending about 10 months in Pretoria Central Prison, he was transported to Robben Island where he served the rest of his sentence.
After being released from prison, he took part in the peace and reconciliation process with the security forces of the former regime, in the then-Northern Transvaal. After the first democratic elections, he rejected an offer to work in parliament, preferring instead to work as a junior official in the Northern Province Department of Safety and Security. He also became Chairperson of the province in the SACP and he was honoured by being appointed as the Honorary Life Chairperson of the SACP. At the SACP 11th congress in 2002, Phokanoka was bestowed with the party’s highest award, the Moses Kotane Award, for the Lifelong contribution that he has made in the struggle for National Liberation and Socialism. He was also honoured with the Order of the Luthuli in Silver in April 2005.
After some time he became blind, retired and went to live in the rural areas of Sekhukhuneland. Phokanoka died in July 2005.
SADET, (2008), The Road to Democracy: South Africans telling their stories Volume 1, 1950 -1970, pp.409-423|
Honour of Comrade Lawarence Madimentjie Phokanoka, from the South African Communist Party (SACP), [Online], Available at www.sacp.org.za [Accessed 11 October]