Naboth Monyandioe Moreleba Mokgatle was the eighth and youngest child of Setlhare Hebron Mokgatle, a skilled builder and carpenter, and Salome Mororo-Mokgatle. His grandfather was Mokgatle Mokgatle (Sekete) the paramount Chief of the Bakwena tribe of Mmanape of Tshukudu in Phokeng, Rustenburg. Mokgatle’s grandmother, Matlhodi Paulina Kekana-Mokgatle, was the daughter of Chief Kekana the Potgietersrust area of the former northern Transvaal (Northern Province).
Mokgatle started his primary education in 1925 at the Phokeng Preparatory School, run by the Pentecostal Holiness Church of the Reverend K. Spooner. However, his age and the need for a living wage, among other things, forced him to end his formal schooling in 1929.
In 1930 Mokgatle moved to Pretoria, where he devoted much of his life to political and labour struggles. His initiation into protest politics took place towards the end of 1930 when he joined the campaign to burn the hated pass books that the law required all black people to carry on them. As a member of the Matopo Hills soccer team he was further drawn into politics in sport, especially in 1931 when the Scottish team Motherwell toured South Africa and played only against white teams.
Mokgatle’s keen interest in reading inspired him to enrol at a number of night schools in Pretoria and Johannesburg. Some of these were run by members of the South African Communist Party and gave him the opportunity to learn more about communism and trade unionism. His political and trade union activism was given impetus when he joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). He was elected to the Pretoria district committee of the CPSA in 1941, which further stimulated his activities in these areas.
The period between 1943 and 1954 was his most fruitful and saw his greatest contributions to trade union and political organisations in South Africa. He collaborated with other trade unionists and activists, leading to the formation of many unions in Pretoria. He became full-time General Secretary of the Non-European Distributive Workers’ Union in 1943. He served on the executive committee of the Transvaal Council of Non-European Trade Unions and became the secretary of its Pretoria branch during the 1940s. In the late 1940’s, he formed and led the Dairy Workers’ Union and the highly successful African General Workers’ Union.
Mokgatle was highly critical of the cosmetic reforms of the ‘liberal’ government of J.C. Smuts and of the ANC’s moderate approach to successive white governments. He took strong exception to the operation of the Natives’ Representative Council. He and S.S. Tefu turned the Pretoria Market into a political arena where a series of political meetings were held and fierce political speeches delivered. When the government of Dr D.F. Malan passed the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950, Mokgatle’s ‘political home’ was destroyed as the CPSA disbanded.
Mokgatle’s various organized labour and political activities brought him into headlong contact with state repression. Between 1930 and 1954 he was arrested and imprisoned on countless occasions. His union’s offices in Pretoria and his homes in Marabastad, lady Selbourne and Atteridgeville were frequently searched and many documents seized. His overseas mail was intercepted and confiscated. The banning orders placed on him in 1952 and 1954 by Minister of Justice, Education, Arts and Science, C.R. Swart, effectively denied him any form of existence in South Africa. Mokgatle therefore left South Africa on September 1954 with a self-written affidavit in his passport. He ultimately made Catford (London) his home, aided by the Africa Bureau of Reverends M. Scott and M. Benson. Later his family joined him in exile. In 1956 his Atteridgeville home in South Africa was ransacked during the events that led to the infamous Treason Trial.
Mokgatle began writing The autobiography of an unknown South African in 1961. Mokgatle married Nana Tlhogo in 1941. They had one daughter, Keitumetse Thabo, and a son, Matshidiso Ernest. Mokgatle died in 1985 owing to illness. His son brought his cremated remains back to South Africa where they were scattered in three places, Phokeng, Atteridgeville and Church Square in Pretoria.