Mark Shope, The forgotten Commissioner of Umkhonto We Sizwe

In the early 2000s, the Government of Limpopo Province (South Africa) proposed a name change from Tzaneen to Mark Shope, but that proposal was met with hostility and strong opposition from the residents of Tzaneen. People of all cultural groups came together to oppose the name change because they thought the name Tzaneen has managed to unite all the people of the town, despite their different cultural backgrounds.

They argued that there is nothing wrong with the name Tzaneen because it is not the name of a person, but a geographical name and that the name Mark Shope would cause tribalism issues between the Xitsonga and Sepedi speaking people, something which would obviously be very undesirable. Since the residents agreed the name Tzaneen should stay on, Government of Limpopo stopped the process and respected their wishes.

The origin of the name Tzaneen

There are different theories as to where the name Tzaneen comes from, the first theory is that the name is derived from the Sepedi word “Tsaneng”, which means gathering place or “Tsana” (basket of hills). The theory claims that Makgoba, the leader of a small Tlou Tribe, gave the name “Tsaneng” to the place where the town Tzaneen is situated today. Since then, the Sepedi word has been used by both the Xitsonga and Sepedi speaking people to refer to the name of this place and was popularly used by Afrikaner colonisers as well.

A second theory suggests the name Tzaneen is derived from the Venda word “Dzanani”. This theory suggests Venda people once occupied the area and that they named it “Dzanani”. There are problems with the second theory and it could be argued that this is just a “theoretical claim” rather than a reality since there is no concrete evidence that Venda people once occupied the area. The Afrikaner people, in honour of the Sepedi word “Tsaneng”, corrupted it into Tzaneen. Nonetheless, the name Tzaneen as given by the Afrikaner people; is so beautiful and the Tlou Tribe under Makgoba, also rightfully named the place “Tsaneng” because it is today a place where the Xitsonga, Sepedi and Afrikaner speaking people gather, thus fulfilling the name.

Since there are people out there who are still asking themselves questions about “Who was Mark Shope” and why is there a school named after him at N’wamitwa; few meters away from the N’wamitwa Traditional Authority offices. Here is what you need to know about Mark Shope.

Tzaneen – Mark Shope, the name after whom this town in Limpopo Province was supposed to be named. He was a farm worker who later became a unionist and exiled MK member during apartheid. Several opposition parties were up in arms because of the proposed name change in the early 2000s. The ANC’s provincial office in Polokwane has confirmed that he is the father of Sheila Sithole, who was the chairperson of the provincial portfolio committee on finance, economic affairs and tourism. Sithole was also the chairperson of the Commission on Gender Equality in the province in 1994. According to the information provided by the then Mayor of Tzaneen OJ Mushwana, Mark Shope was born in the Tzaneen area in 1918 and died in 1998. He was a farm worker in the area, where he “came into conflict with farmers fractured his leg during an assault.”

He worked as a Dry-Cleaner in Johannesburg and founded the “African Laundry Cleaning and Drying Workers’ Union” of which he became chairperson in 1955. A statement by COSATU reads that Mark Shope was the Chief Secretary of the then trade union organisation SACTU and founding member of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), as well as of the South African Trade Union Co-ordination Council (SATUCC).

After the ANC was banned in the sixties, he lived in exile in the former Czechoslovakia for five years, where he joined “Umkhonto We Sizwe”. He qualified as a teacher and was the head of SACTU’s training division for a long time. “He was a Commissioner in Umkhonto We Sizwe and was South Africa’s most outstanding working class intellectuals and supported the revolutionary philosophies of Marxism-Leninism,” according to COSATU.


It also states that Mark Shope was a Staunch Internationalist and a good friend of the former Soviet Union and other Socialistic countries such as Cuba. He had represented SACTU at all the International Trade Union Conferences and was involved in the training of Trade Union members during the underground years. He was one of the first MK members to receive training in the Soviet Union. He was a leader of the South African Communist Party with comrades such as JB Marks, Moses Kotane, Moses Mabida and Joe Slovo. He was an active member of the alliance under the leadership of the ANC. He was the ANC’s Chief Representative in Nigeria, enlisting support for the struggle in South Africa.

After his return to South Africa, he was chosen as Honorary President of the Post and Telecommunications Trade Union POTWA, currently known as the Communication Workers Union. Mark Shope’s name was in the news a year after his death when six security Policemen were granted amnesty in 1999 after they conspired to kill him and three other people in Botswana in 1987. One of these three was Lambert Moloi, who later became a Lieutenant General in the South African Defence Force.

Willem Johannes Coetzee, Anton Pretorius, Lodewyk de Jager, Ignatius Coetzee, Wikus Loots and Manuel Oliphant planned to kill Mark Shope , Lambert Moloi, MK Sipho and MK Jackie while they were staying at the Oasis Hotel in Gaborone (Botswana).

Please be advised that this article was compiled from different sources including SA History, News 24 & BGMP Media Mag.

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