Let’s celebrate the good people
When you see the pointless and self-centred drivel that former president Thabo Mbeki has been churning out over the past few weeks, you can’t but miss his pen of yesteryear. Whether you agreed with him, or vehemently differed, was immaterial. He dissected world affairs, ideas and developments with artistic precision. He was a joy to read and listen to. He soared.
A case in point was his January 2000 speech at the funeral of his old comrade Alfred Nzo, definitely one of the finest funeral orations of all time. Occasionally directing his gaze to Nzo’s coffin, he repeated the refrain that “Alfred Nzo lies in front of us in his small house of wood, cold and still, and without a voice”.
It was his opening paragraphs that returned to the mind of this lowly newspaperman last month as the nation mourned two South African giants.
“The days pass, each year giving birth to its successor. What has passed becomes the past as time erodes the memory of what was living experience. In their recalling, old joys expand into enlarged pleasure,” said Mbeki at the time.
He continued: “Old wounds fade away into forgotten scars or linger on as a quiet pain without a minder. Those who gave generously of their talents to lighten our moments of darkness do not want the embarrassment of the enthusiasm of our gratitude.”
Hermanus Loots – Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) name James Stuart – and Professor Herbert Vilakazi would have aptly fitted Mbeki’s characterisation of great individuals who sacrificed their lives for the country but would not have wanted “the embarrassment of the enthusiasm of our gratitude”.
The two men, who died within days of each other, followed very different trajectories in their contributions to our national life.
Having been a student activist at the time of the liberation movements’ banning, Loots was one of the first recruits to the newly formed MK in 1961. He underwent military training in the continent and the Eastern Bloc, and took part in the famed Wankie Campaign alongside Chris Hani in 1969. The Wankie Campaign was MK’s first direct taste of combat and involved assisting Joshua Nkomo’s Zipra forces to push against the then Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith’s army. The Wankie combatants became legends in ANC ranks and remain so to this day. Along with other members of the Luthuli Detachment, Loots’ star rose in the ANC and he went on to hold key positions, including being the secretary in president OR Tambo’s office.
Loots was renowned for his intellect and unshakable principle. It was no surprise then that when an MK guerrilla mutiny was crushed by the Mbokodo security machine in Angola in 1984, it was Loots who Tambo appointed to head a fivemember probe into the incarceration and cruel torture of the rebellious soldiers.
The Stuart Commission, as it was known, dispelled the security department’s claims that the mutiny had been engineered by apartheid agents and instead confirmed that the soldiers, among other things, had been impatient to go home and fight instead of living in pigsty conditions and helping the Angolans to fight against Jonas Savimbi’s Unita rebels. His report led to an overhaul of conditions in the camps and the release of soldiers being held in horrid conditions, some of them even facing the death penalty. This made Loots unpopular among the senior leadership, to whom the uprising had been an act of unforgivable treason.
In the dying years of exile and those following the ANC’s unbanning, Loots became one of the most respected voices in the ANC’s national executive, always holding an intellectually principled line, as he would do to the end as he served in Parliament and other ANC structures. The only blot on this great life was that he agreed to serve on the board of the ANC’s front company, Chancellor House.
Vilakazi’s road to conscientisation began when he accompanied his father to the US at the age of 15 when the older man went to teach at the University of Hartford in 1957. Less than a year into his stay, Vilakazi was so inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr’s work and writings that he audaciously wrote to him to give him encouragement, wish him “good luck” and share his South African experiences with the civil rights leader.
King wrote back to say: “It is a delight to find one your age so intensely interested in the problems confronting our world.”
After studying and establishing himself as a leading sociologist in the US, Vilakazi returned to South Africa in 1980. Here, he complemented his intellectual input with anti-poverty work. He immersed himself in trying to find solutions to rural poverty and ensure that the countryside was not sidelined as development focused on urban areas. He got his hands dirty working on community projects.
Although not in the front line of the struggle – his worst brush with apartheid officialdom was being deported from the Transkei in 1984 for supporting student uprisings – his contribution to modern developmental thinking in Africa was immense. His Marxist leanings did not prevent his influence from reaching across the political divide. He counted IFP founder Mangosuthu Buthelezi among his friends.
There are many South Africans who are just as solid as these two men. In the maelstrom of South African political life, their voices are drowned out by a rabid minority – and the light of their good works is overshadowed by the bad others do. They may not appreciate “the enthusiasm of our gratitude” but they deserve being celebrated while they live.