Let’s cel­e­brate the good peo­ple

CityPress - - Voices - Mondli Makhanya voices@ city­press. co. za

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.

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