Aunty Hilda was a hero, and should be honoured
THE name Hilda Paulsen is not as well-known as many as that of many others who contributed to the Struggle for democracy. But to many people who lived in Mitchells Plain, and particularly Eastridge, in the 1980s, she was a hero who dedicated her life to improving the lives of people around her.
Mrs Paulsen, the name by which we knew her, lived in Eastridge and was my main contact person in the area when I was sent to organise the community in the early-1980s. Her small house became our headquarters where pamphlets and grassroots community newspaper copies were delivered before we distributed them door to door.
She represented the area on committees, such as the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee and the structures of the United Democratic Front.
She was one of the many working-class people who spent time and energy helping us overcome apartheid by engaging in community campaigns for lower rent and electricity payments and for a hospital in Mitchells Plain, and supporting worker and student struggles.
Her daughter, Marlene, was equally involved while her son, who later converted to Islam and became known as Mogamad Nazier, was at high school and an interested observer of what we were doing. I would like to believe he drew some inspiration from the activities of his mother and sister and from this grew his later involvement in community organisations and recently the EFF, which he now represents in Parliament.
I moved out of Mitchells Plain in the early 1990s – to Durban and Joburg – and lost touch with many of the people. Mrs Paulsen had also moved – to Crawford.
I can’t recall the last time I saw Mrs Paulsen, but I bumped into Marlene a few times, most recently at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, when she asked me when I was going to visit her mother.
She told me her mother had become blind but would definitely recognise my voice. I promised I would visit soon, but kept on delaying this, mainly because of my work and travel schedule.
On Wednesday, I heard that Mrs Paulsen had passed away. She was 82. I had not kept my promise to visit her and I could not go and see the family immediately because I was in Gauteng for the week.
On Monday, I received a call from another woman who lives in Eastridge. She told me about how the crèche in Leadwood Road, where we’d often held community meetings, had fallen into disrepair.
She asked me to see whether there was anyone in my corporate network who would be prepared to assist with funding because otherwise the crèche would have to close. She pointed out she does not get paid to work at the crèche.
I thought about Mrs Paulsen then and, if I had been in Cape Town, I would probably have gone to visit her immediately. But I also thought about the organisational structures we had set up in the 1980s and the people who’d been involved.
Many of these people are now despondent that the future we’d thought we were building has not been realised.
Some, like Willie Simmers, continue to make a difference in Mitchells Plain through the Mitchells Plain Advice Office, which has also been struggling to make ends meet for many years. Willie is now in his late 70s and, as far as I know, still volunteers his services to the advice office.
From time to time, we bump into former activists at funerals or memorial services. Many of them are no longer in the ANC, which would have been their natural home after their time in the UDF in the 1980s.
The energy levels might no longer be there, but their commitment remains to make our country different to the one in which we grew up.
Most of them, like Mrs Paulsen, have not been acknowledged for their contribution and have never asked for any acknowledgement. The only thing many would have wanted was for our country to be close to what we thought it was becoming: a non-racial, non-sexist democracy in which everyone would have equal access to education, housing, health, justice and employment opportunities, among others.
They would have wanted to play with their grandchildren knowing that South Africa now offered much greater opportunities.
Unfortunately, while our country today is very different to what we experienced under apartheid, there still remains much work to be done to get us even close to what we thought we were fighting for.
Yes, it is up to the young people to take the Struggle forward, but we cannot afford to let people like Hilda Paulsen pass on without tapping into their wisdom.
I regret not having the opportunity to see Aunty Hilda in her final years, but I know that she will forgive me. After all, forgiveness is one of the key lessons we learnt in the Struggle in order for us to move forward. But I would have loved to ask her what she thought about the situation in our country and what needed to be done.
Rest in peace, dear comrade. Your journey has not been in vain.