Billy Modise

Death of a stal­wart

Sunday Times - - Insight - — Chris Bar­ron

● Billy Modise, who has died in Pretoria at the age of 87, built the anti-apartheid move­ment in Swe­den, Den­mark and Nor­way, be­came demo­cratic South Africa’s first high com­mis­sioner to Canada and chief of state pro­to­col in Thabo Mbeki’s ad­min­is­tra­tion.

He was born in Bloem­fontein on De­cem­ber 8 1930. Af­ter ma­tric­u­lat­ing he went to the Univer­sity of Fort Hare to study medicine.

There he came into con­tact with ANC stal­warts Pro­fes­sor ZK Matthews and Go­van Mbeki, who mo­ti­vated him to get in­volved in stu­dent politics.

He be­came sec­re­tary of the ANC Youth League for the Fort Hare branch and the stu­dent rep­re­sen­ta­tive coun­cil be­fore join­ing the Na­tional Union of South African Stu­dents and be­ing elected to the body’s ex­ec­u­tive.

In 1960 Nusas wanted him to at­tend a con­fer­ence in Switzer­land, but he was afraid that his po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties had made him a marked man and that he would be ar­rested if he ap­plied for a pass­port.

Believ­ing his ar­rest was im­mi­nent, the ANC sug­gested he ap­ply for an over­seas schol­ar­ship.

The stu­dent union at Lund Univer­sity in Swe­den or­gan­ised one for him to study medicine there, and he crossed the bor­der to Bechua­na­land.

He made his way to Lon­don via Tan­za­nia with the help of a Swedish mis­sion­ary who or­gan­ised a plane ticket for him.

While study­ing at Lund he be­gan mo­bil­is­ing stu­dents against apartheid and net­work­ing for the ANC.

He started the South Africa Com­mit­tee in Lund, which pro­duced pam­phlets and posters and lob­bied par­lia­ment and the trade unions to sup­port a boy­cott of South African prod­ucts.

He spread the mes­sage in Den­mark and Nor­way and at­tended the 1961 No­bel Peace Prize cer­e­mony for ANC pres­i­dent Chief Al­bert Luthuli in Oslo.

His lec­tur­ers told him to choose be­tween his med­i­cal stud­ies, which he’d been ne­glect­ing, and politics, and so he switched to so­ci­ol­ogy.

He started the de­vel­op­ment stud­ies pro­gramme at Lund Univer­sity and took stu­dents to East Africa for re­search pur­poses.

He found the Swedish more re­cep­tive to the anti-apartheid cause than coun­tries such as Bri­tain and France, which he as­cribed to the fact that Swe­den had never been a colo­nial power.

While his ANC coun­ter­parts in those coun­tries had to con­tend with racism, he found him­self up against what he called “pos­i­tive racism”, where he was treated pref­er­en­tially be­cause of his race.

He found this brand of racism equally of­fen­sive be­cause he was not treated as an equal but as “a pam­pered lit­tle child”, he said later.

The rea­son for this, he sus­pected, was that black peo­ple were a com­plete nov­elty in Swe­den and peo­ple didn’t know how to be­have with them.

Chil­dren in smaller towns would ask him why he was so dirty.

In 1976, af­ter 16 years in Swe­den, he be­came as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the UN In­sti­tute for Namibia in Lusaka.

His time in Swe­den, with its strong cul­ture of non­vi­o­lence, made him am­biva­lent about the armed strug­gle. Al­though he still sup­ported it, “ba­si­cally, at the bottom of me there was that non­vi­o­lent po­si­tion”.

He re­turned as ANC chief rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Swe­den in 1988 and was shocked by the change.

The youth had be­come more in­ter­ested in get­ting a bet­ter house, a bet­ter car and bet­ter cloth­ing than in po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism.

He spent two years in Swe­den as the ANC’s No 1 man with­out get­ting one in­vi­ta­tion to ad­dress a univer­sity.

The anti-apartheid strug­gle had lost its lus­tre. The So­cial Democrats had be­come weaker and their dona­tions to the ANC were sub­ject to scru­tiny.

“They had to be seen to han­dle pub­lic funds, dona­tions to ANC, in a re­spon­si­ble man­ner.”

The peo­ple wanted to know ex­actly what was be­ing done with the pub­lic money do­nated to the ANC.

Questions had been asked about the ANC’s links to ter­ror­ism and the non­vi­o­lent Swedes wanted to be sure their money was not fund­ing bomb at­tacks on civil­ians.

There were also new con­cerns about cor­rup­tion, he found.

Sud­denly, the gov­ern­ment had to pro­duce re­ceipts to en­sure the money was not be­ing stolen.

“The gov­ern­ment of the So­cial Democrats used to give straight­for­ward sup­port and un­der­stood why re­ceipts in a town­ship per­haps had not been kept,” said Modise.

“The con­trols that nor­mally any lender of money ex­er­cises were not set that strongly. Now they had to check how ev­ery krona was used.”

This in­ter­fered with the ANC’s po­lit­i­cal work, “be­cause it was in fact true that many of the ac­tiv­i­ties were funded in a man­ner where there were no re­ceipts. It just had to be based on trust.”

He ar­ranged meet­ings be­tween ANC lead­ers, in­clud­ing Oliver Tambo, and the Swedish gov­ern­ment, which wanted as­sur­ances about the aims of the strug­gle.

“Swe­den was able to in­flu­ence them how they should han­dle things,” said Modise.

“In the minds of our lead­ers Swe­den helped to con­firm that the ba­sis of the strug­gle was to cre­ate democ­racy.”

These in­ter­ac­tions “strength­ened the demo­cratic urge of the ANC lead­er­ship”, he said.

Modise re­turned to South Africa in 1991 and headed the Matla Trust which was set up to plan for the 1994 elec­tions.

He was the high com­mis­sioner to Canada from 1995 to 1999, and chief of state pro­to­col from 1999 un­til his re­tire­ment in 2006.

He was awarded the Na­tional Or­der of Luthuli.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Yolisa, and a daugh­ter.

In the minds of our lead­ers Swe­den helped to con­firm that the ba­sis of the strug­gle was to cre­ate democ­racy

Pic­ture: Ler­ato Maduna

Billy Modise, for­mer high com­mis­sioner and chief of state pro­to­col.

Pic­ture: © Un­known

Billy Modise with for­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki.

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