As I was walking away from the graveside of comrade Themba Dlomo in Westville cemetery – the sound of the dry earth falling on his coffin and covering it shovel by shovel still in my ears – my phone beeped. It was an SMS from comrade Titus Mafolo informing me Ronnie Mamoepa had passed away. I felt the pain and sense of loss that was already heavily weighing down on my shoulders multiplying many-fold.As I was driving to comrade Dlomo’s home to gather with his family and support them in their time of grief and loss, more SMSes followed. As it turned out the first SMS from comrade Titus came a bit too early, comrade Ronnie was still alive but in a critical and unstable condition slowly slipping away from us. While I joined my fellow ANC comrades at Themba’s house, and shared memories of our young but very dedicated comrade, the constant trickle of SMSes about Ronnie’s deteriorating condition wrapped themselves around me like a dark smothering blanket.
Then shortly after 11.15pm, as we were leaving the house, the final heart-breaking message came through: Comrade Ronnie was no more.
I asked my wife to drive, and I sat stooped and quietly in thought beside her. I was never going to get another late night call from Ronnie asking me: “Chief, how are you doing”, and when I replied and asked him how he was doing, I could always anticipate his hoarse laughter and the answer: “We are trying my chief, we are trying”. Together with the much younger comrade Themba, the “trying” of life was finally also over for Ronnie. As we in Umkhonto we Sizwe always say, their spears have fallen and it was for us whom they have left behind to pick them up.
In between the SMSes informing me about comrade Ronnie’s agonising departure from our lives, there was another SMS that came in. It was a message from my friend Clyde Ramaliane informing me that Onkgopotse JJ Tabane, a radio talk-show host at Power FM, had attacked me on his Facebook wall. Apparently Tabane questioned my right to express my views about our current political challenges, referring selectively to events in my life of more than 10 years ago. Instead of engaging me about the views that I have expressed in a series of articles, Tabane endeavoured to play the man and run roughshod over my democratic right to engage in our common discourse.
Knowing that I was at my departed comrade’s funeral, Clyde apologised for his message informing me about Tabane’s clumsy – but detestable – attempt to erase my voice.
That message in the midst of so much loss, in a painful but remarkably helpful way, brought clarity of purpose to my mind.
As the old saying goes, it helped me to sift the chaff from the corn.
The corn that I was figuratively holding in my hands were not only the lives of the two dear comrades that I had lost, but also memories of the many comrades who had dedicated their lives to our liberation struggle.
Somehow the memories of Themba and Ronnie became intertwined with the bigger back-drop of our struggle.
There was Temba’s father Albert Dlomo, an ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe cadre, and his mother Mildred, who in 1981 in exile in Zambia gave birth to a son.
There was Ronnie who a year earlier in 1980, at the tender age of 18, was charged for terrorism because of his ANC activities and sentenced to five years of imprisonment on Robben Island. And yes, there were of course all the many other thousands of comrades who lived lives filled with commitment and sacrifice.
I also could not help but to remember my own journey in the ANC since I joined 39 years ago at the age of 19, which included a life-changing nine-and-a-half years of political imprisonment.
As the road home wounded its way close to the beach, I asked my wife to stop our car and I walked onto white sand into the water.
As I stood ankle deep in the water, looking out over the Indian Ocean with only the white foam of the waves visible in the dark, and their salty spray on my lips, the bitter words, “God damn hypocrisy” formed in my mouth.
There in the dark on the beach an image of the flames that gutted over a hundred shacks in Alexandra township about a week ago became overlaid with images of the terrible fires that raged a couple of weeks earlier in Knysna and surroundings. Both awful tragedies, but in the case of Knysna the media coverage of especially the affluent estates and tourist areas was huge, and corporate SA made generous pledges – not the same could be said for the poor of Alexandra.
I recalled another image, that of FW de Klerk sitting smugly on the stage with Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe during the launch of the National Foundations Dialogue Initiative.
De Klerk was being given every opportunity to criticise a black democratically elected ANC government, with two previously very senior ANC leaders not seeing a problem in allowing him to do so, because of their common dislike for the current incumbent ANC president. Their personal bitterness and acrimony because of having lost power incredulously seemed to have wiped out for them the damning findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC found that De Klerk had not made a full disclosure of gross violations of human rights by senior members of his government, rendering him an accessory to the commission of gross violations of human rights.
Again I tasted that bitter, salty, word: “hypocrisy”
The same “hypocrisy” that so glibly allows Trevor Manuel, Blade Nzimande, Paul Mashatile and David Makhura (to name but a few) to now deny that the major enemy of black (especially African) economic advancement is White Monopoly Capital. They do so, after they have themselves in the past used the very same phrase to describe South Africa’s grossly unequal economic power relations.
Now, that they themselves have materially benefited from this hideous system of white economic exploitation, they can suddenly no longer see that monopoly capitalism in South Africa is white and historically rooted in the theft of the land of the African people by white colonialists.
The same “hypocrisy” that made Derek Hanekom say that it is “nonsense”, to talk about land restitution without compensation.
All of this because of pathetic sour grapes that they have democratically lost power against a leader they consider to be inferior to themselves, because of his lack of formal education.
As I was standing there on the beach with all of these images and thoughts going through my mind, I could feel the blood in my veins turning thick with resolve that these self-serving hypocritical attitudes should not be allowed to prevail. Too many people have dedicated their lives to this liberation Struggle of ours.
Neither Themba nor Ronnie agreed with all my views – nor did they simply and glibly ignore my failures as a fallible human being. However, together with so many other truly committed comrades, there was a shared understanding that in both our agreements and disagreements we still have a long and joined walk ahead of us to truly become a healed and united nation where economic justice must prevail.
They knew that in the rich nuances of our agreements and differences, with the shared history of our lives dedicated to the Struggle for liberation as the backdrop, there is much more that unites us than what divides us.
It was good to remind myself of this – because therein lies the essence of the unity that we should pursue in the ANC: It is principled and inclusive rather than expedient, dismissive and exclusive.
I went home and responded to JJ Tabane with an open letter of which the second last paragraph reads: “I have learned tough but invaluable lessons from the totality of my life experiences afforded, yes I am not a perfect man.
Like all I am fallible, but that does not afford (you and) other fallible people the right to assume they can run roughshod over my equal rights to engage in our common discourse”. I then concluded expressing the hope that we can as mature people engage in our common discourse.
I have subsequently received a message back from Tabane, saying that what I have written to him is “a piece of nonsense”.
However, with comrades Themba and Ronnie now so clearly in my mind, it does not any longer affect me in the same negative way, than when I first heard it said.
I simply lift my head in the knowledge that we can and will not be derailed by those who in their arrogant self-absorption think they know it all, but actually understand hardly anything.
* Niehaus is a member of the National Executive Committee of MKMVA and National Spokesperson.