Evelyn Groenink

The dream that lives at a funeral

Photo from when Kathrada was in a hospital in Joburg, Eyewitness news. Photographer unknown.

No one would have thought that it would be Kgalema Motlanthe, -decent, non-descript, perhaps even boring, former South African president Kgalema Motlanthe-, who would issue the call to arms for South Africans to get rid of Jacob Zuma’s mafia state. But it was he who ended the speech that saw five thousand funeral mourners -from sage Muslim men in dresses and caps to African youth excitedly waving a South African Communist Party flag to white NGO types to grey anti-apartheid struggle veterans- rise to their feet, shout and even tear up, with, in a quote from the Roman poet Horatius, calm defiance to the powers-that-be: “Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.”

It was the second time Motlanthe got the crowd to jump. The first was when he read, aloud, the letter penned by the man we were burying: Ahmed Kathrada, Robben Island veteran and Nelson Mandela’s struggle comrade, known for his courage and his passion for human rights and human dignity in the struggle against apartheid. That letter invoked the values Kathrada, Mandela, their contemporaries and indeed the whole ANC once, espoused: democracy, equality of all humans, non-racialism, non-sexism, justice and inclusivity: "not hollow statements, but the foundations of a new form of life," said Motlanthe. And then, when he read the humble admonition, uttered last year in despair by the usually so modest and quiet Kathrada, that Jacob Zuma should consider stepping down, the crowd had stood, roared, and cried.

The only steely faces, those who could not afford to roar, cry and jump, had been those of deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, who was still keeping up the pretense that he was not equally and utterly disgusted by his boss, that president, and some of his fellow ministers and party members. But plenty ANC members and even ministers, -besides Hanekom himself also health minister Aaron Motsoaledi-, had joined in the ovation.

We had stood for a third time, when Neeshan Balton, executive director of the foundation that bears Kathrada's name, asked minister of finance Pravin Gordhan, Jacob Zuma’s most hated person in the world: the keeper of the keys to the tax coffers that Zuma so desperately wants to open for himself; the one he would have liked to fire ages ago, but couldn’t because of all those outraged people; the one he was absolutely determined to fire immediately after this, that Pravin Gordhan, to stand up. And when we cheer like mad, and clap for minutes, Gordhan, -the pressure under which he has been for years now impossible to imagine-,  cannot keep his steely face up any longer, looks down, takes out a hanky and also wipes away a tear.

Meanwhile, social media, mainstream media, posters, tweets and news casts, had said that other thing that had made all of us at Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg happy to be here today. They had said that that president had not been welcome. There had been former presidents, a deputy president, some ministers and some members of his party, even some -embarrassingly ignored and un-mentioned- loyalist associates of his, including ex-wife Nkosazana Zuma, whom Jacob Zuma wants to be his successor, just to continue the family centered tax-money-sucking system that he built. But at least that man himself had been told not to come. (Or that he was welcome but should not speak, depending on which formal or informal spokesperson of Kathrada family and foundation you wanted to go with.) But the message had been clear: No Zuma for Kathrada, as the Sowetan had most succinctly headlined.

It is important to note that that was about much more than politics. It wasn’t even about corruption. Other politicians had been accused of corruption, yet nobody had cared to call for a special ban on them at this funeral.  It was, essentially, because that president had, in his daily actions, proved to be the antithesis of all that Kathrada, his contemporaries and the ANC of old had stood for. The president was not just a bad president. He was also, in his use of ethnic and racial invective to maintain a power base; his flippant attitude towards the democratic Constitution that thousands had died for ("sorry for the confusion," he had said when the Constitutional Court found him in breach of it when he built his palace at Nkandla with taxpayers money) ; his denigrating attitude towards women; his Trump-like reasoning that he could do what he liked because he was the boss (he "could fire Minister Gordhan because that is his prerogative as president," he had said, ignoring the fact that other presidents tend to give reasons when they fire people,) simply a bad human being.

Contrast that with Ahmed Kathrada. He, like Zuma, had once been born into a black, traditional community; had grown up with parents, uncles and aunts, who would not always have held progressive opinions. Ahmed Kathrada, 87 years old when he died on Tuesday, would probably have had some old fashioned feelings with regard to gender roles and sexual orientation. He would probably never have imagined that there could even be such a thing as a transgender struggle.  But speakers at his funeral on Wednesday, one after the other, underlined how ‘Uncle Kathy’ would always care for the rights and dignity of all human beings.  Which was what made all the difference.

Struggle veteran Sophie Williams – de Bruyn narrated how Kathrada organised for her, -because she was working day and night as an activist in the coloured community, often even without money for food-, ‘a plate of food every day’ in the canteen of a certain company where he knew people. Williams – de Bruyn also remembered how he talked to problematic husbands of women who wanted to participate in the struggle, convinced them to trust their spouses, to let them be in politics.

It wasn’t radical feminism, but it was supportive and it had meant the world to the girl she was then: a girl who was passionate about right and wrong and who wanted to play her role.
Listening to her I had remembered an interview in which Chris Hani, the legendary freedom fighter who was murdered in 1993, had explained how such older ANC leaders -Mandela,Tambo, Sisulu, Kathrada- had taught him, too, that you did not need the most modern of opinions, as long as you lived your life with respect for human dignity.  Hani had, he said, learned that one should support gay rights, not necessarily because one understood all that such activists said about these matters, but because one should support human rights for every human.

Kathrada and his contemporaries had known and taught this at least since 1955, when the ANC’s Freedom Charter, decided on by a multi-coloured crowd of men and women, championed by black and brown and white male and female leaders, and written down by a white woman, had etched these principles in stone. These principles would later essentially pave the way for the right to gay marriage to be written in the South African Constitution, the first Constitution in the world to do so.

At Wednesday’s funeral, others beside Sophie Williams - de Bruyn, -others who had been youngsters and children to Uncle Kathy-, related how he had been an actual uncle to them, too: not just a Che Guevara – type icon, though he had been brave and inspiring like that too, but an actual uncle. Someone who would buy the entire school raffle booklet you were going door to door with from you; who would praise your drawings, help you with homework, take time to find out how you were.  He would be that uncle in a society of damaged fathers; he would be that uncle to any child he would come across in his life. So many children were now crying at his funeral.

Jacob had been called ‘uncle’ too, once. ‘Malume,’ –‘uncle’ in Zulu-, Fezeka Khuzwayo had called him, ever since she was a little girl and her father Judson Khuzwayo and Jacob Zuma were closely connected, having shared a cell on Robben Island.  After their release in the late seventies, and their resumption of ANC work from exile, Fezeka’s father had died in a car accident on ANC duty. Comrades had assisted her mother and herself through those difficult later years in exile in Swaziland. Fezeka had thus had several ‘Malumes,’ including Jacob. But she had not seen this particular uncle often.

This was mainly because, in those exile years, Jacob Zuma was based in Maputo, Mozambique and Fezeka and her mother were in neighbouring Swaziland. But that wasn’t the whole story. Jacob, say those who knew him then, was never the kind of person to lavish time on someone who had little to offer in return. Veterans from exile remember that Zuma spent most of his time networking; that there was always a queue of people outside his office, patiently waiting to meet the boss, hoping for a favour, and aware that someday they would be asked to return it. Zuma operated in that way, fortifying his own power base, with little distinction between what was good for him and what was good for the ANC. He ran his first wedding as if it was an ANC project; he ran ANC projects as if they were his own. In a recent book about the Umkhonto we Sizwe years a former fighter remembers how, upon his meeting Jacob Zuma, the latter simply took the money he had brought with him when escaping from South Africa and never gave it back, or offered an explanation or receipt.

Disappointed activists often ask how it happens that great freedom fighters turn into corrupt leaders once they arise to power. The answer is simple: they don’t turn or change. They were always who they were. The idea that individuals in a rebellious movement are good people, just because they are in such a movement, is a fallacy. Some join out of principle; some out of anger; some because they are already in trouble with the police for other reasons altogether. Some want to run away from their families. There was a myriad of different characters in the ANC in exile in the struggle days.

Fezeka had gone to visit Malume Jacob much later, in a free South Africa, to ask him for assistance with her studies. He had been rich and powerful at the time, and she and her mother were close to penniless. That night in his home, he had come into her room by surprise and had proceeded to have sex with her. ‘She wanted it,’ he would say later, at the trial, and indeed rape could not be proven because Fezeka, in her own words, had ‘frozen’ and ‘had not said no.’ But she had, the following morning, phoned a friend with the words ‘Jacob raped me.’

This story of two uncles shows how human beings can differ. It also shows that there is a reason why humanity, -in the best sense of the word, the humanity of human rights and human values-, underpins the South African dream. It is that being a good country, with good political leaders, is linked to an aspiration for behaviour in accordance with the same principles.

It is linked to being good people.

It is that awareness that inspired Kathrada, Mandela, the Freedom Charter and -now- the South African Constitution. It is that awareness that had many of us crying at the funeral of someone we did not even know.
Maybe Derek Hanekom, that white struggle veteran who -as board member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation- presided over a Muslim funeral together with Jewish, African Christian and Hindu priests, said it best when he summed up. “We have seen today that our dream is not about the unity of a political party” -the ANC, led as it is by Jacob Zuma, EG- “but about the unity of a country; a unity based on the vision of a just, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic society of human rights for all. We are united for that dream.”

Judging by the faces and tears of all the people at Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral, the dream lives still, perhaps not only for South Africa, but for the world. The dream lives because a bunch of Muslims, some of whom may hold old fashioned views -it is why Kathrada’s wife, former minister, political prisoner and armed freedom fighter, white atheist Barbara Hogan, at this occasion has a shiny scarf draped loosely over her hair, without it covering her trembling face-, have come together with communists, feminists and a boring but decent ex-president, ready to carry the same vision further.

And when we cheer one last time, before we bury Ahmed Kathrada in the soil of his Johannesburg, we all know that no one will cry for Jacob Zuma like that.

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