It was Comrade and not Minister Pravin Gordhan – speaking on Thursday at a packed memorial service for Ahmed Kathrada in Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral – who evoked the “spirit of the UDF’. The stones, benches and chairs of the cathedral have stood as mute witnesses to countless protest marches, vigils, fasts and memorials during the Struggle against aparheid. On Thursday, the past met the present in the future, all wrapped up in the voices of the young activists who spoke, drawing a delicate filigree between the generation of Kathrada and Mandela and a new generation of free South Africans defending the legacy of those who offered so much. The day belonged to the youth.
Things are never as they seem. Hours before the memorial service for Ahmed Kathrada was due to take place in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, that focal point of so many key events during the apartheid years, life in the surrounding precinct appeared to be, as always, languidly and predictably unfolding in the gentle autumnal sunshine.
That’s how it goes. Nature is indifferent to our struggles. It cares not for the bubbling tensions that suddenly erupt and play out using it as a backdrop. Then one day you wake up and it’s another country.
Strolling up Government Avenue, heading towards the five-star Mount Nelson Hotel, a group of American tourists in sun hats and wearing their cameras like 21st century garlands, tut-tutted at the sprinklers gushing jauntily over the lawns in the middle of a drought.
“That’s not very smart,” a woman offered, no doubt ignorant of the fact that the life-sustaining water is not potable. In the gardens laid out by the Dutch East India Company in the 1650s, another tourist, a woman carrying a delicate tassled Chinese umbrella, leaned in to smell the roses while a companion photographed her.
Further along, legions of homeless perched on the wooden public benches, rummaging through plastic bags, hacking on cigarettes, sleeping – as if they have been here since the 1980s and have never moved. And they have. That is part of the problem.
But the country we live in today is nothing like the place we inhabited in the 1980s when these same buildings, paving stones and oak trees stood watch as tumultuous political currents swelled, grew and then broke the back of apartheid.
In 1972 police sjambokked and clubbed protesting students on the steps of the Cathedral; in 1986, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu preached after his earlier enthronement as the first black Archbishop of the Anglican Church, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and others were languishing in Pollsmoor Prison just 20km south of the city’s centre.
On Thursday, a new generation of young activists heading for the cathedral mistook the smoke from the boerewors stand for tear gas – no doubt readying themselves for some police action déjà vu. They have reason to be anxious. The country has experienced a massive and visible re-securitisation since the rise of the #FeesMustFall movement and since President Jacob Zuma has found himself at the centre of an elaborate, destructive and costly capturing not only of the ANC, but the state itself.
Those of us who have been here many times before know the secret places inside the cathedral, built of Table Mountain quartzite and designed by Sir Herbert Baker. Those nooks where a good seat can be secured for a bird’s eye view of mass gatherings. Make your way through the knave and up the aisle towards the chancel and the altar. Turn right and then right again to find the staircase that leads to the choir box upstairs.
It has been over 20 years since many of us, now older and greyer, gathered regularly at St Georges’s to protest this way. Since then Mandela, Kathrada, Sisulu have come and gone. The country has made some great stides, we are free, we live in an evolving constitutional democracy. But we have also faltered unforgivably, so much so that when an ANC member rose to speak at the memorial of Kathrada, a son of the ANC, she was drowned out by boos. Unthinkable.
It was just the other day that displaying the ANC flag or the face of Nelson Mandela could see you arrested. But now it is Jacob Zuma who has come to embody the once iconic liberation movement and now governing majority party. It is President Zuma and his cronies who have captured the party.
Just after 2pm on Thursday Pravin Gordhan and Derek Hanekom, now no longer ministers but ordinary comrades, entered the cathedral from the Wale Street entrance to thunderous song and applause. Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas as well as Treasury DG Lungisa Fuzile battled for 15 months to protect the country’s purse from the predatory and relentless attacks by people Gordhan on Thursday branded as “gangsters”. He added that he could sense that the spirit of the UDF was alive and well in Cape Town.
But the day ultimately belonged to the young, to those activists who spoke before Gordhan, and who inspired those gathered that the vision for South Africa that was once cherished by Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada and others, is still possible, but not without the Struggle 2.1 and not without the buy-in of all South Africans.
It was the words of former Wits SCR secretary and student activist, Fasiha Hassan, who was part of the #FeesMustFall movement, that encapsulated where and how South Africans should embark on this new phase of the struggle.
“The road that we are no on is an old road, it has its place in history. I stand here in front of you as a 23-year-old Muslim womxn of colour. A so-called born free. And I am among the very first generation that was ‘born’ just a few months shy of the first democratic election in 1994 in South Africa. I am the product of those struggle heroes and Ahmed Kathrada and what they fought for,” said Hassan.
She said her generation had once been called “lost”, “apathetic” and “one without vision post 1994”.
“But we changed that. We reignited the flame that lay dormant within us. We allowed the spirits of Solomon Mahlangu, Lilian Ngoyi, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Rahima Moosa and now the spirit of Ahmed Kathrada to flow through us. To give us the strength and the courage to continue the light.”
And she is right in saying that we are “an epoch in this country”.
This we all know and it was visible all across the country on Friday in mass protests.
“The decisions we make in and how we navigate the upcoming months will fundamentally change the future of this country for years to come.”
Hassan said the ANC had failed long ago, had become a “left-talking but right-walking ruling party” riven by factionalism, nepotism and “the attempt to accumulate as many resources as possible” and in so doing losing sight of what the ANC of Kathrada and Mandela had fought for.
“By the time you are done, there will be no ANC to fight over… By the time you hand over to us, we will be mere observers in the gallery in Parliament; in the opposition benches trying to rebuild from the ashes what you left behind. This may not be what you wanted to hear but it is the truth.”
After the mass marches of Friday April 7, Hassan said that the youth would no longer do this on their own.
“I hope to see you at the picket line of #FeesMustFall and the fight for free education, at Tafelberg, and the fight against rape culture. Because we are not going to save South Africa through a single march. The fight to Save South Africa is a long one. It will require us to work hard every single day, whatever we do. It will require us to speak out when it is difficult and unpopular. When we stand to lose the most. I hope our darkest and quietest of times we will see this kind of mobilisation.”
With these words a line, albeit a bit threadbare at present, can be traced back to the giants of the ANC like Ahmed Kathrada, who came out in support of the #FeesMustFall protests only five months ago. It is fitting that his dying has sparked a rebirth, at this critical juncture, of the spirit of resistance, solidarity, equality and justice that so many offered their lives to see realised.
New days, new moments, new ruptures in history arrive not suddenly but slowly. Strolling back up government avenue, a woman, dressed in a lurid pink leotard, wearing a platinum blonde wig and a pair of impossibly high modified shoes, drew a small crowd of eager tourists as she wobbled over the cobblestones.
For a brief moment it all felt surreal. Disorientating. As if some wormhole had opened up and the country had been sucked, at the speed of light, into warp space-time. Turns out it was part of a performance for the annual Infecting the City Festival.
After this tumultuous week and the events sparked by Jacob Zuma’s arbitary reshuffling of the Cabinet, we find ourselves in another country once again. The moment is ripe. We move on to the next chapter which will be swept along and led by the young inspired and guided by great ANC ancestors who watch over them like angels. DM
Photo: Pravin Gordhan at St George’s Cathedral, Thursday, 6 April 2017. (Photo: Nicky Newman)
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