South Africa

In Memoriam

Rhoda Kadalie, friend and mentor, political provocateur and groot bek

Rhoda Kadalie on January 16, 2018 at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Jaco Marais)

The woman some hate to love - from outspoken feminist, anti-apartheid activist and human rights commissioner to Trump supporter - Rhoda Kadalie died on Saturday in Los Angeles.

It is fitting that Rhoda Kadalie’s copy of Christopher Hitchens’ excoriating 1999 take-down of the Clintons, “No One Left to Lie To – The Values of the Worst Family”, should be the one I had forgotten to return to her.

Like many who knew and loved Rhoda, my memories upon learning of her death in Los Angeles surrounded by her beloved family, her daughter Julia, son-in-law Joel Pollak, their children Maya, Alexander and Amira as well as her sister Judith Kadalie-Hendricks and extended family on 16 April, were tinged with regret, sadness and a measure of frustration.

Regret that she was so young, 68, and that I had been unaware of her battle with cancer; sad, because Rhoda comes and sits in your heart, frustrated because I did not understand her contemporary take on the US politics, in particular.

I shall leave the Rhoda I had not engaged with for a while in peace in LA. Should we have remained in contact, I know we would have fought. And that is not how I want to hold her in mind.

I was heartened to read her son in law, Joel Pollak, editor-at-large with Breitbart and an ardent Trump supporter, write that Rhoda enjoyed watching Bernie Sanders’ run against Hilary Clinton as much as she did Trump’s cruder assault.

Now that we mention the Clintons…

The book Rhoda had placed on the pile in my arms the day I visited her at her house in Fryde Street was one of many perched in small neat towers on shelves and tables in her beloved home of many years. 

There was a spacious basement with a bathroom below the house which perched on a hill in Walmer Estate with its view of Cape Town’s harbour and District Six, Rhoda’s “komvandaan”.

This is the place where her grandfather, Clements Kadalie, the country’s first national black trade unionist settled from Nyasaland (now Malawi) after he married Molly Davidson.

This is also the place where Reverend Fenner Kadalie, Rhoda’s beloved father, one of Clements’ sons, ran two churches, one on Smart and the other in Constitution Street. This is where Rhoda first looked up at Table Mountain from Bloemhof flats.

Reverend Fenner and his wife, Joan (nee Francis), a machinist, and their then five children Rhoda, David, Charles, Reuben and Paul moved from District Six in 1961.

This after the Reverend, whose day job was as superintendent of the Cleansing Department in the then city council, was promoted to oversee the Mowbray Municipal Wash Houses. The couple had four more children, Thomas, Bruce, Patrick and lastly Rhoda’s only sister Judith. 

Then, in 1970, the family was forcibly removed to Primrose Park, as were extended family members and all South Africans falling “foul” of the “Group Areas Act” elsewhere in the country.

Reverend Fenner served as the Life President of the City Mission until his death in 2011. Such was his reach that his City Hall memorial service was packed, with spillover crowds outside.

These were some of the forces that shaped and drove and served Rhoda Kadalie. The currents which came together to forge a woman of steel were varied and urgent.

When we first met in the 1980s, Rhoda was an academic and at the height of her rabble-rousing. She had married a white man, Richie Bertelsman, in apartheid South Africa.

She had set up a Gender Studies Unit at the University of the Western Cape, a first, and was one of those strong black women of the time who spoke out and was heard. She was funny, she was unafraid, she was provocative.

Rhoda was an early champion for what was then known as “Lesbian and Gay Rights” and indeed her home offered shelter to myself and many other lesbians passing through the city.

Her later horror at the prospect of inclusion of trans rights in the US, while it runs counter to the Rhoda I knew, seemed uncharacteristically vicious. I wondered if it was an early feminist theory that drove this understanding. We should have stayed in touch.

Rhoda’s “flip” from anti-apartheid feminist, liberal activist to conservative and even “alt-right” sentiments and world views should not surprise those who knew her. She made many enemies with her unwavering support of Israel in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

In Rhoda’s own orbit, her son-in-law Joel Pollack born in South Africa, raised in Chicago and a Harvard graduate slipped from left to right over time, becoming the editor-at-large of Breitbart, Steve Bannon’s alt-right platform. Before that, he was DA leader Tony Leon’s speechwriter. 

That Rhoda despised the Clintons and all they stood for politically in the US was no secret. It is in that cauldron perhaps that Trump’s pushback might have resonated with her. Rhoda has written enough to explain herself. Most of it is on the Afrikaans platform Maroela Media

Then there is Hitchens himself who went from left to right in supporting the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Paging through the Hitchens book this weekend Rhoda suddenly speaks out to me from the margins. Her handwriting is clear cursive, urgent, in black pen at first, later blue.

Rhoda Kadalie (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Jaco Marais)

On page 48 is an account of Clinton’s response in 1998 to Native American poet Sherman Alexie who had complained about the living conditions of first nations.

That day, writes Hitchens, Clinton “announced that his grandmother had been one-quarter Cherokee This claim, never advanced before, would, if true, have made him the first Native American president”.

In cursive Rhoda wrote obliquely in the margin, “Race manipulator of note!”

On the first page of chapter one, titled Triangulation, Rhoda has underlined the sentence “manipulation of populism by elitism”.

That is how Hitchens, Trump, Kadalie and Pollak view/viewed the democratic political establishment. Essentially. At its heart.

Rhoda underlined Hitchens’ take on philosopher Hannah Arendt’s assessment that Stalinism among intellectuals could be attributed to one annihilating tactic. 

“Stalinism replaced all debate about the merit of the argument, or a position, or even a person, with an inquiry about motive…When the finger points at the moon, the Chinese say, the idiot looks at the finger.”

Rhoda tried not to look at the finger.

There will be many stories that will be told about the life and times of Rhoda Kadalie. That she has played a significant role in shaping democratic South Africa is undisputed. Those touched by her personally are thousands.

Her influence and network – both national and international – was considerable. It was a network she leveraged to make real the many initiatives she led and was so passionate about at heart.

That she alienated many along her chosen political/ideological path is a part of that story.

I would like to remember Rhoda for the curries and conversation, for the delicious soups on the kitchen counter, for her generosity of spirit, her keen eye for understated chic, her courage, her strength, her commitment to family.

I would like to remember Rhoda for the deep reservoir of stories and skinner she could tell you about almost anyone, if she trusted you enough. Sometimes she would shoot her mouth off, of course, but she didn’t care.

Ya, Rhoda, daai bek kort jam. 

Rest in peace friend, mentor, adversary, complex stirrer of shit. DM

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  • Sadly Rhoda I only knew you from your words; like Marianne, a fearless warrior unafraid and prepared to speak truth to power.

    Many of us, initially in thrall, a thrall borne out of deep belief, sided with the forces to overthrow Apartheid, but sadly, as more and more of the truths that came to define the ANC, we came to see the many flaws and naked greed and incompetencies that truthfully defined and embraced the ANC.

    Rest in peace, Rhoda. Good, truth, honesty and integrity are not defined by race, or being on the supposed left or right. Tyranny, in all it’s guises is rather the enemy, as you clearly came to see.

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