Maverick Citizen

IN MEMORIAM OP-ED

The revolutionary Alan Roberts was truly a man of the people, a ‘man of bread and fish’

The revolutionary Alan Roberts was truly a man of the people, a ‘man of bread and fish’
Alan Roberts, who has died at the age of 71, was a trained underground revolutionary and member of Umkhonto weSizwe. (Photo: Supplied)

The memorial for Alan Roberts, who died at age 71, paid tribute to a trained underground revolutionary and member of Umkhonto weSizwe, who gave generously to everyone without agenda or expectation of return.

“I cannot be without existing for all,
for all who are silent and oppressed
I am the man of bread and fish
and you will not find me among books
but with women and men:
they have taught me the infinite” — So is my life, by Pablo Neruda

This poem was quoted by Trevor Manuel, when speaking at the recent memorial for Alan Roberts at St Georges Cathedral. These lines capture the essence of Roberts, who died on 28 January 2024 of Covid complications, at age 71, after a lifetime of serving the “silent and oppressed”.

Roberts was truly a man of the people, an embodiment of the philosophy that our humanity is expressed through our relationships with others. He achieved much and travelled far, literally and metaphorically, from his humble beginnings in Danville township near Mahikeng, where he grew up with eight siblings. But he never forgot his roots, and continued to support friends and family from his hometown throughout his life.

Roberts was baptised not only by the holy waters in St Antony’s Catholic Church, but also by the violence in the streets of Elsies River and Mahikeng. He was a fighter by necessity, yet behind those fists beat a heart of unfailing compassion and tenderness.

His mother was a midwife who, due to apartheid laws, was unable to practice at the white clinics in the area. She supported the family by attending home births — a whole generation of children in Danville were delivered by “Ma Robbie”, and there is now a clinic named in her honour.

Accompanying her on her rounds inspired Roberts to seek to become a doctor, an ambition sabotaged by lack of funds for his education. The family was poor, and food was scarce, but his mother always fed neighbouring children in need. Roberts never forgot her simple maxim of always helping others in need, giving what you can spare and even what you cannot, and he lived by this principle throughout his life.

Alan Roberts and his daughters Lisa and Emma with Trevor Manuel. (Photo: Trine Zacho)

Schooling in Cape Town

When he was 13, Roberts joined his older brothers Rommel and Lloyd for schooling in Cape Town, first at St Augustin in Elsies River, and then at Harold Cressy. Elsies was a tough neighbourhood ruled by gangs, and he had to learn survival skills fast. He tried to cover the costs of his board and lodging by taking on casual work, but insufficient funds forced him to leave before completing his matric.

Roberts returned to Mahikeng and worked as a mechanic and labourer. He was a talented goalkeeper and avid biker, well known in the town for daredevil stunts, including taunting the local cops into chasing him, then dodging them by skillfully ducking through the alleyways of Danville.

His experience of poverty and the racist and often violent abuse by white citizens in his hometown fuelled his innate sense of injustice. In 1975 he spent three weeks in detention for organising a wildcat strike at the construction company where he worked. His interrogators assumed he had been instructed by the ANC. He hadn’t, but their questions sparked his interest in the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

With this record of “causing trouble”, it became difficult to find work in the town, and he moved to Gaborone where his father was living. There he was recruited into the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe and the SACP. He worked at Chibuku Breweries until late 1979, and received both military and political training as an ANC cadre.

In 1979 he was redeployed to Mahikeng, with a brief to open up cross-border routes to bring combat material into South Africa, and to assist refugees and recruits to leave the country. After detention by Lucas Mangope’s Bantustan security forces, he was advised to relocate to Cape Town in 1980. Here he met Johnny Issel, who taught him the youth and community organisation skills that he honed throughout his life.

While employed by the Churches’ Urban Planning Commission, he continued his political work, including laying the foundation for the launch of the Cape Youth Congress; promoting civic organisations which led to the formation of the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee (Cahac) and supporting community and labour campaigns in the early 1980s.

In 1983 he joined the trade union movement, motivated by the injustices of the repressive labour legislation under apartheid. He was a founding member of the Retail and Allied Workers Union (Rawu), travelling across the country to set up branches in the Northern Cape and OFS, and was elected General Secretary in 1984. He participated in the national union unity talks which led to the formation of Cosatu in late 1985. He led Rawu in the merger with other food unions to form the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu), and was appointed national organiser of the new union. He was elected Western Cape Regional Secretary of Cosatu in 1990. 

Alan Roberts (second from left, front row) and other members of the first organising committee of the Retail and Allied Workers’ Union (Rawu). (Photo: Neil White)

Skill in unifying

Roberts’s skill in unifying diverse and antagonistic parties led to the establishment of the Western Cape Economic Development Forum, bringing business, NGOs, civic and labour federations on board. He was also involved in establishing the Taxi Violence Crisis Committee, bringing together all stakeholders to resolve licencing issues and factional battles.

He received sponsorship to further his studies, and completed a diploma in Labour Studies at Ruskin College, Oxford. He was accepted for a master’s at the London School of Economics, but was recalled to head Cosatu’s election campaign for the 1994 national elections.

In 1995, Roberts worked for the Foundation for Contemporary Research, leading their initiatives in community development. In 1997 he was appointed as adviser to the Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs, Derek Hanekom, with a focus on land restitution. He went on to do work for the Land Claims Court, followed by a three-year period as Western Cape Land Claims Commissioner.

He was later contracted by the Minister (MEC) of Social Services and Poverty Alleviation to work on poverty alleviation in the Western Cape. In 2004, he was appointed as adviser to the MEC for Economic Development and Finance, Ebrahim Rassool, and continued to support Rasool in his subsequent role as Premier.

After leaving this post, he worked as a consultant in the areas of community development, industrial relations and strategic planning, among others. He served on a number of boards, including for Brimstone Investment Corporation, Ndifuna Ukwazi and Alexkor.

But he gave generously to everyone, without agenda or expectation of return. He was never transactional or parsimonious with his affection, his possessions or his time. He loved so many, yet made each one feel so singular in his love.

From the mid-nineties, Roberts suffered numerous recurrences of cancer. This prompted him to mobilise a group of “cancer buddies” who hiked together and supported each other through chemotherapy and the emotional toll of a life-threatening condition.

Alan Roberts and former Agriculture Minister Derek Hanekom. (Photo: Trine Zacho)

Continued organising young and old

Despite ill health, he continued organising young and old until the last weeks of his life. He was active in various veteran groups, and brought together UDF veterans in Cape Town during the campaign for Jacob Zuma’s resignation. He also worked with a group of youth from Delft, supporting them to form their own organisation, the Young Visionaries. This work continued through to 2024.

Roberts was baptised not only by the holy waters in St Antony’s Catholic Church, but also by the violence in the streets of Elsies River and Mahikeng. He was a fighter by necessity, yet behind those fists beat a heart of unfailing compassion and tenderness.

While he was well-versed in the theory, strategy and tactics of armed struggle and political organisation, it was his compassion which had the greatest impact on the hundreds of lives he touched, so evident in the outpouring of tributes sent by WhatsApp and at his memorial.

In one, Ganza Mwanza said of Roberts, “he fought battles that had nothing to do with him”. He described how Roberts saw him and other informal mechanics working on the side of the road, gave them workshop space in his garage at home, and promoted their business in the neighbourhood.

Qhamisa Jama from the Young Visionaries of Delft described how Roberts invested time and energy into training them to be community leaders who mobilised unemployed women to run an afterschool programme. “I was a nobody,” Jama said, “but now I am respected in Delft.”

Roberts’s children paid tribute to his fierce and protective love as a father.

I met Roberts in 1980 at a workshop about how to make pamphlets. I was struck by this rambunctious fellow who insulted everyone with such delight that no-one could take offence, whose stutter did not in any way impede his eloquence.

I did not know that he was already a trained underground revolutionary, nor that he would become one of my most beloved friends, a friendship that would endure more than 40 years until his death. I knew Roberts would always be there if I needed him — he once literally gave me the shirt off his back when I admired a T-shirt he was wearing.

Without agenda or expectation

But he gave generously to everyone, without agenda or expectation of return. He was never transactional or parsimonious with his affection, his possessions or his time. He loved so many, yet made each one feel so singular in his love.

His smile could make you feel that you mattered, that you were seen, that you could light up his life just as he was lighting up yours. That smile lives on in my mind, along with his sense of mischief, which endured through his toughest times (and there were many tough times). His teasing, the way he’d walk into your house and open your fridge before even asking how you were, and make himself tea before you’d had time to offer it.

I don’t know how to say goodbye to a friend like this. It seems impossible that someone with so much presence can now be absent. But I do know that he holds a profoundly special place in the hearts of all who knew him, of those whose lives were changed by him, of his children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and siblings.

If it is true that we live on in the hearts of those we have touched, his legacy will be held by legions and will live long in the best possible way. DM

Bridget Pitt has published poetry, short fiction, non-fiction and four novels. Her non-fiction work includes co-authoring Black Lion, the memoir of Sicelo Mbatha, a spiritual wilderness guide. Her latest novel, Eye Brother Horn (Catalyst Press 2023), explores the social and ecological impacts of colonialism in South Africa. Pitt is a campaigner for social and environmental justice and has written on environmental issues in various journals.

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