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Peace activist Rommel Roberts embodied in abundance all the qualities of ubuntu

Peace activist Rommel Roberts embodied in abundance all the qualities of ubuntu
Mindful of the centrality of free and fair elections to the democratic process, Rommel Roberts remained interested and involved in election monitoring and voter education right up to his death. (Photo: Supplied)

Peace activist Rommel Roberts, who was killed in a vehicle accident on Friday 17 May at the age of 74, will be remembered as a warrior for a peace that is secure, progress that is sustainable, and prosperity that is equitably shared.

Rommel Roberts, a founder of the Peace Centre, died a sudden death in a head-on collision in Cape Town at about 11am on Friday, 17 May 2024. His modest but vulnerable little sedan was no match for the oncoming minibus taxi.

There is bitter irony in the manner of his death. A man of peace, Rommel credibly contended that “in South Africa the Struggle for freedom was won largely through nonviolent means…” (not without protest and activism though) so it is somewhat incongruous that his life should end so suddenly, swiftly and violently.

Before the sun set on the day of his death, Wikipedia had recorded his passing, the only initial “wiki-error”, later corrected, being that Rommel was not on a motorcycle in the fatal collision. In general, Wikipedia does justice to Rommel’s varied work and interesting life.

In the week of his death Rommel was interviewed on radio by Pippa Hudson on the Peace Centre’s work on voter education. He also deposed to the founding affidavit in an application to the Constitutional Court in which the Peace Centre seeks an order compelling President Cyril Ramaphosa to process the bill passed by the National Assembly last year to establish the Investigating Directorate against Corruption as a unit within the National Prosecuting Authority.

As is usual, Ramaphosa wants more time to dither as the constitutionality of the bill is questionable. He seems not to realise that he alienates voters who are sick and tired of his slow and “soft on corruption” approach. If the bill is assented to by the President, the Peace Centre will assail its validity and ask for legal relief compelling the government to implement the binding criteria for anti-corruption machinery of state properly, a duty neglected since 2014 and ignored during the rampant corruption of the Zuma years.

In the affidavit, Rommel describes himself as a “political activist”. Wikipedia, somewhat more broadly, describes him as “an expert in the study of religion, human rights activist, director of the Hilltop Empowerment Centre, consultant, lecturer and author”.

Born in Durban on 2 December 1949, Rommel grew up in Mafeking (today Mahikeng) the eldest of eight children born of an Indian mother and white father, just as the odious apartheid race classification in legislated form took root. All of his siblings predeceased Rommel. He survived open heart surgery early in 2024. Rommel completed high school in Cape Town before going on to study theology at St Joseph’s near Pietermaritzburg.

He worked alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu when the Arch was Archbishop of Cape Town, as the Arch’s national development officer. This job title enabled Rommel to pursue his anti-apartheid activism and he did so with vim, vigour and imaginative determination.

Back in the Seventies, Rommel took up the cudgels on behalf of the workers of the Cape Flats who, due to apartheid spatial planning, had to travel great distances by bus to and from work each day. Fare increases of crippling proportions were imposed by City Tramways, now Golden Arrow Bus Company, in conjunction with the City of Cape Town.

Rommel engaged the services of Richard Rosenthal, a doughty attorney with Syfret Godlonton Fuller Moore Inc, to challenge the validity of the fare increases in court. Rommel also organised a bus boycott which saw thousands of workers walking to work rather than subjecting themselves to the fare increases.

Economic sense eventually prevailed but not before Rommel had several costs awards against him. In the bad old days public interest litigants were not regarded as royal game! The City considered having Rommel declared a vexatious litigant. Even his lawyers were threatened with costs; these threats were never consummated.

After democracy dawned Rommel remained mindful of the need for clean governance and spoke out against the ‘sins of incumbency’ that tend to manifest in a dominant party state.

In the 1980s, Rommel was at the forefront of alleviating the lot of informal settlers around Cape Town, especially in Modderdam, Unibell and Crossroads, by resisting efforts to move them or force them back to impoverished homelands from whence most of them had come. The illegality of wives joining their migrant worker husbands was challenged in court on the basis of the doctrine of necessity. Faced with the choice of staying in the rural hinterland to starve or joining their husbands in Cape Town to survive, the women of the Transkei and Ciskei homelands pleaded not guilty to being in Cape Town illegally and the dreaded pass system crumbled in the face of their resistance.

Rommel was there on the ground, facing down the bulldozers and giving comfort and succour to the women and children who sought no more than the safety of family life with their menfolk, the migrant workers who were their sole source of support.

The transition to constitutional democracy, for which he peacefully struggled, saw Rommel heavily involved in ensuring that the transition was a smooth one. He ran the IEC office in what is now Mahikeng for the first democratic election. He was fond of recounting that he worked there with a young prosecutor called Mogoeng Mogoeng, later Chief Justice.

Mindful of the centrality of free and fair elections to the democratic process, Rommel remained interested and involved in election monitoring and voter education right up to his death, as can be seen from the Pippa Hudson interview.

He was also in recent weeks heavily involved in organising an event at the University of the Western Cape which proceeded successfully on the day after his death. At the event, the youth of the Western Cape were given the platform and opportunity of speaking truth to power in the run-up to the 2024 national and provincial elections.

After democracy dawned Rommel remained mindful of the need for clean governance and spoke out against the “sins of incumbency” that tend to manifest in a dominant party state. These sins lead to the formation of patronage networks, corruption and State Capture. Who can forget the stern “watch out” warning given to the ANC by the Arch when the excesses of malfeasance became publicly apparent?

The corruption in the arms deals of 1999 so perturbed Rommel that he led the Peace Centre into litigation assailing the biggest of the deals, that with British Aerospace. The case highlights not only the corruption in that deal, but also procurement irregularities and the lack of authority of the government to borrow overseas to finance the deal. The case will be heard on exception in Pretoria this year on the preliminary issue of the lack of authority to borrow.

One of Rommel’s finest hours came in 2013 when Professor George Ellis of UCT called together about 80 leading Capetonians to consider a civil society response to the resort to insurrection in the form of “poo throwing” by informal residents of the Cape Flats who objected to the bucket toilet system provided by the municipality. The poo throwers made their point by emptying night soil at various public places including on the steps of the provincial administration building and at the airport.

Armed with hard copies of the handbook on the Constitution called “Know Your Rights, Claim Your Rights”, (available for free download from www.accountabilitynow.org.za), Rommel sallied forth to engage with the leading poo throwers at a public meeting in their own area.

Initial resistance to Rommel’s intervention by younger members present was swiftly ended when older residents reminded the youth that Rommel had been there for the community and “in the trenches” during the darkest days of apartheid – diverting the Casspirs, holding back the bulldozers and negotiating freedom from arrest with the police.

Rommel patiently explained that there are many avenues available for legal protest in the new South Africa and that poo throwing was not one of them. The handbook was distributed to the leadership group. After that day, no more poo was thrown by them in Cape Town. The leading poo throwers met at Bishopscourt with Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba who interceded on their behalf and visited the worst-affected areas with a large media contingent to draw attention to the unsanitary conditions in the informal areas of the Cape Flats.

The main leaders of the poo throwers then attended the regular “Tutu Friday Group 7.15am mass” at St George’s Cathedral to apologise to Archbishop Emeritus Tutu for their illegal excesses. Some were later sentenced to community service for their involvement in the poo throwing.

The Peace Centre and Hilltop are part of the legacy Rommel leaves, as are the books he has written, both in English and German. Rommel’s father was an admirer of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, hence his unusual first name. He leaves his American wife Robin and two foster daughters, Nora and Owethu, as well as two adult children, Che and Raven, from his first marriage to Celeste Santos. Nora recently gave birth to his second grandchild. His only surviving sibling, Lala, lives in Boston, US.

Rommel’s email address identified him as “singing rhino”, an entirely accurate description of his vocal talents and physical appearance. He produced, unasked, a solo a capella version of the Jacques Brel classic If we only have Love at the end of the Tutu Friday Group mass a decade ago for me after I suffered a family bereavement. It served as a much-needed tonic and cemented his rightful place in my heart. The lyrics of the song include this verse:

If we only have love
We can melt all the guns
And then give the new world
To our daughters and sons

It spells out all one needs to know about Rommel.

Rommel Roberts will be remembered as a warrior for peace that is secure, progress that is sustainable, and prosperity that is equitably shared. He embodied all the qualities of ubuntu in abundance. Searching for him in a crowd was easy: simply ask anyone present if they had spotted a man who looks like Moses.

Rommel certainly embodied all the elements of Old Testament integrity and charisma. May he rest in peace. DM

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