Mxolisi “Bra Ace” Mgxashe was laid to rest on Saturday. It was an occasion where much was learned about this multi-faceted personality. It was also a chance for the party to which he remained loyal – the PAC – to speak up, even if it’s not clear whether that’s what he would have wanted.
It was fitting that, at the funeral in Langa on Saturday of Mxolisi “Bra Ace” Mgxashe, tributes should have been paid by a wide range of people, including the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo), the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille.
De Lille is, of course, a former member of the PAC, and organisation that Bra Ace served until his untimely death last Sunday. He had written a book about his involvement in the PAC and was working on a follow-up when he died in front of his computer.
De Lille’s reception at the funeral was respectful but restrained. Programme director Luyanda ka Msumza reminded her that she was the mayor of all the people who had been banned, jailed and killed during Apartheid, while PAC speaker Professor Sipho Tshabalala questioned why Cape Town was called the mother city. “Whose mother is she?” he asked.
As speaker after speaker pointed out at the funeral service, Bra Ace was much more than a loyal member of the PAC. He was someone who “looked beyond factional divisions but knew why those divisions arose in the first place,” as was stated by a friend from Botswana, Dr Thabo Mokoena.
Even Lerumo Kalako, speaking in place of ANC provincial chairman Marius Fransman, who was hosting ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa in Mitchells Plain, pointed out that Bra Ace was a unifier and he was seen as a leader even to people in the ANC.
The thing about funerals – and they have never been my favourite way of spending my time – is that you sometimes get to hear things about the person who has passed on that you might never have known otherwise.
Bra Ace’s funeral was one of those occasions. There were about 15 speakers, a poet, a choir, a jazz band and, of course, a few people in military fatigues representing the military wing of the PAC, the Azanian People’s Liberation Army. It was a mission, which failed, to get everyone to have their say in the three hours allocated, especially when each speech was preceded by a hymn or a freedom song and shouts of “Izwelethu iAfrika”.
It has been a long time since I have been to a PAC event, which the funeral at the Langa sports complex turned out to be, and it was interesting to note the people in PAC T-shirts and military gear putting up posters and a party banner behind the speakers long after the service had started. I thought back to the community meetings I attended regularly in the 1980s and how in many ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
But I digress.
Bra Ace, for those who did not know him, took part in the march in Cape Town’s Langa township on 21 March 1960 where police shot and killed three people and wounded many others. The events in Langa on that day were overshadowed by the events at Sharpeville near Johannesburg where police killed 69 people and wounded many more.
The killings at Langa were a life-changing experience for the 16-year-old Mgxashe. He became involved in the activities of the PAC, becoming at 19 one of the youngest political prisoners on Robben Island three years later. He was sentenced to 18 months for belonging to and advancing the aims of a banned organisation.
After his release, Bra Ace went into exile and lived in, among others Botswana (where he met his wife Martha Baba “Babes” Korae), Ghana, Tanzania and the United States, where he completed a Master’s degree in journalism.
When he returned to South Africa in 1994, he joined the Cape Argus as a political reporter and columnist, which is where I met him. He later went to work for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre.
He published his book, Are You With Us? The Story of a PAC Activist in 2006 and died at the age of 69 as he was nearing completion of his second book. I spoke to Bra Ace a few months ago because I wanted to involve him in a writing project. He turned me down because he wanted to concentrate on completing his book.
As I listened to speaker after speaker at the funeral service, I could not help noticing that those associated with or close to the PAC carried a lot of bitterness over the way the PAC’s role in the liberation struggle had been glossed over or even dismissed.
Christine Qunta spoke as a family friend and claimed responsibility for hooking up Bra Ace and Sis Babes when they were in exile in Botswana. She was the first speaker to mention the need to “write our own history”, which is what Bra Ace had been doing.
This theme was picked up by De Lille during her speech and especially by Professor Tshabalala, who spoke on behalf of the PAC. Tshabalala pointed out several incidents where the PAC played some role in history, including an attack on the police in Paarl in 1964 and the Soweto student uprisings in 1976.
He said that, contrary to many perceptions that the PAC was racist, PAC founder Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe had promoted non-racialism and had said that there should only be one race. He said despite Sobukwe’s profound views and the fact that he was probably the black leader who was most feared by white South Africans, he was not considered “iconic enough”. He then read out a tribute paid by “the only icon in South Africa, Madiba” to Sobukwe.
Tshabalala also attacked the government’s obsession with economic growth, saying it would not necessarily deal with inequality, poverty and unemployment.
It was ironic that Tshabalala, representing the organisation to which Bra Ace remained loyal, used the funeral in a way that Bra Ace would probably have found objectionable because he was not the kind of person who sought to score points. Instead, he enjoyed debates and convincing people with his views.
In some ways, I could understand why the PAC has struggled to win more votes in post-Apartheid elections. It is not enough to have a convincing message in modern politics. You must be able to back it up with action and with an ability to get your message out to people.
Come to think of it, this was probably one of the rare occasions in recent years where the PAC took centre stage and Tshabalala, as its representative, had to exploit the opportunity to the fullest. He might not get another opportunity to get his message across to as large an audience as he had at Bra Ace’s funeral. Maybe, in a strange way, the funeral was Bra Ace’s last bit of work he did to promote the organisation he loved.
One way of keeping his legacy alive would be to make sure that the book he was working on is published, because it is important to reflect our rich and diverse history, including that of the PAC.
Hamba kahle, Bra Ace. Even in death you managed to bring together people who would normally not be seen in the same place. DM
Ryland Fisher has more than 30 years of experience in the media industry as an editor, journalist, columnist, author, senior manager and executive. Among his media assignments were as Editor of the Cape Times and The New Age and as assistant editor at the Sunday Times.Fisher is the author of Race (published 2007), a book dealing with some of the issues related to race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. His first book, Making the Media Work for You (2002), provided insights into the media industry in South Africa. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He also runs a consultancy focusing on media and social cohesion.