Opinionista Ryland Fisher 1 September 2013

A weekend of goodbyes

The past weekend was one for saying goodbyes, with some being more painful than others. The end of a fellowship combined with the loss of kindred people brings an opportunity for reflection.

The past weekend was one for saying goodbyes, with some being more painful than others.

The first goodbye was on Friday when I ended off a two-month fellowship at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (Stias). The fellowship gave me the opportunity to concentrate on my work on identity, and also allowed me to interact with some great brains from around the world. I had a few distractions along the way (like writing this column weekly), but most of the last two months I have been able to concentrate on the work that I was supposed to do at Stias.

Quite a few of the fellows ended their stints this weekend, so Friday’s lunch was sad in many ways as we went our separate ways. On Saturday, we said goodbye to two people who were special in our lives, for different reasons. In the afternoon we attended a memorial concert for the jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, who passed away less than two weeks ago (on 20 August). Even though I got to know and work with her husband, Abdullah Ibrahim, on several occasions over the past few years, I had never met Benjamin. But in some ways I grew up with her music and developed a kind of familiarity because of that. I also admired her for the contribution that she had made to the liberation struggle, as did many musicians over the years.

The service, at the St James Church in Kenilworth, was surprisingly small and included some jazz musicians, a few government officials and family, including Benjamin and Ibrahim’s children, Tsakwe and Tsidi (who is known as the rapper Jean Grae). Ibrahim was not able to be there but sent a poem, which was read by Anglican Dean of Cape Town, Michael Weeder.

The most painful goodbye, however, was reserved for the young UCT student, Ilan Salim Blecher, who died while out hiking on Table Mountain last Sunday 25 August. He was a close friend of my youngest daughter and it was painful to see young people having to bury one of their friends. This disruption to what is supposed to be the natural course of events is something that will puzzle me for years: how can a young life be taken away when it still has so much promise?

We buried Ilan early on Saturday afternoon at the Muslim cemetery next to Groote Schuur hospital. It is on the slopes of Table Mountain and probably a fitting place to have buried someone who loved the mountain unconditionally. The service was interdenominational. It was led by the progressive Imam Rashid Omar and included contributions from an Anglican priest and a Jewish representative.

Omar, the priest at the Claremont Mosque, said after the burial that the interfaith service that we had witnessed was special. He said it was important to remember that religious rituals did not matter if you did not have humanity. It was one of the largest crowds, representing South Africa in all its diversity, that I had seen at a funeral in recent years and consisted mainly, but not exclusively, of young people. After the service at the cemetery ended, most people just stood around, not really wanting to leave and bring closure.

The funeral was followed by a memorial later on Saturday evening at Erin Hall in Rondebosch, the home of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, a fitting venue to pay tribute to a young man who did not see people in terms of religion or race. Ilan’s brothers, who directed the proceedings, tried their best to fit everyone into the relatively small hall. Those of us who sat on the floor had to squeeze closer and closer every few minutes and they gave up in the end, with quite a few people standing outside listening or watching through the windows.

Watching my daughter and her friends pay tribute to Ilan made me and the other parents in the packed hall extremely proud. We got a sense that the future of our country was in good hands. As Ilan’s uncle, Taddy Blecher, said at the memorial, when we were 18 or 19 years old we were an embarrassment to humanity, but the young people who spoke on Saturday evening spoke with confidence and dignity.

Like my daughter, Ilan was a democracy baby, born in 1994, the year many South Africans voted for the first time. Their progress in life tracks the progress of our democracy. After Saturday, I feel confident that our country will be in good hands when these young people eventually end up in positions where they can make a positive contribution to society. It is up to us to make sure that we leave them a country that has been properly looked after and is ready to be taken to the levels I now know we are capable.

My final goodbye is to this column, which I will stop writing for the foreseeable future. After eight months I need to concentrate on other projects, including the books that I am editing and writing, without the distraction of a weekly column. I will, however, from time to time raise my voice if I feel necessary which I hope will not be too often. DM

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