It was his eyes I remember best, carefully watching us through his glasses as he listened, and we spoke. It was the early 1980s. Apartheid was at its height. The power of white supremacy and the tyranny that went with it seemed unassailable.
We were students at Wits University, and he was our mathematics tutor. We were all Building Science students and none of us was particularly good at maths. It was a course we had to pass, and he was patient with us as we struggled through the mysteries of integral calculus, moments of force times distance, and other calculations vital to the world of roofs, houses, skyscrapers, bridges and a thousand other structures. To understand the maths of their design was to ensure that they would not fall down.
Frankly, most of us were more practical than theoretical and we itched to get onto the building sites themselves and be there at the pouring of concrete and the laying of bricks. The maths behind it all we would leave to the engineers.
Our tutor seemed, perhaps reluctantly, to understand this about us, and somehow, maths theory often disappeared as the long afternoon in the lecture room went on. Instead, they were replaced with discussions about the racist beliefs and laws of the time.
I’m not quite sure how this happened, but I remember so well three or four of us gathered around him in the back of the room, talking to him about politics. The content of the discussions I have long forgotten, but the strength of our tutor’s personality has remained with me for a lifetime.
He would listen carefully, without interruption, as the young men around me spoke to him. Most of them had finished two years’ compulsory national service in the army, one of them was a lieutenant still active in the intelligence corps. Their minds were affected by the apartheid indoctrination of the time, and some of them had been in combat up on the Namibia-Angola border. They were filled with anger and — I now understand — symptoms of post-traumatic stress from the violence they had witnessed and perhaps even committed. They despised Nelson Mandela and the ANC of that time. They saw them as evil, out to destroy everything they had been taught to believe was sacred. Some of them had even faced ANC cadres in the blood and heat of the bush war.
I hadn’t been to the army, but I was already beginning to work as a journalist. I listened mostly, my instinct to hear and bear witness beginning to emerge in my newly adult personality.
My fellow students would rage at our tutor. Some of them had lived the cruelties of war and that experience had scarred them in inchoate ways that I now know take a lifetime to try and make sense of. Others had simply been taught to believe in white superiority and to fear the growing emergence of black people’s self-actualisation after centuries of white oppression.
Our tutor never responded in kind. He was always calm and reacted to their often searching, sometimes emotional, arguments with dignity.
The key to his approach, I realised, watching his thoughtful eyes moving from one person to another, was that he always took their arguments seriously, even when he clearly disagreed with them or was obviously offended by them. He acknowledged them as human beings, not as mere ideological opponents.
I don’t know exactly what his political beliefs were, but he was a member of the UDF which was closely aligned to the ANC, and I knew he had spent time in jail for his political activities.
More importantly, though, he was the first person I ever consciously met who clearly supported the Struggle for a non-racial South Africa and presented tangible arguments outside of the echo chamber debate within the white community about how black people should or should not react to their own bondage.
Let us not forget those times. The ANC was banned, and any overt support for it or for other banned organisation could mean long prison terms, with some form of hard physical abuse and often pure torture being almost a certainty, and death in detention was a real possibility.
Even then, I knew what my tutor was doing took courage. He was treading close to the invisible line that haunted every morally aware person in apartheid South Africa: to say the wrong thing could lead to terrible consequences. And some of these young men in our class were still officially part of the army. They could have reported him for talking about Struggle politics in a maths tutorial, and he had already been to prison. Who knew what might happen to him if he found himself there again? The tortured ghosts of Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol and Neil Aggett were real presences in our world.
And yet he spoke out.
Always carefully, and vitally, always trying to apply reason to what he said. My fellow white students often did not agree with him, and they walked away at least superficially unconvinced. But they respected the genuineness of his approach.
For me, at least, the propaganda and worldview of apartheid withered convincingly in the power of his tolerance and rationality. I cannot speak for the other students, as even impeccable logic will not always win the day, but the clarity and patience he drew on when he spoke to us is something I have never forgotten. I have carried the memory of those somewhat furtive, but powerful, conversations through the years of my life.
His name is Ismail Momoniat. I completely lost touch with him and his career after I left university, but I was not surprised to discover in the Zondo Commission report that he was one of the senior Treasury officials to hold the line against State Capture and to use his mathematical acumen to calculate the costs of what Jacob Zuma and his clique had done to this country.
It was a measure of his sheer bravery and decency that the Guptas demanded Mcebisi Jonas fire him if he were to take their R600-million bribe deal to become Minister of Finance under then-president Zuma.
Momoniat was an island of sanity, integrity and courage in the frightening, dangerous days of apartheid and he remains such an island in these sadly now treacherous times that we find ourselves in today.
The dangers are different but equally severe: in the 1980s the prospect loomed large that our country would descend into a race-fueled civil war; today we face the real possibility that our country could collapse into a violent semi-state, where no one rules in any coherent way over a morass of civil rage and destroyed infrastructure.
It is nothing new to point out the corrosive effect of ongoing instant communication, of live television, of social media and its algorithms that are poisoning our consciousness: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claims that it is Jews themselves who are most responsible for anti-Semitism, in the US, Kandiss Taylor, a Republican candidate for Governor of Georgia, refers to those who oppose her as “the Satanic elites”, while here in South Africa former Eskom CEO Matshela Koko wants to “Bring the Guptas back.”
The examples go on and on. A tide of lies and absurd irrationality wash over our minds every day, if not every hour, sometimes every few minutes.
In the face of this unrelenting and corrosive ludicrousness, we need actively to work to carry on the approach of the people like Ismail Momoniat, and others like him whom we have met in our lives. It strikes me, looking back on all those years, that his greatest strength was that he did not allow his own suffering and truly legitimate fears to ignore the hurt and uncertainty in those he disagreed with, no matter where they came from. He offered his arguments based on a recognition of the fragility of others. He made an appeal to at least try to find a way to move together and to see beyond the limits of our own pain and rage and, ultimately, the blindness, it causes.
For us to make the same balanced choices in our own lives seems now like a giant, almost meaninglessly sentimental ask in today’s world of instantaneous techno-irrationality.
That, in itself, is a measure of just how lost we might actually be if we do not stop and take the time to remind ourselves of what he, and the diminishing number of people like him, mean for our humanity in this increasingly violent and senseless age. DM