My dearest Uncle Isu,
There isn’t a time that I cannot remember knowing you.
You were a constant in my family’s life; as regular as the call we would receive from you every Eid at exactly 7am wishing us well.
It was you who helped my mother look after my eldest sibling, just a few months old, as you boarded a plane to Cape Town for the launch of the United Democratic Front in 1983. My mother would recount how during that visit, you refused to cast a glance at Robben Island whose grey walls stole 18 long years of your life.
To my father, you were a political mentor, a comrade, a colleague and a close friend.
For me though, you were my icon, my inspiration, my grandfather.
Your sudden death has etched pain alongside every wonderful memory of you. The grief cloaks me as I go about my daily routine, threatening to envelop me entirely as I remember you in little details – a leaf on the road reminding me of the Japanese maple that stands outside your house, or a bowl of sugar bringing back memories of the sweet cups of tea you so relished, having been denied sugar on Robben Island.
I know that I am not the only one feeling this way – the offices of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, where you were regarded as an honourary staff member, have been rather sombre. The staff members, each of whom you took the time to greet individually every day, are still at a loss, barely able to comprehend the events over the last weekend.
On one end of the office, a picture of your dearest friend and fellow Robben Islander, Ahmed ‘Kathy’ Kathrada, looks out from the wall. On the other end of the office, a newly put up poster with the words ‘Hamba Kahle Comrade Laloo ‘Isu’ Chiba’ reminds us that what has seemed surreal over the past few days is in fact a reality.
We’re going to miss you dearly, your kindness and sternness; your humour and your discipline; your loving yet resolute nature; the ‘uncle next door’ whom we could joke with, and the battle-hardened Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) soldier, who served on the armed wing’s second National High Command.
Your consciousness always seemed to have been moulded from a set of values so well-grounded and pristine that you’ve often left us wondering whether we could actually emulate you. Yet at the same time, you displayed a simplicity woven with humbleness and humility, making it impossible to consider you or your ideals aloof.
You reminded me so of Brutus from Julius Caesar, described by Mark Antony as having the “the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man’.”
Uncle Isu, the rivulets of grief that run down our faces have barely dried since the passing of Uncle Kathy, and now once again overflow at your permanent absence. It seems like just yesterday that you sat next me drafting a tribute to your late comrade and best friend – unable to hold back tears, you apologised profusely for showing emotion. After all, like Brutus, you were a man of stoic nature.
I only saw you unable to control your emotion on one other occasion. You rarely spoke about the torture you faced at the hands of the apartheid police following your arrest in 1963, after one of the MK units you commanded was caught red-handed in an act of sabotage. I had the privilege of hearing your testimony before lawyers who were gathering information for the Ahmed Timol inquest – you detailing the horror of the electric shocks, the severe beatings and the interrogation. How could a person so humane as yourself be subjected to such inhumanity? Yet, you broke down in front of the Timol legal team, not because of the nightmarish memories of pain, but because you recalled how you had screamed during the torture. You believed that real revolutionaries do not give the enemy the pleasure of hearing their tortured screams, let alone revealing information about their clandestine activities.
Not all of the time we had spent together was serious. In fact, we spoke about a variety of topics: our common love for Shakespeare; the position of the stars – you explaining to me just how far away is one light year; religion; South African history; travel; food and even pets.
Every person needs a hero, but few are lucky to spend enough time with their icons to pick up on their everyday traits.
I see you now, wearing your light blue jersey – your love for pastel colours evident; a single golden band on the ring finger of your right hand; your exclamations, one of which was in German; your greyish olive eyes and crop of wavy white hair.
You had a knack for remembering directions, and often tried to outdo the GPS. I wondered how you knew certain roads in Johannesburg so well, only to realise that you would have reconnoitred parts of the city all those years ago to carry out acts of sabotage against the apartheid state.
In recent months, you picked up a term we often use at the Foundation: ‘gallivant’. You were a gallivanter of note. Despite your age, you loved attending events, visiting places and people, grabbing coffee while waiting in queues at the airport and simply going out. I knew that the trips that you had recently made with me and my colleague Busisiwe Nkosi to Cape Town energised your spirit, even though they left you physically drained.
You did not like returning to Robben Island though as much as Uncle Kathy did, but to fulfil his wish of wanting to take leaders of the two main opposition parties for a tour, you took it upon yourself to revisit a very painful part of your past. You always retuned to the mainland sombre and “disturbed”. The years of deprivation still haunted your spirit. Although you never regretted your political activism, I knew that you still felt a deep sense of pain at being forced to leave your three daughters when they were children, and returning home 18 years later to meet married women.
It will not be easy for me to visit Robben Island again – I’ll remember you pointing out your cell from the B-Section courtyard, the 13th window from the doorway; or speaking about the inhumane way you were transported to the island at the back of a crowded truck in chains, human excrement littering the floor; or the undignified strip searches conducted by the warders on the island.
But I will also remember how Madiba convinced you, soon after your imprisonment, to do away with the revenge-filled hatred that you felt. You would often talk about how Madiba, in the 1960s already, had thought through the essence of reconciliation, emphasising that the historic mission of building a united South Africa could not be accomplished wielding revenge and hatred.
I will remember how Walter Sisulu in later years called on you to forgive the person who had sold you and your comrades out, leading to your imprisonment. “While you have been in prison for 18 years, he has also been in a prison of his own for 18 years,” Sisulu had told you. You took Sisulu’s advice, and forgave the man.
It was not the only time you would listen to the dearly loved elder of the revolution. Sisulu had warned you about the ills of smoking, and in keeping with a promise you made to him, you gave it up entirely.
You would recount these and other tales, often preceded by, “If my memory serves me correctly”. It was rather ironic, as your memory always served you correctly. You could point out the tiniest historical inaccuracy and could not only remember dates of key events and campaigns, but whether they were launched at mid-morning or late afternoon!
Uncle Isu, I know that you could not tolerate injustice. You would stay awake till the early hours of the morning, worrying about the plight of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike. You were prepared to undertake a three-day solidarity hunger strike, and were rather surprised to find that none of the young activists had the courage to do so too.
A few years back, during Israel’s incursion into Gaza, you not only attended a solidarity march in support of the Palestinians, but you insisted that we start up a Twitter account for you, simply so that you could get live updates from the Middle East.
Back home, you worried endlessly that South Africa had achieved a political miracle in 1994, but that an economic revolution was still firmly out of reach. You often quoted figures to paint a picture of the dire poverty that so many in our country face.
It is safe to say that our annual youth-led Operation Winter Warm campaign will not be the same without you. You insisted upon doing your bit to help, carrying heavy bags of winter warm collections and helping load a Gift of the Givers truck, which would thereafter transport the collections to those in need.
We often spoke about contemporary politics, and in the process I’ve contrasted your own conduct to the behaviour of certain leaders today. I’ve heard stories of your time in Parliament serving on the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and on the ANC Gauteng: Disciplinary Committee. People feared the white-haired man whose cane of justice and integrity would not hesitate to strike. There was no room for dishonesty, inaccuracy or misconduct, and you lived and acted according to the same rules. There was no preferential treatment. Your sterling example stands in stark contrast to the conduct of a number of those within your own party today.
I know that you were disillusioned about the current political situation and in my last discussion with you before your passing, you expressed how deeply concerned you were about the outcome of the upcoming ANC conference. You feared that those who have furthered State Capture, corruption and the abuse of power may become the dominant force. You feared that the revolutionary baton, passed to your generation from those before you, would forever fall into the hands of those intent on destroying our democratic gains for their own selfish needs.
Uncle Isu, when anyone close to you passed away you would write to their families, encouraging them to bear the pain with “courage, grace and dignity”. In our attempts to bear your loss in this manner, we can only hope that we live up to the hopes and dreams that you had for each of us as individuals, and as a country.
With time, perhaps the pain that we feel at your passing will recede, and as we reflect on your life and legacy, the values that you stood for will spur us on to do more, to work harder for a better world.
One of your favourite poems was Sea Fever by John Masefield. It reads:
“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask for is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…”
Uncle Kathy and your wife, Luxmi, you would often tell us, were your two stars, always guiding you along life’s journey.
You are our lodestar – positioned alongside Madiba, Kathrada, Sisulu, Eddie Daniels and others. Your connected legacies leave us a stellar-like map as we navigate troubled seas, so that we can retrace the vision that you held for South Africa and chart our course accordingly.
As we shift about, grappling with the challenges that we know will come our way in the next few years, we thread in the knowledge that we have walked among giants, one of whom was a white-haired old man who will forever be remembered as a humble revolutionary, a principled activist, a selfless leader and, of course, as a very dear grandfather.
This article first appeared on Daily Maverick