TRIBUTE AND REFLECTION ON MTHOLEPHI MTHIMKHULU – Joel Netshitenzhe

Programme Director
Ms Halalisiwe Mthimkhulu and the family
Leaders of the religious community
Leaders of the ANC and the Alliance
Friends, colleagues and comrades

I wish to express my profound appreciation for the opportunity to take part in this celebration of a life well-lived in the service of the people.

Many of us, on receiving the invitation to this remembrance ceremony, did wonder whether, some eighteen months after Mtholephi Mthimkhulu left us, it is appropriate to rekindle the grief in our hearts, to again stare into the dark void that Makhulukhulu has left, and to relieve moments that are now consigned to the bosom of memory. But we drew comfort from the knowledge that, it is both necessary and unavoidable that we should, over and over again, remind ourselves of Mtholephi’s life. For contained in it is a frame of reference of what a servant of the people should be. 

Given this reality, the question has nagged those of us who were required to contribute to the remembrance, whether we deserve this platform. And so in all modesty, I wish onceagain to thank the Mthimkhulu family for this honour, with you to doff our hats and sing the melody of memory, hoping that, in doing so, the qualities that Mtholephi represented will live on among us: as lodestars that guide our way, as warning lights when the temptation to do wrong assails us, as reminders that word and deed should nestle in unison, so we do not become liars and deceivers, in pursuit of the false convenience of material privilege.

And so as we celebrate one of the unique cadres with whom we were privileged to call a comrade, a colleague and a friend, memories come fleeting by, about the rare qualities ofwarmth and humanity: the warmth and humanity in gait and mien; the warmth and humanity in tone of voice; the warmth and humanity that seemed only naturally to accord Makhulukhulu popular trust and authority. To earn the positions of responsibility in which he served, Mtholephi did not need to plot in corners, to attach himself to some factional cult, to intimidate, or to kill. He persuaded by good deeds and the warmth and humanity that he exuded, that he was worthy of being called a people’s leader.

Mtholephi became a member of the ANC, a public servant, a political representative, an MEC, a Deputy Speaker and Legislature committee chairperson because he was a humanistand community leader. Politics to him became a vocation because it was a natural progression in, and an accompaniment to, community service.

In this context, we are forced to come back to the question: what should be the relationship between transformative party politics and community leadership! Simple as this question may sound, it arises in stark fashion today, as we trudge deeper into the era of democracy.

On the one hand, we can argue that it is correct that the liberation movement should seek to mould a cadre of professional politicians – individuals who choose politics as a vocation to pursue their ideals. Thus it becomes quite possible for an individual to become a member of the youth league at an early age, to rise through its ranks, become a member of the ANC and similarly rise through the ranks; and ultimately to assume political office across the various spheres of government.

On the other hand, a career such as this – without any experience of community leadership in any other capacity – can narrow the capabilities of a cadre, to whom activism exists only in ANC structures; and whose improvement in material subsistence is dependent largely on ascending to leadership positions in the organisation and the government.

Politics thus becomes virtually a matter of life and death; and the temptation then arises to rely on the racket of numbers and cunning associations in order to succeed. In this scenario, thewrong lesson becomes internalised by the young cadres, that, to succeed in political life depends on how one attaches oneself to the winning faction – the focus of which faction is to outmanoeuvre those who do not belong, and to displacethem in government when victory has been achieved in ANCstructures.

When the ANC’s 53rd National Conference in 2012 called for a “key focus on the ideological, political, academic and moraltraining of a critical mass of ANC members” it sought to ensure the development of multi-dimensional cadres, capable of leading a modern society in transformation. It can be argued that, inversely, by placing a high premium on academic education, the movement was also attempting to obviate the desperation that attaches to positions in government, as many cadres end up with nowhere else to go,to sustain a ‘middle class’ lifestyle for themselves and their families, when they lose these positions.

We raise this matter because in Makhulukhulu, we had,merged in one, a teacher, a radio journalist and founding member of the Media Workers’ Association (MWASA), a graduate in teaching and administration, an underground activist, a public servant and ultimately a PEC member, anMEC and leader in the legislature. As with Charlotte Maxeke – a scientist and leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Ruth First – a journalist and researcher; Chief Albert Luthuli – a leader in football, farming, teaching and the church; and Oliver Tambo – a scientist, lawyer, teacher and musician, to name but a few leaders… Makhulukhulu was a community leader first and foremost. Political leadership was to him a natural progression in, and an accompaniment to, community service.

Related to this is a matter that the ANC needs to reflect on intently. Does it serve the interests of a vanguard that its leadership structures are populated only or mainly by what we have referred to as professional politicians – councillors, MPLs, MPs, members of governmental executives and fulltime ANC employees? In what way does this affect the link between the organisation and society; and to what extent does this create the syndrome of a bubble, in which all else –but narrow party political interests – loses its significance?

Mtholephi and many other departed leaders demand of us to find the appropriate balance in this regard, the better to ensure that that status of vanguard is not claimed by the shrillness of defensive noises and illogical arguments; but because we constantly listen to, and weigh, the views of society; and always act as what the ancient Romans called tribuni plebis,or tribunes of the people.

In Makhulukhulu’s life, we also find clues to yet another conundrum that the prize of liberation has generated. And this is about identity. Mtholephi may have been a radio journalist in isiZulu and later a provincial leader of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal. Yet those from other parts of the country who knew and worked with him, appreciated his leadership as more than an expression of a narrow identity.

Where is the conundrum here, you may ask!

It resides in the fact that, with liberation, we have quite correctly encouraged an appreciation of, and pride in,indigenous history, language and culture – social endowments that colonialism suppressed, save for their utility as instruments of divide-and-rule. Yet, as we embrace that which defines our ethnic identity, so should sufficient care be taken,to ensure that that identity nestles in embrace with the common bonds that Pixley ka Isaka Seme called for, when the ANC was founded some 104 years ago, and with the broader national identity that our constitution calls for. Herein lies the objective challenge of rekindling diverse African identities, at the same time as we forge an appreciation of the primacy of unity in diversity.

That is the objective challenge.
But at the subjective level is the issue of ethnic entrepreneurship, whether it be in politics or other areas of human endeavour. When all else has failed, the scoundrel will spare no effort to seek refuge in such narrow identity: to claim imaginary victimisation, rally troops in pursuit of naked ambition, distort the movement’s historical experience, and encourage the very divisions that smoothed the way for colonialism’s triumphant march. Makhulukhulu rose above this and he was prepared to accept the consequences of his choices. For this, he deserved and still deserves the accolade, ‘comrade’, a designation that is otherwise devalued when it is invoked without attributes of warmth and humanity, and without the courage of noble convictions.

It is correct that, as we share in these remembrances, we should also commit to live up to Mtholephi’s example as a radio journalist; a manager in our public broadcaster (the SABC); a founding member of MWASA and a communicator! This issue arises because, today, turmoil,instability, and a sense of unguided drift seem to characterise this treasured public asset, defying the struggles which led to the conceptualisation of the very notion of a public broadcaster. As a consequence, the efforts of the leadership of which Makhulukhulu was part, which in those halcyon days of transition, laid the foundation to build a broadcaster that genuinely informs, educates and entertains, are undermined!

As a communicator, Mtholephi enjoyed the respect of colleagues in the ANC, in government and the media because he sought to persuade all and sundry to his point of view, informed by conviction to the cause he championed. He did not need to spin yarns of rationalisations and justifications,because the activities of his movement and his principals were noble and above board. The ANC team at Headquarters could rely on him to be available as and when he was needed; to honestly state the facts and to enlighten with insightful analysis.

Those of us who had the opportunity to work with him in government communications during the initiation of the national campaign against HIV and AIDS, came to appreciate his skills on how to impact on popular thinking and action. These were difficult times, given the ravages that the epidemic was exacting on society. They were difficult times also because of the debates that had started to emerge around these issues. In spite of these challenges, the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) and the Department of Health never faltered in asserting the truth that there was no cure for AIDS; and that prevention had to be central to the campaign.

Whatever the criticism and self-criticism that may be necessary in understanding that period and subsequent events, however strong the temptation to play to the gallery, it would be amiss of us to overlook two central facts: firstly, that the legislative and other battles of that period helped reduce the prices of anti-retroviral medication ultimately making it possible for South Africa and other developing countries to afford them; and, secondly, that the largest treatment programme of which South Africa can be proud, started long before the magic date of 2009 which has become part of popular folklore. We can debate the how’s and the why’s; but these are the indisputable facts!

Beyond all these issues, one of the tasks that Mtholephi has left for us to accomplish is to speed up the programmes of land reform, to which he had dedicated much energy as MEC. In this regard, it is necessary to appreciate the relationship between the constitution and land reform – so we do not lay the blame for our shoddiness where it does not belong. Indeed, the National Development Plan does identify actions that need to be undertaken in order to improve productivity, reduce food insecurity and create some one million additional jobs in this sector by 2030. These include: expanding irrigated agricultural land by one-third, expanding commercial production, picking sectors and regions with high potential, and ensuring access to product value chains. In other words, whatever the justified impatience that we may harbour, we do not need to make policy on the hoof, and try to outdo the young noisemakers who have no responsibility beyond the noise they make.

Of course, we are not here suggesting the Mtholephi Mthimkhulu was a saint. Like all of us, he was – to paraphrase Nelson Mandela – a sinner who kept on trying.

Allow us, in closing, to venture the opinion that Makhulukhulu’s parents and the broader family had very good reason, at his birth, to give him the name that posed a question and answered it at the same time, Ni mtholephi! In deference to that line of thought, we can on the occasion of this remembrance pose some difficult questions of the day – even though we may not have immediate answers:

Sizobatholaphi – where shall we, in today’s rat race, find the cadres who are committed to ensuring that word and deed nestle in unison; cadres of impeccable ethics who naturally recoil from the temptation to steal from their own people!

Sizobatholaphi – where shall we find servants of the people who eschew arrogance; cadres who exude humility and do not see positions of political authority as platforms from which to berate society for its questioning of what is obviously wrong,but rather as tribunes of the people from which to express the most profound aspirations, concerns and fears of the people.

Sizobatholaphi – where shall we find the cadres who do not see positions of political power as the be-all and end-all to their existence; cadres who, in addition to striving to meet the strategic and popular mandate, continue to upgrade themselves academically and in their understanding of the society and the world in which we live, inspired by the need to serve, rather than greed and deviousness!

Sizobatholaphi – where shall we find the cadres who respect the positions that they hold; cadres who carry themselves with the dignity that the offices they occupy demand, so the peoplecan see in them and the ANC the very expression of their being!

Sizobatholaphi – where shall we find the cadres who acknowledge the difficulties that the movement is currently facing; cadres who do not shy away from confronting the challenges of corruption and state capture; cadres thus who have the courage to work for the self-correction on which the ultimate survival of the ANC as a movement of the people depends!

It may be that we do not have immediate, obvious and convincing answers to these questions. But we dare say that, even if the skies may look dark and ominous, we should not lose our sense of hope. The fact that there was a Makhulukhulu should convince us that these cadres are there in our midst and in broader society. We should find them; nurture them; cast aside the gate-keepers who seek to keep good people out of our ranks, so they can loot and plunder.

Sizobathola oMtholephi ukuze sazi ukwakha impilo engcono kubobonke abantu baseMzansi. On this, the eve of his birthday and Freedom Charter Day, we can say with confidence that, as long as Makhulukhulu’s spirit lives, the ANC shall not die. Even if the skies may look dark and ominous, the ANC remains the glue capable of holding South African society together: it deserves our support as it embarks on the difficult journey of self-correction.

The struggle continues!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*