/Derek Hanekom: A tribute to Comrade Laloo Isu, who embodied principled conduct

Derek Hanekom: A tribute to Comrade Laloo Isu, who embodied principled conduct

2019-11-24 08:32

We should be
asking ourselves what type of country we would have if everyone, and most
importantly, public representatives, were as humble as Comrade Isu, writes Derek Hanekom.

In the labyrinth
of history, particulars about people and their values sometimes get lost.

We hail iconic
leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and indeed, Laloo
Chiba, but rarely have the time to examine the special attributes they have
bequeathed us.

We inscribe their
names into our history books, but fail to tell their stories with the depth and
emotion required to mobilise and unite the whole of society, all of us, to
emulate them in our day to day lives.

We pay homage to
their values, but sometimes forget to question whether our daily decisions and
actions are guided by the same values.

It is a privilege
to talk about the ‘particulars’ of ‘Comrade Isu’, prisoner number 1/5867, as he
was fondly known.

It is special
honour to do so under the Presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa who visited Comrade Isu
at his home in Lenasia a short while before he passed away on 8 December 2017.

I have no doubt
that, if he were alive today, this MK soldier, Little Rivonia Trialist
sentenced to 18 years on Robben Island in 1964, prisoner number 1/5867 would be
amongst the army of South Africans singing “thuma mina”, “send
me”, expecting no special acknowledgement or reward for putting his
shoulder to the wheel to end injustice, poverty and inequality.

At his funeral a large banner was put up,
describing Comrade Isu as a “principled activist, a humble revolutionary
and a selfless leader”. It could not have captured the essence of the man
more aptly.

The embodiment
of principled conduct

Comrade Isu
embodied principled conduct. On the day of his funeral, his son-in-law Rashid told
us that after being elected to Parliament, Comrade Isu sat his three
sons-in-law down and told them, “Chaps, I want to thank you for marrying
my daughters and for looking after them all these years, but I want to tell you
guys something. I’m going to Parliament, and if there are any favours that you
guys need from me, it won’t happen, especially if you guys are going to get
into trouble.”

This is the man who
went on to serve on Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts.   Comrade
Isu became the feared “white haired man”, the moral beacon whose
accuracy and impeccable integrity could never be compromised.

To amplify this,
many do not know that this representive of the electorate phoned the taxman to say
that, after conducting his own calculations, he found that he was being
undercharged by SARS. He was worried that he was not paying his dues to the

Can you imagine
the type of government we would have if every public representative, every
South African embodied just a fraction of Comrade Isu’s integrity?

It is the same consistent commitment to
principled conduct that defined Comrade Isu’s character under very different
circumstances many years before.

Having served in the Transvaal Indian
Congress, the South African Communist Party and in Umkhonto we Sizwe, it was
inevitable that Comrade Isu came under the scrutiny of the apartheid state.

He was arrested by the security police on
17 April 1963 and endured the most horrific torture in the hours that followed.
He was brutally beaten and had electrodes connected over his wet fingers and
toes, with police repeatedly turning a dynamo that sent electric shocks
coursing through his body. Yet Comrade Isu, as stoic as ever, refused to divulge

In fact, when he appeared at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
he said he was greatly disturbed by the fact that he had screamed in pain
during the torture. He recalled: “I had screamed out in pain, I had
pleaded for mercy from an enemy, a people’s enemy, I had asked them to stop
torturing me. I had given them the pleasure of listening to my screams and it
is something that haunts me up till today. As I repeat here, I feel a deep
sense of shame for the shortcoming. I don’t think that a revolutionary should
actually give the enemy the pleasure of listening to one’s screams. I think I
failed in that respect. I hope that you people understand that. It haunts me up
until today and I don’t think that I can ever come to terms with that.”

Bravery means something different today

He was a brave man.
He endured 18 long years on Robben Island away from his wife Luxmi and their
three daughters. He came out of prison, continued his political activism, was re-arrested
and detained in 1985.

In a tribute
Raymond Suttner poignantly wrote: “Bravery means something different in
2010 from 1964 or the mid-1980s, and it relates to other qualities of Comrade
Isu. To be brave is often to be gentle, to be tender, and to be willing to hug
instead of strike a blow. Bravery may be to rethink one’s own thoughts where
previously we had to hold the line against the divisions of the enemy. We now
need the bravery of those who are willing to renew our thinking on a range of

It is this bravery
that in later years, allowed him to forgive the person who betrayed him and his
fellow Little Rivonia Trialists.

It is this bravery
that allowed him to, despite being a loyal member of the ANC, be critical of
what was happening inside the ANC and associate himself with the call of the
stalwarts and veterans of the ANC, in the run up to its December National
Conference, for all ANC members of honour and integrity to stand up against all
forms of corruption and stamp out state capture.  .

Again, it was this bravery that allowed
Comrade Isu to understand that there are some issues that require cooperation
across party political lines. Shortly before his passing, Comrade Isu,
fulfilling the wishes of his best friend, comrade Ahmed Kathrada, took the
leadership of the EFF and the DA for a tour of Robben Island. Comrade Isu
understood the importance of liberation history being appreciated by all South
Africans, irrespective of political identities.

The many whom he
would have interacted with on a day to day basis will remember him for his
grassroots approach to activism.  Comrade
Isu believed firmly in leading by example and never shied away from hard work.

During his term
in detention in the 1980s, despite his age, he joined younger political
prisoners on a ten-day hunger strike.

In May 2017, he convinced his doctor to
allow him to conduct a 24-hour hunger strike in solidarity with Palestinian
prisoners. This is after he had to be emphatically told that, well into his
80s, he could not do a three-day hunger strike!

No job too big
or small

I had the
privilege of serving on the board of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation with Comrade
Isu. He would spend almost every day at the Foundation’s offices, interacting
with the staff and young leaders who form part of the Foundation’s youth
leadership programme. These young people talk about Comrade Isu’s commitment to
their annual Operation Winter Warm campaign. Not only did he encourage others
to participate, but made sure he carried the heavy plastic bags of clothing and
other items collected for the underprivileged himself, loading the Gift of the
Givers’ truck for distribution. No job was too big or small for him.

We should be
asking ourselves what type of country we would have if everyone, and most
importantly, public representatives, were as humble as Comrade Isu?

What if we took
it upon ourselves to not only do the bare minimum required of us, but to go the
extra mile, doing simple tasks just to serve humanity?

As much as
Comrade Isu was loved by young activists, his strict sense of discipline often
contrasted with the free-spirited attitude usually associated with youth.

During his term
in detention, young activists would complain about how Comrade Chiba woke up at 05:00 to exercise; how he chastised them for sleeping in, and made them wash
prison blankets!

Despite being,
dare I say, a stubborn character of sorts, he was as much loved for his
military-like discipline, as he was for the care and interest he took in every
individual he came across.

As a role model
Comrade Isu set the bar very high because his disciplined, hardworking and
ethical nature was simply unmatchable. In honouring his legacy though, I
believe that even if we adopt a fragment of his character, commitment and
compassion into our own day to day work, we will serve with greater humility and

Our country is
indebted to Comrade Isu’s family and close friends for the sacrifices they made
in allowing Comrade Isu to lead his remarkable life. He has certainly taken his place amongst the
giants of our revolution. His name will forever be inscribed alongside that of
the women and men who have served this country with distinction.

* Duty and
Dynamite – A Life of Activism 
will be launched by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation on Sunday, 24 November at 14:30 at the Park Primary School Hall, Lenasia, Johannesburg.

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