Obituary – Michael Coetzee

2014-06-22 15:00

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It is not surprising most of the tributes for Michael Coetzee tend to focus on his role as secretary of Parliament.

But he was so much more. He never sought accolades or the limelight and much of his true legacy is not widely known. To many of us who knew Mikey (as we fondly called him), it was the 1980s that defined him.

Returning from the University of the Western Cape in the early 1980s, alongside Derrick Swartz and others, he was a pillar behind the resurgence in political activity in the area after the lull in resistance following the 1976 student uprising.

He played an instrumental role in re-establishing grass roots organisations in the northern areas of Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Cape region as a whole.

An entire generation of activists in the student, youth, civic and trade union movements count him as a mentor. In the townships of Port Elizabeth, his indelible mark will be felt for generations to come.

In 1983 he was arrested, tortured and tried as a member of the ANC and its military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK). While it’s a huge badge of honour today, back then it was a rather risky and not-so-fashionable decision to join MK.

As young activists in the student and youth organisations at the time, his arrest and exposure as an underground operative elevated and connected for us the local struggles of the then banned ANC.

His arrest and trial also inspired and propelled large numbers of youth into the mass democratic movement in the area. After his release from prison, he picked up the spear again and continued to rebuild political organisation despite the personal dangers and life-threatening risks.

Mikey was the last recorded person to see Matthew Goniwe alive. If he had been in that car, on that fateful day, this tribute would have been written 29 years ago.

After leaving his house in Gelvandale in Port Elizabeth on June 27 1985, the Cradock Four – Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Fort Calata and Sicelo Mhlauli – all leading activists in the United Democratic Front at the time, were abducted and brutally murdered by members of the security police.

Throughout history we are reminded of people like Mikey, whose names and faces were not plastered on posters or billboards. Nor did he ever seek personal recognition or contest leadership positions in the structures he was active in. His name is, however, forever engraved in the blood, suffering and sacrifices of the Cradock Four and countless numbers of other unsung heroes.

Michael fought cancer over the past three years with the same resolve and single-minded focus as he fought the struggle.

The unflinching support and devotion of his wife and life-long partner, Bridgette, together with his tight-knit extended family and comrades around him, provided meaning and purpose during these painful years of chemotherapy and frequent hospitalisation. The personal bonds of the 1980s were deepened over many single malts and Cape wines.

For, as the cancer intensified over the past 12 months, we were indeed privileged to have had occasions to celebrate his life with comrades and friends from across the country.

It was at these events, and in private, where we had our special moments to say farewell to a life well lived. Mikey reminded us in those private moments that so much more needed to be done to cement this hard-fought democracy.

I am proud to have known this gentle giant, mentor and comrade for most of my life and will miss him dearly. My heartfelt condolences go to Bridgette, his son, Matthew, and the extended Prince and Coetzee family. You will always occupy a special place in our hearts. Hamba kahle, Mikey.

Maasdorp is chairman of Advtech, and a director of Telkom and HCI. He was recruited as a student and youth activist by Michael Coetzee in 1981

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