Mask no difficulties, and tell no lies

2011-02-05 11:44

Johnny Issel was an irrepressible and committed revolutionary who, 10 days before his death, addressed a gathering of close friends.

He left us with important messages that reflect on big moments in our struggle, focusing on what was said at the burial of great heroes of Umkhonto we Sizwe in the Western Cape – comrades such as Coline Williams, Robbie Waterwitch and Ashley Kriel.

He said: “What spurred us on then, this spirit of freedom still burns within us.

Finally, we shall see what we’d fought for and sacrificed for.”

The strength of this message was that it was made almost 17 years into democracy by a cadre who was saying very strongly that we were not there yet.

I would like to lift one story about Johnny, an experience that had a profound effect on his approach to ethics.

For a few years between his detention in 1976 and when he established Grassroots (a community newspaper) in 1980, Johnny worked for the Food and Canning Workers’ Union.

During this period, he became very attached to Oscar Mpetha.

In those days, it fell to organisers to collect subs at factory gates at the end of shift on payday.

These organisers earned very little and there were instances when they were tempted to “borrow” from the subs collected.

The union took a decision that such “borrowing” was tantamount to theft, and while some of these organisers had long traditions of dedication and service to the trade union movement, they were handed over to the police and charged with theft.

Oscar Mpetha’s explanation was that a person who stole from workers could not be trusted.

This experience became an important part of Johnny’s revolutionary morality, and he frequently referred to this as one of the responsibilities of leadership.

Among the many writers whose works Johnny relished and shared was Amilcar Cabral. The most famous quote from his Unity and Struggle reads: “Claim no easy victories, mask no difficulties, and tell no lies.”

Those three words in the middle, “mask no difficulties”, are so very important in constructing a relationship of trust between a leadership and the people, believed Johnny.

Another quotation from the same book defines how to approach struggle.

It reads: “Always remember that people are not fighting for ideas.

They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”

It was this understanding of what brought ordinary people into struggle that shaped the approach of Johnny Issel to what needed to be done.

It was this that saw him so committed to building organisations of workers, civics, women, youth and the faith-based communities with the same passion.

I have heard it said that Johnny had become disillusioned with the way in which things were turning out.

That disillusionment, or perhaps it is a spirit of hope, is captured by his own reference to “finally, we shall see the (country or democracy – my interpretation) that we had fought for”.

I want to take the liberty to interpret here some of the issues that so troubled Johnny.

I speak as one who is a member of the ANC national executive committee and as a Cabinet minister as there is no way that I wish to distance myself from the issues that are either off track or unfulfilled.

I accept collective responsibility.

Firstly, he was resolutely of the view that we are soft on corruption. Revolutionary morality appeared to be long forgotten.

He argued that if we wanted to lead people, then we must exact even higher standards from ourselves.

He spoke of how commonplace corruption had become – from stories about traffic officers and other public servants demanding “cool drink money” to stories of grand corruption. He argued that unless we tackled this scourge head-on we would lose the confidence of our people.

Secondly, he was deeply concerned about service delivery failures. Sometimes the money appropriated for services was redirected towards corrupt activities.

Sometimes these failures occurred because we appointed unskilled people into positions as political favours.

And sometimes there were genuine difficulties that arose in the provision of services.

However, because we are not sufficiently rigorous with ourselves, we cannot take the people into confidence and so, in contrast to the “claim no easy victories, mask no difficulties, and tell no lies”, we misinform our people and deny ourselves the ability to have genuine, open discussions about why delivery does not happen according to plan.

Thirdly, Johnny was deeply concerned that the spirit of comradeship that held us together and fuelled us through the darkest periods had been all but lost. In its stead was the drive for personal glory.

The ethic of criticism and self-criticism that was the basis on which trust was built between cadres has been replaced by campaigns that “comrades” wage against each other in the hope of being appointed into various positions.

He was concerned that the need to resolve ideological differences through a culture of debate had been displaced by money politics. The consequence of all of this is cults of the individual have crept into politics.

Finally, he was afraid that we have fallen into a rut of governing for the sake thereof.

He argued for a return to first principles, as described in those words of Cabral: “Always remember that people are not fighting for ideas.

They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward and to guarantee the future of their children.”

This approach calls for levels of self-discipline and a rigour that we know ourselves capable of.

This is not a moment to mourn.

It is an opportunity to draw lessons from the life of a great revolutionary and use these for renewal.

Johnny’s legacy ought to be that spirit in each of us that compels us to ask ourselves each day: “Why have I engaged in struggle?

Why do I do what I do? How can I be better in the service of my people.”

» This was the minister of national planning’s tribute to the late revolutionary Johnny Issel, who died last month. The speech was delivered in Johannesburg last Sunday

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