Guest Column

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

2019-11-24 08:32
Duty and Dynamite – A Life of Activism

Duty and Dynamite – A Life of Activism

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

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 cent.

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 anything.  

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 issues"

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 dexterity.

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.



Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.