Guest Column

OPINION: Remembering a comrade, friend and mentor in the struggle to end a crime against humanity

2020-02-25 13:30
Chule Papiyana, KK to his friends and comrades.

Chule Papiyana, KK to his friends and comrades. (The African Communist, First Quarter 1992)

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KK placed a hand on my shoulder and, in a kind yet firm voice, told me: "Comrade, your guilt is of no use in the struggle against this regime. Your actions are what matter," writes Glenn Bownes

It was 1986 or 1987. The height of the apartheid State of Emergency. I was talking to Chule Papiyana. KK to his friends and comrades.

KK was hiding from the Security Branch at my house for the night, until we could find him a safer place. He had been in and out of detention, and was constantly hiding from the police.

He had arrived at Rhodes University in 1986, a year after I started my degree there.

In 1985, he had been expelled from Fort Hare for anti-apartheid activities.

KK was a leader of the South African National Students' Congress (previously the Azanian Students Organisation, now the South African Students' Congress).

He was also very active in United Democratic Front structures in the Eastern Cape.

KK was militant, but also very approachable and always ready with a beaming smile.

His boyish looks had made it possible for him to dress up as a school kid, while at Fort Hare in the early to mid-1980s, in order to organise and set up Congress of South African Students branches at schools across the Eastern Cape.

We were talking about the "state of the nation".

The apartheid regime had launched a brutal crackdown on democratic and anti-apartheid organisations and individuals. Thousands had been detained without trial (many of them children), hundreds tortured, dozens murdered.

It is easy to forget, so many years down the line, how vicious the apartheid system was.

It destroyed lives and ripped communities apart. Yes, FW de Klerk and Ernst Roets, it was a crime against humanity, just as the UN and then the International Criminal Court acknowledged.

I was feeling particularly emotional that night.

At one point, with tears streaming down my face, I said something to the effect of how guilty and responsible I felt as a white South African.

Even though I was involved in anti-apartheid organisations, I told KK that I couldn’t help feeling helpless and pessimistic about our future.

KK placed a hand on my shoulder and, in a kind yet firm voice, told me: "Comrade, your guilt is of no use in the struggle against this regime. Your actions are what matter."

He went on.

"Yes, people are being detained and killed every day by this brutal system, but we are under no illusions. We are engaged in a war to end apartheid, and the regime is in a war to stop us.

"Of course, we must raise our voice in protest against the repression, but let's not be naïve. If you engage in the struggle, you are literally at war with the apartheid regime. And they will treat you as the enemy."

A few years later, after myself and nine other young white men from Grahamstown joined a group of young white men from across South Africa who were publicly refusing to obey our call-ups to the South African Defence Force, KK stood up in a lecture (we studied African History and Third World Politics together) to applaud us.

"This is something that white South Africans can do to fight apartheid," he said, giving me a knowing look.

"This is how you can hit the regime at its heart."

Sadly, KK died in a car accident at the end of 1991.

He lived long enough to see liberation movements unbanned and its leaders released from prison, but never got to witness our first democratic elections and our first black president. Something he had dedicated his life to achieve.

KK, I think of you often, and will always be grateful for your kindness and patience with that young, naïve young white activist.

Hamba kakuhle, com.

- Bownes is chief sub-editor at News24.

Read more on:    fw de klerk  |  ernst roets  |  leadership  |  apartheid  |  democracy  |  race  |  activism
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