When giants keep falling

2018-06-24 10:16
Billy Modise

Billy Modise

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South Africa is at the crossroads. The struggle for justice and social emancipation which had captured the imagination of many South Africans was premised on the belief that a new world was possible. This new world was to be built as an antithesis to the very essence of what existed and was correctly reviled the world over as a crime against humanity.

Men and women, transcending all the divides that characterise our society, responded to this vision of a new world. They understood this world of their dreams would not happen on its own. It had to be fought and struggled for. Many not only braced themselves for the titanic struggles to be waged, but even stood ready to pay the ultimate price. And many did. One of those pre-eminent sons who responded to this call was Billy Modise, popularly known as Uncle Billy.

Uncle Billy belonged to a rapidly disappearing breed of leaders who rose through the ranks on account of their readiness to sacrifice. Needless to say, these leaders were the cream of the crop and represented the best traditions of our people and their revolutionary movements. They were inspired by nothing more than the spirit of service, and the determination to fight injustice in whatever form it reared its ugly head.

Uncle Billy lived his life fully, honourably and with great humility. His entire life was devoted to that most noble and enduring of human objectives – the advancement of a life of dignified existence for the citizens of the world. Those of us who had the honour and privilege to learn at his feet should rise to the challenge of the moment in tribute to his life of service, and to celebrate the power of the force of example that he so well represented.

He was a genuine internationalist who fully understood how South Africa is located within a broader political and economic environment. This perspective was sharpened during his exile years.

He spent a number of years in Sweden (where he became fluent in Swedish) as the ANC’s chief representative. During this period he played a critical role in building an anti-apartheid solidarity movement in the Nordic countries.

He also played a critical role in the training of Namibian exiles in Zambia. This exposure put him in good stead when he was posted as democratic South Africa’s representative abroad.

Both as a revolutionary activist in the ANC and as our chief of state protocol, Uncle Billy was a genuine embodiment of this internationalist spirit.

In September 2003, I had the honour to continue serving our government by transferring from the department of health to the then department of foreign affairs as its director general under the guidance of former president Thabo Mbeki and minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

I was a relative novice about many aspects of diplomatic protocol and I looked up to Uncle Billy for guidance. Early in my days in foreign affairs I was struck by the palpable sense of respect that both the president and minister accorded Uncle Billy. It did not take me long to understand why.

I will forever be grateful to him for the manner in which his guidance was provided. He was sensitive, genuine and enthusiastic. Over the years many of us were overwhelmed by his vibrancy, his magnetic personality, his love for the finer things of life and his indomitable spirit.

During his years in the foreign service, ambassador Modise emerged as one of the finest among the leadership of the department. He could grapple with ideas and make credible interventions, and he excelled as a formidable debater. We saw him as a man of courage and great conviction who exuded warmth and love, which was returned and multiplied by those around him. He truly earned our unreserved trust and love.

Uncle Billy exuded the cool air of thoughtful authority. Rooted in the many years of experience, his judgement was sound, his insights profound and his motivation high. As chief of state protocol, Uncle Billy served our country with distinction. He enjoyed the full trust and respect of the presidents and ministers he served. He dignified every room or occasion and made dignitaries and visiting leaders feel comfortable and welcome guests in our country, even in the most formal and trying times.

As we reimagine and advance our engagement with the world under the stewardship of president Cyril Ramaphosa and international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu, we should remember the critical role that the likes of Uncle Billy played in laying the foundation. We should neither betray nor destroy their legacy.

Our country is fortunate to have produced a person of his outstanding and extraordinary talent. One so deeply patriotic and yet a true citizen of the world. As a people, we are all poorer as he leaves us during these challenging times.

To his family, we say thank you for sharing him with us. During these trying moments we can only remind you that “The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalms 34 verse 18).

Let us allow Uncle Billy to rest in eternal peace.

- Ntsaluba is former director-general of the department of health and foreign affairs and currently group executive director of Discovery Limited

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