When I heard the news of the death of ANC’s Songezo Mjongile, I went back to the last message he sent me earlier this month when I had wished him recovery and told him that he can’t go yet as the country still needed him.
His reply was the Nguni adage: “Ingcwaba lendoda liseceleni kwendlela.” (A man’s grave is by the side of the road.)
Loosely interpreted, this saying means you must always be ready for that final day because it could happen at any time.
Except that his death was not supposed to happen just yet. It is hard to imagine that hulking figure with a loud voice, big eyes and boundless energy lying still till eternity.
The outpouring of grief across the board – inside and outside the ANC – and across the factions of the governing party, showed just how significant a figure he had become in his short life.
His charisma cut across the political spectrum and his fun-filled nature ensured he cut into all spaces beyond politics and the business sector he had devoted a lot of his energies to as he moved out of his youth and into mid-life.
Mjongile cut his political teeth early in that school that has spawned many of the governing party’s public representatives – the Congress of South African Students (Cosas).
A very different Cosas from today’s rabble that storms bottle stores for free hooch and mindlessly loots goods from struggling pavement hawkers.
That Cosas still had politics and purpose and, with the likes of him at the helm, it was an important voice in the education space.
Transitioning into the ANC Youth League, where he rose to its national leadership, it was clear that Mjongile’s political career was going to go very far.
Emerging from the rather tame leadership of Malusi Gigaba, who had cosied up to then President Thabo Mbeki to the point of mimicking his speaking style, the ANC Youth League executive under Fikile Mbalula was more robust and assertive.
They took on Mbeki and became part of the forces that propelled Jacob Zuma to power.
This cause – as predictably destructive as it was to South Africa - breathed life into the Youth League. The organisation became a relevant voice and regained influence.
They had their politics argument, which they articulated to us journalists many times in discussions in the light of day and more passionately in late night sessions over cranberry juice; Sprite and Valpre still water.
We know what the outcome of that pro-Zuma argument ultimately was, but that’s not for today.
What is important was that these were youth activists who were committed to a cause that they were prepared to carry to the end. But there was also something unsavoury about that generation.
With the cash-flush Brett Kebble seeking to win friends and influence people, the Youth League became an obvious target - along with senior politicians, businesspeople, law enforcers and civil servants.
The crafty businessperson who built a house of cards multi-billion rand empire and engaged in massive criminal conduct, opened his cheque book and the young revolutionaries swam in a sea of money.
On the celebrity circuit they outshone successful musicians, actors and football stars.
A new culture of glitz and glamour had set in and our politics has never recovered. Other businesspeople followed Kebble’s lead and also went influence-peddling around the league.
Times were good. Lembede Investments, of which Mjongile was chief executive, was born in those fertile times.
Billed as a vehicle for empowering young people, Lembede’s founding principles were noble on paper.
What it really was, only leaders of the youth league of that time really know. But what is known is that it remains a blot in the copybook of someone who could have gone very far in the leadership of the country.
Mjongile still went on to play other senior roles in the ANC mother body as he was navigating his way through the world of business.
Notably, he served as provincial secretary of the chaotic Western Cape chapter of the ANC. An unenviable job reserved for those who really believe.
Those who spent time with Mjongile will tell you that what they will miss is the quality of engagement.
He loved his politics, practical and theoretical. He thought deeply and argued deeply.
Having plunged his energies into the campaign to get Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected ANC president at the 2017 ANC conference, Mjongile had well-thought through arguments as to why she was too strong and principled to become beholden to the hyenas who were at the forefront of her campaign.
He would methodically explain her strengths, character and political outlook to prove that the so-called Premier League and the other forces who were seeing her potential leadership as Jacob Zuma 2.0 were just day-dreaming.
Don’t you worry, she will stand her ground and be her own person, he would argue. As for her rival Cyril Ramaphosa, he had many questions and many not-so-nice answers.
He was no fan at all. Yet, when Ramaphosa won the presidency at Nasrec, he became intolerant of those in his camp who were battling to accept the outcome.
In private settings and chat groups he called them to order, saying that the ANC could not afford to prolong the divisive 2017.
He had not suddenly become a Ramaphosa convert, eager for a place at the new table. He was still very critical and skeptical of the new president of the ANC and remained so even when he was head of the republic.
His view was that a conference battle lost was not for the defeated to undermine the victors.
This was a mark of maturity that was far advanced than some of those who inhabit that tall building on Pixley ka Seme in central Johannesburg.
Above all he was a political animal and a fine intellect, Mjongile was just a heck of a lot fun. He laughed, poked fun and talked a whole lot of nonsense a lot of the time.
Even in the middle of an intense political discussion the mischief was always there.
In his iconic piece Faces and Places song, Sipho Gumede lets you imagine – among other things – the faces that you may associate with certain spaces and the experiences and emotions that come with that.
When someone leaves a town, there are spaces that you will associate with that individual and that will make you miss him or her.
It is the sort of thing that makes it difficult for you to accept that this person is no longer in that familiar surround.
For those who were regular parishioners at the place colloquially known as “church” – but formally known as Cubana Greenpoint – there will now be a face that will not be in the space where you expect it to be.
When we next gather for the real state of the nation address, which occurs hours after the official state of the nation address, Mjongile will not be there to join in the cacophonous deliveries of speeches by the congregation of that church.
He will not be parading the floor of the establishment – analysing, debating, telling stories and talking bull-dust.
His face will not be seen in many other places across the country where we had come to expect to see his face and hear his voice boom across the room.
Lala ngoxolo, Madiba. You fought your battles – won some and lost some, as is the way of the world.
You may have lost this last one but you know and we all know that you certainly left your mark on our good republic.