Conversations with Brian Molefe

2017-02-26 11:09

When the news of Brian Molefe’s involvement with the Gupta’s broke it was a sad day for me. I had the honour of getting to know Brian when he was at Transnet. We met when he attended a talk I gave on the South African writer Herman Charles Bosman. In question time we debated Bosman’s political stance. Brian wanted to frame Bosman as a political activist. Perhaps he wanted to square his love of Bosman’s writings with his own political beliefs.

I recognised him as the ‘guy from Transnet’, and we chatted after the talk. Brian is a whirlwind of energy and passion. He is warm, real and friendly. I met with him on a few more occasions. Once he invited me to join him on a trip to the Groot Marico for a Bosman cultural weekend. I had other commitments, but I regret not taking the opportunity to spend more time with him.

About a year back the newspapers ran a piece about Brian’s son, then a UCT student, destroying art in a fit of misplaced radicalism. I found it ironic. When I knew Brian he related an anecdote about his mother receiving poor hospital treatment. When he asked his son (I assume the same one who’d later destroy art), what he would do to defend the dignity of his grandmother, the boy, then about 12, replied: “I would write a strongly worded letter to the hospital authorities.” Brian laughed at the quaint politeness of it all, in stark contrast to his own firebrand anti-apartheid activities as a youngster.

After seeing Brian a couple of times while he was at Transnet, I never saw him again, but followed his pronouncements in the press. I enjoyed his no-nonsense statements. In my conversations with him it was obvious that he was still animated by politics and the restoration of dignity to a long-oppressed racial majority. But, I didn’t detect bitterness or self-pity. In referring to Mugabe’s quixotic tilting at British colonialism he rhetorically asked why in Africa we were still fighting battles that had already been won. He reaffirmed this sentiment in talking about Pik Botha, quoting Botha referring to himself as a rotting piece of flesh – or some such mea culpa for his role in apartheid. Brian wanted to honour those who died in the Struggle, not disinter their bones for ritualistic mourning. He talked about Ongkopotse Abraham Tiro, who was assassinated by apartheid security forces in 1975. In 1972 Tiro, a student leader, gained renown for his fiery graduation speech (http://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/graduation-speech-onkgopotse-tiro-university-north-29-april-1972) at the University of the North. (I believe all South African students should read the speech as a context for today’s challenges.) He summed up neatly why apartheid was doomed: “The magic story of human achievement gives irrefutable proof that as soon as nationalism is awakened among the intelligentsia, it becomes the vanguard in the struggle against alien rule.” He also rhetorically asked, “Of what use will be your education if it is not linked with the entire continent of Africa?” He quoted Helen Suzman too, “There is one thing the minister cannot do: He cannot ban ideas from men’s minds.”

Brian felt that South Africans should remember the sacrifices of people like Tiro. He seemed concerned that self-interest was derailing the project of African advancement in the new South Africa. He was probably nostalgic about the pureness of the fight back then. I don’t know why he sacrificed his ideals and fell in with the Guptas. But, in our current socio-political climate it takes a saint not to be corrupted by power and money. I can’t judge him for it; I might well have done the same thing in his position.

I didn’t follow the story in the papers, and I was upset by the barely concealed glee with which many white people greeted the news. I just felt demoralised. I don’t think we appreciate the pressure black leaders face.

If only white rulers had seen that intelligent, aspirant black people – people like Ongkopotse Tiro and Brian Molefe – were really their friends in the cause of building a winning nation. Tiro is no longer with us, but fortunately Brian is. Should he become Finance Minister I hope he remembers the sacrifices of Tiro and puts the cause of African advancement before personal gain. It’s the least he could do to honour Tiro.

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