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‘Fear is not an option in pursuit of change’

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Picture: Theo Jeptha/African News Agency (ANA)

In this article published in Independent Media on April 11, 2021, late ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Yasmin Duarte reflects on the life of freedom fighter Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu and why the ANC cannot squander the liberation dividend that Mahlangu and countless others paid the ultimate price for South Africa’s democracy. Duarte passed on in the early hours of Sunday.

On April 6, 1979, Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu was taken from his cell to a holding cell that held six other men in the death row section of Pretoria Central Prison. A day before, he had seen his mother Mme Martha Mahlangu and his lawyer Dr Priscilla Jana, after he had lost his appeal some weeks earlier, and had told his mother: “Tell my people that I love them and they must continue to fight, my blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom, A luta Continua.”

From the holding cell he was made to stand next to six other men, his head was covered with a white hood, the front flap was lifted and he was asked by a warder if he had “any complaints or requests”.

At 6.55am he walked in front of a warder, up 52 steps to the hanging area. There, his height was measured and the rope placed in front of him was adjusted and put around his neck. A metal ring near the knot was placed firmly at the nape of his neck.

Minutes later, the 23-year-old revolutionary and uMkhonto We Sizwe (MK) combatant was dead. Warders removed his body from the noose and dropped it into a square pool, where it was washed with six other bodies, before being taken to an autopsy room and examined by a doctor. Thereafter, it was placed in a coffin that was then sealed. An identity card was the only means of identifying him. His remains were buried in an unmarked grave in the Mamelodi cemetery.

Today, the place of death where Mahlangu was hanged is a monument to its horror and to the horror of how collective guilt as a verdict caused a man to lose his young life. The average age of people hanged in the place of darkness was between 19 and 31, with one or two people over that age. Most of them black men.

There is an eerie atmosphere in the place and some quotes on the walls now, such as a remark by a warder that they were sure that some people they hanged were innocent and perhaps the State witness should have been hanged instead. The State was a killer, and it can never be undone.

Of course, legal killing was not the only means by which the apartheid regime “removed people from society”.

Kalushi, as Mahlangu was known to his MK comrades, left us with a legacy of a true revolutionary, his last message is an indication that he knew his work to free the people of South Africa from repression, poverty and slavery, economic deprivation, the bantustans, race-based education and no health care and no access to higher education, bar a few, was not over.

He left a legacy to the youth of the 1980s, that there was no retreat and no surrender. Simply put, it takes courage to continue and to withstand all the challenges including in his case, death.

He also leaves a legacy of remarkable loyalty and discipline, Kalushi was arrested because he ran back to assist his comrade Monty Motloung who was captured. He could have run away but he did not. He was sentenced to death because, in the scuffle, two white men were killed. He was sentenced for the fact that he was there, and he had to pay the price, a heavy price.

Today, we see people in our movement dividing the movement, simply because they want to lead. If they do not win an election, they set up parallel structures.

We see infighting to be close to resources that belong to the people. We see cowardly misinterpretations of goals that are important to achieve a democratic society. We see people cringe at words such as “revolution”, “radical” and even “transformation”.

Yet, we have a solemn duty to transform the social conditions our people live under.

We have a duty to ensure that our people are not homeless and helpless. We have a duty to provide basic services and eradicate poverty.

We have a duty to change the structure of the economy. To do so, we need radical action, not words and protests but real action that will achieve radical economic transformation.

It is a travesty that the most important things we must achieve, social transformation and economic ownership of the means of production by black people, has become another tool to create a dialogue that seeks to fracture the ANC.

This, along with a greed for power and misguided notions of leading by slogans, reduces the blood spilt by Kalushi to populist rhetoric and diverts attention from the stated purpose of creating a better life for all in the country.

We are succumbing all too easily to diversion. We dare not lose focus to transform this society governed by centuries of elite, unelected people, whose prejudices cause some in the ANC to fear to say we will radically transform the economy in order for it to be inclusive and work for all the people. We will repossess the land and hand it to its original owners.

Fear is not an option. The true option is to include everyone as partners in the stated goals. The continued leadership of the economy by an unelected elite who want to hold on to all the commanding heights of our economy is not taking our country forward. Creating pockets of corruption is not taking our country forward.

Transforming the economy radically is not a construct of some obscure PR company but it was the ideal for which Kalushi died. He sold apples on trains in the hope he would some day run his own business. He did not ask for handouts; he did what he thought would get him to his goal. He joined MK because he wanted freedom for all.

Transforming our economy must be a collective task of all citizens. It is not the purview of a few who shout slogans and offer no options. Nor is it the purview of those who believe that shaping action to radically transform the economy will lead to its destruction.

We need to reimagine the economy and view it from putting resources into sectors that offer growth and decent work.

We need to have courage and not apologise for wanting change.