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Memoirs of a distant past

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Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA) – An informal settlement on the Peninsula. ‘As a Social Worker, I immersed myself in involvement with people living in informal settlements all over the Cape Peninsula, in areas like Modderdam, Unibel, Werkgenot around the University of the Western Cape’, the writer says.

By Wallace Mgoqi

They say that elderly people tend to remember things which happened in the far distant past as clearly as if they happened yesterday. Yet they struggle to remember what they were doing just the previous day. I find myself in that position, now that I am approaching my 74th birthday.

In 1977, the year I graduated and qualified as a Social Worker, I immersed myself in involvement with people living in informal settlements all over the Cape Peninsula, in areas like Modderdam, Unibel, Werkgenot around the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Milnerton informal settlement, Crossroads informal settlement, Kraaifontein informal settlement, where Wallacedene stands today. I was part of an NGO called the Cape Flats Committee For Interim Accommodation (CFCIA) helping the leadership of these communities to liaise with the media to put their grievances across, so that the broader Cape Town community should be aware of their living conditions and prick the consciences of the well-meaning members of the community.

We were also linking them up with progressive law firms, with lawyers who were prepared to work pro bono in such cases, law firms like Syfrets-Godlonton-Fuller, Moore and Mallinick, Ress, Richman and Closenberg and others at the time, with partners like Andrew Dalling, Richard Rosenthal, who later became my principal, when later I studied law at UCT and registered for Articles of Clerkship at his law firm, where he was a senior partner. Incidentally, Richard is still alive, my senior by ten years, since then we became like family friends.

At Mallinicks, Alan Dodson I can mention, with fondness, the late Michael Richman, who did so much human rights work, together with young lawyers like Dodson, now SC – one day I had to lend him my court gown, as he had forgotten his and his case came before mine. They represented political detainees and their families who had to visit them periodically on Robben Island, Lee Bozalek, who later became a judge of the Cape High Court. Richman was one of the brightest lawyers this country has ever produced, not commensurately recognised. He possessed a towering mind, may his soul rest in peace!

I owe my being to be who I am today, career-wise, and professionally, to the generous spirit of these great lawyers, who surrounded me in my youth, when most young and upcoming black lawyers struggled to get into the legal profession, they made it easy for me. At Sygolo, two partners, in particular , took me under their wings, Nick Muller and Jo Neser. Come exam time, for the Attorneys Admission exams, they drilled me for the oral part of the exams, thereafter released me with confidence that I will sail through, which I did, to this day I am eternally grateful to them, for their going out of their way, when it was not fashionable to do so – going upstream, as it were.

These public-spirited human rights lawyers inducted me in using the law as an instrument of social justice. I owe it to them that I was honoured by three different universities ( UCT, Unitra – WSU, and Queens College, School of Law , City University of New York, (US) and the honour of being made a third Recipient of the prestigious Sir Sidney and Lady Felicia Kentridge Human Rights Award in Southern Africa, after the first two Chief Justices of South Africa, Justices Ismail Mahomed and Arthur Chaskalson, as well as the Advocate Duma Nokwe Human Rights and Advocacy Award.

Fast-forward to 1979, having made waves in the media about my involvement with people in informal settlements, I was selected to join a group of South African professionals on US-SA Exchange programme, called Operation Crossroads Africa (OCA) to visit organisations in the US in the same stream of work we were involved in SA.

Before I left on my first trip to the US, a group of women from Langa and Guguletu arranged a Farewell Concert for me, where they also invited my parents to attend.

The highlight of that event to me more than the messages of goodwill that were said was the presence of Brenda Nokuzola Fassie, who was 15 years of age at that time, and she sang so beautifully and powerfully, I knew right then that this young girl was going to go far in her music career.

Even on my return, the ladies arranged another social event, where I was expected to share my experiences in America, again Brenda Fassie was the main act.

Not long thereafter, we heard that Brenda had gone to Johannesburg and was making waves there, until her career took off like an eagle that had reached maturity stage to fly on its own, the rest was history, as they say. Brenda had a rich artistic career, albeit a socially tumultuous one. We next connected when she got married here in Rylands, Cape Town, years later.

Around the same time, I was part of a circle of friends who started a platform called Qaqamba, (a Xhosa word meaning “Rise and Shine”) to attract young artists to come forward with whatever artistic talent, they had to display to the community.

One of those who came forward, was Mc Coy Mrubata from Guguletu with his saxophone.

McCoy blew our minds, with his saxophone, and again we knew this young man’s future was blindingly rich and encouraged him to hone his skill in what he was doing, and he never disappointed. To this day, whenever and wherever we meet, he still remembers that had it not been for Qaqamba, he would not have scaled the heights he has managed to climb to where he finds himself today.

On the first trip to the US as a group, we had a free time to visit people who learnt about our presence in that country, principally South Africans, who were very curious to learn about developments back home. Naturally, they did their homework about the people they were to meet to make sure they would not be meeting with “sell outs” as it were, only then would they proceed with the arrangement.

On our last leg in New York, we were invited to the home of the late Bra Hugh Masekela, where other South Africans were present.

Among people I met there, was one who was coming from Langa, where my family and I had moved to over, from Guguletu to make a home there, was the late Victor Mhleli Ntoni, who was playing , among others , with Bra Hugh Masekela as a Bass guitarist, and furthering his studies in music, with the likes of Thembi Mtshali and others. Victor and I had not known each other, though both of us were from Cape Town as I was a recent arrival in Langa at the time. But from that moment, we became great friends, especially after his return to SA. Victor Ntoni after his return to South Africa distinguished himself phenomenally, as a musician, composer of musical plays like Meropa and African Odyssey and others, as well writing music for films. He is still described by those who knew him and his work as a musical genius.

Victor Ntoni and Mc Coy Mrubata at one stage played music together. Victor also played with other musical greats like Dave Brubeck, who is the one who arranged for Victor to study music further at Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where he studied harmony and composition- skills that would prove invaluable on his return to SA. His other music partners were the likes of Vusi Khumalo, Lawrence Matshiza, Sylvia Mdunyelwa, Andile Yenana and the trumpeter, Feya Faku from Gqeberha.

One of Victor’s notable achievements was when he arranged a successful musical tribute to the late OR Tambo in 2005, where he paid homage to the former ANC leader in exile.

Those who knew Tambo well said he loved choral music so much, and what Ntoni did with that tribute was truly a proper homage to his memory.

He also played with the legendary Abdullah Ibrahim, recording their album together Peace.

Victor received post-humously the Order of Ikamanga in Silver with the citation:

“His excellent contribution to the arts , creatively using music to protest against oppression. He was fearless in expressing his views even during the period where ant-government sentiments threatened his livelihood “

These are my fond memories, I thought are worth documenting for those who come behind us, to know what happened before. The memory of those distant events is as clear as in a day, under the sun, of clear African skies. As human beings, unlike the animal kingdom, we are endowed, by the Creator, with the capability to recall events in our distant past, analyse them, and draw whatever lessons we want from them – the so-called benefits of hindsight – a gift from Above.

Dr Wallace Mgoqi is Chairperson of Ayo Technology Solutions. He writes in his personal capacity.

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