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Wallace Mgoqi: A gentle giant of activism and leadership

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Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / African News Agency (ANA) – Memorial service for the late Ayo Technology Solutions chairperson, Dr Wallace Mgoqi at the Every Nation Church in Goodwood, Western Cape.

By Professor Gilingwe Mayende

Strong family bonds and values, adversity, providence, a firm religious foundation, a determined sense of destiny, and strength of character, combined fortuitously to produce the man that South Africa and the world would come to know as Wallace Mgoqi. Other key features of his social milieu were a bittersweet childhood and having to navigate an endless stream of hardships imposed by the vicissitudes of living under the abhorrent system of apartheid. In spite of all the terrible conditions that had marked him at birth for a life of misery under apartheid, key figures such as his teachers, school principals and priests, emerged and would guide him through the turbulence of growing up under these conditions. Like many who knew and worked with him, it is a singular honour to pen these few words of tribute to this illustrious son of the soil.

Wallace Amos Mgoqi, born on 7 June 1949 at Goodwood in Cape Town, was the product of his time. But he was also an antithesis of what this time represented for young people like him who were born and grew up during the darkest days of apartheid. He was supposed to have grown up to become at best a lowly paid labourer who would live a life of poverty on the margins of society, or at worst an idler with no hope or sense of direction in life. He chose not only to defy this template but rose to become one of apartheid’s most effective nemeses and one of those who took the lead in the quest to roll back its obnoxious legacy. About six years after he was born, and after their family was forcibly removed to Nyanga Township in 1955 under the Group Areas Act, Wallace spent the next eight years living with his ailing grandparents and his mother in a rural and farming area called E-Thwathwa in the Kat River valley near the town of Seymor in the Eastern Cape. He returned to Cape Town in 1963 after his grandparents had died and his parents had unsuccessfully attempted to establish a rural homestead at Izele near Qonce (formerly King William’s Town). His life in the rural area, on a white-owned farm, called Ross Farm, was as he recounts in his autobiography ‘Living Beyond Apartheid’ (2020), one of a mixture of self-sufficiency in basic needs such as food, devout Christian worship, boyish pranks and fights, youthful adventure, the humiliations of racism at the hands of white farm owners, and most of all, boundless love from his grandparents, parents and other relatives.

After returning to Cape Town with his mother in 1963, his life took a negative turn when, as an adolescent he got ensnared by and delved into ‘tsotsi’ activities, mixing with ‘bad elements’ and social rebels who either played truant or left school. He defied his parents’ instructions to take his schooling seriously, and at some point, in 1965, he decided to leave school to do menial jobs in the city. Auspiciously, this was to be a serious eye opener and reality check for him, as he soon realized the worthlessness of the life of a poorly paid labourer. This exposure to the reality of this loathsome life may be said to have been Wallace’s first Damascene moment, as thereafter, having decided to return to school, he would dive headlong into his studies and never look back. Thus it was that he would go through senior primary school and junior secondary school in Gugulethu, high school at the famous Healdtown in Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape, and subsequently the iconic University of Fort Hare in the nearby town of Alice.

The experiences that Wallace went through while studying towards a degree in social science (which was not his first choice as he wanted to study law, but was forced to take it because of the conditionalities attached to his bursary) at Fort Hare ushered in his second Damascene moment. Having engaged in political activism led by the black consciousness movement (BC) and embraced its philosophy and praxis, as many of his generations did at the time, Wallace began to take up positions of leadership in student societies such as the Social Work Students Association, and of course, campus-based BC formations such as the South African Student Organisation (SASO). It was during this time that he met Steve Biko who, as he recounts in his book ‘Living Beyond Apartheid’ (2020), famously uttered the following words to him and his colleagues when they visited him at his home in Ginsberg Township in 1973: “It is a good thing that students descend from the ivory tower of the university and join the community and feel the pulse of the people on the ground” – words that he says would guide his outlook for the rest of his life. Like many of his peers who were influenced by black consciousness, Wallace became a dedicated activist, and while still at university engaged in community upliftment programmes and in community mobilization, serving in organisations such as Masifundise Education Project and Zingisa Education Project around Qonce.

It was while he was at Fort Hare that his long-distance relationship with Dolly (whom he always called Radie after her clan name of Radebe) which had started when he was at Healdtown, blossomed. Dolly, who at the time was based in Cape Town staying at Gugulethu, had herself been born in the city, at the famous District Six suburb that the apartheid rulers destroyed when they forcibly removed its inhabitants in 1966. Their marriage, on 8 November 1974, was to last for 49 years, until his death on 3 April 2023.

Wallace took particular umbrage at the high-handed, racist inspired and brutal actions of the Fort Hare University authorities who responded to a strike by students that had started over the rather mundane issue of poor-quality food, by deciding to expel the entire student body in September 1973, a month before they were to write their final examinations. He was so incensed by this experience that he vowed never to return to Fort Hare even if called back, which the authorities did the following year – and he indeed lived up to his vow. From then onwards Wallace was to dedicate his life to fighting apartheid and in so doing to emmersing himself deep in the struggles of oppressed, poor and marginalized communities. After returning to Cape Town, he worked for organisations such as the Trust for Community Outreach (TCOE) and the Western Province Council of Churches. In the Western Cape, he also mobilised communities who were resident in informal settlements, under the aegis of the Cape Flats Committee for Interim Accommodation (CFCIA) which was formed to assist people who were evicted from informal settlements around the Cape Peninsula.

What followed from his Fort Hare years can best be characterised as a study of a life of principle, enormous sacrifice, courage, resilience, discipline, and integrity. Urbane, suave, debonair with a trademark crop of grey hair that came prematurely while he was still in his early forties, articulate in several languages, exuding an unmistakable aura of dignity, and endowed with a razor-sharp mind, and most of all, God-fearing, Wallace carried himself with consummate humility and prudence. But he was also a very decisive leader and visionary who, although gentle in his demeanour, was a straight talker, albeit soft-spoken, who was also guided by the principles of fairness and sound judgment. He took good care of himself and endeavoured to keep fit, and for his entire life was an elegant dresser, and he had a dynamic sense of humour with a booming laugh and a smile that would light up his face. He loved music, especially the jazz genre, in particular the female African-American vocalist Nancy Wilson, and he was also greatly influenced by Martin Luther King (Jr) and the actor and prolific writer, Sydney Poitier.

Wallace’s greatest footprint that is etched in the memory is certainly that of a person who not only fought the good fight against apartheid but also contributed immensely to post-apartheid reconstruction and transformation efforts. Wallace’s life as a community activist began shortly after his expulsion from Fort Hare whilst at the same time, in an effort to earn a living to support his young family, he did jobs like working as a post office clerk and insurance salesman. He did this simultaneously with studying towards completing his social science degree at the University of South Africa (Unisa). He later followed this qualification with an LLB degree at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1984.

In his own words, he wrote that he decided to push on with his dream of studying law “because I felt as a Social Worker, I lacked the power and leverage to bring meaningful redress to people’s suffering”. Later, in 1985, he joined the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), a public interest law firm under whose auspices he made many achievements as a lawyer. These achievements under difficult circumstances were to be followed by many others, including being admitted as an Attorney of the High Court of South Africa in 1988, receiving three honorary doctoral degrees (from UCT, New York University, and Walter Sisulu University), as well as numerous awards in recognition of his leadership in law and community work. The most prestigious of these was Sir Sydney and Lady Felicia Kentridge Award from the General Council of the Bar in South Africa which was awarded to him in 2002, and the Duma Nokwe Human Rights Ward (named after the first African to be admitted as an advocate in South Africa) by the Human Rights Commission which he received in 2004. He also became a member of the Council of UCT, Black Lawyers Association (BLA), Desmond Tutu Footprints of Legends Awards and Friends of Disabled and Aged Council, and the Board of Governors of UCT from 1995 to 1998.

As he immersed himself in the struggles of communities, Wallace demonstrated enormous courage as the stared down the apartheid bullies masquerading as government officials who sadistically tormented communities, threatening them with eviction from their modest homes. The one community that stands out in this regard was previously called Uitkyk, near Kraaifontein in the Western Cape, which in 1992 in its gratitude to his efforts changed the name of their settlement to Wallacedene in his honour. A street is also named after him at New Crossroads on the Cape Flats.

And then there were numerous communities that he assisted after 1994 in resolving their land restitution claims when he served as the Regional Land Claims Commissioner for the Western and Northern Cape Provinces. This is where Wallace put his intellectual and leadership skills and erudition to great use, as he played a key role in navigating the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights around numerous obstacles that at the time stood on the path of resolving the restitution claims. Indeed, he played a pioneering role in this regard, blazing a trail that remains a major part of the template for fast-tracking what has been a painfully onerous process. He took these processes to a higher level when he ascended to the position of Chief Land Claims Commissioner in 1999, based in Pretoria. He continued to keep in touch with the legal profession, as attested to by the fact that he was asked to serve as an Acting Judge of the Land Claims Court on more than one occasion. Wallace indeed led the archetypal multi-faceted life of a leader, activist, lawyer, author, and as he describes himself, a development law expert, public law administrator, corporate governance expert, and legal practitioner in the public interest.

The episode when he served as the City Manager of the City of Cape Town (March 2003 to May 2006), which should have been a crowning homecoming moment for him, proved to be another theatre of struggle when his tenure was ended prematurely in the face of political jockeying, intrigue and racism, which saw the then mayor of the City of Cape Town subsequently also losing her job. Nevertheless, in spite of this unpleasant experience, Wallace remained a well-respected figure in Cape Town, especially among its black communities. Then, as many began to write him off, Wallace re-emerged and rose to the top once again, a mark of his versatility, he metamorphosed into a business leader when he took up positions on various boards of companies, especially those under the umbrella of the Sekunjalo Group, headed by Dr Iqbal Surve. He demonstrated this trait early on when he joined the boards of large corporates such as Old Mutual, in which he served from 1995 to 2005, Syfrets, Safmarine and Safren, all of which exposed him to business leadership and corporate governance.

In this role as a business leader, Wallace again proved his mettle as he transitioned easily and was called to become the Chairperson of Ayo Technology Solutions, one of South Africa’s top black-owned information technology companies registered on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The tragedy of his death is that he had just witnessed the end of what had been a protracted episode of controversy and acrimony to which Ayo Technology Solutions had been subjected, underlined by a vicious media campaign – which may sadly have taken its toll on his health.

Right to the end of his life, Wallace continued to tenaciously adhere to strong family values, maintaining a closely-knit family, devotion to his beloved Radie, camaraderie with his co-workers, and staying loyal to his friends, with many of these friendships going as far back as the days of his childhood. As he put it in his last book entitled ‘Benefits of Hindsight’ (2020), as he grew older, especially after he turned 60, he re-affirmed his allegiance to the Christian religion after “veering from the faith for a period of twenty-six years”. One could describe this as Wallace’s third and final Damascene moment. Wallace ended this book by quoting from one of his favourite authors, Gerald McCann, on the subject of ‘finishing well’ (on which a number of esteemed authors have also written), who wrote: “Well done, my good and faithful servant! My Champion!” – a very apt way of describing his own graceful exit from the world of mortals.

Hamba kakuhle Cira, Ncibane, Ntswentswe, Nojaholo!!

Professor Gilingwe Mayende is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Operations at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).