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Zola Dabula: high praise for a fallen soldier

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Picture: WhatsApp – A brave soldier, a committed freedom fighter, a gentle and caring doctor, Zola Dabula worked hard to balance four great passions – his deep love for his family, his love for life, his love for his chosen profession, and his deep hatred for injustice, which he resolved to fight as part of the front-line detachment of our liberation struggle, the writer says.

By Ayanda Ntsaluba

Our nation has lost one of its most loyal servants. A brave soldier, a committed freedom fighter, a gentle and caring doctor.

Born Zola Wiseman Songo, he is the eldest son of the late Seeby Nomtsheketshe and Nolizwe Ruth Pearl (nee Yako) Dabula.

He did his primary and secondary education in Mt Frere, then proceeded to St John’s College in Umtata. In 1976 he started his medical training at the University of Natal which he completed in 1982.

His medical professional duties were discharged with great dedication over four decades in Mthatha and the South African Military Health Services (SAMHS).

In his early years he worked hard to balance four great passions – his deep love for his family, his love for life, his love for his chosen profession, and his deep hatred for injustice and his resolve to fight it as part of the front-line detachment of our liberation struggle.

No surprise therefore that Zola immersed himself in the political and military underground of the African National Congress in the Eastern Cape – a network he joined dating back to his student days at the University of Natal. During this struggle, he, like so many, put himself in harm’s way in the service of our country. This, at a time when it was not fashionable to do so and the price to pay was enormous.

Some of those closest to him, his dearest friends and comrades paid with the most precious possession, life itself. I refer to, amongst others, Dr Norman Ngciphe who died in the December 1982 Maseru raid alongside Mzwanele Fazzie and other heroes and heroines. I also refer to comrades Mpilo Maqhekeza and Zola Dubeni, among others, who both fell during the armed struggle as trained combatants of Umkhonto we Sizwe. It is only appropriate that as we pay tribute to Zola, we recognise that he was but one of a mighty selfless detachment. This is what he would have insisted on!

Like all of us, Zola was far from perfect. In his moments of frailty, a human inheritance, he had the courage to confront these and lift himself up. He refused to allow these moments to reduce his humanity nor allow them to define him. He was and will always be remembered at the very core as a decent human being, and a selfless patriot who leaves behind a proud legacy of dedicated service to his country and people.

Zola understood that what has been fought for, needs to be defended and that the values and freedoms we hold dear need safeguarding. So it was, therefore, that the dawn of our democracy did not send to him a signal of a mission accomplished. This was but a landmark, an important one at that, in an ongoing journey.

His love for the military, that grew during his days in the underground, shaped his next steps. He saw the SANDF as a potent instrument for the defence of our gains and projection of our vision of a united, inclusive, nonracial and non-sexist democracy in a peaceful world. He immersed himself heart and soul in it. He rose through its ranks and deservedly earned the honour to lead its Health Services as the Surgeon General. He will be laid to rest with a smile on his face in the fine tradition of the military as Lieutenant General (Ret) Dr ZWS Dabula.

A high watermark in his life – a convergence of his medical profession, his love for the military and his deep sense of patriotic duty – was to be asked to co-ordinate the medical team that looked after our icon and founding President of our democratic state, President Nelson Mandela, during his last years and days. There could be no greater expression of trust in him as a leader, as a professional and as a disciplined cadre than this act of putting the care and the protection of the dignity of the frail and delicate body of Madiba in his hands. This is a task Zola embraced until the very last minute of Madiba’s life.

As we bid farewell to a dear comrade and friend, we are filled with a mix of profound sorrow and overwhelming gratitude. Sorrow for the void his physical absence leaves in our lives, for the boisterous laughter that will never be shared, for his stubbornness in conversations and arguments that will remain unfinished. But gratitude for the privilege of having known such an extraordinary human being.

In the tapestry of our lives as your friends and comrades, your presence will forever be woven as an unbreakable thread that connects the chapters of our stories. Your passion and unwavering dedication to the cause of freedom will be our guide.

We pay tribute to your late parents (uZulu noMandlane) for nurturing and providing the foundation upon which this remarkable character built his life. To his entire family for being such dependable anchors during all seasons of his life. We owe you all a great debt of gratitude.

Perhaps it is fitting to steal from the words of President Thabo Mbeki in celebrating the life of Steve Biko when he said, “Our commemoration of the death of Steve Biko resonates with heroism, a steely human resolve and a remarkable vision for human freedom”.

Farewell dear friend and thank you for the immeasurable gift of friendship. Your legacy will continue to shine brightly in the hearts of all who knew you.

Ayanda Ntsaluba is a Director for Discovery