Busani Ngcaweni reflects on the life of former ANC Western Cape secretary Songezo Mjongile who died earlier this month after a battle with colon cancer and a tribute written by City Press Editor Mondli Makhanya.
Dear Mondli Makhanya,
There is no doubt that this year, 2020, has been very difficult. It has taken a toll on all of us, our compatriots, brethren in the continent, and indeed to humanity worldwide.
Whereas slavery, colonialism and apartheid were the largest disrupters of our lives up to the 20th century, communicable epidemics (HIV and Covid-19) are the most devastating disrupters of our lives in the 21st century, as if globalisation was ever kind to us.
Like rampaging thieves, these epidemics came ashore, descended on communities ushering in the paradigm of death. Just as we were recording triumph against the AIDS epidemic, with hundreds of children born free of HIV, workers working for years longer, infection rates under control, in came Covid-19 to spoil the party, once again testing our mastery of state craft.
These are truly difficult times, Mr Editor, as you write weekly in your columns.
My principal object of this correspondence is to tell you of how much I was touched by your tribute to the late Songezo “Madiba” Mjongile. Having read your interventions over two decades, I am fully aware that your words of comfort to the friends and family of comrade Songezo were truly sincere, deep from your heart.
That says a lot about the impact of the comrade we are bidding farewell to.
He was a kind man. A humane comrade who defied the contemporary standard and meaning of being a comrade during his time.
Never did Songezo treat people the same way the zealots of factionalism do. In whatever leadership position he held, everyone was a “chief”, “comrade” or “mchana” to him. You eloquently make these observations in your tribute, and coming from an unflinching pen like yours, it cannot go without notice.
In fact, Bra Mondli, your compassionate words remind me of the midnight of 20 June 2019 at Cubana in Cape Town.
I see in your tribute you gave our seasonal sanctuary another name? No, it is not the church, Mr Editor, but Mam’ Rubby’s Place. Only a few who are SABC1 enthusiasts know who Mam’ Rubby is.
On that night, after the State of the Nation Address, I stood beside you and comrade Songezo at the back section of the little “gomorra”.
We were watching the carnival of indulgence; of elderly men in polyester suits and their aged mates in velvet gowns – with accreditation cards flashing on their bosoms. How these end up at a cigar lounge is a question for sociologists to study. This is, after all, the playground of “born frees” and ama2000.
You Mr Editor, and our dear departed comrade, cautioned about my anti-social behaviour of being on the phone while life was unfolding.
When I said I was quickly recording my reflections about the social spectacle of the State of the Nation Address, you looked away and Songezo quipped: “uyagula wena busy writing at a shebeen at midnight? But don’t stop telling us whatever uncomfortable truths you always write about… bhala mchana and come back for a drink…”
Indeed, I continued writing and you Mr Editor duly received (with some surprise) and published these reflections in the City Press on the Sunday.
Songezo’s reaction to the article was what one had known him to be: reflective. He again said, “tell those truths as uncomfortable as they may be”. You say as much about him in your tribute.
Speaking of discomfort, I recall Songezo after the Thuma Mina State of the Nation Address in 2018 telling a bouncer at the same Cubana that “chief, if I were you, I’ll let this comrade in and make him comfortable because he contributed to the pride we feel today…”
I made it in without further ado. Inside he demanded that we take a selfie as a sign of peace after the December party conference (although I never really was part of any factional battles).
Songezo said “chief, let’s forget Singaphezulu!” – some pre-Nasrec conference slogan from contending factions which believed they were ahead. “Please comrade, take care of President CR. Let’s support him because his success is ours as the movement… Thank you for the great speech…”
Looking back, I recall after Songezo lost the leadership re-election in the Western Cape, calling me “to touch base” at the Taj Hotel in Cape Town.
Much of what he said about how he lost is a stuff of commissions and biographies.
The most striking thing though was that, in his calmness, he said, “I don’t want people feeling pity for me and talking about redeployment. I will go into business now while remaining active the renewal efforts. But I don’t want to do tenders as I don’t want to be chased by the media and my political enemies saying I am a tenderpreneur…”
I left understanding that he wanted a low profile and not squabbles. He laughed at his defeat – the same consistent laugher I saw outside the plenary hall at the 2004 conference of the ANC Youth League.
You see Mr Editor, in the province where we were born, losing party leadership may result in death for some of the politicians. Yet, this humble soul just took it in his stride and moved on, remaining active as an ordinary branch member.
We have lost a truly remarkable human being. Someone who is claimed by everyone to have been his friend. That is testament to his humility. Unlike some, he never treated people differently just because they did not serve with him in a leadership structure.
It takes a special kind of man to come to terms with their imminent demise.
Retrospectively, Madiba’s last weeks among the living were about reckoning. He never wanted people to panic about his situation. He dropped private and public messages that made us all believe that he was on the mend.
I thought as much until his dying hours of 20 August.
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Songezo called for “an urgent intervention”. He requested that I help review his tribute to a late childhood friend and comrade, Baba Thamsanqa Ntshobane. He was definitely not well, but insisted on having this tribute reviewed and finalised. How he managed to type it under strict medical arrangements is remarkable.
Overwhelmed by work pressures, my input was too shoddy. I was hoping to use the next evening to finalise it.
It is the depth of the message in that tribute to Baba that was touching. Here, the comrade was reckoning with his own fate.
He knew his day was near. Through Baba, he wrote about himself.
You can just substitute the names and the results will be the same. He refused to use the poems and songs I had suggested.
He spoke from the heart and cried for elusive unity of his organisation.
He spoke of the responsibility of younger comrades, reminding them of their obligation to rebuild the party and society. He called on the next generation of leadership to stand up and save the movement.
He was impatient about disunity, divisions and the distance between the leadership and the people.
In that tribute to Baba, he yearned and called for brotherhood and companionship.
He closed it by saying:
“… Instead we see the emergence of demagogues more dangerous than previous; some justifying looting, corruption, wrongdoing without any shame. We have elevated factions above the organisation and the revolution. One leader that I grew up with shocked the hell out me. When I was extending my hand of greeting and hug he told me in my face he doesn’t greet me anymore. I asked why thinking he was joking. He said that is because I differed with him at the last conference. That’s what some have become. I told myself I joined the ANC not individuals and I will never compromise to appease demigods who think the movement is their personal property. We want activist leaders who must emulate the example of OR [Tambo], Madiba, Sisulu, Winnie [Mandela], Ngoyi, Suzman and Slovo; who were ready to sacrifice!”
Those who followed Songezo on social media would attest that this has been rallying cry even before he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. He wrote of his last wish – to pray for the unity of his organisation.
His memorial took place on 24 September, Heritage day. We may be accused of stretching things; but Mr Editor, read in the context of your unkind words about comrade Songezo’s contemporaries, we might as well wonder as King Shaka did when his siblings and confidantes were killing him: will Malusi Gigaba, Zizi Kodwa, Mzandile Masina, Malose Kekana, Nomfanelo Kota, Tshilidzi Ratshitanga, Sihle Zikalala, Febe Potgieter, Fikile Mbalula et al inherit the movement?
We should not miss this coincidence of September 24, even if it is meant to prick the conscience of those who served with Songezo in executive committees of COSAS and the ANC Youth League. When they return from his internment, will they default to behaviours of yesteryear, or will they sincerely honour the departed comrade by taking to heart his last testament, embrace his spirit of brotherhood, lead ethically and put the people first?
Rest in Peace Madiba.
You know this age of social distancing means we mourn without showing up. We will, at the appointed hour, congregate to reflect on your unity dreams. Peace be with you too, Mr Editor, for you have lost a kind-hearted and open-minded politician who was not suspicious of your company, the sting in your pen notwithstanding.
Adios Madiba. We mourn you without physically showing up because of Covid-19 restrictions.
– Busani Ngcaweni is Principal of the National School of Government (NSG).
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