The tragedy of Michael Coetzee’s long illness and death will be profoundly painful for those lucky to have known him, says Shanti Aboobaker.
Cape Town - “So help me, Oliver Tambo.”
Those were the iconic words uttered by late Secretary of Parliament, Michael Coetzee on the dock during his trial for fighting for freedom in 1983.
It was a brave act of defiance and a public signal of the ANC’s presence in South Africa, and in coloured communities of the Western Cape, at a time of repression.
In 1981 Coetzee was recruited into the ANC underground.
The infamous Maseru Raid of 1982, in which 42 people where savagely murdered and several more injured by the SA Defence Force in Lesotho, led to documents being seized which exposed the ANC’s Western Cape networks.
As a result, Coetzee was detained in 1983 and shortly after so were two prominent underground operatives for furthering the aims of the banned ANC - Hedley King and Zelda Holtzman, who is now head of security at Parliament.
It became clear the state planned to call Coetzee as a state witness against his comrades.
“You know until that very morning in court, they thought I was going to give evidence against Hedley,” Coetzee told an interviewer before his death.
“When I took the witness stand, they said ‘Will you take the oath of affirmation?’ And instead, when I took the oath, I said: ‘So help me, Oliver Tambo.’”
Kate Philip, the former president of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), who is writing a biography of Coetzee.
She said this week he was renowned for “his integrity, work ethic, intellectual rigour and love for a good political debate”.
I write this tribute to him, having had the privilege of knowing him through my parents and being lucky enough to have observed as a child growing up his great joie de vivre – all in spite of the brutality he was subjected to.
Michael’s son with his life partner, Bridgette Prince, is named Matthew and so it was with great pride in knowing him that I discovered while watching a documentary some years back the origins of his son’s name.
On June 27 1985 four courageous freedom fighters, Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mlauli, were assassinated in cold blood.
They had been at a meeting in Port Elizabeth, held at Michael’s mother’s house, but could not be persuaded to sleep over in the city and resultingly setting off for Cradock at 9 pm that night.
Their bodies were found days later, burnt and mutilated, and their funeral later became a powerful public display of the “resolve to fight for freedom with the ANC and Communist Party flags unfurled”.
Prince and Coetzee’s son, Matthew who is now a dear young man of 21, was named after the great freedom fighter, Goniwe.
In detention Michael was severely tortured including being hung over the Van Staden Bridge in the Eastern Cape.
“The intention was to instill the fear of God into you so that you would reveal what (the police) wanted,” Michael said before his death.
“The most fearful torture was being hung over the bridge, and they would jerk you in a way that you could feel that if anything happens you will fall and you will die.
“Out of that experience, I took stock of my life. I felt there was too much missing in it (and) realised you can’t only be a permanent revolutionary, and I made some important decisions.”
Michael’s brother-in-law says one of those decisions was finding a life partner – and the person he wanted was Bridgette.
“But there were still years to go before there was any light at the end of apartheid’s dark tunnel,” Philip says.
In East London, Coetzee worked for the Chemical Industrial Workers Union, and played a key role in the formation of Cosatu and in facilitating the participation of the Federation of SA Trade Unions’ (Fosatu) unions in the new federation.
The tragedy of Michael’s long illness with cancer and now his death will cut profoundly painfully for South Africans and, of course, those lucky to know him as a friend, comrade, son, father, husband and uncle.
His astute political mind, especially at a time when many of our post-1994 institutions and parties are at a crossroads has led me often to long to speak to him.
This is especially true in relation to current developments in the country’s trade union movements.
But Michael will also be missed as a close family friend, who was always keen to share sage advice with the young people he saw growing up.
I will miss the anecdotes shared about the wonderful jokes and poignantly told stories he so relished sharing with his closest friends.
But his legacy will live long in the commitment he showed to the administration of our parliament and through the people he touched.
As we say ‘Hamba Kahle Michael’, I know we will be heartened by the memories of your strength and determination to always live life to the fullest - and in pursuit of justice, and joy.