Cape Town - For a few seconds during parliamentary secretary Michael Coetzee’s funeral on Saturday, the man’s own voice filled St George’s Cathedral.
“My name is Michael Coetzee and I work here in Parliament as the secretary of Parliament,” said the voice. “I have worked in unions. I have worked in a factory. And I work here for the time being… I have worked in Parliament for 12 years and have been secretary for two years… and I’ll be here for a little while longer.”
It was a short clip, filmed just two weeks before Coetzee died on Friday last week after a long battle with cancer, nothing more than him introducing himself to the new parliamentarians, and looking much older than his 54 years.
“But it showed so much of ‘Mikey’, said former finance minister Trevor Manuel; that self-effacing humour, that mischievous smile.
“I’ll be here a for a little while longer,” repeated Manuel. “(Coetzee) knew exactly what was happening to him. But trying to ensure democracy triumphs because Parliament functions is something he was deeply committed to.”
Manuel told the packed cathedral on Saturday that Coetzee was “exceedingly intolerant of wrongdoing, something fuelled by a rare courage that was a constant in his life”.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa called him “dedicated, sincere, honest, and committed to excellence and service”.
“Michael, in his job, had to know not only the rules and ethics of Parliament, but also the constitution inside and out… He was a person of diligence. He was disciplined, methodical. Much more than the secretary-general of the ANC or the minister of finance or the Speaker of Parliament, he was the consummate public servant.”
Ramaphosa and ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte presented a folded ANC flag to Coetzee’s wife, Bridgette, and son, Matthew.
Born on August 25, 1959, Coetzee grew up in on a farm outside the small town of Loerie in the Eastern Cape.
He was exposed to the Black Consciousness Movement during his high school years in Uitenhage, and was deeply shaped by the politically-charged atmosphere of the University of the Western Cape in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
He was “the greatest of our generation”, Manuel told the mourners.
Vice-Chancellor of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Professor Derrick Swartz, said: “I can’t believe how young we were, the kids we were – barely in our early 20s. Black Consciousness spawned in his imagination the idea that something must be done to bring down this regime… (apartheid) was made by human endeavour, and so it could be undone with human ingenuity, as well.”
In 1981, Coetzee was recruited into the ANC underground along with Headley King and Parliament’s security chief Zelda Holtzman.
He was arrested in 1983 after information linking him to the banned organisation was found during a raid by the SADF in Lesotho, where some of the ANC’s underground structures were based. About a month later, King and Holtzman were arrested too.
The State had expected him to appear as a State witness and sell out his comrades for furthering the aims of the ANC, said Holtzman.
Instead, Coetzee took to the stand and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, “so help me Oliver Tambo”.
“This was in 1983,” said Manuel. “You can’t begin to fathom what that did to the magistrate, to the police, to the prosecutor. It was not a mistake – it was a calculated move, done with the same style and intent and mischievousness. Can you begin to understand the scale of courage of this being, this best of us?”
Coetzee was charged with perjury and spent a year in Allandale Prison, not sitting around discussing politics with fellow comrades, but as a common-law prisoner.
“So he got himself in charge of the library,” said Holtzman. “He said, ‘I can now access books and will make sure the inmates have books – and will make sure they read’.”
Coetzee went on to work for the Chemical Workers Industrial Union in East London and helped form Cosatu. He also worked as a human resources manager in Parliament, and later as deputy personnel manager and industrial relations manager at UWC.
With democracy in 1994, he became secretary to the Gauteng Provincial Legislature.
In 2002 he was appointed deputy secretary of Parliament, and in 2012, secretary.
But Swartz said that among the issues Coetzee contended with was the move from being in a position of rebellion to one of power. “For someone with radical views and ideas of socio-economic transformation, how he must have grappled with these contradictions and the paradoxes of power... He was shaped intensely by the idea of radical equality, not just politically but socio-economically. This is Mikey’s unfinished business – a more equal, socially just society.”
“I’m supposed to say, ‘May he rest in peace’, but his resting, and our resting because we think he’s resting, would do the struggle and life of Michael a great disservice… You must struggle for what’s right. If you allow corruption, you’ve robbed the poor .