Ahmed Kathrada and Laloo Chiba on a visit to Robben Island some years ago. Picture: Yunus Chamda
Ahmed Kathrada and Laloo Chiba on a visit to Robben Island some years ago. Picture: Yunus Chamda

'A comrade of rare calibre'

By AHMED KATHRADA Time of article published Nov 22, 2019

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On Sunday, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation will launch the autobiography of Robben Island political prisoner and Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Board member, Laloo “Isu” Chiba. The title of the book is Laloo ‘Isu’ Chiba: Duty and Dynamite - A Life of Activism.

The foreword was by struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada before his death:

My dear ‘Mr. L.’ – friend, comrade and brother, we have lived through the worst of times and the best of times. We have experienced the hardships, insults, degradation and humiliation of an era in which we were regarded as lesser beings. But at the same time, we were blessed that it was also the era of Chief Luthuli, Yusuf Dadoo, Monty Naicker, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Moses Kotane, Bram Fischer, J. B. Marks, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu, Cissy Gool, Lilian Ngoyi and other outstanding leaders with courage and foresight. Tragically, most of them did not live to see and enjoy the dawn of freedom and democracy. 

I have known you for about 60 years. I fully expect your genuine humility will only allow me to describe you as little more than a mere foot soldier. However, you are not going to have the opportunity to impose any restrictions on my freedom of speech.

Although we were in high school at the same time, I really only began to know you in about the mid-1950s, when we occasionally bumped into each other in High Road, Fordsburg, at the Vassen home. But our one-to-one personal contact really started when you worked in the dairy. On many mornings when I opened the door of my flat (No. 13, Kholvad House), I found a bottle of most welcome, fresh orange juice. You must have left it there at about four or five in the morning. The impact on me was of a very generous, caring, and hard-working family man. I was later to learn that the early-morning delivery work was to earn money in order to see your younger brothers through university. And not surprisingly, your bosses were so impressed by your diligence, honesty, hard work and responsibility, that in time to come, you actually ran the dairy!

And, unknown to you, when you started in politics, your activities, discipline and devotion were being closely followed by the underground Communist Party. Here was a man of rare calibre – a potential recruit – not to be publicly exposed in political activity but to work in the underground.

Just the sort of comrade who would bring quality to the Party.

It therefore came as no surprise to me when, in the early 1960s, I was informed by the Party leadership that the comrade needed a well-deserved holiday. Consequently, I told you to apply for a passport for you to travel to the Soviet Union. Not to the Lenin School, not for political education, but for a real holiday. I don’t think I told you that it was the decision of the Party, and you didn’t ask.

Little was it envisaged at this time that your covert activities would be ideally suited when the movement embarked on the armed struggle. Thus when MK was launched, your bravery and thoroughness resulted in several high profile acts of sabotage, and you rose to the rank of platoon commander.

After your arrest and severe torture, you seldom spoke about it, not at the time, not even during the 18 years we spent together on Robben Island. I only really became aware of the extent of the torture when we had to persuade you to give evidence at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You asked me to sit with you. I admired your frankness, modesty and courage. You never broke down and never gave information to the police.

Then there was a very emotional and tense moment when, at the end of your evidence, you asked the Chairperson to allow you say something. You deemed it necessary to confess and apologise to the Commission that the end of the torture you screamed from the pain! You must have thought that the screams were unbecoming of an MK cadre – a sign of weakness?

These days, when we talk or write about you not breaking down under such terrible torture, you get shy and typically play it down as if it was ‘just one of those things’. This is what real heroes are made of! And unfortunately, there is not a surplus of them.

I must confess, I don’t know if I would have been able to withstand such horrible torture and emerge with my courage and dignity intact.

I have often remarked that prison brings out the best and the worst in human beings. The years that you spent on Robben Island more than confirmed to me that you were among the better of the best. Your inherent humanity, modesty, generosity, commitment, loyalty and care for your fellow men always stood out as a beacon of encouragement, hope and inspiration.

Soon after your arrival on Robben Island, a friendly warder sought you out while on night duty and gave you an apple and a chocolate. You were locked up in your single cell, but only you could resist the temptation to eat the goodies. The next morning you shared the two little items with comrades in the neighbouring cells.

In the 60s, things were very bad on Robben Island. In 1967, you were down with flu. And with that ‘lean and hungry’ look of Cassius, you asked Lieutenant Killian to allow you to purchase some coffee, milk, sugar and biscuits. We were all surprised, but we must have thought the good Lieutenant was very moved by your worn-down look and agreed. But the greater surprise was yet to come. You placed an order large enough for all 25 of us to enjoy! With everything that you undertake, you go the extra mile.

Need I remind you of our little garden? One day, you instructed poor me to spend a long time in my cell in order to exactly count the number of tomato seeds that were smuggled in to us by Clergyman Govender. And how you meticulously measured the size of a lone chilli on a certain date, and tied the result to the chilli. In a week or two’s time, you once again recorded the number of millimetres it had grown.

It is extremely difficult to select three anecdotes out of the scores that come to mind. But the final one is the one about Bobby Sands, the Irish patriot who, while in captivity, undertook a protest hunger strike unto death against British rule. And you suggested that, in solidarity with the fellow freedom fighter, we should have a sympathy hunger strike. You got considerable support, but because it was not unanimous, the strike did not come off.

As your release date approached, you said goodbye to us on 6 May 1982. The next time I saw you again was on 15 October 1989 – the day of my release. I was not surprised when you were among the first, if not the very first, to come to our house to welcome me.

Dear ‘Mr. L.’, it has been a privilege to be asked to write these words about you. Very much more can and should be written in the hope that your loyalty, courage and sacrifice can be emulated, especially by our young people.

We came to Robben Island from a number of liberation organisations, but we were united against our common enemy – apartheid. When you served your term as a rotating member of the High Organ, you represented our organisation with distinction. And you won the respect of all the inmates, across the political divide. Today, our enemy is no longer apartheid. Our challenges are massive poverty, hunger, unemployment, disease, shortage of schools, water, electricity, adequate sanitation, health care, housing and much more. Given the opportunity, I’m sure you would love to witness the replication of the broad-minded unity that you worked for in prison.

Prison and torture failed to crush your dedication and spirit of sacrifice. You came out of Robben Island and threw yourself back into the struggle with the same courage and dedication. You once again suffered police harassment and prison.

It is our hope that readers will imbibe the heroic story of your life and be reminded that our freedom did not fall from heaven. It was fought for. Many freedom fighters were jailed for long periods; many were hanged or tortured to death; others were assassinated. In the Soweto uprising of June 1976, hundreds of school children were killed.

History will record that the enemy may have succeeded in torturing, jailing and killing these patriots, but it failed to kill the spirit of liberation.

Mr. L., as part of the army of cadres, you have served the cause with distinction. We are proud of you, and salute you – the salt of the earth.

Ahmed Kathrada

January 2017

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