Ronald Bernickow
ANC Western Cape provincial secretary Faiez Jacobs pays tribute to activist Ronald ”Berni” Bernickow, who died last week.

Family members of the late Comrade Berni

Comrades and friends

The ANC in the Western Cape rise today to pay tribute to a humble, gentle, kind, giant of the movement.  We seem to bury many of our freedom fighters but let as not bury their memory, legacy and contribution.

I am not going to repeat the biography of comrade Ronald Bernickow today. That has been done by people who knew him much better than I did.

I met Berni in late eighties as a young student activist when he was a community and youth leader. Our paths intersected many times since then in our many varied roles. Recently I saw him at the Cape Cultural Collective events. These events like the gumbas of old reminded us of the better time. It is a safe and familiar space where comrades come together socially and culturally to draw strength and encourage each other.

I always stood in admiration of him and his generation.  He was as a trade unionist, and activist and a warm embracing human being. His qualities have also been extolled. His patience, kindness, gentleness, diligence and attention to detail.

Berni came from ordinary, working class roots.

He lived this and never forgot where he came from.

He was an organic intellectual of the working class.

But he also never allowed his roots to hold him back, to temper his ambition or his desire to succeed.

In fact, if anything, he saw it as his duty to improve himself and those around him all the time. He was a teacher, a commissar, caregiver and he inspired others to aspire for greater things.

He was a political activist. His consciousness was shaped in a period of resistance by a radicalised youth, who were the foundations for the resurgence of the ANC inside the country.

Of particular significance was the generation of coloured youth who identified with their African peers. They saw the need to struggle for a common future, a non-racial future. Berni was one of these brave, young visionaries.

From the ANC, I want to talk about the house that Berni helped to build and why it is so important.

Berni was a life-long trade unionist. Even though he ended up working at the CCMA, he never forgot his trade union roots and his constituency. That is because he was proud of his working-class roots. The CCMA was a product of the trade union movement and specifically Cosatu, which Berni also played a key role in building. It is important for us to remember, at a time like the present, why Berni and his generation were so involved in building Cosatu and the UDF.

Berni’s working-class origins and his coloured classification, made him a second-class citizen in the country of his birth. His parents were paid a little more than starvation wages. His environment, his education, where he grew up, the transport he took and all other aspects of his life were regulated and legislated to disadvantage him and to advantage his white counterparts.

He was never against people but rather struggled against the system of patriarchy, Apartheid (National Oppression) and Exploitation based on over nearly 400 years of colonialism, slavery and apartheid, under the capitalist mode of production, to extract the surplus value from Berni and his peers.

Berni came to understand this, as he grew up and when he went to work having not even being given the opportunity to finish his schooling, he saw this reality. This “awareness” was translated into activism helped to form organs of peoples and workers power.  He was part of that collective that built trade unions. Sactwu is a part of the proud legacy that Berni left behind.

But it is one, I am afraid, many fail to appreciate. Unlike Berni, many of our leaders today are corrupt, selfish, reckless, compromised, crude and callous.

But the house that Berni built, the home for the working class was not always like that. Whatever the weaknesses and faults of the progressive trade union movement and the national liberation movement, these are organisations premised on the fact that we as human beings love and care for one another. These are organisations built on solidarity. That is the house that Berni built.

Our organisations were built by cadres like Berni. He worked for the common good. He believed that the world could be a better place. He believed that organisation, education, mobilisation and a common programme would help us to achieve this. 

In the last while we have seen the opposite from our leaders.They disorganise, they keep us ignorant, they demobilise us unless it is to defend their narrow interests. Their programme is a narrow, self-interested one, focused on accumulation of wealth at any and all costs, including destroying the house that Berni built.

The recent policy conference of the ANC reflected on these issues and I am proud to say, made a start towards owning up to the fact that we have allowed this house that Berni built to become one that is elitist, no longer held in high regard by the people, a vehicle for corruption, an inward looking, gate-keeping organisation, almost devoid of its progressive ideology, ill-disciplined and its public representatives are seen as clowns and crooks.

In our troubled times, with a movement threatened by potential destruction on the treacherous rocks we have created for ourselves, it is important to reflect on the life and contribution of a person of the calibre of Berni.

He was incorruptible.

He was selfless.

He was dedicated and a hard worker.

He was progressive and never accepted racism or chauvinism of any type.

As we look at ourselves today  - an organisation beset with problems of corruption, state capture, factionalism, ideological degeneration - the calibre of cadre that Berni was is sorely in short supply.

I want us to agree, that the only way to honour a person of the calibre of Berni, is to rebuild the house that has left us. It’s not an easy task, but it has never been. Organisations are built one person at a time. They are built through programmes, campaigns, good administration, upholding the right values and principles and above all by honesty. 

We must speak truth to power. We must speak truth to each other. And we must speak the truth to ourselves.

I believe that comrade Berni lived his life that way. As we dip our revolutionary banner in memory of him, let us commit to paying tribute to him in the best possible way.

Let's remind ourselves of tasks of the ANC:

* To represent, organise and mobilise communities and the motive forces and win their support and elections.

* To win and use state power to achieve our goals and better the lives of the people.

* To make policies, win broad support for them, implement them through the state and monitor implementation and the impact on our people and transformation.

* To transform society through our values, our integrity, exemplary leadership in society and by winning the battle of ideas in a convincing manner.

* To select and deploy capable leaders and public representatives, with integrity, capacity, the correct orientation and expertise to drive and implement our programmes.

* To develop cadres, schooled in our values and policies, with the capacities to be agents of change wherever they are deployed.

Our focus has to move back to our core tasks of representing and mobilising our communities and delivering development and transformation to the people.

It must be fixed on running a capable, developmental and responsive state, implementing all our policies effectively, and advancing the implementation of the NDP. This will help to renew our values, integrity and build unity in action through our commitment to a common mission.

Let us rebuild the organisations he worked so hard to all his life.

We in the ANC hope that Berni’s life will serve as an inspiration to our members and in particular to the youth of our province and indeed the country.

Our deepest condolences all of you, the friends, comrades and family of comrade Ronald Bernickow. 

May he rest in peace.

Long live the spirit of comrade Berni, long live!

Hambe kahle, Mkhonto. Lala ngoxolo, qawe, namaqawe

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.