ANC veteran Mendi Msimang with his wife Manto. File picture Debbie Yazbek

The ANC is in the depths of mourning for one of its great giants - Mendi Msimang - a man who proudly served on the ANC’s Integrity Commission in the twilight of his life even through his eighties.

“No one will understand just how much of a loss Uncle Mendi’s passing is for the ANC and our country,” Minister Lindiwe Sisulu told mourners at a moving memorial service for the late Ambassador Mendi Msimang at the Department of International Relations yesterday.

"He was a cadre, a gentleman, an officer second to none, and was distinguished in every position he held. He was a beautiful human being and we loved him dearly. He lived an exemplary life," Sisulu said.

Msimang, who passed away on Monday after a lengthy illness would have been 90 years old this Saturday, the day he will be buried in an official funeral.

“It is ironic that people who strode the globe like a colossus end up having family looking after them in the end,” Sisulu said, “Uncle Mendi was an outstanding man, and few words can express what he was and has meant to us.”

Msimang died as he lived - the ultimate patriot, and in his last hours had wanted to hear Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika being sung.

Sisulu identified the great lessons from his life as being the fact that he served his party and country with such loyalty, sincerity and utter humility. “He detested arrogant leadership, laziness, gossip, factionalism, pomp, corruption and self-serving leaders. Let us take a leaf from his life, and learn the value of discipline,” Sisulu said.

Reverend Frank Chikane, who also attended the memorial service, echoed those sentiments saying, “We relied on him in difficult times, as he told us what the ANC should be and how to do it. At the most difficult moment in the life of the ANC, I went to his house and reflected with him. He was explicit about what had gone wrong and how it needed to be corrected,” Chikane said.

Former president Nelson Mandela, centre, with ANC members Mendi Msimang, left, Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele, second from right and Smuts Ngonyama, right, in Johannesburg in 2003. File picture: Themba Hadebe/AP

Msimang was named ‘Mendi’ after the great ship that brought African volunteers to fight in World War I, which tragically sank and only its bell was recovered. Sisulu drew attention to the significance of the bell as it alerts danger, also saying that for humans a bell is the conscience. “If the bell is our conscience, then the bell was Uncle Mendi, he held his conscience and told us when things went wrong,” Sisulu said, “he was a man who did not need to shout to be heard.”

Msimang had joined the ANC at the age of 16, and in the 1940s was one of the founding members of the ANC Youth League, infusing it with radicalism in the 1940s. He had mobilised communities against forced removals, having himself experienced the viciousness of apartheid dispossession as a child.

Msimang left university to join one of the first black-owned law firms Mandela & Tambo Attorneys and also worked in the office of Walter Sisulu at Chancellor House. In 1952 he was active in the Defiance Campaign, and then the Congress of the People which drew up the Freedom Charter.

Following the banning of the ANC in 1960, Msimang was sent to join Oliver Tambo to establish the ANC External Mission abroad and became the ANC's Chief Representative in India in 1968. Following the 1976 uprising, he assisted thousands of students to flee South Africa and was then deployed to Tanzania where he and other comrades established the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in 1979. Uncle Mendi inspired generations of young activists and assisted many to get scholarships at overseas universities.

Msimang was then deployed to Lusaka where he worked in the Office of President Oliver Tambo until his appointment in 1985 as Chief Representative in Britain.

Following his return from exile, Msimang became an MP in 1994, and Treasurer General of the ANC in 1997, a position he held for two terms.

Msimang was a torchbearer and his life deserves to be celebrated.