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Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim: fearless to the core

Ebrahim receives the master key to his prison cell on Robben Island. Picture: Supplied

Ebrahim receives the master key to his prison cell on Robben Island. Picture: Supplied

Published Dec 8, 2021


Tribute: Comrade Ebrahim represented the quintessential best of what our movement stands for

by Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandla Mandela

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A BRIGHT burning candle of our revolution has flickered and faded but it's light will forever glow in our hearts.

Described as gentle and courageous, quiet yet brave and wise yet humble, comrade Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim represented the quintessential best of what our movement stands for and the personification of the character South Africa, as a nation, needs in these difficult times.

His life was the living embodiment of the values that shaped the ANC over its 107-year history. Those of us who grew up in the ranks of the Struggle are familiar with the theory of the new man but, in Cde Ebie, we could all witness its living manifestation. He was a light unto others. His example is much-needed today in order to build a new society that is more caring and whose heart burns at the suffering and poverty that engulfs us.

His passion to serve was ignited at a young age, born of his triumph over personal adversity. He joined the Struggle at the age of 14 years, as a young and inexperienced youth radiating passion, enthusiasm and a deep-seated desire to serve.

Alexander Pope, in his 1771 “Essay on Criticism“, wrote: ”Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.“ Cde Ebie was no fool.

He was the antithesis of foolishness, ignorance and arrogance. Even at a young age he was not just a follower; he knew what needed to be done and he could articulate the policy rationale for whatever task he undertook.

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He was fearless to the core and this quality was tested throughout his life. He took on tasks and missions, knowing the perils and the consequences of the torture, interrogation and punishment that would be inflicted on him by the apartheid regime if he was caught; yet it did not deter or detract him in the least.

He started out doing the most menial chores, spending his free time selling copies of the weekly New Age at Durban bus ranks after school and at rallies and meeting places. The young Cde Ebie was no ordinary newspaper vendor. He was disseminating valuable information about the liberation Struggle and developing awareness and consciousness among his community and the masses. What an example to young people who have a plethora of social media tools at their disposal yet many lack the awareness and consciousness to respond to the realities that surround them.

He was a young man when he participated in the Defiance Campaign in 1952 and the Congress of the People in 1956 that led to the launch of the Freedom Charter at Kliptown. Again he participated in disguise, knowing full well the perils of being exposed and caught.

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We must take a leaf from his shining life and the energy he put into building structures locally and abroad to advance the Struggle. He understood that without organisation and a clear strategy and tactics, our vision of shaking off our shackles was an elusive dream.

It is ironic that sometimes when the lights go out our vision sharpens. Cde Ebie joined Umkhonto we Sizwe’s Natal High Command and commanded an MK Unit that carried out many acts of sabotage, including taking out most of Durban's electricity, sending a powerful message to the apartheid state that resistance to apartheid was gathering momentum. A timely lesson as the lights go out again.

Cde Ebrahim was accused number one in the Pietermaritzburg Sabotage Trial, aka "the little Rivonia Trial", in which he was sentenced to 15 years on Robben Island. True to his shining leadership calibre, he turned adversity into opportunity, conducting political education classes for fellow prisoners and, along with Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada, registered for a university degree. He completed two degrees on the Island. Our young people should draw inspiration from him as his impediments couldn't deter him from his commitment to lifelong learning.

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After completion of his jail term, he served a second sentence after being abducted from Swaziland and tortured at John Voster Square. Months of torture and isolation couldn't break his spirit. Ebrahim would have rather died than betray a comrade, leading his torturers to believe “he was not human”.

Perhaps one of the least known accolades was the task given to him by Tatomkhulu Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and uTamkhulu Walter Sisulu, to convene the Patriot Front made up of 93 political, religious and community organisations to develop a consensus on negotiations and the path towards a new democratic state.

Comrade Ebrahim was a formidable leader and served on the ANC National Executive Committee and the National Working Committee. He was a member of Parliament, the chairperson of the foreign affairs portfolio committee and the deputy minister of International Relations and Cooperation.

He devoted himself, pre- and post-democracy ,to advancing the agenda of international solidarity and was a dyed-in-the wool internationalist. In him, the struggle for Palestine has lost a powerful voice but it is stronger for his intervention and efforts to build unity and to develop common positions on key issues.

His work across the world on conflict resolution was seminal and a lasting tribute to his extraordinary abilities and visionary character. He will be remembered for his work in peace efforts in Kosovo, Colombia, Bolivia, Nepal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, Western Sahara, Palestine and Kashmir.

Perhaps the greatest tribute we can pay Comrade Ebie is to heed his words to the court on his second sentencing of 20 years on Robben Island: "My life has been one of struggle for peace and natural justice against the greatest evil of this century, the evil of racism. If I were to choose my life all over again, I would follow the same path. I could never have remained indifferent to the poverty and suffering of our people."

How can we remain indifferent to the poverty that engulfs us? How can we remain oblivious to the suffering of our people? To do so is to deny Comrade Ebie's lifelong sacrifice; to do so is to deny the light of freedom and hope that he and countless others devoted their lives to.

If it is true, as Mandela said, that there is no better measure of the soul of a society than how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, then Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim represents the finest in us; a heart burning with indignation at the suffering of our poor, the finest intellect grappling for solutions to the challenges we encounter, a powerful voice sparing no chagrin for the lazy, indifferent and corrupt but, most of all, a soul lit with hope that there is enough good left in us to illuminate our path on the journey to a better life for all.

Barely a day after the eight anniversary of the passing of my grandfather, we are orphaned again by his loss and the tears we shed are for the millions of our people who have lost a champion who cared for them and placed his own life at risk so many times to advance their Struggle. He will be sorely missed.

* Mandela is a member of Parliament