On an unusually cold day in August 2014 we laid a Comrade to rest. Not comrade as in friend but a man who had earned the title of Comrade in the trenches of the struggle for the emancipation of the people of South Africa. ‘Com’ in spoken language or Cde in writing, not used lightly but with reverence when referring to freedom fighters. This was the chosen form of showing respect to a fellow freedom fighter during the struggle.
Such funerals happen every weekend in this beautiful country of ours but this one held a speci al significance for me. The man we were sending on his last journey had lived right across the street from our house, ‘front opposite’ in township talk.
When the then President of South Africa PW Botha, the last true defender of apartheid as president declared a state of emergency in 1985 the man we were laying to rest was the most practical evidence of its enforcement for me. Comrade Stanley was detained without trial during that period.
I remember reading hastily written graffiti on walls: “Realise Stanley”. My grasp of the English language back then was not enough to understand that the author had misspelt the word “release”. It didn’t matter though because I read the misspelt word as it was intended.
Even though I was barely a teenager when that state of emergency was declared, I understood the state of the country because of the constant skirmishes with the police and army in the streets of our township. I too grew to know the searing smell of teargas and I grew accustomed to young white soldiers jumping fences in pursuit of comrades. The kind of comrades that Stanley was part of.
In 1986 my parents decided to ship me off to boarding school in the homelands, far away from the burning streets of Johannesburg. In the week I was due to leave Stanley the Comrade requested a meeting with my father. He was already in high school and a member of the Student Representative Council of the school. Very well spoken and convincing. Back then he spotted quite a big Afro in the mould of the Black Panthers of the United States.
“Sending your children away from the raging battles we are fighting in the streets of Tembisa is just what the Boers want you to do. It reduces our numbers and weakens our structures. You are also playing into the hands of the regime by sending them to the homelands, that’s what they want”. I cannot recall word for word what Comrade Stanley said on that day but I recall my dad listening intently and engaging him. My respect for the high school pupil grew. See, he was presenting his case clearly and without fear, and at the same time doing a lot to ensure that even I could grasp the state of the struggle at that time. My dad’s mind was made up though and off I went to boarding school.
When I heard of Comrade Stanley’s passing it had been a while since I had last seen him. My mind raced back to the days of my youth and I knew, I just knew that I had to make his funeral to pay my last respects to the first comrade I ever knew.
In the week leading up to the funeral on the weekend there were reports of gunshots by some of his comrades as they came to pay their last respects at his home. You are right, it’s very irresponsible to set off a gun in a residential area. But this was something else, this was Stanley’s comrades telling the world that a soldier had fallen. One of our own is no more. So with my irrational fear of guns I still set off for the funeral that Saturday.
On my arrival at the local church that hosted the funeral service I was left in no doubt that Comrade Stanley’s funeral was not going to be an ordinary one. In a scene reminiscent of the many marches of the 1990s a group of ‘freedom fighters’ in full millitary regalia were congregated at the gate of the church. They were part of a group singing freedom songs that took one back to the heart of the freedom struggle in the1980s. I felt really overdressed in a formal jacket and pants. One didn’t go to marches dressed formally.
The fence of the church was draped in flags of the African National Congress, South African Communist Party and Orlando Pirates, the football team that meant everything to him. Freedom songs reverberated inside the relatively small church. As I had already guessed, there were no empty chairs so I settled for following proceedings through an open window.
Every speaker prefaced and ended their speeches with shouts of “Viva Comrade Stanley Viva”. When I arrived the current provincial Minister of Education was on the podium. These were the bigwigs. I strained my neck to look at who else had turned out for the funeral of the first comrade I had ever known. It was a who’s who of political personalities in there. And that’s when it sank in, Stanley, Stepisi as we had come to know him, might have been my local comrade, but he belonged to South Africa at large.
He represented all the youth who had stayed defiant at the sight of a brutal regime that was determined to do anything to stay in power. See, Stanley and his generation had attended clandestine organisational meetings, and as many a speaker testified at the funeral, Stanley was a brave MK. That shocked me to the core, and you’ll find out why shortly.
I left the church window to join a group of friends I had grown up with, so many of whom I had not seen in years. We all had stories to tell about the man we were laying to rest that morning. Most of them humorous. See, later on in his life, when the struggle for political freedom was over, Stanley had taken to the bottle a bit, and when he had had a few he would threaten anyone who got into altercation with him with the words: “I will shoot you right now, I’m not a coward”. He never shot any of those people though or took out a gun on them. So we concluded he was deluded, thinking himself more capable than he was.
So imagine our collective shock when my friends and I discovered for real that Stepisi was MK, a member of the now defunct military wing of the African National Congress, umKhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). All these guys owned guns, Ak47s and the like. So all those threats, “I will shoot you right now” were empty insofar as carrying them out but he had the capabilities to carry them out!
The funeral procession itself was taken over by his comrades, they chose the songs that were sung and made sure his favourite freedom songs were on the menu. One has to spare a thought for his family and his parents who were gracious enough to let Stanley’s comrades send him off in the way they wanted to. The cemetery that he was to be interned at was a good 4 to 5 kilometres away. We got ready to get into our cars for the drive there but his comrades chose to march there on foot. And the gunshots started ringing again. A comrade was on his last journey.
Having witnessed the funeral service and how it was conducted, I had no doubt that Stanley was going to be laid to rest in the Heroes Acre section of the cemetery. This section is reserved for those members of the community who have given selflessly to the cause of the liberation of the people of South Africa.
A proper 21- gun salute was given at the cemetery. We stayed silent for that period. A special person had left us. There was a celebratory mood to the whole procession so it was no surprise that we all partook in the now obligatory “after tears”, where we all took time to catch up with one another and marvel at this giant who had appeared ever so ordinary to the rest of us.
This scene probably plays itself out in several communities throughout our country whenever people deem it necessary, but this particular Saturday was our turn to say goodbye to a comrade. The first comrade I ever knew.
REST IN PEACE STANLEY MATHEBULA. VIVA.
(Published with the permission of the Mathebula Family. Thank you.)