Heroes (and villains) come and go. Our heroes are held in high regard whilst still alive. They are eulogised and honoured in death. Their life stories are immortalised in books, tributes and film. Similarly, villains are hated, scorned and vilified in life and in death.
Most of us, at least here in South Africa, were brought up in a culture where the utmost respect is reserved for the dead. The fact that one never knew the deceased prior to death would be of no consequence. As a small boy growing up in the dusty streets of the then Eastern Transvaal, we would always kneel on the ground upon seeing a funeral cortege making its way to the local cemetery.
Following the tragic and untimely death of Cde Jackson Mthembu on the 21st of January 2021, I was shocked and I became aware of cruelly false, disparaging and defamatory remarks that had been directed at him by some of his detractors. The fact that such remarks were allegedly made by members of the organisation that he served, and segments of the population that he selflessly spent his entire life serving through the liberation struggle made it all the more revolting. This, to me, was a painful confirmation that a fairly large section of our people have completely lost their moral compass. A big segment of our population has been stripped of the values and mores which used to mould and underpin our collective value system as a nation.
This cruel and inhumane treatment was also extended to the doctor who had treated him, front line health workers and crew of the helicopter who were tragically killed while on their way to save other lives in Kwazulu Natal. The dead, or in the language of the Catholic church in which I was brought up, the faithfully departed, retain the right to be treated with respect and dignity even in death. The fact that their bodies have been stripped of their soul does not in any way open the gates for them to be subjected to an orgy of insults, ridicule, contempt, defamation and lies.
Even in war, combatants from the belligerent sides are enjoined through convention to respect the remains of their mortally wounded counterparts. I have quite often told my children that I would not rejoice at the death of my political adversaries, including those in the opposition parties. They are, after all, my fellow South Africans with whom we have got unity of purpose towards making ours a much better country.
Even during our liberation struggle, while we accepted the fact that our liberation movement had the legal right which was recognised in International law to wage war against the racist regime, we were always well aware of the pain and suffering that this visited on our oppressors, even though the system that they enforced upon us was cruel and inhumane.
In life and in death, we are all equal. Only God decides to whom to bestow the crown of glory at the end of our pilgrim journey on earth.
Coming back to the issue of Cde Jackson Mthembu, those who reserve a special venom for him even in death must know that to many more people than their miserable and deprave lot, Mvelase was not only a senior ANC politician and a senior cabinet minster: over and above that, he was a husband, a father, a son, friend, neighbour and parishioner to many others. He was also to those who come from Emalahleni the gallant hero of our liberation struggle.
He was also a devout Christian, a proud Catholic, who strove always to bare witness to the gospel values through the simple life that he lived. Mvelase lived a very simple life. His rise to power never served to dull his deep sense of humility. He never travelled with bodyguards. Not for himself did he reserve the right to be driven around with an escort of bodyguards with flashing blue lights or one who enjoyed roughly pushing off the road and pavements those that had elected him to serve.
He walked on foot to church for Sunday Mass, carrying in his hands his hymn book and Sunday Missal. He did not seek to be allocated a special seat in Church. He chose whichever space was available.
Try as much as they can to insult and vilify him, he has left an everlasting and indelible impression on the millions who benefited from his selfless contributions to our liberation struggle. His beautiful smile shall forever be deeply imprinted in the hearts of our people.
To those who are guilty of this heinous transgression against Mvelase and his family, I wish to say to them: May God in the abundance of His mercy cast a merciful glance upon them and regard our plea that he forgives them their sins with a serene and kind countenance.
Hamba kahle Mvelase. Usikhulekele thina esisahamba lapha emhlabeni njengoba nathi sikukhulekela ukuba umphefumulo wakho uthole ukuphumula kwaphakade. Sohlala sikukhumbula njalo ngako konke okuhle owasenzela kona.