Streetwise Make was bigger than jail

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

If you were to stand up in a crowded hall and shout "Vusumzi Make", chances are those gathered would continue with their business as though nothing had happened.

Shout "Mandela" and everyone listens, not bothering to find out if the subject is Madiba himself, his look-alike or any of his grandchildren.

But Vusumzi Linda Make, say those who knew him better, was bigger than the 27 years of incarceration can ever have done for the persona of Rolihlahla Mandela.

When Make was given three hours to get out of Johannesburg, a tearful Mandela was one of the well-wishers gathered at Park Station to see him off on his way to banishment in Venda.

His life reads like a colourful curriculum vitae, among other highlights, he was the youngest of the 156 people who made up the tally of accused in the Treason Trial of 1956.

He led the most powerful bus boycott - in Evaton - rivalled only by the world-famous one led by Martin Luther King Jr - the two bus strikes happening at the same time.

Having escaped the remote hinterland he was banished to by the apartheid forces, he was the first South African civil rights activist to alert Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda to the political plight of blacks back home.

He'd later meet with Haile Selassie, the first South African to do so, and was instrumental in getting South Africa booted out of the UN general assembly long before the likes of Duma Nokwe could address the world body.

Vusumzi Linda Make not only shared a room with his old buddy, OR Tambo, but slept in the same bed!

He was as streetwise as he was learned, a great lover of jazz who would rub shoulders with such eminent players of the genre as Max Roach, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Mingus and Duke Ellington, among others.

Among the entries in distinguished poet Maya Angelou's tale-of-the-tape is the following: "1961: Left New York bond bailsman she had planned to marry and moves to Cairo, Egypt, with Vusumzi Make, a South African dissident lawyer."

They divorced in 1963.

But who was this son of the soil? Born of an AME umfundisi and a schoolteacher mother, Make hails from Mohlakeng, Randfontein, far west of Johannesburg.

He went to school at Tiger-kloof Missionary Institution, a top school at the time that gave the world Sir Seretse Khama and the man who would follow in his footsteps as President of Botswana, Quett Masire.

He came back to Johannesburg after matriculation to find the father, now about to retire, bent on moving the family to Evaton. It was from his father, a great fan of Pixley Isaka ka Seme, that Make's political education began. Evaton would offer more in the way of heightening his consciousness.

He died unrecognised at 72, on April 15 last year, in a fly-infested Johannesburg south hospice.

l Make is the subject of a book by Ngila Michael Muendane, The Leader South Africa Never Had, published by Soultalk, R150.