unsung heroes

Frank Chikane. Pic. Len Kumalo. 2001/04. © Sowetan.
Frank Chikane. Pic. Len Kumalo. 2001/04. © Sowetan.

Since the unbanning of the liberation movements in February 1990, South Africans have had cause for much celebration.

Since the unbanning of the liberation movements in February 1990, South Africans have had cause for much celebration.

Yes, we have celebrated the release from prison of leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada. We have celebrated the lives of other leaders such as Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Moses Kotane and many others. We have celebrated the return of exiles, including leaders such as Oliver Tambo, Joe Slovo, Thabo Mbeki, Chris Hani, Gertrude Shope and many more.

Indeed, it was the product of the lifelong sacrifices made by these champions of our struggle that South Africa was able to witness the first democratic elections in April 1994. The work of the democratically-elected government and Parliament has made it possible for our nation in 2004 to celebrate the first decade of freedom with pride, and in a spectacular way.

We have also found a constitutional way of honouring excellence, long and enduring service, creative and artistic work, bravery, human rights and sacrifice in the cause of liberation and ending the apartheid system, and of honouring international friends who supported us in the struggle - all this, and more, in the form of the National Orders we award on two occasions each year.

What we have not done is to find ways of honouring and celebrating ordinary South Africans who made extraordinary contributions in the struggle against apartheid.

In every corner of the country and over many generations we have seen patriots who were ready to risk their lives for the liberation of the oppressed masses of our people.

Others became involved in direct combat with the apartheid security forces. Many others, risking all, supported and offered services and comfort to those who were directly involved in the liberation struggle. For every known hero and heroine of the struggle there are countless unsung heroes and heroines who worked with them and supported them.

In my particular case, besides the cadres I worked with, I remember this remarkable man who, when given the hit-list which included my name and that of Archbishop Tutu and others, decided to break ranks and inform me about the planned assassinations. For this, his house was burned down.

With the knowledge of my pending assassination and when I was under "house arrest", a group of committed cadres were organised to provide security for me, including patrolling the area where I stayed during the night. Some accompanied me to and from work to make sure that I was safe. Among these was Abbey Pooe, who died mysteriously in a bomb explosion in Braamfontein. The other was Maduna, who was also killed by the apartheid security forces.

When we were forced to "go underground" during the 1986/7 state of emergency, a multitude of cadres and ordinary South Africans developed elaborate underground machinery to move us from one place to another, secured "safe" houses and an underground transport system which enabled us to continue doing our work. In the international sphere, we have people like Maggie Patterson, for instance, who, when I needed to come back home undetected, made a special trip from London to check the routes and she prescribed how I could return home safely into the underground without being arrested.

In prison there were ordinary convicted and awaiting trial prisoners who offered their services to help political prisoners and detainees who were held in solitary confinement. In another case, a black policeman's conscience could not allow him to continue locking my cell. He decided to commit a misdemeanor against a senior white policeman so that he could be dismissed and never have to lock me up again.

In acknowledgement of these unsung heroes and heroines, a special service to celebrate them has been organised by the South African Council of Churches in partnership with the Naledi Assembly of the Apostolic Faith Mission tomorrow at 12.30pm at Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication Hall in Kliptown. More than 50 of these or their families have been invited to receive certificates of recognition and appreciation at this Special Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving.

Reverend Frank Chikane is director-general in the Presidency.