By Molaodi Wa Sekake
In 2013, me and my comrade, my classmate, my confidante, Phezukonke Mthethwa, established an organisation at the University of KwaZulu Natal, Howard College campus, called Society of Commons. This was meant to organise young, particularly Black working class, students to collectively reflect on their conditions.
Over and above our ideas as to how the organisation had to be shaped, there was always a space for any other idea that came up, consistent with the founding mission and vision of the organisation, to be incorporated into the wider agenda.
One of the prime events we ever had was in 2015. We organised a 3-day Philosophy Born of Struggle Student Conference. The conference had young people, students and otherwise, from different communities, Universities, and provinces. The programme for the Conference had a wide range of topics. It sought to grapple with everything from decolonization to neo-liberal capitalism.
In the first day of the Conference, particularly when it was time for discussions, a person who seemed older than everyone in the room stood up, and started speaking without a microphone. He spoke of how events such as the Conference are in dire need; how he was involved in the struggle for freedom; how he was part of the student movement that fought for the dignity of Black people; how he worked closely with Biko and many other BC activists.
At the end of the day’s programme, Phezu tasked me to talk to the ‘elder’ and check if he is going to be around until the end of our 3-day Conference. I went to him, introduced myself, and he told me who he was, what he was up to. Out of our conversation it came out that the ‘elder’ has no place to sleep. We offered him a place for the duration of the Conference since we had booked McDonald Lodge in Umbilo for Conference participants.
But owing to the fact that, we were largely if not exclusively a group of young people, and that after the event we would chill till late, sing, play music, and drink, we decided that the elder must sleep at my post-graduate student resident at Anglo Cluster Residence.
The elder made food for himself. This was made more possible by the fact, we had requested the University Student Governance unit to give us a food voucher, instead of us hiring a caterer given the amount of money we had; otherwise we were not going to be able to have food until the end of the event. So we had bought food, that we cooked ourselves for Conference delegates.
We had a variety of foods stored in my room. We would then cook and take the food up the Conference venue which was on campus. When the conference ended we shared the remaining food amongst ourselves. And every one left to their respective places.
When we had to part ways with the elder, he openly said to us “I hope you keep it that way it was nice to have been part of your event, and the hospitality you offered me, these three days have meant a lot to me, not only in terms of discussions, but I had a place to lay my head, wake up, bath and eat properly…as I leave, I must be honest with you, I don’t know where am going sleep, but I will see, I don’t want to be a burden on you”.
We emotionally looked at each other with the rest of the folks who were there. And while he was packing, preparing to leave, I stopped him; I told him to stop a bit so we could talk. I disarmed him of any feeling that what I was going to say was us “burdening ourselves”. I calmly said to him, “you can remain behind while others leave, and perhaps in no time you will find a solution…leave your stuff as it is in the room, and relax, until you are fine”.
He looked unconvinced; he insisted on leaving, but we convinced him to remain behind. One of the touching things he said was, “I don’t understand why young ones who are students, who have known me for less than a week, can offer me a place, while people I regard as my fellow combatants don’t care about me…I just can’t make sense of it”. He said this looking down carrying his Soduku game booklet.
We had plenty of food left from the Conference, so there was no problem of what we are going to eat. While I stayed with him for three weeks, comrades would come over, and we would have discussions on a wide range of issues; the elder would tell of many things, including what came to be be referred to as the “Black Consciousness Trial”.
After three weeks, when I was about to write exams, he left, and cited the fact that, I must have time to prepare for exams. And that “we had already done what he did not expect”. Against my insistence that he must not leave, he left. Before leaving, he took out R90 and gave me “in case you need something” R50. After leaving, he came over twice to see us. But thereafter we couldn’t see him. It was not until 2016, that I spotted him in town, Durban, West Street, talking to someone and laughing out loud – as usual.
I couldn’t go to him because I was in taxi, and had to rush off to somewhere. The other time I came to see him, was along the coast, South Beach in 2019 – three years after the last time I saw him. As I was making my way at Castle Corner to quench my thirst, I saw him walking alone, with his carry bag. I didn’t have the guts to go to him. I had many thoughts within my head. And honestly, I must say, when I got home, I regretted not going to him.
This is Rubin I’m talking about. I was hurt when I “saw”, on social media, that he passed away last week. But to be honest, I was not hurt by his passing away, but the betrayals he experienced during his life.
As I write this, paying tribute to elder Rubin, I’m reminded of Pablo Neruda’s words, “in what language does rain fall over tormented cities”. But as I do this, I paraphrase Neruda’s words to, “in what language does life manifest itself in abandoned souls”?
What does it mean to tell someone whom you had not made it easy for them to live in dignity, that they should rest in peace, upon their passing away?
Let me turn to you elder Rubin, let me talk to talk you, even though you are now in the cold soils.
You know Rubin, I don’t know your family, your community, your wife or kids. I’m just that boy you met 5 years back, still wary of credentials and stifling categories. I have since informed the young ones you met at the Philosophy Born of Struggle student Conference that you are no more. Many still remember you vividly. They are deeply hurt. Their names are Zola Chonco, Watu Kuhlekonke Ntuli, Vusi Mahlangu, Phezukonke Nthetha, Lungelo Zulu, Sphe Nguse, Lwandile Mtsolo, Yolokazi Magudu, Siwakhile Nogaga, Thobeka Madikizela, Nondumiso, Lucky Mohlakwana, and many others.
Rubin, when you were moving around without an ID (for reasons you told us), you never stopped being human. When you stopped executing your responsibilities as the advocate of the High Court you did not give up on life. When you were all over the shore without any guarantee to, at least, a meal a day, you never despaired.
When you called those whom you regarded as your comrades, and never responded despite several attempts, you remained calm. When we asked you, one evening, “why are your comrades abandoning you, yet you claim to have lived with, struggled with, during the darkest days of apartheid”. You always said that you don’t think they are abandoning you; that they will probably get back to you.
When me and Phezu met some of the senior people you were in the struggle with, they would say, “that man demands too much”. Phezu, as a BC elder, too, knows many of these folks. I wondered ‘is this a fugitive, but if he is a fugitive, why is he so free and goes everywhere without any fear?’ I now see that when you are poor, you are an existential fugitive, no one wants to associate themselves with you. They said you demand too much because you inconvinienced them, you questioned them; and they could not longer stand you. You were an inconvinience to their decadence.
Now that you are no more Rubin, you are acknowledged, you are a “hero” who fought against apartheid; you are a “thinker”. Those who couldn’t offer ‘pap and vleis’ while you were still alive, take out your poems to show how brave you were in taking head on the apartheid machinery.
When you were still alive, you were a burden, you had demands and nobody claimed you; now that you are no more, without demands, you are no longer a burden, everyone claims you.
The people who were inconvinienced by your sharp mind – that could not stand any mediocrity; who resisted you at all cost, now sound like sirens out here claiming you. Now that you are no more you can’t question their betrayal of the revolutionary agenda. Now that you are no more, Rubin, you can’t say “stop you sell outs…you have long sold your soul to the highest neo-colonial and neo-liberal bidders”.
They passed you by in the city centres scavenging the means of life, and under the bridges “resting” after a long day, their suitcases carrying Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth”, but, ironically, they could not see your wretchedness. These are some of the people you led with when you were the deputy president of SASO in the 70’s.
When you told me that one day you spotted a range rover of one of your comrades whom you were so close to during the SASO days while you were waiting to enter a place of the homeless, Methodist Church shelter, on Aliwal Road in Durban, and he ignored you, I could see tears gathering in your eyes, but you held them back because the stoic attitude in you never allowed you to do so. And thereafter you sought to conceal your pain with polemical discussions.
In you, we saw not a poor man, but a humble person with a truly human heart. And perhaps, you are better off in the cold soils than in this world of unbridled decadence that has wiped off our sense of humanity. If there are people still with problems it is us, the living, the struggling, who are under the impression that we are living around caring comrades while we are living with hyenas and jackals.
Your life, not necessarily your death, has triggered questions in me:
If the revolution we talk about does not start from the heart, where does it start?
What of our revolutionary claims, if they don’t talk to compassion, humanity and mutual trust?
What of our “sound” ideological claims if they are overpowered by selfishness, self-centredness, and greed?
How do you spot those that shall be with us in good and in bad times?
As you join the ranks of Steve Biko, Muntu Ka Myeza, Stirini Moodley, and many other departed combatants, of your school of thought and way of life, traverse well Rubin.
Rubin, in our hearts, the memory of your humanity in the midst of perpetual want, of your spiritual richness shall occupy more space than that of your material poverty. As long as we live, you shall always be in our hearts and minds. Until we join you, rest, and ready yourself to welcome us in no time. Whether we like or not we shall join you. Till then, enjoy the tranquility of life without expectations and disappointments.
We love you, Rubin.