Tribute to Ambassador Billy Modise by the President of the Republic of South Africa, Mr Thabo Mbeki: 2006.

“Time is divided into two rivers:
one flows backward, devouring life already lived;
the other moves forward with you exposing your life.
For a single second they may be joined.
This is that moment, The drop of an instant
that washes away the past.
It is the present.
It is in your hands.”

Pablo Neruda

When the time comes to tell the stories of all those who made enormous contributions to our struggle for national liberation and the construction of a free South Africa, Billy Modise will be among the patriots who will be honoured in those narratives.

If Time, as Neruda tells us, “is divided into two rivers,” then indeed as we look back at the past and the present, we will say that both the struggle for liberation and the new society we strive to build have been enriched by Ambassador Modise’s contributions. Of him we will say that we were fortunate that he always took the present into his hands.

Billy Modise took to the rivers of which Pablo Neruda wrote in 1955, when he joined the African National Congress Youth League. A student at Fort Hare University College from 1955 to 1959, he belonged among the outstanding galaxy of Youth Leaguers of those years.

The story that has yet to be told will speak of the new ground that Billy Modise and his young Congress comrades had to break, and the contribution they made to our struggle as a whole. By the time he left Fort Hare, Billy was the Regional Secretary of the Youth League, responsible for the whole region of Victoria East, and not just Fort Hare.

He had to leave South Africa following the post-Sharpeville police crackdown in 1960. Moving to Sweden, the demands of our struggle were such that, once again, he should break new ground. He therefore remained engaged in our struggle by working with the Swedish solidarity movement with Africa, which was started among students, to help black students from South Africa and Namibia to study in Sweden.

Partly because of his influence, Swedish students raised money literally with their own blood, by giving blood at clinics and donating the proceeds to the liberation movements. By the 1970s, a number of these students had also entered Swedish politics.

Notable among them was the outstanding friend of our people and supporter of our struggle, Olof Palme, a former head of the International Committee of the Swedish National Union of Students, who would become Sweden’s Prime Minister and was later cruelly assassinated.

In 1988, in recognition of the work he had done consistently over many years to mobilise the Swedish people to support our struggle against apartheid, Billy was appointed the ANC Chief Representative (Ambassador) to Sweden.

This appointment constituted a crowning and fitting tribute to a patriot who had done invaluable work to develop a critically important pillar of our struggle, the world anti-apartheid movement. Thanks in good measure to his efforts, Sweden had emerged as one of the most formidable and unwavering participants in the global movement of solidarity with the ANC and our struggle as a whole.

But before this, Billy had, once again, been asked to break new ground, to strengthen the bonds of solidarity between the Namibian and South African people, by lecturing at and helping to administer the Namibia Institute in Lusaka, Zambia. Here he worked with others to help prepare many of the Namibian patriots who would assume the reigns of power when Namibia achieved its independence in 1990.

After 31 years in exile, Billy returned to South Africa, eager to continue to commit his energies, intellect and experience to the service of the people of South Africa during the challenging years from 1990 when we negotiated the end of white minority rule.

As Head of Matla Trust, once again he had to break new ground by doing what we had never had the opportunity to do before. He carried out extensive work throughout the country in the area of voter education, to prepare our people for our first ever democratic elections of 1994.

When freedom came, we reverted to him once more, to ask him to break new ground. This meant that, again, he had to leave his beloved motherland in 1995 to serve as the first black South African High Commissioner to Canada.

When he returned in 1999, he worked as the Chief of Protocol within the Department of Foreign Affairs, confronted with the task to establish a new protocol regime to service the largest diplomatic corps in our country’s history, and the most extensive system of inter-state visits that had ever taken place between our country and the rest of the world.
As the government of South Africa, we are indeed privileged to have benefited from his experience and expertise. In his leadership positions, most recently as the Chief of State Protocol, he has served the Presidency and the nation well. He has given the formalities of state protocols a more human touch, which has brought a feeling of joyful welcome to the many friends from the rest of the world we have been privileged to receive to our shores.

His contribution to everything we had to do during half-a-century, to set our country and people on a new path of liberty and hope has been immense.

The example he set serves to inspire the new generation that now sails along the two rivers of which Pablo Neruda spoke, patriots who are passionate and enthusiastic about their tasks and share his great love for our country and our people.

We pay tribute to him as a comrade, a friend and a fellow South African of principle and of the steadfast patience of those who work to build a new civilisation, a lifetime defender of human freedom and dignity.

As Neruda reminded us, at particular moments the two rivers of Time may be joined, presenting those who make history with the opportunity to seize the time.

In his quiet and insightful way, Billy Modise has played his part in ensuring that we do possess the future and that indeed our destiny lies in our own hands. As he takes his leave from the Foreign and Public Service, let us ensure that his future path is strewn with laurels.

I have no doubt that in his own inimitable, humble and thoughtful way, he will continue to be a true servant of our people. For history has demanded of us, in the words of Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, that “we combine our muscle and our brains in a new direction”, and that we work together “in those tasks which increase the sum total of humanity”, addressing “new problems, which demands true inventions.”

I have no doubt that even in his retirement and as he takes on other roles, to break new ground, he will continue to shape the new direction we have taken as a nation and add value to the building of our country.

Billy Modise will continue to help channel the movement forward, and remain among the valued patriots who have, during the centuries, dared to take the present into their hands and thus invent our future.

I thank him for everything he has done for the nation, and wish him every success in his retirement.

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