Speech of the Patron of the TMF, Thabo Mbeki, at the Funeral of Ambassador Billy Modise: Johannesburg, 28 June, 2018.

Programme Directors,

Your Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa,

Your Excellency Nangolo Mbumba, Vice President of the Republic of Namibia,

President Kgalema Motlanthe and Mrs Motlanthe

Honourable Mama Graça Machel,

Honourable Ministers, Premiers and Mayors,

Your Excellency Ambassador Cecilia Julin and other Ambassadors and High Commissioners,

The esteemed Modise and Bokwe families,

Chief of the National Defence Force and Other Officers of the Defence Force

Religious Leaders

Fellow mourners, comrades, ladies and gentlemen:

We have convened here to say a final farewell to a very dear Comrade, Ambassador Billy Modise. I would like to believe that by now all of us are familiar with Billy’s biography which, for instance, is contained in the Obituary which was presented earlier. Accordingly there is no need for me to recount that biography.

However I must repeat that that biography tells us that for 63 years, from 1955 when he first went to Fort Hare University College to 2018 when he finally left us, Billy was a loyal member and activist of the ANC, the African National Congress.

It therefore stands to reason that that membership of the ANC surely defined in very good measure who Billy Modise was and dictated what he did. This is because, as we all know, the six decades during which Billy was a member and activist of the ANC were very critical in the process of the making and transformation of South Africa and therefore the evolution of the ANC itself.

Thus in Billy Modise we have one of those comrades who has been present as an actor in the process I have just mentioned, of the making and transformation of our country and the evolution of the ANC. As we all know, this was a process which, among others included:

  • a most determined and multi-sided struggle within South Africa, with the liberation movement broadly united around the Freedom Charter; combined with,
  • a similarly determined and truly massive international movement of anti-apartheid solidarity;

which both offensives, the domestic and the international,

  • obliged the apartheid regime to enter into negotiations with the liberation movement to end the system of white minority rule; which led to the moment when we said ‘free at last’!, followed by
  • democratic elections since 1994, with the ANC winning all the national elections during our years of democratic rule; and consequently
  • South Africa’s assumption of her rightful place in Africa and the rest of the world, after many years of international rejection and isolation.

All these were each great victories in themselves. As South Africans we have owed it to the architects of each of these victories to bestow on them the deserved accolades. And of course those accolades are finally due to all those, including the masses of our people, whose collective actions finally brought freedom to our country.

Billy Modise occupies an honoured place among these who must receive these accolades.

However it must surely be a matter of common cause among all of us that truly to honour these great patriots requires more than these praises we must indeed shower on them. What is imperative, in addition, is that we must do our best to ensure that the example set, and the legacy left behind by these patriots, should serve to inspire the present and future generations to emulate that example and build on that legacy.

Accordingly as we say farewell to Comrade Billy Modise with all the due accolades, we must also surely repeat together – let us nurture a million more Billy Modise’s!

Last year the then Secretary General of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, joining the ANC Stalwarts and Veterans among whom Billy belonged, sounded the alarm bells about exactly this matter – the need to nurture a million more Billy Modise’s! – when he presented a Diagnostic Report on the ANC in which he said, among others:

“Revolutionary morality is about the leadership of our movement adhering to higher standards of behaviour…We owe it to ourselves first, the movement and society, to analyse in detail the implications of a liberation movement that has ascended to power and, therefore, controls huge resources. Being in power is rapidly becoming a source of political bankruptcy, in that members of the ANC fight for deployment either as councillors, MPLs and MPs – respectively, as if there is ‘no tomorrow’… It is foreign to our movement for comrades to see deployment as a source of material benefit rather than the reason to serve the people. These fights among comrades turn the interest of our people off, and push them away from the movement.”

It would of course have been a matter of especial concern to all our people that Secretary General Mantashe was talking about our country’s governing party. Accordingly the abandonment of higher standards of behaviour by many within the governing party, Billy Modise’s party, which SG Mantashe decried, meant, very directly, that this would seriously undermine the capacity and possibility for the governing party truly and effectively to serve the people of South Africa.

Thus does Billy’s own party and our society as a whole need to inculcate in as many of our people as possible the example set by Billy Modise over many decades, of adhering to higher standards of behaviour, ever committed to serve the people!

My own first contact with Billy in the context of political struggle was in 1959. At that time I was a Member of the Executive Committee of the ANC Youth League at Lovedale High School which is immediately across the Thyume River from Fort Hare. Billy Modise was then Secretary of the ANC Youth League branch at Fort Hare.

At that time the Lovedale Youth League branch related to the Fort Hare ANC Youth League branch as its immediate senior. We therefore interacted with Billy and his comrades as our seniors.

The matter we sought to discuss with the ANC leadership at Fort Hare as students at Lovedale High School, a boarding school, arose from the fact that we were on strike and intended to leave the School as part of that strike. Our Fort Hare comrades were fully in support of our strike. Now we wanted them to endorse our departure from our school. Happily for us, they agreed with us that we should indeed leave school.

We believed that we had good reason why we should get the support of the ANC leadership at Fort Hare. We were convinced that that support would legitimise in the eyes of our parents, the ANC as whole, and our communities, our decision to leave Lovedale without being expelled.

I mention this incident which occurred almost 60 years ago to indicate the political weight the activist for liberation, Billy Modise, carried, even while he was part of the youth, having served as Secretary of the Fort Hare SRC, Secretary of the ANC Youth League at Fort Hare and the Victoria East ANC region, and member of the national leadership of the National Union of South African Students, NUSAS, the only non-racial and anti-apartheid national student organisation at the time.

It was surely a matter of great pride and satisfaction to Billy Modise that in the years after he left Fort Hare, successive generations of youth and students in our country continued to play important roles both in the struggle for liberation and the process of the construction and development of a democratic society.

Our experience during 24 years as a democratic country has confirmed that the task of the eradication of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid and building a prosperous non-racial and non-sexist democracy is indeed very complex.

Among others this emphasises the great importance of doing everything necessary and possible to develop and inspire our youth to engage in this historic process of the fundamental socio-economic transformation of our country, drawing the necessary lessons from the example Billy Modise set during his own youthful years!

That same experience of 24 years of democracy has also firmly confirmed that South Africa is not an island sufficient unto itself. To succeed in all its endeavours it needs to be fully integrated within Africa and the rest of the world.

We are indeed very honoured that H.E. Ambassador Cecilia Julin of Sweden has been able to join this final farewell to Billy Modise, holder of the prestigious Swedish Order of the Polar Star. In this context I would like to believe that all of us are very familiar with the outstanding role Sweden played in terms of the provision of massive support to our struggle.

As has been said already, we must of course continue to pay the tribute that is due to Billy for the work he did from 1960 onwards to help build what became a very powerful Swedish movement of solidarity with the peoples of South and Southern Africa.

It spoke to Billy’s dedication to the accomplishment of this task that, as a student in Sweden, he opted to abandon his studies in medicine to pursue other subjects, which gave him more time to do his political work both in Sweden and in other Nordic countries. That dedication contributed enormously to the privilege we enjoy to this day of excellent relations between Sweden and South Africa, and very warm, genuine people-to-people relations between our two peoples.

I would like to believe that as we continue the work to strengthen our relations with the rest of the world, including by helping to build a global movement for the democratisation of the system of international relations, our diplomats would do their best to learn everything that is relevant from the work Billy Modise did which helped to win for our country a genuine friend, the Kingdom of Sweden.

Ambassador Modise hoped that as our country strives to liberate itself from the negative tendencies which have engulfed it during recent years, it would also renew its focus on the strategic objective of the renaissance of Africa, loyal to the long-established Pan-Africanist traditions of his movement, the ANC.

As he taught at the Namibia Institute in Lusaka to train Namibians who would help to manage and develop the liberated Namibia, working side by side with the current President of the Republic of Namibia, H.E. Hage Geingob, Billy treated this task as an organic part of his life’s mission as a cadre of the ANC.

He had carried out his work in Sweden and other Nordic countries of helping to build the solidarity movement I have mentioned, working together with other liberation movements such as those from Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Somebody like the late Namibian, Jariretundu Kozonguizi, founder of SWANU, the South West Africa National Union, which ultimately disappeared, was to Billy a colleague, given that he had been an active member of the ANC Youth League when he was a student at Fort Hare.

Inspired by his vision and commitment relating to our Continent, Africa, and the practical example he set, we must pay tribute to and truly honour Billy Modise by regaining the unqualified respect of the whole of Africa for our country by doing the good and right things which gave hope to all Africans, including the African Diaspora.

The departure of Billy Modise from the world of the  living confirms sad news we cannot escape, that an eminent generation in our country which has been involved in struggle for six decades or more, to change the lives of all our people for the better, is disappearing for ever.

These are women and men, like Billy Modise, who, throughout their lives, and despite being confronted by great challenges, have consistently conducted themselves according to a noble value system, and remained at all times humble, humanist, never self-serving, permanently ready to serve the people.

Thus it is that when death robs us of any among the generation of liberators I have mentioned, this produces a sense of foreboding that unless we act to prevent this by ensuring that many among the living emulate our liberators, such as Billy Modise, one day we will wake up and find that there are none in our country who would conduct themselves according to the noble value system I have mentioned, humble, humanist and never self-serving.

Sis’ Yoli and your daughter, Thandi, and the rest of the Modise and Bokwe families, please accept our sincere condolences at the loss of one very dear to you, Ambassador Billy Modise.

Our dear Ambassador, our esteemed leader, elder brother and friend, Comrade Billy, while we live we will do our best to help ensure that the nation does not lose the extraordinary legacy you have left behind for its benefit, intent to give substance to what has been and will be said – that the spirit of Billy Modise lives on!

May the outstanding patriot, Billy Modise, rest in eternal peace.

Thank you.

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