TMF Tribute to Silas Nkanunu: An Appreciation of a Life in Service of the Public

Mr Silas Nkanunu passed away at his home in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday 3 November 2020. He was 87 years old. Mr Nkanunu had been ill for a few years receiving treatment in Port Elizabeth and in Johannesburg. More recently as his illness was advancing he was home-bound, under the care of his wife Pinky and family.

Silas Nkanunu was born and brought up in Mqanduli in Transkei, went to school at Healdtown, a Methodist missionary institution in Fort Beaufort. Having matriculated at Healdtown Nkanunu spent his early working life in Port Elizabeth, employed by the Barclays Bank and he became one of the first Bank Tellers those days. He also operated his business as a Book-keeper much trusted in the business community in the Port Elizabeth townships.

He then left service as a bank official and he turned his sights on training  as an attorney. Mr Nkanunu became an articled clerk (candidate attorney) with JB Mbuqe Attorneys in New Brighton and he later completed his articles with Herbert Fischat & Associates. He was admitted as an Attorney in 1977.

From 1978 Silas Nkanunu undertook a varied legal practice as a human rights practice and in commercial law. This was the time of intense political activity in Port Elizabeth, of detentions, school boycotts, political trials and an atmosphere of intense repression prevailed. In the midst of that Nkanunu not only took over the practice of Mr Herbert Fischat when the latter left the country to exile as a result of political pressure under threats of being struck off the roll, but he was also available as an advisor to many community organisations that were resisting repressions by the security police in Port Elizabeth’s townships. In partnership with Herbert Fischat he was on hand to handle many political cases when students and young people were being detained and arrested in large numbers since 1977. He was among the attorneys who took on the defence of the students pro bono. He also joined with the community in galvanizing community support for the young people and students who were caught in the crosshairs of state repression.

In the community, Silas Nkanunu gave support to the formation of the Port Elizabeth Black Community Association (PEBCO). Later, when many of the Port Elizabeth activists went into exile in Lesotho, Silas Nkanunu regularly visited them, gave them moral support and kept them in touch with their families back home. It was in that role that many later attested that Nkanunu became an invaluable resource, scout and source of intelligence that enabled the guerillas to infiltrate back into South Africa from Lesotho.

Silas Nkanunu is best known as a Rugby Administrator. Indeed, his work for sport, namely both Rugby and Cricket in Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Cape predates much of his community and political activism.  Eastern Rugby Football Club has always been Bhut’Si’s (as he has always been popularly known) home. He was involved at all levels of support for the Club and from there he became a delegate to higher levels of Rugby leadership including the Kwazakhele Rugby Union (KWARU) that got involved in the politics of sport, of boycotts of apartheid rugby and seeking to establish non-racial rugby. KWARU took its place alongside other sports bodies that advanced the campaign of “no normal sport within an abnormal society” that gave birth to the international boycott of South African sport in international competitions.

It fell on Silas Nkanunu, among others, to respond in a principled manner to the emerging transitional arrangements in the early 90s that would presage the era of constitutional democracy in 1994. He was involved in the negotiations for the unity of Rugby, that was nearly skittled by the intransigence of one Louis Luyt who was thought to be seeking normalization of sport without transformation. And so it was that Silas Nkanunu became the first Black President of the South African Rugby in succession to Luyt.

Silas Nkanunu was indeed a moderating influence in the transformation of sport. His legal and leadership skills were brought to good effect; his history of involvement in community activism meant that his was a household name; and his political involvement meant that he was trusted by the incoming ANC government to steer sport towards transformation. He remained at the helm of South African Rugby from 1998 until 2003. It is necessary to point out that Silas Nkanunu represented South Africa in the International Rugby Board, first in the Rules Committee, and later as Deputy President.

While it may appear that Silas Nkanunu’s life could be segmented into his professional practice and sports administration and community activism, in reality to Nkanunu all of these were of one piece. It was not surprising that he was among the founders of the National Democratic Lawyers Association (NADEL) and he promoted the cause of transformation of the legal profession, championed the appointment of Black lawyers in all the branches of the justice system in our country, encouraged the professional training of lawyers in order to raise the standards of professional practice, served three terms as the President of the Law Society of South Africa driving the programmes for the advancement of Black and Women Lawyers.

He served many terms as the Commissioner in the Judicial Services Council, responsible for the appointment of judges to the High Courts, Supreme Court of Appeal and Constitutional Court in the post-Apartheid South Africa. He later served as the Chairperson of the Attorneys Fidelity Fund, a body set-up to protect the interest of the public in cases of loss of their money or property on account of the wrongful and unprofessional conduct of attorneys.

Silas Nkanunu was a true democrat. For him the values that would shape the calibre and the quality of South Africa were well set out in the Constitution. In his life and professional career Nkanunu lived the Constitution and sought adherence to its values.

These values spoke to his deep-seated practice of the Christian faith, his involvement in the lay leadership of what became known as the Ethiopian Episcopal Church, and his sense of moral values in the conduct of public affairs were  consistent. For him a sense of fairness and justice prevailed and was non-negotiable and could not be partitioned selectively.

This nation mourns the death of a humble soul, a dimunitive giant, soft-spoken yet principled, friendly but also persistent in standing for what is right and true, a man of gentility and rationality and decency always. He was a patriot whose whole life was spent in the service of society. He leaves his widow, Pinky and five children.

The Thabo Mbeki Foundation dips its banner in respect and appreciation to one who has served his nation selflessly often at great cost to himself and his family. Silas Nkanunu will forever be remembered among the Great of our New South Africa.

Lala Ngoxolo Ngqosini, Gaba, Cihoshe, Mbokodo, Msuthu! Qhawe LamaQhawe.

10 November 2020


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