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Isu Laloo Chiba, struggle veteran we can learn much from today

Low-profile activist was a man of honesty, integrity and trust

10 December 2017 - 00:00 By Raymond Suttner

Isu Laloo Chiba, who died at his Lenasia home on Friday at 87, served 18 years on Robben Island for his part in the sabotage campaign that led to what was called the "Little Rivonia Trial" in November 1964.
On release from prison he worked legally and illegally to achieve democracy, leading to his re-detention in the 1985-86 state of emergency.
Chiba embodied qualities in his life that South Africans can draw on today to make meaningful contributions to building a peaceful, caring society, a society where all enjoy dignity and respect.
Many of these traits emerged under conditions that no longer exist - armed struggle, imprisonment, torture and detention. We have to work out what values characterised Chiba and, if we believe they are important, apply them in our own lives.
Each of us confronts choices and difficult decisions every day. How do we draw on the life of Chiba to guide us in what we do, and how can we act in a manner that affirms others, that builds the confidence of others and that does not hurt people but creates friendships and mutual respect?
Chiba was a man of integrity. There was no falsity or pretence. He was a person who could be trusted. All of us need to try to be the type of person who is known to honour their word and reject deviousness.
Chiba never boasted about what he had done, important as it was. He did not spend time recounting his long service in the struggle, during which he served in Umkhonto weSizwe. He did not think it was sufficient in any case. He believed that he had to re-earn respect every day of his life.
His reputation was not something he treated lightly, modest as he may have been. He did not flaunt his achievements, but he was conscious that others looked up to him.
Consequently, he never did anything that may have been followed by others, as an example, unless it was honourable and true to the convictions to which his life had been devoted.
Modesty is thus important, but a sense of one's place in the world is necessary. One needs to have an awareness of the new conditions under which we live.
Thus, one should obviously not take Chiba's history of armed struggle as a reason for the continued use of violence. The secrecy that was essential underground should not be a reason to act furtively and without openness now.
Chiba was unselfish. He embraced the best qualities of the great leaders of the struggle, sharing the sorrows and joys of others, recognising the difficulties faced by others and trying to assist even without being told.
This he saw in Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and other giants, and he made it the road he followed. (He was jailed alongside Sisulu, Kathrada, Nelson Mandela and others on Robben Island.)
Caring about others is a major part of comradeship, treating the other person as one wants to be treated oneself, and looking out for the needs of the other.
A comrade stands by one in both good and hard times, and that is what Chiba always did.
He did not care for possessions and everything that was his was used for family, friends and comrades wherever they met.
He did not join the struggle for any reason other than to achieve a society in which all are free. He did so unostentatiously, and that is why he was not well known.
He made no attempts to remedy that "invisibility" and carried on in his own simple way, just doing what he thought to be right.
Chiba was brave. But bravery means something different in 2017 than it did in 1964 or the mid-1980s, and it relates to other qualities he had. To be brave is often to be gentle, tender, and willing to hug instead of striking a blow.
Bravery may be to think one's own thoughts, where previously we had to hold the line against division in the face of the enemy. We now need the bravery of those who are willing to renew our thinking on a range of issues.
This does not mean that everything that was previously believed is now discarded. But it does mean that even what has been sacred requires the bravery of the inquiring mind. Chiba was a mentor and teacher; in a world where it is easy to become dogmatic, he always remained open.
He was an emotional person. When he hugged someone he did so not as a formality but because he really cared for others. He built up courage and strength in others by this warmth that he conveyed.
He passed his own powerful integrity, strength, gentleness and love on to others. In doing that, he was saying: "Take this from me and make a better world, and in so doing, we know we will become better people."
Chiba is survived by his wife, Luxmi, and their three daughters and grandchildren.
• The writer, also a former political prisoner, worked with Chiba, mainly in the 1980s...

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