Two men died last week. The one a hero of the liberation struggle whose long and distinguished life reflected the greatness of a movement that inspired millions over the course of a century.
The other a fallen hero whose life of relentless greed, excess and impunity continues to place our country at great risk.
The physical death of Ahmed Kathrada could not have contrasted more sharply with the political death of Jacob Zuma. The two deaths were unavoidably intertwined; said one analyst of the funeral, it was difficult to eulogise one without at the same time denouncing the other.
What those two deaths also conveyed was the reality of South Africa – a country in the habit of swinging between hope and despair.
But the life of these two leaders also presented two choices still available to the citizenry.
Our demise as a nation is not inevitable, as Kathrada’s life so amply demonstrates but the threat of national decay remains a real possibility as Zuma’s presidency so vividly reminds us.
The five or six times that I met Kathrada were truly transforming.
In his presence, I always felt I wanted to be a better human being. Without having to say anything, Uncle Kathy, as everybody of my generation called him, made me feel I could do more to change the education and life outcomes of the thousands of youth I was privileged to serve.
What is it about leaders like this close friend and prison mate of Nelson Mandela who inspire without words?
The first thing I noticed was his humility. Not once did I hear him boast about his signal role in the struggle or demand respect for his contribution to the fall of apartheid. Uncle Kathy had every right to trot out his credentials and achievements but bragging was not in his character or those of his closest comrades like Mandela and Walter Sisulu.
His feet were solidly on the ground and greatness did not go to his head. Such humility as exhibited by this soft-spoken giant is an attribute that attracts admirers and inspires followers.
If there is one expression that is used relentlessly by comrades it is selfless struggle. On paper the life of the activist is supposed to be one of selflessness – as one hollow political speech after another would pronounce.
It is a joke really for what you see in real life among these comrades is capricious greed, the never-ending quest for the most expensive cars, homes and attire paid for by the taxpayer.
And then you meet Uncle Kathy who asks for a simple funeral according to Muslim rites. Whose single most admired feature was his unflashy life.
He truly understood that he lived for others; that the cause was greater than himself; and that loyalty to the country came before loyalty to the head of his political party.
Ahmed Kathrada made a choice in his life to stand on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Whenever he saw me, Uncle Kathy recognised me as the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State.
He would then repeat the story of how, when he was arrested in the Free State, the half-apologetic white policeman would tell him there was a problem. They had cells for Europeans and Natives but not for Indians. Where should they put him?
For Kathrada the activist the answer was straightforward – with the natives, of course. The story was at once humorous and didactic – stand with those on the downside of history.
Then of course, there was his utter commitment to non-racialism – not as a slogan but as a choice.
It was so important for my generation to be able to see alongside the great African leaders women and men like Kathrada and Denis Goldberg who represented the broad diversity of the struggle.
It was no accident that his commitment to inclusivity would be represented in every proceeding at his funeral – from the Anglican Archbishop praying, to Sophie de Bruyn of the 1955 Women’s March paying tribute, to the sacked Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom chairing the event.
This was a very proud moment for South Africa and as ordinary citizens followed this inspiring funeral on television something happened – they sensed possibility amidst the utter despair caused by that other leader, and they sensed a real hope that we could alter our democratic futures.
Members of the sitting Cabinet stood and applauded when, from the grave, Uncle Kathy’s gentle but firm letter was read by his friend and former president, Kgalema Motlanthe, to the effect that the current president should step down.
It has been a long time since a dead man could so inspire the living.