Oupa Lehulere: A revolutionist for the ages
By Ighsaan Schroeder, a comrade
Friends, family of different kinds and comrades:
This past Monday morning Oupa lay on his bed with the most remarkable smile on his face.
The smile radiated serenity and a great tenderness.
In the 40 years of knowing him, 17 of those being beside him daily, I had never seen Oupa smile like that.
It was remarkable enough for Maria and Searatoa, who would more likely to have seen it before, to also comment on it.
Oupa had reserved this extraordinary smile for his moment of death, when none of us were looking.
In his private relations, Oupa was a little shy, sometimes awkward, somewhat reserved.
This is why he would only be seen dead wearing such a tender smile.
But I could take my liberties too. I could touch his cheek and I could hold his hand. If I had tried either while he was alive I would probably have been hauled before a disciplinary hearing – a DC, as we all like to joke, a bit perversely.
The idea of Oupa being shy or reserved may surprise many because it stands in strong contrast to his public persona, of a hardened, uncompromising, sometimes irascible, socialist revolutionist.
This is the Oupa that everyone knows, everyone has come to respect and to admire, some perhaps grudgingly so. For others, it is the Oupa they came to love.
It would be Quixotic to attempt in a short contribution like this to do justice to Oupa in all his shadings, whether as revolutionist, fellow comrade or friend. In any case, he leaned more towards Shakespeare than to Cervantes.
I will nevertheless try: a prodigious intellect, prodigious energy for practical political work, a prodigious appetite for culture and everyday life, and just a prodigious appetite full-stop.
I met Oupa in 1981 and we fought together in many of the anti-Apartheid battles from that time. The Koornhof bills, rent struggles, consumer boycotts in support of strikes, national stayaways and the like – we were invariably in the same trenches.
But it was really from the latter part of the 1980s, when Oupa joined us in the Workers Internationalist League of South Africa, that we began to work together a lot more consistently and closely.
The key political task by that time was making sense of the working class retreat and searching for ways to rebuild struggles and organisation.
It was, of course, this longer-term retreat that was to make possible a new form of bourgeois class rule that kept intact all the fundamental social relations upon which apartheid capitalism rested.
As our understanding of the retreat deepened, we devoted the following years mainly to an exhaustive and detailed critique of nature of the democratic transition and what this meant for the South African working class.
By the time I joined Oupa at Khanya in 1994 our main focus was exposing for working class militants in the trade unions and community organisations the class character of the new democracy and the new power.
The neoliberal elements of the RDP and the labour bills for example, which found their clearest expression in the subsequent, overtly neoliberal GEAR programme, were subjected to systematic, detailed critique.
These critiques found expression in innumerable Khanya publications and was always accompanied by an even greater emphasis on educational work with union and community activists, among whom Khanya was a big favourite.
By 2001 Oupa posed questions over our political attitude to the new social movements that were emerging in opposition to the ANC’S neoliberalism, contrasting this with the growing capitulation to it of traditional working class organisations, including the trade union movement, and the various NGOs organized around them.
His attitude was that the social base of these newly emerging movements, very different from that upon which the traditional organisations rested, was the bedrock of a new working class movement.
From that time on, a theorisation of movement building and its practical testing out became his primary political preoccupations.
Central to this were the many questions of how we build a revolutionary cadre within a now seemingly permanently unstable, weak working class ‘dislodged from its class groove’.
These were the issues he would come back to most often over a number of years.
For Oupa, the ‘crisis of leadership’ mantra had long grown insufficient – irritating even – as the explanation for on-going working class political and organizational weaknesses.
It was instead necessary to follow closely how the working class was recomposing itself in the light of massive restructuring under neoliberal capitalism, the perhaps changed role of its various organisations in this process, and to find the ways in which to connect up with the issues around which it was entering into struggle.
In the last months of his life, the question of cadre formation became even more burning for him, and he would gently chide us for paying too much attention to day-to-day struggles and insufficient attention to this question.
All of this was no doubt tinged by a recognition of his own imminent departure, and the worry of how much more difficult the task would be without him.
Oupa fought cancer in the same way he fought capitalism: with great courage, with all his energy and with great optimism.
There were times when we would arrive at his bedside to find him looking as deathly sick as he was. Twenty minutes into a discussion, whether it be of the ANC or an acknowledgment of the contribution to struggle of Steve Biko and the black consciousness movement, whatever, Oupa would transform back into his old self, in his bearing and in the timbre of his voice.
It was impossible then to tell then that he was sick at all, and perhaps this blindsided us to how little time we had left with him.
For the working class and those who remain in the trenches beside it, the word ‘poverty’ has taken on an unwelcome additional weight with Oupa’s passing.