Jonathan de Vries

For Oupa.

By Jonathan de Vries, an old friend and comrade

A few weeks ago I stood next to Oupa’s body at that rousing send-off of a funeral.  Just over a week before that we had been in whatsapp communication making plans for things to do when he got out of hospital. It was a very emotional and fraught moment. Sometimes the only response to such a deep loss is silence. It was very difficult to speak then.

Today, with the benefit of some time to mourn and reflect, let me say a few things about this most remarkable human being and my lifelong friend Pule “Oupa” Lehulere.

Oupa and I met in our teens in the context of the Western Cape student movement of the late 1970s and 80’s. Thanks to an extended workshop organised by the Churches Urban Planning Commission (CUPC) we found ourselves able to spend days in conversation between formal sessions at the Dora Falke Centre in Muizenberg.

Not all comrades are friends. However, we were immediately drawn to each other, we recognised each other, not only through a shared conviction about the necessity of revolutionary change but also through a shared passion for music, particularly African Jazz and an insatiable curiosity about the world. A commitment to seeing beyond the artificial constructs of the normality of our time. And of a shared delight, both serious and mischievous, in the forms that would give us the tools to express that truth-seeking energy. Poetry, philosophy, literature and political theory. These elements combined with a quiet but deep sense of outrage at the injustice of the virulent form of racial capitalism we were born into, made for a heady mix.

We were revolutionaries. We were going to change the world. Living as Pablo Neruda said with “words in action and deeds that sing.”

I must pause to make a general point now because in a sense Oupa is whispering into my ear and insists that I do so.

To young people between their late teenage years and early twenties who feel these feelings, and who find some resonance with this attitude toward life. Do three things: Firstly, study study study – in a disciplined and focused way to deepen and find a world view that matches your instincts about what is right and wrong with the world. Secondly, travel. Not escapist tourism to relax and refresh – though that of course has its place, but travel with purpose. Do the Che Guevara Motorcycle Diaries thing. Go meet your people. You have a very small window before the mortgage and the responsibility of family kick in.

Arising from our first encounter Oupa and some close comrades formed a study group in 1979. Oupa was a rigorous task master who set the pace. We were intellectual orphans with no mentors who assumed the task of what we then understood to be the biggest questions facing humanity. From Hegel to Marx from the Grundrisse to State and Revolution, we dived in every Sunday afternoon at our respective homes, sympathetic parents permitting. Each member had the task of leading the discussion on chapters of each of the chosen texts. We were students from Harold Cressy, Fezeka and ID Mkhize High. We “discovered” Marxism and thanks to Oupa’s rigour, not the cartoon version.

The next thing he and I did later, was to undertake a South African road trip together, mainly to the then Transvaal and Natal. By bus and train. Our explicit objective was to experience and understand the lived conditions of the working class. Staying in townships from Soweto to Tongaat; staying with comrades in the white left in Yeoville and Crown Mines; hosted and guided by comrades in the Black Consciousness movement as well as in the Congress movement. Punctuated by jazz concerts and parties we eventually returned home to Cape Town and then parted ways.

I chose the ANC as my political home, influenced strongly by a young chemist I had met in Durban called Pravin Gordhan. Oupa chose to dedicate himself to the development of independent working class organisation by whatever means necessary. And that was that.

Despite our serious and lifelong political differences from then on and later even profound philosophical differences – I am in classical Marxist terms an Idealist, he a Materialist. I am a child of the ANC – we remained comrades and friends. This might come as a surprise to many, but Oupa was always sympathetic to the reasons for my choice of the ANC i.e. the capacity for armed struggle, global networks to isolate the apartheid regime, a presence and deep roots in the hearts of millions of South Africans. He understood that if you were serious about change, the ANC could appear to be a natural home. He never judged me as (what many of my comrades in the ANC/UDF called) the “ultra left” did.

At Oupa’s vigil on the evening before the funeral, as his closest comrades and family members reminisced spontaneously and informally, I learnt a few new things. Igshaan spoke about how Oupa and his comrades were organising the opposition/alternative to the UDF at the very moment when I and my comrades organised the launch of the UDF in 1983.

So here is the third thing. Take the time to engage with people who have a different view to yours. Learn to listen. As long as the discussion is reasoned, logical and underpinned by compassion, it does not matter if you win or lose the argument. There is always much that will enrich your understanding in an honest exchange of ideas.

He also saw that the day would arise when my movement would betray the nation and become the obstacle to progress. The twists and turns and nuances of that lifelong argument are too much to describe now, but who can deny that that day has come?

So, despite our differences politically our friendship never waned. In some sense it was nourished by our differences.

Apart from his prodigious intellect and theoretical rigour – to the best of my knowledge he is the best Marxist scholar of his generation in South Africa – Oupa also had an extraordinary range of practical skills.

Given these abilities he could very easily have carved out a niche for himself in academia or in the high paying segment of the NGO world and still have maintained some fidelity to a left orientation.

Instead, he dedicated his working life to keeping alive and developing institutions of the working class which stayed true to his ethical vision. That took Promethean effort and the deployment of an astonishing range of skills. Grassroots organiser, fundraiser, political strategist, publisher, festival convener, theorist, manager, HR department, general auto didact, book keeper, Marxist scholar, mentor, office and kitchen staffer. I am sure I have not mentioned it all.

Oupa loved walking in nature, our long walks in Suikerbosrand, the exquisite meanders in the wilds or two or three times around Zoo Lake toward the end, when that was all his strength would allow.
These walks would be followed by breakfasts at our favourite cafes on Norwood Main Road or when time allowed, deliciously prepared meals at home and on special occasions, curries and stews cooked by Maria, decent red wine, long burning fires, listening to music and “catching up.”

Oupa was a foodie and one of his complaints, about our emergent Lumpen Bourgeoisie (as another comrade aptly named them) was this final insult, “They are not even developing our national cuisine. One of the historic tasks of an emerging bourgeoisie!”

In that youth camp at Dora Falke in 1979, before Spotify and You Tube, we had one turntable and two or three albums which we would listen to over and over again. Abdullah Ibrahim for sure, Joan Baez  and definitely “Memphis Underground” by Herbie Mann. ”Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Give it a listen. It was part of the soundtrack of our youth. I listened to it recently and it still delivers decades later. During that time we developed that peculiar ability, which some friends have, of being able to listen to music in silence together. Punctuated by hmms, and aahs and exclamations of delight at a change in key or twist in a saxophone solo. Our thing, our shared passion was African jazz. And as usual Oupas’ pleasure in the music was accompanied by an encyclopaedic knowledge of the origins, development, social meaning and crowning musical achievements of the genre. He could speak at length of the transfiguring impact of Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, Chris Mcgregor etc. on the European avant garde music scene.

Driven by love for those who live ragged lives shorn of hope, scrabbling for a rand here and there to feed their kids as well as those who through combinations of talent, inherited fortunes or good luck, whose hearts have been hardened through wealth into indifference to the suffering of their neighbours, may they know that we struggle for all of them. Although he remained keenly aware of the strategic necessity of the struggle being led by the organised working class he knew that the objective of social change is to create a world for all of humanity to flourish in. He once told me, with a wistful sadness and some scorn at the narrowing sensibility of a mutual friend who had become spectacularly wealthy, ”He thinks he is chasing money but money is chasing him”. He never forgot the words of  Aime Cesaire, “…there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.”

Every generation must find its mission …Oupa has the undeniable honour of having fulfilled his place in the mission of our generation.

And so, the next generation confronts their own tears , finds their mission, defines the terms of struggle, battles with complex and powerful beasts.  That new, albeit continuing, chapter emerges falteringly from the chaos and ruins of our victory and our defeat. In this age when we are no longer just physical beings, when our identity exists in the digital terrain and is shaped for better and for worse in that new country called the internet, Oupa thankfully has written.

That series of writings will form part of the ammunition, the bullets and the flowers, which the next generation will draw from. Selectively and critically no doubt, but nevertheless a rich resource to draw upon.

After my daughter Rosa Maria was born Oupa would laugh at the resonance of her name   – “Aah the names of my favourite women – Rosa Luxemburg and Maria van Driel.”

In the days after Oupas’s funeral, when I was mute and quiet with bewilderment at such a calamity, as if a house in which part of my soul resides had burnt down and I was left adrift without the comforts of the familiar, Rosa Maria stopped to ask me, “Dad, whats the matter. Why are you so withdrawn?”

I told her that I was still processing Oupa’s passing and I asked her, “what do you remember of him?”

She replied, “When we had meals at our house, when mom would go to bed and Aunty Maria would go home, it would just be the two of you talking into the night. I would sneak back into the lounge to fall asleep because you were so happy when you were together. I loved falling asleep to the two of you talking.”

When close friends depart, as starts to happen when you come to this season of life, for those in our 60’s – you begin to learn how to tend to the wound of their absence. For many of us there will be a hole in our lives called Oupa.  An irreplaceable possibility for sharing, laughter, enquiry, debate. For those of you who were his comrades in daily activism, it is the loss of a comrade on the frontline of class struggle.  As he settles into his new role as ancestor – of course as a classical idealist I believe in that reality  –  I pray that his spectre haunts anyone who exploits the labour of another.  May every lying politician hear his scornful laugh. May his gentle ghost inspire and guide all those who continue to dream and work for a better world.

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