Struggle as volition, as free will
Maria van Driel, soulmate and life partner
Oupa Lehulere, has been my soulmate, my best friend and my comrade. We shared the belief since our youth that the working class will rise and rebuild society; and that capitalism would not determine our lives and how we responded to the needs of the working class. Struggle should be a way of our life, and should be based on volition – one’s free will. Oupa remained true to this and was loving, loyal and faithful to our youthful dreams, to me and to Searatoa.
Life was just perfect, until now. We were extremely happy and could spend hours with only each other. We were a formidable team, have a beautiful daughter, travelled and worked with great people, grounded, the salt of the earth.
Oupa lived a full life. He loved life – literature, movies, ideas, good wine and good food, and world’s revolutions and revolutionaries. Many have written about his achievements, his brilliance and his many talents. The capitalist establishment was at his feet, but he chose the path of humanity and the liberation of the working class.
Illness & Struggle
In mid-April, after we facilitated the workshop with community Healthcare Workers on the weekend, Oupa went into hospital for tests. It was supposed to be two days but it ended up being eight days. Oupa was diagnosed with colon cancer, stage four.
I remember sitting in the garden after we received his diagnosis, very angry. It didn’t make sense to me. He had so much work to do. He hugged me, comforted me and whispered, “It’s ok. We will deal with this like we’ve dealt with all the campaigns and struggles in our lives. We’ll do it together.”
And we did, with strength, courage and hope over seven months. In that time he was brave and fearless. Even when he was gravely ill, the struggles of the working class were always on his mind. He was always interested in what was happening to the CHWs, the youth, the CWCC and he tried to keep working. We were happy he launched his website in October, planned for past 20 years ago.
I first met Oupa in 1978, when he visited our home, as my sister Nicky’s friend. He always teased me that I never took much notice of him then and only greeted him as with all my sisters’ friends.
We met again, 10 years later, in the tranquil SACHED garden in Mowbray, on 23 March 1988. I had just returned to SA after studying in Britain and doing fieldwork in Nicaragua. Even now I see him in that garden smiling at me, 33 years ago, wearing his denim jeans and his favourite brown jersey. He never wanted me to get rid of the clothes I wore that day, even though they’ve been too small for me for a long time. The timing was perfect.
I was enthused with the fervour of the Sandinistas, a revolution made by youth, women and working people and that had many lessons for South Africa. Oupa’s path had similarly drawn him to the working class. That week we joined the photography class at the Community Arts Project led by Sid Kannemeyer, together with Sebastian, Dasi and Gogga, experimenting with black and white photos, depth of field, and the dark room. We were drawn to each other, had passionate debates about books, movies and the world, children, love, monogamy, the Russian revolution and of course, Marxism. We spent almost every day together, and still ran up huge phone bills.
My friends, Nadia Davids (late) and Cheryl Abrahams were curious, “what’s Oupa like”, they asked? “Well, he titillates me.” I said, and was constantly teased about it thereafter.
Seven months later we became lovers, intimately threaded together by friendship, love and a shared world view, (transcending our theoretical critiques of monogamy) interrupted only by his untimely death, but which I believe continues.
Like Firoz in Sadawi’s Women at Point Zero, I never wanted to be a wife, I wanted the passion of a lover, of being in love all my life. When Oupa first introduced me to Shepi Mati his friend, he said, “Shepi this is my mistress, meet my mistress Maria”. I loved it. We were blessed with a loving romance all our lives.
Our lives changed dramatically when Searatoa was born and added another dimension to politicising the personal, and testing our commitment to not fall back on gendered roles. Two weeks after Searatoa was born we attended a WILSA conference and after each day’s proceedings we would express milk so that I could continue breastfeeding afterwards. Searatoa deepened the love and happiness in our relationship. Oupa was world class and took on the responsibilities of childcare, often for extended periods when I travelled with union work in SA and Africa. It has been wonderful to witness the loving and humorous relationship that developed between father and daughter, as friends and as comrades. Oupa was very happy that Searatoa together with other youth in our study group completed Marx’s Capital vol.1 before she was 30.
Uncompromising and Principled
Oupa had a towering intellect and oratorical skills, but he held me with his resilient analysis and belief as a young man in his 20s until his untimely death, summed up in this quote by Marx:
“It is certainly not our task to build up the future in advance and to settle all problems for all time, but it is just as certainly our task to criticise the existing world ruthlessly. I mean ruthlessly in the sense that we must not be afraid of our own conclusion and equally unafraid of coming into conflict with the prevailing powers.” Karl Marx 1844
Oupa strived to live consistently throughout his life as a materialist, based on his analysis of the world. His was principled and nothing was spared, not culture, tradition, language, clan or colour. He was generous but uncompromising in the tasks facing the working class. And although he was often tactical and flexible, he was prepared to walk alone, and often we did walk alone as Khanya and bore the consequences. Poverty and growing up in black townships were no excuses for providing less than what the working class deserved. Oupa could be a hard taskmaster.
Oupa’s approach to the world was a window for me: as long as I could present a rational argument (unhindered by time!), I could move him to change his mind, whether this was his patriarchy, feminism or a political position. Oupa was always open to respectful engagement. He always saw more in me than I saw in myself, and he did this for many other comrades. He never patronised me and just agreed or ignored my views or anyone else’s. We had many disagreements and running battles because we are very different people.
The Road to the Masses
Oupa was always seeking ‘the road to the masses’, how to support the self-organisation of the masses; and how to make Marxism more accessible so working people could become social agents of their own liberation. Oupa worked tirelessly. He’d nap after supper and then work till 3 or 4am. Often there would be an article on my desk to edit when I got up at 4am. We’d have breakfast in bed on Sundays if there was no workshop. His work rhythms were informed by need, and there were so few of us, with the impact of neoliberalism on the working class. Oupa’s work at Khanya College coincided with SA’s transition to democracy and neoliberalism, and has been an important aspect of our life’s work, even before I only formally joined Khanya in 2010.
We both committed to WILSA in the late 1980s and 1990s. However, WILSA was overtaken by the changes in South Africa. The decline of the union movement and its co-option, and the rise of new social movements raised theoretical and organisational imperatives – the war in Iraq, the WSSD, the formation of the Khanya Journal, the Social Movements Indaba, the formation of GIWUSA, the Jozi Book Fair, the critique of ‘the party’ and the needs of movement building under neoliberalism. Many of these debates can be found on Oupa’s website: www.oupalehulere.org.za
Rebuilding a New Cadre
In post democracy SA, a key question that concerned Oupa was how to rebuild a new generation of cadre, especially in the absence of mass struggles? Similarly, he was concerned about the ‘missed opportunities’: Why did a non-Stalinist Marxist alternative not emerge historically? Hence his was interested in the ‘New Africans’ of the 1930s and 1940s, the split in the ANC and the formation of the PAC, the rise of the BC movement in the 1970s, the rise of trade union movement and mass struggles in the 1980s/90s, and recently #FeesMustFall. Oupa was critical of the role of the SACP in ensuring its hegemony.
In response to the need for a new cadre, Khanya formed the first edition of the Jozi Book Fair in 2009 to create a new cadre and compensate for the poor generic skills unleashed by neoliberal education. He was clear that a new cadre cannot emerge if working people cannot read and write, and critically engage the world in which they live. The JBF is a subversive book fair which celebrates ‘the reader’ – CHWs, women, workers, youth and children.
Resources for Movements
Oupa initiated the Khanya Board’s purchase of the House of Movements, as an independent space for working class movement building. Oupa was critical of the trade unions with their huge investment companies but did not contribute to building spaces for the working class to organise and emancipate itself. Oupa’s vision was influenced by Antonio Gramsci, and the need to develop independent associations where the working class could independently organise itself and not depend on the capitalists. Hence our holidays were often used to explore working class initiatives in other countries.
Need for Public Healthcare
Oupa experienced much pain in the last few weeks, more than he let on, but he never complained. The medical aid, Bonitas (like all medical schemes) gave us huge problems. Bonitas rejected three treatment plans from the oncologist, no reasons given, after advising us to upgrade to the most expensive plan. Medical aids are powerful and unaccountable, especially when people are ill and vulnerable.
The government’s GEMS pays billions of tax payers monies into private healthcare which could restore public hospitals. Pharmaceutical monopolies exercise price control and prohibit the import of cheaper generics, with the blessing of the ANC government. We need to go back to basics, and struggle for the need for quality public healthcare for the working class, for everyone.
I wish to thank Oupa’s parents, Kehilwe and Obakeng Lehulere for the son they nurtured. Oupa loved his mother and she gave him the space to read, shielding him from his father who wanted him to get a job and not spend so much time with books. Oupa learnt much from his sisters, Mogodi; Seadimo developed his love for music, a working class woman who always knew the latest jazz; the defiant spirit of Letsego and Seapei who took him to the movies. I enjoyed the fruits of their labour, and so did the working class.
My heartfelt thanks to the Khanya staff, the Board, our solidarity partners, comrades, Oupa’s food and transport teams, all the doctors and nurses who attended him and Campaign for Cancer. We had wonderful support, a reflection of our work and struggle to build a new world. I am convinced that family is more than blood, family is who we make.
I loved Oupa, and have been in love with him for 33 years now. We struggled together and made a life together. I believe that at the time of his death that Oupa was happy, with plans to do so much work. We were defeated in many campaigns and struggles. But he/we were never defeated in our world view. Oupa’s belief, and our belief that the working class will rise, was never defeated.
Although we loved Oupa as a family, and Searatoa and I, he never belonged to us. His first love was always the working class, the workers of the world. That is what he rose up to do every day.
In the end, revolution is about love, about love that conquers all barriers – colour, gender, tradition, culture and language – and enables us to rise above ourselves, to build selflessly for those who come after us. To the end, Oupa had a deep love for his class, the working class.
“Tomorrow the revolution will rise up again, clashing its weapons and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!”