By Lindsey Collen, Mauritius
A personal note, written in the name of everyone on LALIT* who knew Oupa.
Oupa Lehulere, who led Khanya College in Johannesburg, for a decade, had a brilliant political mind that became increasingly broad over the years, broad in its vast compass. Read more…
Together with this exceptionally broad-spanned mind, he had a piercing capacity to understand and explain South Africa’s class formation over history and until today. Then he could link the objective class forces at play in the particular history of the imperialist economy in South Africa with the unfurling of the political reality and political debate of the here and now. In other words, he could see and analyze the whole of society, as well as its particular parts – a particularly Marxist capacity.
Well-read, and able to organise people, tirelessly hard-working, he and his partner, Maria van Driel, kept the memory of past working class struggles in South Africa alive and on into the struggles of working class people and young people right now. He had a sense of humour, and a love of jazz music – coming as he did from a family with an artistic bent – and all this kept him always a person who could emit happiness and somehow transmit the knowledge that, if temporarily absent, happiness will return – even when we are in the midst of sorrow and crises. And this memory of him will give all of us who grieve his parting, after his months of struggle against cancer, a way to get through this moment of deep sorrow for his loss, too.
We will remember him for his contributions to LALIT’s thinking over the past 20 years or so – not just on South Africa’s politics, which play an important role in our region as it is, but in general, and also, in particular, in coming to grips with the collapse, for example, of the “historic bloc” around sugar-and-cane in Mauritius.
In 2007, LALIT published one of his speeches given at a LALIT gathering, in booklet form, in
English and in Kreol, “The Revolutionary Socialist Parties and the Working Class in Periods of Economic Crisis”. In it, he showed memorably the way in which a crisis of the whole of society means the collapse of the partitions we build up in our minds and in our little worlds under capitalist hegemony, and how the bare bones of capitalism, usually hidden, suddenly expose themselves to us. Work and home, the public and the private, all get exposed as one. Everything gets thrown up for re-consideration. Broad masses of people see things in their own lives clear-as-a-bell, things that are usually hidden. He explained this vividly. In times of the Coronavirus pandemic, these descriptions of “crises” once again become vivid as ever.
Oupa could link together issues of women’s emancipation with the overall struggle for socialism.
He was so respected for this that the Muvman Liberasyon Fam invited him to one of our Committee meetings to ask him to critique our critique of the collapsing of the struggle for women’s emancipation and liberation into the mere struggle for “gender equity”. We still refer to his contributions to our thinking from that one meeting. Oupa also linked ecology into his thinking, and introduced us to Marx’s Ecology by John Bellamy Foster, re-analyzing Marx’s actual position and the different currents that ensued and vied for expression. He relentlessly incorporated health care issues and education issues into politics, and could synthesize them with the more purely political issues. He could see and express the internal contradictions in society, as they pull in different directions, combine and separate out again. He could see the South African imperialist monopoly capital, keeping itself in power throughout both white nationalist and ANC rule, and now on into a form of sub-imperialism expanding into the rest of Africa.
Oupa could, with endless humour, deplore the inability of the petty-bourgeoisie, as a class, to propose any form of programme for society, and how it could do no more than contribute to enable warring sections of the capitalist bourgeoisie to perpetuate their programme, and indeed their reign, i.e. the same old imperialist monopoly capitalists. I know all this because, over the years, I must have been a speaker together with Oupa on a panel on such matters, perhaps a dozen times. And I always learnt something new from him.
I knew Oupa, in particular, as one of the key organizers of the annual Jozi Book Fair. I was present there for the first time in 2010 as “Guest of the Book Fair” as a novelist and political activist, as someone in adult literacy and mother-tongue promotion – yes all in one, not just a part of me as a “single issue” – and I went on almost every year to be present, since then. He, Maria, their daughter Searatoa, and others at Khanya College saw my literary work as rare in that it situates the narrative and the whole story within the working class – in cane fields, free zone factories, docks – and this class reality is expressed in the ultimate “bourgeois” art form, the novel. Khanya College that organizes the Book Fair is that particularly rare mixture of a working class organization that loves written literature. Which is why I always accepted to be there and to be an honorary patron – or am I a matron? As a writer, I experienced some of the most rewarding experiences ever, when groups of women domestic workers, hospital cleaners and home-care workers, who read Getting Rid of It in reading groups as their first-ever novel, some of them only recently able to read and write, and would, at a public talk I gave or at a reading, stand up in front of an audience of university people and tell how they lived that experience of reading the story of those women characters,
how it spoke to their hearts, and how they learned from it to let secrets stored inside their chests surface, and find expression for what they had known in their own words, and how it helped them. One woman stood up and berated anyone present who had not read the novel, and literally escorted some Johannesburg literati to where there were copies for sale. You would never, as a writer, get exuberant readers like that anywhere except at the Jozi Book Fair. They literally tear right through the facade of pretention that so smothers much of even very good art under capitalist reign.
Everyone at Khanya and at the Jozi Book Fair will miss Oupa forever. Our condolence to you all, and to Maria and Searatoa in particular. Our thoughts are with you.
We in LALIT will miss Oupa sorely.
[Lalit is a left-wing political organisation.]