The Nene Family;
President Thabo Mbeki;
Premier David Makhura;
Ambassador Welile Nhlapo;
Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill;
General (Retired) Sphiwe Nyanda;
Comrades and Friends;
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am deeply grateful for this opportunity and privilege to pay homage to Ambassador George Sipho Nene, as well as express my condolences to his family.
The cadences of our lives give way to the inevitability of passing on into the spiritual realm, at the conclusion of our mortal existences. Today we mourn one such transition, of a father, brother, uncle, comrade and dear friend.
At this moment, our grief is collectively woven into the mourning of the loss of Mam’ Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela and Bhut Zola Skweyiya. Such simultaneity is perhaps a reminder of the inextricably interconnected contributions made to realise the South African present.
In the parlance of the struggle we would refer to Comrades George Nene, Winnie Madikizela Mandela and Zola Skweyiya as a unit. In the division of labour among them, Comrade Zola would be the Commander; Comrade Winnie the Chief of Staff and Comrade George the Commissar.
As this trinity of cadres of our struggle are given over to the domain of memory, we take custody of their legacy. We are commanded with writing and articulating them into history in modes that do justice to their contributions to the achievement of a liberated South Africa and the full breadth of their personhood.
2018 has been a particularly devastating year, as we mourn the loss of Hugh Masekela, Bra Willie Kgotsitsile and Ambassador Faith Radebe.
That so many stalwarts of our struggle are passing on within such a brief space of time, serves as a painful reminder of the significant importance of archiving our history and the contributions of our struggle heroes.
Upon the demise of the elderly, a proverb is often recited, likening their passing to the burning down of a library. These comrades held much information and experience; with history locked in their bones and held in their blood, they were repositories of national memory.
At 69-years-old, Comrade Nene’s premature departure, just short of the biblical declaration that ‘the days of our years are threescore years and ten’, is eclipsed by the profound impact he effected on interpersonal, organisational and institutional strata of South African society. It is this significant contribution that we remember today.
For there is no higher patriotic act that can be evidenced than the dedication of one’s life to the achievement of liberation for all. Comrade Nene was one such patriot, who devoted the substance of his years to our country.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr once wrote:
‘When we were young our hearts were filled with fire…and as life is action and passion, a man must share in the actions and passions of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived at all’.
Comrade Nene answered the call of the liberation struggle of his time, against the discrimination that pervaded the textures of life for people of colour in apartheid South Africa.
The lighting of such a revolutionary consciousness was sparked in an unlikely place, the Johannesburg City Council, where we worked together. During our time in the commercial department, managing bottle-stores in Soweto, our closeness developed. Such work allowed the space and time to engage in political debates and discussions, given that we managed ourselves. Through such engagements, we reached a level of political awareness that led to us precociously seeking out the African National Congress.
It was this awareness that persuaded Comrade Nene to enrol at the University of Zululand. He honed his political consciousness during his time on campus – going on to become a member of the South African Student Organisation (SASO). Such consciousness would go on to define the contours of Comrade Nene’s life, supplemented by a fundamental belief in the value of education.
Comrade Nene innately understood what Moses Kotane eloquently articulated, when the latter argued that:
‘Education can…be used as an important instrument in the struggle for freedom and human progress’.
As such, education became his early vocation.
Upon leaving university, Comrade Nene taught at his alma mater – the space within which we find ourselves today: Morris Isaacson High School. It was here that he was involved in conscientising young minds on the significance of struggle politics.
These young minds would later play a leading role in the June 16 uprisings, as students protested the education policies of the apartheid state. He continued to educate youth, even in the exile context, where he taught at Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania – a school established for the children of comrades.
Comrade Nene dedicated his life to the struggle, joining the African National Congress and uMkhonto we Sizwe, in the fight against white domination. It was during his tenure with MK that we formed a unit of the ANC underground struggle, complimented by the late Cde Stan Nkosi and retired General Siphiwe Nyanda. Within this unit, we established a structure of recruitment and later received military training.
We were subsequently directed to dismantle our recruitment structure by sending members into exile, in order to establish and train new sabotage units. That is how Lesetja Ngapa Sexwale, Bobby Tsosobe, Sphiwe Nyanda and Comrade Nene, among many others who were part of this machinery, were sent into exile.
The space and time allowed by working for the JCC, unwittingly supported such efforts, as from time-to-time we had to visit Swaziland. Thus, we ferried people through Swaziland, working alongside many comrades, including the late Ambassador and Principal of SOMAFCO, Uncle Tim Maseko, the late Stanley Mabizela and his wife, Comrade Duma and Comrade Albert Dlhomo, Comrade Keith Mokoape, Comrade Thabo Mbeki and Comrade Jacob Zuma.
Before our comrades could leave the country, our experience taught us that they needed a tactical mode to say their goodbyes. Thus we had them write letters that we were tasked with delivering following their safe exit.
There is a beautiful poem by Augustino Neto that encapsulates the message that was contained in those letters. It reads:
(oh black mothers whose children have departed)
You taught me to wait and hope
as you have done through the disastrous hours
but in me
life has killed that mysterious hope
I wait no more
It is I who am awaited
Hope is ourselves
travelling towards a fate that feeds life’
Apartheid was a realm of the unimaginable made real – where families were separated for many reasons, one of these being the pursuit of a better future that, at times, demanded exile.
Throughout his exile experience, Comrade Nene received military training, schooling in political theory and training on the art of diplomacy that cumulatively provided the support structure for his valiant contribution to the realisation of our democracy.
His diplomatic service saw its genesis in the fight for freedom, where he served as the ANC Chief Representative to Nigeria. Such a role providing a practical space within which he could apply learned theory to reality: honing skills that would later become critical to his chosen vocation.
Experience within the ANC’s structures would see its apex in Comrade Nene’s extended service as a career diplomat.
As freedom dawned, he entered the public service, working in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation from 1994 until his retirement, a mere two years ago.
As the First High Commissioner to Nigeria, later serving in Switzerland as the Permanent Representative of South Africa to the multilateral institutions of the United Nations based in Geneva, Comrade Nene was a critical part of the establishment of the post-Apartheid South African diplomatic corps. He led the avant-garde that forged a new path in our relations with the international community.
Such service did not rest at retirement, however. For stalwarts of his character, the delineations of time and occupation seldom define the contours of their contribution to the country.
Comrade Nene took up a position as the Chairman of the South African Association of Former Ambassadors, following his official service – with a view to posterity. He evidently believed in and practised the importance of establishing an institutional legacy.
The veteran diplomat was consistently willing to lend his wide-ranging expertise to our continually developing foreign policy and diplomatic community. He was a regular attendee of ANC NEC meetings of the sub-committee on international relations.
Additionally, he continued to organise seminars and roundtable discussions with young people in Soweto, whose lives took the shape of the words of Augustino Neto when he said:
who are ashamed to call you mother
who are afraid to cross the streets
who are afraid of men’
In the face of such challenging realities, Comrade Nene responded by living a life of service. Consequently, his legacy is today characterised by servant leadership, ethical conduct and loyalty to the national cause.
Within the political arena, his passing is keenly felt; as none can fill his shoes.
Over the years, Comrade Nene consistently evidenced a nuanced comprehension of the Republic of South Africa, developing a profoundly deep knowledge of South Africa’s place in the world that was the result of wide-ranging experience and acute intelligence.
In his quiet way, he had an uncanny skill for interpreting world affairs and understanding the language and contents of official documents. His passing robs us all of those deep insights of value and significance.
In today’s world, he would have been eager to explain where all those so-called rebels in Syria were being bussed to, to remark on the disintegration of Libya, and map the impact of Brexit, among many other situations of significance.
Comrade Nene would continuously be called on, in both official and unofficial capacities, to provide insight on the complexities of global affairs. Such a singular, deep understanding of geopolitics leaves a profound gap in the political community, in addition to the multiple other chasms left in the wake of his untimely passing.
As we collectively mourn, I invite us all to take solace in the words of comrade Keorapetse Kgositsile on the “elegance of memory” ‘There are memories between us / Deeper than grief’.
In concluding, I return to the latter part of Augustino Neto’s poem. He writes:
‘Hope is ourselves…
it is ourselves
the hope of life recovered’.
Comrade Nene stands among many who carved rich lives in the face of devastating conditions. He found hope within, with an unwavering belief in our humanity and the moral foundations of our liberation struggle. Comrade Nene’s life was fruitful, significant and abundantly full. His memory will undoubtedly live on.
To Comrade George’s children, their mothers and his sister we say: take solace in the knowledge that your loss is our loss.
May his soul rest in peace.