Delivered by Lionel Isaacs at the funeral in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal on September 19th, 2009.
Henry Isaacs was born on March 21, 1949, after Rachel Isaacs, he was the second child of Norman and Hester Isaacs. He grew up in Raisethorpe and later Woodlands here in Pietermaritzburg, a place he loved deeply, and despite having travelled throughout Africa in Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea-Conakry, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Botswana, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, the Middle East, the United Kingdom, North America, the Caribbean and Latin America, it was in Pietermaritzburg where he absorbed the values of responsibility, discipline, perseverance, ubuntu, and honesty to principle, that would define him throughout his life.
Having lost his mother at the age of 11, along with his older sister Rachael, as the eldest boy, he took responsibility for helping care for and look out for his younger siblings Norman, Derek, Malcolm and Lynette. Their unconditional love and support, and fierce loyalty to one another has been a hallmark of his life, a well of strength which he drew from during his long days away from them for study, struggle, and exile.
Henry inherited from his mother a love for learning, and read voraciously, taking advantage of his older sister Rachael’s access to the library to read as many books as possible.
He entered Alston High School on Greyling Street in 1963, where he participated fully in student activities, playing soccer, cricket, and leading the debating team. At this early age, Henry exhibited the discipline and purpose which would echo throughout his long and eventful life. In his own words:
I was never tempted to engage in the experimentation in which many adolescents indulged, a fact that was attributed to my own strict upbringing and also my personal goals: I was determined to achieve something in life, to be recognised for my ability and to be of service to the community.
I was determined that I would not uphold what appeared to be a tradition in Pietermaritzburg, to leave school after obtaining a junior certificate in order to go into apprenticeship in one of the building trades. I decided that I would be a lawyer because, in my youthful idealism, I thought that I would be able to fight against apartheid and simultaneously serve the community.
He would soon get his chance.
After graduating from High School in 1966, the only person in his class of five to achieve a university exemption, Henry could not afford the fees for university, and went to work to save money with the goal of entering university in February 1968.
Having saved some money, supplemented by his father and a scholarship of 150 rands a year for three years from the Pietermaritzburg City Council, he entered the University of the Western Cape in 1968 as envisioned.
After living in the residence hall for two years, he boarded at the home of Mr. Arthur Abrahams, his wife Aunty Minnie, and their family. Their eldest daughter Edna was a fellow student at the university. My father cherished his relationship with the Abrahams family, whom he considered a second family, along with their neighbors the Beukes’ and it is with sadness, but also gratitude, appreciation, and happiness that I welcome them here today. Gratitude because this second family sheltered and protected Henry, when he attracted the scrutiny of the university authorities and security police because of his activities as an outspoken SRC President and a Black Consciousness Movement leader as a founding member of the South African Students’ Organization, the organization formed by the black caucus of NUSAS, who broke away to speak for themselves and determine their own problems, solutions, and destiny.
His time at UWC was spent studying, playing soccer, and organizing protests, and speaking out against the unjust second-class education received by Blacks in South Africa, as well as building SASO structures, and promoting the liberation vision and ideas of Black Consciousness on university campuses and in communities throughout the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
As a result of these activities, the security police surveiled, followed, investigated and interrogated him. Bold and confident in his convictions, he refused to bow to fear. Here’s how he recalled one interrogation:
At about 10:00 a.m. an elderly African man brought a cup of tea on a tray for the officer. “Why do you make tea for these pigs?” I asked him. Astonished, he looked at me, then at the officer seated behind the desk. Before either of them reacted, I went on the offensive: “Let me talk to you about freedom,” I said to the black man. He smiled superciliously. The officer said, “This is not SASO’s indoctrination school (sic!) where you agitators teach people to stir up trouble.” “He is a black man, misguided, but nevertheless oppressed and exploited, so I have an interest in talking to him,” I retorted.
For fifteen minutes I talked to him (and he listened impassively) about the situation in the country, about black oppression and degradation at the hands of whites, about the efforts of the older then banned organisations, ANC and PAC, and their leaders, in the struggle for freedom. I informed him about SASO, its objectives, and emphasised the importance of involvement by all black people in the struggle for liberation. In conclusion, I expressed the hope that he would cease to make tea for “pigs.” Without saying a word the black man smiled, then made his exit. The officer who watched me intensely throughout the fifteen minute lecture was livid with rage: “Do you know where you are?” he asked. “Of course, I do!” I replied and enjoyed to
see him restrain himself with much difficulty.
Ever defiant in the face of these tactics which unsuccessfully sought to intimidate him into giving up his activism, he consistently evaded, ignored, and stared down the security police, while constantly involved in legal action with the university, which sought to invalidate the SRC when, under my father’s leadership, it began to link student grievances with the quality and form of their education, with the injustice of Apartheid policies, the insidious mirage of bush school education and Bantustan balkanization, and under the banner of Black Consciousness, the need for black South Africans to recognize their oppression, and rise up to devote all efforts to freeing themselves.
Because of his involvement with the Black Consciousness movement, Henry Isaacs was banned in 1973, under the Suppression of Communism Act, and placed under house arrest at his family home in Pietermaritzburg, five months before he would have completed his LLB at the UWC.
The banning order was designed to isolate threats to the Apartheid regime physically, politically and psychologically, and to disadvantage these activists and their families socially and economically. The UWC administration vindictively refused to allow HE to take his exams at the University of Natal Law School, or to furnish the Certificate of Good Conduct required by UNISA for him to finish his studies there.
Henry was under house arrest for over a year. Having decided not to accept living under constant psychological warfare, unemployed, unable to study, with family, relatives and friends harassed and persecuted, and the possibility of a litany of charges of contravening his banning order constantly hanging over his head, HE decided to go into exile. It pained him to keep his decision a secret- for their own safety- as they supported him unconditionally and unwaveringly throughout.
With only his 18-month old niece Samantha’s diaper bag carrying a change of clothes and underwear, and handed an army trench coat, 50 rands, and a sjambok by Mr. Norman Middleton, he was driven to the Swaziland border where he walked across and made his way to Manzini, where through serendipitous connections with old friends, luck, and the kindness of several new acquaintances, he was given refugee status and a UN travel document which enabled him to go to Mozambique and on via Madagascar and Mauritius to Australia, and New Zealand where he had been given a scholarship to Victoria College in Wellington by the New Zealand Students’ Union.
HE picked up where he left off crisscrossing Australia and New Zealand speaking out against Apartheid, raising awareness, raising funds, and building international pressure against Apartheid. While finishing his LLB in New Zealand, he was named representative to Australasia by the PAC. After graduation he went to PAC Headquarters in Tanzania, later joining the Central Committee, and taking up the post of Director of Education and Manpower Development, in which he served with distinction, before serving as Director of Foreign Affairs and Representative at the United Nations in New York from 1979 to 1982. Tirelessly working to build international pressure against the regime, he travelled around the US, Africa, and Europe, at some point undergoing military training in Vietnam.
He left the PAC in 1982, when he found organizational introspection, the identification of systemic problems and the proposing of solutions were treated as treasonous activities by the PAC. He was the victim of a character-assassination campaign by leaders within the PAC after he left the organization, including while in Zimbabwe in 1983-84 which prevented from taking a legal position in the Justice Ministry which was sorely in need of trained lawyers. He took a principled decision not to respond to the attacks by these elements, identifying it as the stock and trade of exile politics- at least within the PAC- and confident that his reasons for leaving the PAC would be borne out in time. After 25 years of steady decline and constant infighting by the PAC, he has long since been proved correct.
Having retired from active politics in 1982, he worked variously as a lawyer, management consultant focused on education and development issues, and in academia. He wrote a book on the PAC, ‘Struggles Within the Struggle’, which was published by Zed Books in the UK in 1985. Without examining its contents, PAC leaders fought to suppress it, threatening Zed Books with legal action. Zed Books was a small publishing house, and was unable to sustain a legal battle regardless of the merits- or lack thereof- of the objections to the book, and withdrew publication after the first run of 4000 books.
Who was Henry Isaacs?
When I think of my father, my earliest memories are of a strong, authoritative man, always smartly dressed. I have seen my father in shorts for the first and only time, when I was a teenager. As a child in Washington DC, he coached my soccer team in a light-blue safari suit and loafers. He loved his safari suits, which I always thought made him look like a central or East African dictator.
When I think of my father, I think of his neat and meticulous writing, which was always in capital letters, upper and lower case.
I think of the way he always carried hankerchiefs, and loved good stationary. He always had a pen handy, and loved his legal pads and folders, in which he would store meticulously detailed notes about research, writing, legal cases, and items heard on radio or television programs.
I think of how he sat at the edge of his seat, the day we watched on television in Washington DC when Nelson Mandela was released, hanging on every word. It is only now that I realize as much as he was elated for the release of the imprisoned struggle icon, his immediate thoughts must have also been about his unbanning, and his long-awaited return to his land, having lived in exile for over 15 years.
I think of how much he loved his family, how he always gave me order and discipline without ever making me doubt his unconditional love and support for me. I think of how he instilled values and proper behavior in me, but would defend me from any accusation or charge by my school authorities, with which I had plenty of run-ins. I think of how when I did relate to him a negative experience or confrontation with a teacher, without fail his first question would be “Was he white?”
I think of how disciplined he was, how I never heard him swear until I was an adult myself, and even then only once or twice. How he never smoked or drank alcohol.
I think about how proud he was, how he would never let me see him in pain, even when I had done something to hurt or embarrass him.
I think of how he would grumble about Aunty Rachael’s meddling and fussing over him, even though he loved her and always counted on her to always be there for him.
I think of a father who was always there for his children. I think of a man who adopted my mother’s young child, and raised him as his own.
I think of a disciplinarian, who’s disappointment hurt far more than the one time he ever whipped me.
I think of a man who made an impression on so many people. My American cousin Ramallah, who, has spent time on occasion as a guest of the California State Correctional System, pulled me aside a few years back, and asked me how my father was doing. My American cousins and I were all boys, with one exception, and were quite a handful during family get-togethers. He had fond memories of my father threatening to give him stripes, from being whipped.
I think of a man rich in relationships, both in number and in quality. A man who always had a relative or a friend he needed to call on, to share a meal with, who cherished these quiet, simple moments with old friends.
I think of a serious man, with great personal warmth, who could lighten a tense situation, with a well timed joke. Like when he was in hospital, frustrated at the doctor’s progress in finding out what was ailing him, and he told Uncle D, Mark and I, that they are treating him for ‘fufunyane.’ (wildness)
I think of a teacher, who would always be able to place difficult, contemporary issues in a historical context, and tell stories from lived experience, which would help me overstand today’s challenges and how to confront them.
I think of a man who inspired me to question, to think, and to argue.
When I think of my father, I think of a good citizen who obeyed the law, surrendering his
weapons after demobilization.
When I think of my father, I think of a man who always put his country first. A man who thought less about personal gain, than what work he could do to contribute to his country, to make it a society worthy of the sacrifices so many have made.
I think of a man who helped people in need, who used his legal training to assist the vulnerable, people who did not have access to justice.
I think of a man, who rather than being frustrated when late in his life, he perhaps didn’t receive opportunities to contribute befitting his hard-earned knowledge and experience, rather than throw his hands up in frustration, he kept his head up, kept walking, and began working on his PhD. Dad, I hope you know how proud I am of you.
Before I close, I’d like to read an excerpt from one of the many tributes I’ve received this week. This tribute from one his contemporaries at UWC, Ms. Edith Pienaar, now Mrs. Edith Vries, really lifted my spirits when I received it in the depths of my grief.
Along with others of his generation, I honour HE for
• His ability to conceptualise and articulate a vision for an alternative future for the black majority in our country;
• His credibility and persuasiveness resulting in the mobilisation of student masses and communities around the country;
• Hs leadership in the structures supporting this Movement;
• His eloquence;
• His mastery and creativity at evading the security police and working and moving under their noses undetected; and,
• His courage, and often copious dosages of youthful arrogance and downright ‘bloody-mindedness’, which I might add was very necessary at the time.
What is even more remarkable is that it played itself out in the late 60’s and 70’s when the Apartheid state was extremely brutal, leadership imprisoned for life on Robben Island or banished into exile, serving banning orders and others killed. HE was a remarkable and courageous young man.
HE was serious a scholar and a brilliant soccer player. The latter in particular earned him the adoration and hearts of many a young woman, and may I add, rumour has it this ‘attribute’ in itself could span a several chapters on a book! I thought I should share something on a lighter note because as we grow older, one acquires the wonderful gift of accepting and laughing at the follies and foibles of our youth.
It is ironic that HE passed on 12 September the same day on which the Apartheid regime killed Steve Biko in 1977. It is a strange coincidence that these two men who shared the Black Consciousness and SASSO platform (which they in many ways were the architects of) entered the portals of the ‘Place’ where their souls now rest, on the same day. I am confident that:
• They have an established ritual, if not a National Executive Committee, welcoming all new arrivals at the ‘Place’ and that HE was warmly welcomed by Steve: a bear hug, a solid locking of hands and fingers as only Bro’s do, and a warm chuckle.
• Soon after HE ‘checked-in’ he would have found a quiet corner (if such spaces are available in the ‘Place’)with Steve and that for the past few days they have been engaged in a robust intellectual debate about this coincidence around them both falling on 12 September. And of course a comparative analysis between what’s going down in our country and the world in relation to the world they envisioned.
• Should the ‘Place’ have a practice of Commencement Day Celebrations, Steve and HE will be the main speakers at the 12 September event.
When I think of my father, I think of a man who taught me about respect and deference to one’s ancestors. Father, now that you have gone to the next world to become an ancestor, I ask you to intercede with the Almighty on our behalf, when we are deserving, that we may have favor as we go about trying to improve the lives of our families, communities, and countries. Intercede on our behalf as you have asked your ancestors to intercede on your behalf.
I pray that you are at peace, reunited with your mother and father, brother and sister, and all the rest of your family and friends who have gone before you.
Be at peace father, because your work is done. You have made great contributions to your family, your community, and your country. You have four children to whom you have left a rich legacy.
You did not live to see your country fulfill its promise. It hurt you to see the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized, people unable to fully enjoy their political freedom. It hurt you to see people brutalized, raped and murdered, every day, because of the violent disrespect for life and human rights, which has taken root in our society. It hurt you to see people who do not have access to decent housing, food, education, and health care, in a society as wealthy as ours. It hurt you to see these things, but these are not your challenges dad, these are our challenges.
In your life’s work you have left us all the lessons, tools, and inspiration that we need to overcome these challenges. It is our turn to pick up the torch, make the hard choices and sacrifices, and do our bit for family, community and country.
Thank you dad, for everything.
Siyakuthanda baba. Uhambe kahle. Sizokukhumbula.