Chabane – a disciplined mind and humble nature
By Sonwabile Mancotywa
This article was published by Daily Dispatch on 18 March 2015
“That man is still there in the Eastern Cape. He doesn’t want to return home,” the late Minister Collins Chabane would often reply when I enquired about his brother, Pat Chabane.
That was the man who first introduced me to Collins, even before he had been released from Robben Island.
I’d met Pat at the University of Transkei, now Walter Sisulu University, where I was a student and he was a lecturer. Pat joined Unitra in the late 1980s, and had healthy teacher-students relations.
Pat wasn’t just a lecturer nor were his lectures purely about the course. When he taught literature such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart he delved deeper into the contradictions in the social and political systems in our country and other parts of Africa.
It was exciting to witness that level of progressive consciousness in a lecturer. That was quite rare to us at the time.
Most of our lecturers focused merely on the textbooks and came across as neutral if not reactionary. For student activists like ourselves, Pat was an instant favourite.
What set Pat further apart from his colleagues were his mannerisms. He was down-to-earth, soft-spoken and easily approachable to students.
We were not used to this either. Often times our lecturers were aloof. They didn’t quite mix with students.
Then Pat was joined at Unitra by his younger brother, “Skorokoro”, who had come to study law.
Now we had two Chabane brothers on campus, one a lecturer and the other a student and an activist like ourselves but much younger than us.
We had no idea that there was another Chabane brother. I’d never heard of Collins. How could we have? We were located in Mthatha and he had been born and operated in what became Limpopo.
But Skorokoro made sure that we knew about his other brother. Skorokoro stressed that his brother was also a comrade, and a senior one at that. In fact, Collins was then serving time on Robben Island prison, Esiqithini.
He had been sentenced in 1984 to six years’ imprisonment for carrying out illegal military activities under the command of the then-banned ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
As an MK soldier and one serving time at the island, Collins instantly became a heroic figure in our minds.
The Boers didn’t just send anyone to the island, we thought. That was where great and fearless men such as Makana, Maqoma and Nelson Mandela were imprisoned. Only the most dangerous and feared cadres were isolated from society, in the middle of the sea.
That’s what we thought of Collins.
We eventually met him in 1990. He had just been freed from the island and was keen to see his two brothers. He came over to Mthatha, to Unitra.
He looked different to the heroic figure we had conjured up in our minds. He was small in physical stature, and didn’t talk that much.
But when he opened his mouth you were easily drawn to him.
He had impeccable insights and shared these in the most unintimidating manner, always accompanied by an inviting smile.
His visit was quite opportune for us. The student movement at Unitra was riven with tensions. Collins came across as a determined, highly focused and engaging cadre of the movement.
He took us back to the principles of the revolutionary unity of the progressive forces, the strategy and tactics of the broad liberation movement and the ideological character of the enemy.
Refusing to take sides in the student disputes, Collins reminded us that the enemy would utilise the unbanning of the movement to drive in a wedge and divide the liberation forces.
He called on the student leadership to understand that conditions on the ground did not favour the liberation movement, and thus we needed to be disciplined and tactful.
He encouraged student activists to channel their energies into the re-establishment of the ANC and consolidating the mass democratic movement structures.
Following that engagement, it became clear to us why Collins was soon entrusted with party leadership.
Together with comrades like Joel Netshitenzhe, he was then involved in re-establishing structures of the ANC in what was to become Limpopo. It was his sharp intellect and humble manner that hoisted him to the leadership echelons.
Guided by the four pillars of the struggle, it was clear he was alert to the fact that freedom is not only secured on the battlefield through weapons.
But intellect is just as important, especially to strategise on how to deploy the weaponry and identify the weaknesses of the enemy.
Without intellectual guidance, even the most lethal armaments cannot win a war. Collins was among those providing the intellectual power necessary to advance the anti-apartheid struggle.
Equally important for those in a liberation movement is the ability to relate to the people. Ordinary people are easily drawn to someone who is humble, approachable and who they can relate to.
Having these qualities, and being able to persuade people, is a critical element of mass democratic politics, particularly for a leader.
Collins was exactly that kind of a person. His manner endeared him to the people.
This quality stood out even after he had – in 2009 – been appointed as a minister in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet and where he remained until his sudden, tragic death on Sunday morning. Collins remained a man of simple values, a remarkable leader who was not transformed by the responsibility or prestige of high office.
While politics consumed much of his life, another great passion was music. Traditional music had a special appeal to him. His loved his music and continued to perform live with his mbira.
He was also a regular at Cape Town’s famous Marcos Restaurant, where they sell traditional food. Being a minister didn’t make him any more human than everyone else. He retained the same interests and was comfortable with who he was.
Collins was a shining example that one needn’t be changed by trappings of power. You don’t lose anything by remaining true to your character.
And this endears you even more to the people. The fact is that people know instinctively who their true leaders are, and they appreciate sincerity.
This explains the outpouring of sadness following his cruel death.
He certainly didn’t deserve it. Even those who’ve only seen him on television screens, can’t stop remarking: “Ebengumntu ke lomntu” (what a decent human being!)
Lala ngoxolo, Nyamazane. Till we meet again.