Cecyl Esau was a tireless and respected activist and scholar who mobilised rural communities in the Western Cape in the 1980s.
“You have left us at a time of great organisational turmoil and trying political times. If ever we need your leadership and guidance that time is now. You believed in the SA Constitution and you helped to create it.” — Lerumo Kalako
The South Africa that Cecyl Esau dedicated his life’s work to realise had been “kidnapped, killed and buried in some grave”, Dr Allan Boesak told those gathered to honour and celebrate the much-loved Worcester-born Struggle veteran at the weekend.
Esau was a tireless and respected activist and scholar who mobilised rural communities in the Western Cape in the 1980s. Twice detained, the first occasion after the student uprisings of 1976, Esau was sentenced in 1987 to 12 years on Robben Island on charges of “terrorism”. He was released in 1991.
Essau died on 17 March of natural causes. His special provincial funeral, where flags flew at half-mast throughout the Western Cape, took place in Worcester on Saturday 27 March.
Esau was a mentor to many activists, including Jeremy Vearey, now a major-general in the South African Police Service (SAPS), who broke with tradition at the funeral service to honour his mentor.
Others present and who paid tribute included Esau’s sister June, Judge Siraj Desai, ANC provincial convener Lerumo Kalako, the poet Diana Ferus and literary critic, activist and author Professor Hein Willemse.
Vearey paid tribute to “a comrade and a commander who made me what I am today”.
“Forgive me if I break these chains of ranks and dignitaries and all protocol, this official pretence that seeks to bind my words.”
The outspoken Vearey vowed to fight until “the last drop of blood” to claim the ANC back from the “new enemies at the gate who sold it to the enemies within”.
The enemy now, said Vearey, was “corruption and those who profit from it, crime and those who profit from it, poverty and those who profit from it. All that degrades the quality of our freedom.”
These sentiments were echoed later by Boesak’s rousing tribute to Esau as an activist, scholar, community organiser and for his later work with NGO the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.
“Cecyl Essau did not die in the country that he fought for,” said Boesak.
South Africa, he said, had become “a byword for corruption and a kleptocratic mania that has gripped those in charge of perhaps all our lives. It is a way of life that is beyond comprehension and not what Cecyl and all of us fought for.”
Earlier, directly addressing his mentor, Vearey said: “I am a major-general in the SA Police Service because I come from your militant hands, Comrade Cecyl. I come from the revolutionary mind of your mentor, Johnny Issel, so schooled and weaponised I was deployed under your command to liberate my people.”
Vearey said he was still “on revolutionary duty” and that “I still serve the people as you instructed.”
Vearey and long-time comrade Peter Jacobs have both faced pushback within the SAPS, winning Labour Court challenges against their demotions, which have been ongoing since 2016. They have been accused of a string of alleged transgressions.
Jacobs, the head of Crime Intelligence, was warned of disciplinary action by National Commissioner Khehla Sitole in November 2020 and placed on provisional suspension, which was later withdrawn.
Vearey told those gathered that there were “new enemies of our revolution. The enemies at the gates have sold it to the enemies within, they wear our clothes, they wave our flag, we fight them at close quarters, no retreat, no surrender, to the last drop of blood.”
The ANC’s Kalako said Esau had remained “brave and fearless” in the ongoing quest to realise the South Africa he and fellow comrades fought for.
“A free non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa was your dream and to this revolutionary ideal you would remain true throughout,” said Kalako.
“Positions and possessions were not what you were after. You would never demand a reward. It was about the best interests of the struggling masses and the ANC. For you the ANC had to be an effective instrument in the hands of the people.”
Esau, said Kalako, had rejected “the style of leadership that intimidates and abuses power”.
“You have left us at a time of great organisational turmoil and trying political times. If ever we need your leadership and guidance, that time is now. You believed in the SA Constitution and you helped to create it,” said Kalako.
Boesak said that when Esau was released from Robben Island he had joined the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.
“There was a time we knew unity and solidarity across the lines of race, colour, culture and religion. We knew that unity, we knew that togetherness in a way this country has not seen before… a way we are now longing for,” said Boesak.
Those in power and with power, the cleric added, “have stolen our revolution once, and from what I see they are getting ready to steal it again.
“We should not let that happen, too much is at stake. Any plans to save the country by those same wealthy and powerful elite who in their secret talks have doomed the country to the ravages of neoliberal capitalism and shatter the hopes of our people… is a house built on sand,” said Boesak.
South Africa was in a constitutional crisis and Boesak condemned those who only now saw the crisis and “who have had 25 years to see this crisis of poverty and perpetual impoverishment. This is the price of entitlement and perpetual self-enrichment.”
Ethno-nationalism, corruption and entitlement were all equal dangers and a threat to South Africa’s constitutional democracy.
While President Cyril Ramaphosa had gone to Stellenbosch in 2018 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Afrikaner Broederbond, Boesak said: “I would like the president to come to Worcester, to Bonteheuwel and Bishop Lavis, to the rural areas to tell our people that they should not be concerned, that they are African, that this is their land and they belong to this land as the land belongs to them.”
He urged mourners to “roll away the stone”, to “not give up on what this man fought for and died for and what millions of others have fought for”.
“Let those dreams of unity and togetherness, those dreams of justice and equity and freedom rise again and live again. Let Cecyl live again.”
Vearey said Esau’s capacity for mass grassroots mobilisation in Afrikaans had inspired multitudes and has served to untether the language from the white minority who spoke it and who governed by force.
Vearey identified the enemy as “narrow nationalism, factionism, cronyism and all those who breed it. All which divides our people.” DM