Jessica's passing reminds us of the power of unity

This is probably one of the most difficult columns that I have ever written. I wanted to write it last week but could not do it. It is not because I wanted to write about Donald Trump or the latest episode involving South African politicians. The pain was just too raw. The pain is still there but, somehow, writing about it might help with healing.

It is easy to write about politics but it is more difficult to write about something personal such as death, especially when it affects someone who was close to you.

For the past year and a bit, we have been living with the knowledge that one of our close friends and comrades, Jessica Hendricks, had been diagnosed with cancer. In our interactions with her, she continued to put on a brave and happy face. She kept her illness private and people who engaged with her on social media did not know of the pain that she was going through.

In fact, after her passing last Tuesday morning, her family asked us not to post stuff on social media because she would not have wanted it. But you cannot stop people from posting stuff on social media because, that is the way people communicate nowadays.

Very quickly, word passed on that she had passed on and her timeline was flooded with messages of condolences. Many people expressed surprise because they did not know that she was ill.

I met Jessica in the early 1980s when she was a young girl who lived in and went to school in Rocklands. When we formed the Rocklands Youth Movement, she was one of the first to join. She quickly became part of the leadership of the youth movement. Later, when we formed the Mitchells Plain Youth Movement (MPYM) and the Cape Youth Congress (Cayco), Jessica became an integral part of its structures. Being a high school pupil at the time, she was also involved in the Congress of South African Students (Cosas). She also later became involved in the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

There is an amazing bond that we formed in the 1980s. It is based on friendship but it is also based on a commitment to Struggle and our opposition to apartheid. In many ways, because we spent so much time together, we became like a second family to each other.

This bond continued after 1990 and, even though many of us went our separate ways, we continued to have an affinity with each other. Even if we saw each other after a year or two, it was often like we had seen each other a day or two before.

Jessica had gone to study in the Eastern Cape and, at some point, she went to work as a teacher in the United States of America for a few years. But we continued to remain in touch.

Over the past few months, since we learnt of her illness, we tried to increase our interactions. She tried to live her life as normal, going to soccer, which she loved, and music concerts. She never showed that she was in pain.

Last Tuesday, Jessica lost her battle with cancer and passed away in her bed, while her mother was metres away in the kitchen preparing breakfast for her.

I was fortunate to spend quality time with her and her family a few weeks before she passed away.

Jessica was buried last Saturday morning at the Blue Downs United Church at a service conducted by the Reverend Chris Nissen, who was a family friend, and attended by several hundred family, friends and old activists many of whom had not seen each other in years.

There were moving tributes by, among others, her son Riyahn, her sister Noleen, and Professor Derrick Swartz, vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, who knew Jessica from when she was a student at Dower College and he was a UDF activist.

Logan Wort, who was an executive member of the Cayco and the MPYM in the early 1980s, spoke about Jessica’s involvement in the local youth movement and the pain that she felt recently about the direction in which our country was going. He made a call to all former activists to “come out of retirement”.

But there were also non-political tributes, with the most beautiful ones coming from the head girl, deputy head girl and the principal of Rhenish Girls High School in Stellenbosch where Jessica had been teaching for the past eight years.

The singing of hymns was interspersed with the singing of freedom songs and a South African flag, which had been draped over her coffin, was handed over to her son at the end of the ceremony.

It was fitting that Jessica’s funeral service was as inclusive as it was, bringing together people from different generations, and religious and political backgrounds. It is something that we used to do naturally in the days of the UDF, when we lived by the slogan “UDF unites. Apartheid divides”.

Nowadays, non-racial gatherings are far and few between and people tend to stick to people who look and sound like them. The only reason we were able to defeat apartheid was because we had unity among everyone who was opposed to apartheid.

It seems that, since the end of apartheid, we have gone into little boxes and have forgotten about the power of unity. Hopefully those who attended Jessica’s funeral service will be inspired to reflect on what we all need to do to take this country forward. It is the least we can do in tribute to a great and brave woman.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 9 November 2016)