Aunty Hilda was a hero, and should be honoured

THE name Hilda Paulsen is not as well-known as many as that of many others who contributed to the struggle for democracy. But to many people who lived in Mitchells Plain, and particularly Eastridge, in the 1980s, she was a hero who dedicated her life to improving the lives of people around her.

(Please note that I use the word hero because I do not believe there should be gender distinctions for bravery.)

Mrs Paulsen, as we all knew her, lived in Eastridge and was my main contact person in the area when I was sent to organise the community in the early 1980s. Her small house became our head-quarters where all pamphlets and Grassroots community newspaper copies were delivered before we gave them out door to door.

She represented the area on all kind of committees, such as the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee and the structures of the United Democratic Front. She was one of the many ordinary working-class people who dedicated their time and energy to helping us overcome apartheid by engaging in community campaigns for lower rent and electricity payments, for a hospital in Mitchells Plain, and supporting worker and student struggles.

Her daughter, Marlene, was as involved as her while her son, who later converted to Islam and became known as Mogamad Nazier, was at high school and an interested observer of what we were doing. I would like to believe that he drew some inspiration from the activities of his mother and sister which inspired his later involvement in community organisations and finally the Economic Freedom Fighters, which he now represents in Parliament.

I moved out of Mitchells Plain in the early 1990s – to Durban and Johannesburg – and lost touch with many of the people in Mitchells Plain. Mrs Paulse had also moved out to Crawford, which is around the corner from where I now live.

I can’t recall the last time I saw Mrs Paulsen, but I bumped into Marlene a few times, the most recent being at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and she asked me when I was going to visit her mother. She told me that her mother had become blind but would definitely recognise my voice. I promised I would visit soon, but kept on delaying it, mainly because of my work and travel schedule. But I kept on saying to my wife that I needed to visit Mrs Paulsen.

On Wednesday this week, I heard that Mrs Paulsen had passed away. She was 82. I never kept my promise to visit her and I could not go and see the family immediately because I am up in Gauteng until the end of this week.

On Monday, I received a call from another woman who lives in Eastridge and she told me about how the creche in Leadwood Road, where we often held community meetings, had fallen into disrepair. She asked me to see whether there was anyone in my corporate network who would be prepared to assist them with funding because otherwise the creche would have to close. She pointed out that she does not get paid to work at the creche.

I thought about Mrs Paulse then and, if I had been in Cape Town, I would probably have gone to visit her immediately. But I also thought about the structures we had set up in the 1980s and the people who were involved. Many of these people are now despondent that the future we thought we were building has not been realised.

Some, like Willie Simmers, continues to make a difference in Mitchells Plain through the Mitchells Plain Advice Office, which has also been struggling to make ends meet for many years. Willie is now in his late seventies and, as far as I know, still volunteers his services to the advice office.

From time to time, we bump into former activists at funerals or memorial services. Many of them no longer find themselves in the ANC, which would have been their natural home after their time in the UDF in the 1980s. The energy levels might no longer be there, but their commitment remains to make our country different to the one in which we grew up.

Most of them, like Hilda Paulsen, have not been acknowledged for their contribution and have never asked for any acknowledgement. The only thing many would have wanted was for our country to be close to what we thought it was becoming: a non-racial, non-sexist democracy in which everyone would have equal access to education, housing, health, justice and employment opportunities, among others.

They would have wanted to play with their grandchildren knowing that South Africa now offered much greater opportunities to them.

Unfortunately, while South Africa today is very different to what we went through under apartheid, there still remains a lot of work to be done to get us even close to what we thought we were fighting for. Yes, it is up to the young people to take the struggle forward, but we cannot afford to let people like Hilda Paulsen pass on without us tapping into their wisdom.

I regret not having the opportunity to see Aunty Hilda in her final years, but I know that she will forgive me. After all, forgiveness is one of the key lessons we have learnt in the struggle in order for us to move forward. But I would have loved to ask her what she thought about the situation in our country and what needed to be done.

Rest in peace, dear comrade. Your journey has not been in vain.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 24 June 2017)