I was young once, not too long ago. Now I’m attending 60-, 70- and 80-year-old birthday parties and don’t feel out of place. And I have suddenly realised that it will be my turn to celebrate my 60th in about 18 months.
Where has the time gone?
Last Sunday, we celebrated the 70th birthday of veteran (that’s such an old-sounding word) entertainer Terry Fortune. It is strange to compare the energy of someone like Fortune with what we experienced from 70-year-olds when we were growing up.
Tomorrow an old friend and comrade, Marcus Solomon, turns 80. Both Solomon and Fortune defy stereotypes of old people.
Solomon has always been, in the eyes of us young Mitchells Plain activists in the 1980s, someone who came close to being the complete activist. He spent 10 years on Robben Island after being convicted as a 24-year-old of “conspiracy to overthrow the state”.
Solomon and his then-wife, Theresa, were one of the most influential activist couples in Mitchells Plain and initiated several progressive community projects in Woodlands, where they lived, and in other areas.
One of the projects they started was an alternative crèche where activists could comfortably send their children. For the past 36 years Solomon has been working with the Children’s Resource Centre and has decided that, instead of having a party to celebrate his 80th birthday, he would rather use the occasion to raise much-needed funds for the CRC.
“I am appealing to you to make a once-off or a regular monetary donation to the organisation. You are also free to make any form of support you think will benefit it. The work the organisation has done over the years is still very much needed and your support can help us continue it,” he wrote in an email to people in his network.
The selflessness of people such as Marcus Solomon contrasts starkly with what we have come to expect from people who are supposed to be in political leadership positions today.
I saw another one of Solomon’s contemporaries this week at an event at the District Six Homecoming Centre. Willie Simmers has been working at the Mitchells Plain Advice Office for almost 40 years and, at the age of 78, he still takes the train from Crawford station to Mitchells Plain most days to serve the community. Sometimes they get paid, most times they don’t.
A few years ago, we arranged a surprise 70th birthday party for Simmers because we felt it was important to honour his contribution. I was looking at the documents of the event this week and saw that one of the people who donated funds was Vernie Petersen, another former Mitchells Plain activist whose name came up at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry this week, but in a positive way.
Petersen, as the national commissioner of prisons in 2007, had resisted all attempts at corruption by Bosasa, whose former chief operating officer Angelo Agrizzi has been revealing details at the commission of politicians they bribed. Many friends and family members of Petersen believe his death, at a relatively young age in February 2011, could be blamed on the pressure he was put under by Bosasa and complicit political figures.
I remember after Albert Fritz left the ANC to join the DA in 2008. He told me that his decision was based mainly on the way Petersen had been treated by people who were supposed to be his comrades. Fritz, who grew up with me in Hanover Park, had been in the office of the inspecting judge for prisons. I did not support his decision, but I understood.
It is important to remember the contribution of people like Solomon, Simmers, Petersen and many others. Fortune contributed towards the entertainment field, destroying racist and gender stereotypes at a difficult time. It is one thing to get old. It is another when people forget your history and contribution to society.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 26 January 2019)