Comrade Isu Chiba represents qualities in his life that we can use as a model for all of us today. What are these qualities and why do they continue to be so relevant?
We ask and answer this because all of us need to draw lessons from the lives of people like Comrade Chiba in order to make meaningful contributions to building a peaceful society, a caring society, a society where we all have dignity and respect for others.
Now even if we unpack what the qualities of Isu have been, many of these emerged under conditions that no longer exist –armed struggle and imprisonment, torture and detention. We have to work out what it is that characterised Comrade Isu and then each of us has to ask ourselves whether or not we accept these qualities and values, and if we believe these are important, we must continue to apply these values to our own lives.
There is no recipe for application. Each of us confronts choices and difficult decisions every day of our lives. I want to ask how we can draw on the life of Comrade Chiba to guide us in what we do and how we can do so in a manner that affirms others, that builds the confidence of others, that does not hurt others, but creates friendships and mutual respect.
Comrade Isu is a man of integrity. He is known for his unwillingness to do anything that is not open and transparent. He is spoken of as someone who is what he publicly appears to be. There is no falsity or pretence in his way of existing. He is a person who can be trusted. We need more such people and we need ourselves to be individuals who can be trusted by others. All of us needto try to be the type of person who can be known to honour his or her word and never be devious.
Comrade Isu is modest. He never boasts about what he has done, considerable as that is. He does not spend time recounting his long service in the struggle. He does not think that that is sufficient in any case. He believes that he must re-earn respect every day of his life.
His reputation is not something he treats lightly, modest as he may be. He does not flaunt his achievements, but he is conscious that he is a person who others may look up to and consequently never does anything that may be taken as an example unless it is honourable and true to the convictions to which his life and sacrifices have been devoted.
Modesty is thus important, but a sense of one’s place in the world, that others admire one, even if one does not look for that, is necessary. One needs to ensure that others follow one’s example with an awareness of the new conditions under which we live. Thus one should obviously not take Isu’s history in armed struggle as a reason for continued use of violence. The secrecy of underground armed struggle should not be a reason to act furtively and without openness now.
Comrade Isu is unselfish. He is what every communist is supposed to be, because it is not knowledge of Marx, Engels and Lenin that has made people like Yusuf Dadoo, Moses Kotane, Bram Fischer, Ruth First, Josie Palmer , Chris Hani, famous in our history. It is the quality of their lives, that they shared the sorrows and joys of others, that they recognised the difficulties of others and tried to assist even without being told, that make them people whose road we can follow.
Caring about others is a major part of comradeship. The basic quality of comradeship has to be treating the other person as one wants to be treated oneself and caring about the other whether or not you have been told there is a special reason to look out for that other person. A comrade is a person whom one stands by in good times and bad times and that is what Isu has always done.
Isu is not a person who cares for possessions and everything that is his is used for family, friends and comrades wherever they meet. He has not joined the struggle for any reasons other than to achieve a society where we are all free. He has done so unostentatiously and that is why he is not well known. He has made no attempts to remedy that ‘invisibility’ and carried on in his own simple way just doing what he has thought to be right.
Isu is a brave person. That much is known about his political life. But bravery means something different in 2010 from 1964 or the mid 1980s, and it relates to other qualities of Comrade Isu. To be brave is often to be gentle, to be tender, and to be willing to hug instead of strike a blow. Bravery may be to think one’s own thoughts where previously we had to hold the line against the divisions of the enemy. We now need the bravery of those who are willing to renew our thinking on a range of issues. This does not mean that everything is thrown out of the window. But it does mean that even what has been sacred requires the bravery of the enquiring mind. Isu has been a mentor and teacher but ,in a world where it is easy to become dogmatic, he has never stopped being open.
Isu is an emotional person. When he hugs a man or a woman he does so not as a comradely formality but because he really cares for others and he builds up courage and strength in others, by this warmth that he conveys. He passes his own powerful integrity, strength,gentleness and love onto others. In doing that he is saying: take this from me and make a better world, and in so doing, we know we will become better people.
Raymond Suttner worked with Comrade Isu Laloo Chiba from the 1980s onwards.
Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Board member and former Robben Island prisoner, Laloo Chiba (87), passed away on 8 December 2017.
This was written by Raymond Suttner for a book. It is posted now in light of the need to raise examples of lives that ought to be emulated.
Laloo Chiba served 18 years on Robben Island for his part in the sabotage campaign leading to what was called the ‘little Rivonia trial’, after the jailing of the first High Command. When he was released from prison Chiba worked both legally and illegally to further the struggle for democracy, being re-detained in the 1985/6 State of Emergency.