Eight South Africans wrote a biography of Frank Chikane, one of South Africa’s versatile clerics, titled “The Life and Ministry of Dr. Frank Chikane”. It was launched on Saturday 26 May 2018 in Johannesburg and they invited me to speak.
The name Frank Chikane feature broadly in South Africa’s struggle for justice, alongside Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, Joe Seremane, Winnie Mandela, Cyril Ramaphosa, Peter Mokaba, Mathew Goniwe, Albertina Sisulu, Beyers Naude, Wolfram Kistner and may others.
The writers kick off with the admission that writing a biography about Frank Chikane within the context of the radically changing socio-political environment in South Africa is a daunting task, given his resurgent prophetic ministry of speaking truth to power. Frank has himself written a number of books and two come to mind. These are “Eight Days in September” and “The Truth That Was Never Told”.
During the long years of South Africa’s struggle, Frank had gone ‘underground’ along with many other comrades. During this time he wrote yet another book, “No Life of My Own”, whose manuscript was smuggled out of South Africa and published abroad in various languages. These books did not endear Frank to the powers that be at the time and he would pay a price for it.
As I sat along with the most eminent in the reception room my mind dived along memory lane. I recalled the symbiotic relations that have characterised the ANC and SWAPO of Namibia, the close-knit relations between the Council of Churches in Namibia and the South African Council of Churches and so forth.
As students in New York under the tutelage of Theo-Ben Gurirab we were under instructions never to speak at an anti-apartheid rally without mentioning the ANC of South Africa. We had shared trenches with the South African churches and I have spoken on so many of these occasions in Gugulethu, Alexander, Regina Mundi Church, Khayelitsha and others. Frank had come to Namibia on numerous occasions to speak at our campaigns as the Council of Churches in Namibia. He was persona non-grata with the South African regime in Namibia but we kept smuggling him in the country.
When it was my turn to speak at the launch of this ecumenical cum theological celebration, I decided to rather focus on Frank’s experience in Namibia when he almost died.
The momentum towards Namibia’s independence was characterised by untold military atrocities by the apartheid South African troops and the South African churches had dispatched Dr Manas Buthelezi and Frank Chikane, president and secretary-general of the same organisation respectively, to visit Namibia’s war zone in solidarity with the church in that environment.
As associate general-secretary of the Council of Churches in Namibia (CCN) I was assigned to coordinate their visit. I met them in the evening at the airport and our trip started at 4am. We were joined by my colleague Jackson Swartz, our audio visual director.
At Tsumeb we stopped for breakfast at the house of Comrade Betty Kaula and we all ate the food we had carried, which we had prepared at my house. I drove at high speed in order to beat the heat. Suddenly Frank asked me to stop the vehicle and I obliged. He got off and was trembling and he vomited heavily. I gave him physical support as he was fast weakening. We got back into the vehicle to the amazement of our colleagues who had just woken up to the shock of the moment.
Upon arrival at Onandjokwe hospital I ran through the wards tracing Dr Naftal Hamata, head of the hospital, who was busy with his morning rounds. Two Finnish doctors joined him and they vainly tried to unravel the puzzle of Frank’s illness.
In despair we informed the South African Council of Churches and they sent a special jet to ferry the delegation back to Johannesburg. The following days constituted a nightmare as the doctors vainly battled to save Frank’s life.
The South African intelligence had tempered with his luggage on the way to Namibia and administered poison to his clothes. This had taken its toll as it was intended to kill him while in Namibia. When Frank visited the United States and relapsed, they isolated all clothing he had on the Namibian visit and discovered that they were all contaminated.
Frank survived on a thread to later play a critical role in the construction of South Africa’s post-apartheid government in which he served as director-general to President Thabo Mbeki. When Mbeki was dismissed from leadership by his party, Frank wrote the book “Eight Days in September” that detailed the ordeal of Mbeki in the eight days from his dismissal to his official departure from the governance of state. Evidently this publication did not endear Frank to the regime that succeeded Mbeki.
It was an emotional moment when Frank and his wife Kagiso appeared on the stage to officially receive the book. In his intervention, Frank said that when they read the book the previous evening in preparation for the launch, he said to himself: “Here we are again”. He relived the anguish of detention, the gaps in his life with his family.
When Kagiso took the microphone she broke in song: “We have come thus far by faith, leaning on the Lord; trusting in His Name. Do not be discouraged when trouble refuses to subside.”