Members of the Mohamed family,
The president of the PPF, Mr Kashif Wicomb,
The ANC Chief Whip in the National Assembly, Cde Pemmy Majodina,
Various Members of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Friends and comrades,
In July 2016 at a Gala Dinner hosted by the Progressive Professionals Forum Western Cape, held at the CTICC, the PPF was to celebrate its 3rd anniversary on the 2nd of August, and one of the key speakers at the event was Hishaam.
He opened his address by saying that after more than two decades of democratic rule, we sadly still see incidents of racism, sexism, homophobia and other intolerances and we have not yet eradicated discrimination and prejudice.
“Of course South Africa is a better place than before 1994. There is no doubt whatsoever about that.
But we cannot sit back, quote the Constitution and then expect the very existence of a progressive Constitution to somehow magically create the type of society that it enjoins us to create.
To create a society depends on human beings, on communities and on changing the very underlying attitudes that give rise to the way people treat others.
It has been necessary to remind ourselves that our struggle for non-racialism came at a great cost to many. We therefore salute the various collective efforts and initiatives undertaken by all who combat racism.”
And, ladies and gentlemen, comrades, if there was ever a person who dedicated all of himself to combating racism and to building a society based on human rights and constitutional values, it was Hishaam Mohamed himself.
It was with profound sadness that we learned of the sudden passing of Hishaam last week Monday.
And to many of us, including myself, it still feels incredibly unreal.
I spoke to him last on that Monday morning to discuss some issues on the ANC Justice Study Group agenda later in the day, as I was going to be unable to attend the meeting. We had in fact started working closer together since he became an MP and ANC whip on the Justice Committee - to the extent of having daily conversations. I still cannot believe that Hishaam is no longer with us.
Many of us know Hishaam as a meticulous and dedicated servant of the people, both as an official and as a public representative.
We know him as a passionate lawyer, an activist and an advocate for social justice.
His was a life committed to freedom, democracy and human rights.
As a high school pupil and as a university student in the 1980s, he played his part on the liberation struggle, leading protests during the states of emergency and being detained by the apartheid security forces a number of times.
In 1990, at the age of 25 he started his legal career as a clerk at the Athlone Magistrates’ Court.
After completing his LLB degree at UWC two years later, he became a public prosecutor in Mitchells Plain.
He joined the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development in 1994, after being hand-picked by the late Dullah Omar.
Dullah Omar’s influence, guidance and mentorship had a profound impact on Hishaam and Cde Dullah, together with another great legal mind, being Essa Moosa, moulded and shaped Hishaam into the highly respected lawyer that we all knew and admired and in May 1997 he became the Western Cape Regional Head of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development.
There were many things about Hishaam that stood out – for starters, he had a work ethic like no other. At work, he would be the first to arrive and the last to leave.
He never operated by remote control either – if there was a problem at a specific court, Hishaam wouldn’t just phone someone to ask them for a report, he would go there himself and see first-hand.
He was passionate about access to justice, about human rights and about combating and preventing gender-based violence.
Just a week or two before his passing, the Southern Suburbs Legal Advice Centre, of which he was the Chairperson, launched their Women’s Month program.
And he sent me a copy of the programme – the SSLAC was ready to deliver a 3 month supply of sanitary products and food parcels to 200 women who were heading single households in the poorest areas of the Southern Suburbs.
And the programme also consisted of a 4-part video series to empower women and to fight the scourge of gender-based violence.
Hishaam was a deeply compassionate and caring man. He was always extremely active in the community, in legal circles and later, as a Member of Parliament, in his constituency.
Many people turned to Hishaam for legal advice and assistance and he never turned them away. He often provided legal assistance and advice on human rights to poor and vulnerable communities.
But it was not only legal advice that he gave freely – it was also food relief, hosting soup kitchens, sanitary care packs, helping needy students.
He gave and he gave, without ever wanting anything in return.
And he was unfalteringly true to his word.
If he said he would do something, he did.
About two years ago, we wanted to establish a Sexual Offences Court in Khayelitsha. But for a Sexual Offences Court to be regarded as a proper Sexual Offences Court, it is required to meet certain criteria.
For example, it requires separate waiting areas so that victims and witnesses do not have to come face to face with their accused and it requires infrastructure like closed circuit television and so forth.
So one can either wait for the Public Works processes and procedures to take its course, which are often lengthy, or you could have Hishaam who, within the space of a week or two, had himself installed the partitioning, the blinds and the access control system.
On a lighter note, for one’s first speech as a Member of Parliament – what we call someone’s maiden speech – one is usually rather nervous.
And Hishaam was no exception.
He wanted that speech to be absolutely perfect.
He did draft and after draft of his speech but, still not being entirely satisfied with it, he asked an official in my office to have a read through the speech and to provide some feedback on his draft. He asked if she would help and she jokingly replied that it was going to cost him…. in koesisters.
And low and behold and true to his word, two days later Hishaam had a box with a dozen koesisters delivered to our office.
Whether he was building courts or buying koesisters, he always did what he said he would do.
Whether big or small, there were no empty promises with Hishaam. He followed through on things, in circumstances when other people would have quit or lost momentum. He was, at all times, a man of his word.
He was humble, modest and soft-spoken. I never once heard him raise his voice – he relied on the strength of his argument, not the volume of his words.
He never hesitated to give credit where credit was due and to acknowledge the contributions of others.
In March last year, at the Judge Essa Moosa Bursary Awards for Law, Hishaam paid tribute to Judge Moosa.
And I would like to quote an extract from the speech Hishaam gave, where he spoke about the profound impact that Essa Moosa had had on his life.
He said –
“He became my mentor, my leader and the lawyer who inspired me to be the best legal administrator I could be. He touched my life in a very specific and enduring way.
I have many memories of him – both as an activist in the struggle and later as a manager in the Department of Justice.
From a UDF and ANC perspective, I will always be indebted to Judge Moosa for having schooled me and so many other activists who fought the battles in the streets of Wynberg, Athlone, Bonteheuwel, Grassy Park, and Gugulethu and all over the Western Cape against the apartheid regime.
I first met him early in 1985, at the height of the 1980’s state of emergency, in Gugulethu - I was only 18 years old and a member of Western Cape Students Association.
He taught me that although all communities in South Africa had suffered under apartheid, the worst off were the African community who suffered the most brutal discrimination.
He taught me to stand back, and to do so often at the very expense of oneself – and even in a democratic process - so that another person, who may have suffered more under apartheid than one has, can emerge and can shine.”
Finally, in the speech, Hishaam called Essa Moosa “the peoples’ lawyer”.
If there is one thing that I wish I had told Hishaam when I had the chance was that he was as much “the peoples’ lawyer” as his mentor had been.
To the Mohamed family, to Hishaam’s colleagues, former colleagues, friends and comrades, no words can really express the loss that we all feel.
When he opened the Athlone District Advice Office in April 2016, Hishaam said -
“Even within a vibrant democracy, if persons have no access to justice or they are unaware of their most fundamental constitutional rights then the aspirations of the Constitution ring hollow.”
As a comrade, as a member of the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services and as a representative of the African National Congress in Parliament, access to justice was at the very heart of everything Hishaam did.
And whilst we are sad, it is Hishaam’s memory and his legacy that will sustain and comfort us.
And how do we honour that legacy?
We do it by picking up the baton and carrying on with the work he did.
There is poem by African-American poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, called “When Great Trees Fall” and I want to close by leaving you with a few lines from the poem:
“When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great souls die,
after a period, peace blooms…
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be.
Be and bebetter.
For they existed.”
Indeed a great tree has fallen.Hamba kahle mkhonto.