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A heroic life

Print edition : Nov 22, 2002 T+T-
Wolfie Kodesh, (1918-2002).-WWW. ANC.ORG.ZA

Wolfie Kodesh, (1918-2002).-WWW. ANC.ORG.ZA

THE death of Wolfie Kodesh, a veteran of the South African liberation struggle and a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African National Congress (ANC), in Cape Town on October 18 brings to an end a heroic life of unwavering commitment to non-racialism (not multiracialism, which is only a fancy word or apartheid) in the struggle against colonialism, racism and apartheid.

Of European Jewish working class stock, a social milieu common to many other white South African radicals, Wolfie (as he was commonly and affectionately known) was radicalised as much by the poverty and deprivation of his family and personal background as by the all encompassing racism and racial oppression of his environment. He found a natural political home in the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), then the only truly non-racial political formation whose membership included all the races. He joined it in 1938. During the Second World War, when South Africa was part of the Allied war effort, he saw action against the fascist forces in Ethiopia, Libya and Italy.

He also saw, like several other progressive persons engaged in the good fight against fascism abroad, the necessity to continue the struggle against racism and fascism within South Africa. He was closely associated with Ruth First in the editing and publishing of the radical newspaper, The Guardian and, after it was banned, its successor New Age.

Ever the foot-soldier, Wolfie never occupied, perhaps did not even aspire for, leadership positions in the liberation movement. Nevertheless, his was a constant presence at so many crucial moments of the struggle; his role is recollected with admiration and affection in several memoirs of the struggle. The obituary notices by the SACP and the ANC have noted his contribution in the period following the Sharpeville massacre and the banning of the ANC (the CPSA, banned in 1950, was clandestinely reorganised as the SACP in 1953) in providing crucial infrastructural support by way of transport, shelter in safe houses to activists on the run, acting as a courier of arms and messages, distributing banned literature, using the laundry collection service that he ran, as a cover, and in one case even assisting the SACP activist H.A. (Harry Alimuthu) Naidoo to stow away in a Southampton-bound steamer from the Cape Town docks. He was, in short, the classic underground operative.

Nelson Mandela, who spent two months at Wolfie's one-room flat in Berea, Johannesburg, when he was on the run following the banning of the ANC, notes in his autobiography that he virtually "took over" Wolfie's life, "infringing on both his work and pleasure". "But he was such an amiable, modest fellow that he never complained".

Like so many others across the racial spectrum, Wolfie too experienced the full force of state oppression, being subjected to banning, arrest and the notorious 90-day solitary detention, deportation and exile which, in his case, lasted nearly 30 years. On his return to South Africa in 1990, he made a home in Cape Town, remaining spry and fit and politically active almost till his very end.

Truly, a life to celebrate even while one mourns his passing away. I personally have reason to be grateful for his friendship and conversation, sharing food and wine, sharing memories of events and personalities, insights into and analyses of so many aspects of the South African liberation movement.

M.S. Prabhakara