OPINION | Rhoda Kadalie, the loudmouth, is dead

Rhoda Kadalie, anti-apartheid activist, human rights commissioner, feminist, social innovator and generally a grootbek, is dead. Her death came as a shock across the Atlantic where she had lived with her daughter in recent months. She died after a battle with cancer, at home, surrounded by her family on Saturday, 16 April. My condolences are extended to her family and loved ones. 

Die grootbek is dood. It is difficult to imagine this loudmouth activist being quiet. Silent and having to endure what’s being said about her, both positive and negative, without the ability to hit back. Stil. Doodstil in die dood. (Quiet. Quiet in the silence of death).

I met Rhoda when I was a student representative on the University of Cape Town Council around 1999. She was one of many luminaries whose task it was to steer the university at a time when the jubilation and hopefulness of our transition to democracy was slowly being replaced with the realisation of the hard work ahead. 

Rhoda was known as a feminist scholar and academic, and also as a no-nonsense human rights commissioner. She had served as a trustee for the Institute for a Democratic South Africa, the Open Society Foundation and the Community Law Centre. She was a hard worker and was very outspoken on issues that mattered to her. 

Rhoda also had heart. Lots of heart. This is the Rhoda I choose to remember — the fullness of her character and legacy perhaps too complex to fully understand and appreciate. I know she’d have lots to say about being called “complex”. 

I cannot recall a single issue on which Rhoda and I ever agreed. Perhaps we agreed on our disdain for lazy populist politicians. But I do vividly remember Rhoda defending my right to be wrong, and even to be given the space “to talk utter rubbish”. When my time on the council came to an end, she said:  “Jerome, there are many things wrong with UCT. But you, you represent the best of this place. I am very proud of you.” 

She would often comment on my Facebook updates and pictures until fairly recently. After a break in direct communication, she sent me a Facebook message. It was a video titled Fall Forward of Denzel Washington at the University of Pennsylvania on 27 February 2017, in which he spoke about remaining committed to your journey, working hard and not giving up despite the hardships that may come your way. It was random. It was motivational and, in my mind, unRhoda-like. 

But it was a message I needed to hear. I thanked her and she responded with “Love you. You are always enthusiastic and filled with joy.” She would send me random notes. Sometimes newspaper articles of local politicians with the words “Hang him!!” and a radio podcast of a certain leader who is ill-equipped for the position to which they were elected. Our last interaction was her asking whether UCT coloured students also played the card game klawerjas as their University of the Western Cape counterparts did. This was her assisting a relative with research on klawerjas. 

During the #RhodesMustFall protests she was a fierce opponent of calls for the statue to be removed. Her argument was that of many others, that it is an attempt to rewrite history. In her view, Rhodes needed to be judged against the morals and standards of his time. She detested what, I think, she saw as an attempt by the youth and liberals to sanitise history, and the complex and painful journey we had travelled over the years. 

I admired her work as a campaigner for human rights. Her investigations into human rights violations  in prisons in the Western Cape and the Northern Cape, the poverty conditions of farm workers, and children’s places of safety in Cape Town, attracted much media attention. Her no-nonsense approach certainly meant that she rattled the new political elite, and perhaps also made many enemies. 

Some strongly disagreed with her approach, and over time, with her views on a host of issues. I did. I struggled to connect her history, her credentials, with what in her last few years increasingly seemed to have made place for strong conservative and some would even say right-wing pro-Trump views, her views on Israel, and a clear disdain for the various social justice movements that began to shape American society. Part of it appeared to be a campaign against cancel culture, and in her view populist movements that did not fully appreciate the complexity of life and the acceptance that many truths could co-exist. 

She wrote columns, especially in the Afrikaans media, decrying the death of democracy and liberalism, of free speech, and in her mind an unthinking “wokeness”. It seemed ironic that it was exactly these ideals that seemed to be in danger through her alignment with Trump and all for which he stands. 

We hardly agreed on anything. In the latter years of her life, our views and perspectives on life, and democracy, moved further apart. Even though we hardly agreed, I continued reading her opinion pieces. She remained engaged with South Africa even from abroad. All the way through our journey of just over 20 years, Rhoda showed me love, and more importantly, respect. 

In ways not fully appreciated, she fought perhaps for my right to be, to speak my mind, even when she thought I spoke utter rubbish. She appreciated the arts and beautiful symphonic music. She was Christian and Afrikaans. Through the Impumelelo Social Innovations Centre, she supported and showcased pockets of excellence around the country and innovative models of service delivery that aimed to provide hope and to prevent South Africa from becoming a failed state. 

Rhoda Kadalie lived a full life. She was a complex character. She spoke her mind. Loudly. When one has much to say, and one claims the space to do so loudly and boldly, one is bound to offend, to rub people up the wrong way, while at the same time being celebrated and embraced by many others. 

This was Rhoda. Rhoda also loved, embraced and celebrated. She was an anti-apartheid activist, advocated for women’s rights and dared to speak her mind and, in doing so, challenged us to do the same — not to silence or be silenced. She was opinionated. Loudly so. Fearlessly so. Boldly so. This was Rhoda. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Jerome September
Jerome September is the dean of student affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand. He writes in his personal capacity.

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