Thembinkosi Qondela, a longstanding socialist activist, died this week due to COVID-19 related complications. He was a lifelong activist for social justice. Not many people who knew him realise that he worked on the mines for a year in the early 1990s where he came to understand the need to defend workers’ rights and the importance of health and safety at work. That experience, along with others might have been the spark to turn on his calling to make justice, equity and worker’s rights a reality. After moving to Cape Town, he became involved in various progressive socialist organisations, including serving as Assistant Regional Secretary for the Western Cape Unemployed Workers Movement, part-time assistant librarian at both Khanya College and the Trade Union Library and Education Centre, and as Resource Coordinator and then Assistant Researcher at the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG).
Tembi was also a research assistant at the School of Public Health and Family Medicine from 2003 to 2008 at UCT. His connection with UCT started in 1995 when he took up the position of adult educator and coordinator for Shawco’s Adult Education Scheme and, from 1995 to 1997, he contributed as a newswriter and member of the editorial committee for Varsity Newspaper at UCT. He then worked for the Environmental Advisory Unit at UCT and, a seasoned activist, started as administrative secretary for the Union at UCT, NEHAWU, in 1998.
After leaving UCT, he started an NGO to bring IT skills to young people in Khayelitsha and served as an Assistant Project Coordinator in the Department of Psychology at Stellenbosch University. His passion at the NGO, called Whizz ICT, was to empower young people with skills to benefit them and society.
Tembi was a fiercely independent thinker willing to challenge injustice but who also made time to care for others. One example as part of his training on pesticide risks and agricultural safety, he joined a study tour in Cuba of organic agriculture. On the tour he was the only black person in a group of mainly US Americans and one Australian. So, when he would return to the hotel with the rest of the group, he would be stopped from going into the hotel. This happened on numerous occasions because he was thought to be a Cuban, hustling tourists, since a black person couldn’t be on study tour! He experienced this as racism that he never expected to find in a socialist country. But, unintimidated, he took it up with the study tour hosts, who apologised and recognised that while Cuba had made many strides in reducing inequities, it was not immune from the curse of racism.
In this article Tembi shares his reflections on Cuba after returning from the trip in 2007.
Tembi’s fierce sense of justice extended to everyone equally. Another example – being an independent and can-do activist, he realized that existing political parties were not serving people’s interests but interests of elites. So, in the last local government elections he stood as an Independent candidate. Although he didn’t win, he received a lot of support in Site C, Khayelitsha where he lived, collecting almost as many votes as the winning candidate but losing the ward overall. In the last national elections he was a party campaigner for the newly established Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party.
But while he was a fighter for social justice, he was also a warm and jovial person. We all remember his massive smile, his boundless energy, the booming laugh, the modesty and humility and respect he showed others. Despite personal difficulties in his life he continued to devote his time to community activism. In this photo, Tembi is marching at the launch of the People’s Health Movement Right-to-Health campaign (in 2007), walking through Site C, where he lived until he died this week. An activist to the end.
We will all miss him dearly. He has left us sad, but also left us enriched.
Hamba Kahle Tembinkosi Qondela. Heartfelt condolences, love and solidarity to this lovely man’s family, many friends and comrades. A terrible loss to the working class. Hamba Kahle dear Tembi!