The Chairman, Trustees and staff of the Nelson Mandela Foundation are grieving the loss of Isu “Laloo” Chiba, one of the last remaining giants of South Africa’s struggle for freedom.
His passing today comes exactly a week after that of Eddie Daniels and eight months after Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada left us. They were, with Nelson Mandela, all inhabitants of the single-cell section of Robben Island, known as B Section, which held at any one time only about 25 men in single cells. Their relationships, carved from cruel and brutal treatment and protracted fights for their rights as prisoners, could best be described as familial. They saw each other as brothers until the end.
“Mr L”, as some of us came to refer to him, was part of a small committee on the Island which helped Madiba to secretly prepare his autobiographical manuscript and to smuggle it out for publication. Mr L, along with Mac Maharaj, painstakingly transcribed Madiba’s words into tiny handwriting so that it could be hidden in a cover of a home-made album. While the manuscript was not published in time for Madiba’s 60th birthday in 1978 as planned, it formed the basis for Long Walk to Freedom, which was published in 1994. (https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/role-revealed-of-madibas-comrades-in-long-walk-to-freedom)
In the book, Madiba wrote of Laloo Chiba as “a member of the MK high command and a stalwart colleague who proved a great asset in prison”. He wrote of how he, Kathrada and Maharaj “formed a clandestine communications committee” in prison, and one of the techniques they developed was to use warders’ discarded matchboxes to hold secret messages from them to the rest of the prison population.
“Mac had the idea of constructing a false bottom to the box and placing in it a tiny written message. Laloo Chiba, who once trained as a tailor, wrote out minuscule coded messages that would be placed in the converted matchbox.” Madiba continued: “Joe Gqabi, another MK soldier who was with us, would carry the matchboxes on our walks to the quarry and drop them at a strategic crossing where we knew the general prisoners would pass. Through whispered conversations at food deliveries, we explained the plan. Designated prisoners from F and G would pick up the matchboxes on their walks, and we retrieved messages in the same fashion.”
Mr L was the personification of humility and avoided self-promotion, preferring instead to nurture young people to become fighters for human rights and non-racialism in a democratic South Africa. He served with distinction in Parliament after 1994 and supported many initiatives (including the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation) designed to deepen and defend the country’s democracy.
Staff at the Nelson Mandela Foundation once accompanied him to the National Archives to look through the record of his time in prison. There he found letters he had written which were never sent. He took great delight in posting them on, decades later, to the intended recipients without even a covering note.
Hamba kahle, Comrade Isu, dear Mr L, and thank you for your sacrifices for the country of Nelson Mandela’s dreams.