The late minister’s trusted friend Bohani Shibambu pens a birthday message for his friend.


A Birthday Message to a Departed Friend

In Memory of Ohm Collins Chabane

No One Made It

There was a big knock on the door. I leapt out of bed instinctively. My mind already anticipating a fight with the housebreakers. Petty criminality was on the rise and it was on everyone’s mind.

FILE PICTURE: The late Public Service and Administration minister, Collins Chabane. Photo: GCIS

When the door opened before me I thought the fight was over. I had no weapon, still dressed in pyjamas and shoes. It was my mother. Screaming at the top of her voice. “They are looking for you, here, take the phone”. I knew something was up. She was way too conservative to come into my bedroom, even with my permission. It was an extraordinary act. I quickly listened to the voice on the other end of the line. “They are looking for you”, my wife said. “keep that phone they will call you soon”, she said before hanging up. My mother had quickly disappeared.

I wondered who was “they”. The phone rang within a minute. “We are looking for you, where are you? We called your phone but it is off. We called your wife, who told us that you went to a funeral at Malamulele, and you slept in Giyani. When we initially phoned your mom she told us you are not in Giyani”. It all happened so quickly. It was your former HOD, Jackee. “I am at home in Giyani. What is wrong”. Now my mind was racing to Johannesburg, to our house, where I had left my wife and kids. We had just moved in, with neither security alarms nor cameras and it was a standalone house, unlike a gated community. I was thinking of a break-in and my wife struggling to reach me on my closed phone. But now that she found me, why is she not talking to me directly, preferring others to call me? I feared for the children.

“There was an accident last night”, Jackee said. And she kept quiet for a moment, gauging my reaction. “The chief’s car was involved in an accident”, she said. She was talking about the car and not the occupants. I sensed she was avoiding the subject matter. “Where is the car now”, I asked. She asked me if I was sitting down. I sat on the bed as if it was a choreographed scene in a play. She broke the news: “Unfortunately, nobody made it. Three bodies have been found, including the driver and the bodyguard. The police are trying to ascertain the number of occupants and to see if everyone has been accounted for. That’s why we were trying to locate you. Abednigo (the Minister’s PA) said you were with the chief at Hosi Magona’s funeral at Malamulele”. “So you mean the chief is gone”, I enquired softly as if I didn’t want others to hear. She kept quiet. It was typical Jackee, strong, with an authoritative voice like a military commander. Alas, she then broke down.

When you left Magona village to Nandoni we had agreed to travel together back Pretoria. As usual, I was going to come into your car so that we could have enough time to talk about work for the previous week and plan for the week ahead. But when you called that evening you were already in Makhado town, where you were meeting your friend from Ndzhelele. Unfortunately, I felt tired and I said I would sleep in Giyani. We then agreed to meet in Pretoria the following day upon my return.

A Love Supreme

When I dropped the phone, like a mad man, I hurriedly left my bedroom going to join the others in the living room. The TV screens were shouting: “The Minister Crashes to Death”. Both my mother and brother were sitting in there, glued to the TV for more. They were silent, with tears rolling down their cheeks, only the TV was king, boastfully bringing the latest to the homes of South Africans. Little did we know that your old mother, Nwa-Rueben wa ka Mbhenyani, nkata Etiene Chabane wa Mhinga, was watching the same episode. She later enquired as to why the TV was showing her son’s face next to a car whose top was ripped out in what looked like a terrible accident. No one was bold enough to break the news that would ripped her heart apart.

When Musa, your nephew, and I arrived at Xikundu around midday, the family yard was full of people, from neighbours to relatives, friends and comrades from Xikundu, Mhinga, and distant villages. Your family elders and brothers were sitting under a tree, led by EPP Mhinga, a family patriach. I joined them, sitting facing the mountain of Mayimayoxe. You had regaled us with many of your childhood stories from that mountain. I felt like I knew it and the mountain knew me. I felt like the mountain was talking to me. You had dreams of coming back to the village, living with the mountain the same way you did before the fateful day that took you to your new home in Matola in Mozambique, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) camps in Angola, your base in Swaziland, the mountains of Venda and Shirley in Elim, the farms of the Bandalierkop where your military skills were put to the test against the apartheid forces and your long-time stay at Nkowankowa in Tzaneen, next to your police neighbbour, pretending to be a gardener.

Bohani Shibambu I Picture Supplied

I mustered the courage to go and greet your mom. She was sitting on the floor, watching people as they went up and down. I remembered our long trips to Xikundu, many of them late in the night. You would first finish your day’s activities at work in Pretoria, sometimes a round of golf at Legends on a Sunday. Then a long drive to Xikundu would follow. We would arrive at Xikundu at around 11h00. Upon arrival you would go and wake her up. She would sit on the floor and greet us, after which I would go outside, leaving you with her to catch up. After a short while we would say our good byes to her as we made our long journey back either to Polokwane or Pretoria. All that distance meant nothing to you, as long as you could see her for twenty minutes. It was amazing to see such abiding love for a mother.

She had not forgotten me. “I Shivambu loyi”, she asked. I nodded in agreement. A short greeting was followed by silence. I did not know what to say. Her face was still, but failed to mask the pain inside her. Her body could not carry the pain in her heart. Sadly, it sipped all life from her. After six months she followed you.

Heaven Couldn’t Wait, Lala Ngoxolo

Everyone around you spent that whole week, following the fateful Sunday on the N1, fully engaged in the preparations for your burial, the whole Mhinga family, your siblings, comrades, friends and the church. The state was equally busy. Officials of government, led by a contingent of ministers, worked on logistics, which included the venue, marque and chairs, accreditation, catering, security and the programme. Your children and wife were not spared either. Your wife had to receive guests who came to offer their condolences, attend memorial services and work with government to write the programme. Both your Pretoria and Xikundu homes were a hive of activity.

On Saturday, 21 March 2015 everyone descended upon your dusty village to bid you farewell. By 9h00 the sun was blistering hot and it quickly crossed the 40 degrees celcius mark by midday before it slowly came down in the afternoon, just before sunset. Almost all your cabinet colleagues and members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of your party were there. The president arrived to a rousing welcome at the stadium before he went inside the tent. His motorcade stopped, just outside the tent, they opened his door, he slowly emerged from the sleek black state vehicle. He held on to the opened door before retreating to his seat. His teary eyes betrayed the emotions he was battling to conceal. After gaining his composure he leapt up and entered the marquee, his security detail guiding him through. The hall broke into a thunderous applause and song. His signature tune: Umshini Wami and Inzima Le Ndlela reverberated in the village.

But the day belonged to ordinary people. They came in large numbers. Comrades had organized buses and taxis. But many walked on foot. All roads from Mhinga, Mashobye, Malamulele and Giyani, Thohoyandou, Lambani and Mukula, led to Saselamani Stadium where a marque was pitched. The roads, stadium and the village were painted in black, green and gold colours with people clad in ANC regalia and paraphernalia. Some walked in groups chanting to the stadium.

The church members were resplendent in their black, grey and white uniform of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (EPSA). They proudly walked into the church, singing and dancing as if to stake their claim on their member. The Men’s Guild would have done you proud. They turned in large numbers dressed in your uniform.

Your colleagues and friends were there, from the whole continent, North, West, East, Central, and Southern Africa. Your comrade, Hage Geingob of Namibia, sent a message. He couldn’t come because he was being inaugurated as President of his country. The ten thousand strong seater marquee was made small, as double that number was sitting outside under the scorching African sun. Some sheltered under trees around the stadium. The long programme and the hot sun were no match for people’s resolve. They stayed to the end.

I was hazy, physically and emotionally weak. I felt like I was just drifting than walking. I had every confirmation to convince me that you were gone but I was reluctant to come to that conclusion. I was bottling everything inside and went on with preparations, including accreditation of guests that morning. The activities of the programme dragged me along. Despite the programme director’s appeal for time saving comrades at the one extreme of the hall started singing: “Comrade Chabane a wu lale ngoxolo, ku dala u zabalaza”. And your daughter’s voice emptied the last ounce of resolve I had never to cry in the funeral. She stood there, supported by Matimba and belted out: Heaven Couldn’t Wait to Have You. Her angelic voice felt like it was reaching the corridors of heaven when she hit the high notes. She nearly didn’t make it, with her voice crackling, but her brother urged her on to conclusion. Her mother, your wife, was watching from her seat, constantly removing her sunglasses to wipe her teary tired eyes. But she had Matimba to speak on her behalf. He regaled the crowds by his old stories with you, lightening the mood by his style of delivery.

I felt the worst was over until we got to the graveyard. When I saw MK combatants holding your casket I asked for a seat because my knees couldn’t carry me anymore. After the military salutes and trumpet of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) it was time for your casket to be lowered, at the same place where your departed family members are buried.

I am Tired

I joined your family and friends who were looking at the grave after the soldiers had finished their job. I was consumed in a gaze of the place that carried your mortal remains. I know you said you were tired. Not once nor twice, but many times. You were talking about your retirement to the foot of Mayimayoxe mountain of Xikundu. Is this what you meant?

Bohani Shibambu I Picture Supplied

I reflected on your life and felt a mixture of anger and sadness. When time comes we can talk about the trials and tribulations of a guerrilla soldier. Your experiences of your short life at Turfloop with the SRC and underground. Your MK between Mozambique and South Africa. How you used to share one shirt with Pitsi Moloto in Swaziland. Your underground life in the Northern Transvaal. How you battled the apartheid forces with arms of war, running, hiding and fighting again. How you were stranded in South Africa, unable to go back to Maputo because of lack of money. The trials and tribulations of a guerrilla soldier do meet with kindness of ordinary people. I remember your story of farm workers who took you in when you were a wanted man, after pretending to be another farm worker from another farm running away from an abusive baas.

I have written down in my memory a list of ordinary people who gave you shelter, food and clothes out of their commitment to struggle. The story of an ordinary woman battling to make ends meet after her celebrated guerrilla husband died. Yes, she is still an ordinary tea lady but she is grateful for the job.

I remember that night in your house when you shook my hand and asked me to feel a steel handgranade shrapnel buried in your wrist. And how you intended to remove it once we were free but cancelled every appointment you made with the surgeon. You took it to the grave with you. You showed me a straight line, on top of your head, razed by a bullet that missed your head with a few millimeters in the course of enemy engagement.

You have lived a selfless, courageous, hardworking and humble life. “Is this how it ends? Why did it have to be this way”, I asked myself.

Farewell and Happy 60th Birthday Annivesary

I have never had time to say this, please allow me now: Fare you well my friend, elder brother, comrade and commander. Every year on 15 March we remember how your life journey was abruptly and brutally terminated. On this day, 15th of April every year, we go through pain that numbs the senses because it is your birth date. Happy 60th birthday anniversary.

Etlela hi ku rhula Ohm Collins, Xakani wa Etiene, wa Xakani, wa Chabani, wa Mhinga.

Fare you well chief.


Bohani Shibambu

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