One of the last few remaining giants of South African struggle politics has died. Laloo “Isu” Chiba, 87, died peacefully at his Lenasia home yesterday morning (Friday, 8 December). He suffered a mild heart attack earlier in the week, but was discharged from hospital and was recovering at home.
Chiba was a high commander of uMkhonto we Sizwe and spent 18 years incarcerated on Robben Island with the late Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathra and Walter Sisulu, among other political prisoners in the dark days of apartheid. He was sentenced after the “Little Rivonia Trial”. The political icon was deeply committed to the South African freedom struggle.
Tributes have poured in from far and wide and his funeral arrangements have been confirmed to take place today with the memorial service at Nirvana Secondary School Hall in Lenasia at 1pm and cremation at 4pm at Avalon Crematorium.
After the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, Chiba was a member of parliament, and retired from active parliamentary politics a few years later, but he was never out of the public eye. He remained true and dedicated to his community long after his retirement. Chiba was a member of the Transvaal Indian Congress, the South African Communist Party and the United Democratic movement, among others. He was a board member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.
Chiba was born on 5 November 1930 in Johannesburg where he was also raised. The 1956 Treason Trial sparked his interest in politics, which led him to join the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC). In 1959, he joined the South African Communist Party (SACP).
He joined uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961 and was involved in its first sabotage units. By 1962, he was promoted to platoon commander of MK. Owing to his commitment and leadership, he was asked to become a member of the Second National High Command in 1963 with Wilton Mkwayi as the leader. Mkwayi was one of the 156 accused in the 1956 Treason Trial who had inadvertently been released during the 1960 state of emergency.
In April 1963, Chiba and his comrades Solly Vania, Indres Naidoo and Shirish Nanabhai were arrested after planning to sabotage a railway line. He was taken to Marshall Square and held in solitary confinement before being taken to the railway headquarters for interrogation.
During this period, Chiba was detained under the newly passed 90 Day detention law. He was brutally tortured and assaulted by the Security Police leaving him deaf in one ear. However, they failed to get him to confess and implicate his comrades. Unable to extract any information from him, they were unable to lay charges. Chiba was released and soon went underground and resumed the struggle.
Chiba was devastated after the death in March this year of his close friend and political mentor Kathrada, and was also aggrieved by the passing away a week ago of another fellow Robben Island prisoner, Eddie Daniels in the Western Cape.
Chiba was the recipient of many community awards including The Indicator Human Rights Awards that recognised for his courage and bravery in the fight against apartheid.
The Order of Luthuli was conferred on him in 2004 by the president Thabo Mbeki for his contribution to the struggle for democracy, building democracy and human rights, nation-building, justice and peace, or conflict resolution.
In Nelson Mandela’s book “The Long Walk to Freedom”, he wrote of Chiba: “A member of the MK high command and a stalwart colleague who proved a great asset in prison.”
Mandela wrote of how Chiba, Kathrada and Mac 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.
Durban film producer Anant Singh was among the many who paid tribute to Chiba. “His commitment to our freedom was exceptional. Laloo had a special talent of almost microscopic handwriting and was responsible for transcribing Madiba’s manuscript ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, reducing ten pages of foolscap to a single sheet of paper, which was then smuggled out of the Island by Mac Maharaj. Without his special skill, the book may never have been published,” said Singh.
“We salute Comrade Laloo Chiba for his resolute commitment to our achievement of democracy. His humility, integrity and honesty throughout his life was an inspiration to us all. My family and I are privileged to have had him as a friend and mentor, who inspired all. We send our sympathies, our love and prayers to wife, Luxmi and his children, and the Chiba family, and thank them for supporting him.”
The Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg said that Chiba 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.
“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 twenty-five 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,” said the Foundation.
Staff at the Nelson Mandela Foundation once accompanied Chiba 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, according to the Foundation.
“Hamba kahle Comrade Isu, dear Mr L, and thank you for your sacrifices for the country of Nelson Mandela’s dreams,” said the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
The African National Congress described Chiba as a dedicated and selfless freedom fighter who dedicated his life to the liberation and service of the people of South Africa.
“He was the epitome of a well rounded cadre who understood the interrelatedness and the interdependence of the struggles of the people of our country, serving as a member of the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and uMkhonto weSizwe,” said national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa.
“We, the people, owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to comrades such as Comrade Chiba and many other peoples of South Africa and the world for their tireless fight against the tyranny of injustice.
“The African National Congress sends our heartfelt condolences to Comrade Laloo Chiba’s wife, Luxmi, his three daughters and their family at large. Our thoughts and prayers are with them during this very difficult time of grief. May Comrade Chiba’s soul rest in everlasting peace knowing that his name is forever etched in the annals lauding the heroes and heroines of our struggle,” said Kodwa.