Eulogy by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Official Funeral of the late Ambassador Billy Modise, Marks Park, Johannesburg
28 June 2018
Former President Thabo Mbeki
Friends and comrades,
Fellow South Africans,
We have lost a great South African, a great freedom fighter, above all many of us have lost a dear brother and a friend.
We gather here to bid a fond farewell to Uncle Billy Modise.
We are drawn to this place not for the sake of ritual, duty or protocol.
We are drawn here to pay our respects out of a deep and abiding affection for Billy Modise.
There are many among us who are due great honour and respect. Many have fought worthy struggles and achieved great victories.
There are those whom we admire, for their wisdom, their courage and their compassion.
But there are few of them who have so entirely earned our affection as Ambassador Billy Modise, Esteemed Member of the Order of Luthuli.
There are few among us who so thoroughly represent the essence of what it means to be human. But most of all, many of us will remember him as one of nature’s greatest gentlemen. He was kind and warm towards everyone no matter their background.
We are drawn to this place as we were drawn to Uncle Billy because he was an easily approachable human being with such a cheerful and invigorating presence.
His warmth, his gentle manner, his humour and his humility drew us towards him. Yet his humility and humour had a purpose beyond what we could comprehend.
His intellect, his energy, and his enthusiasm are what made him who he was. He was bright, logical and systematic in his thinking. He was always willing to share his ideas and thoughts. Many of us found him to be a splendid person with a big heart.
Some of us in the then leadership of the trade union movement saw this big heart when he guided us as trade unionists in our dealings with the Swedish trade union movement. He helped us navigate the dynamics of the politics of our movement and the enthusiastic support of the Nordic countries in our struggle.
We saw in him the qualities that we seek in ourselves, and we found in him the human being that each of us so dearly want to become.
He taught us that no life could be complete if it was not lived in the service of others.
From his earliest experiences of the indignity and injustice of racial discrimination, Uncle Billy was driven throughout his life by a profound concern for the plight of the oppressed, vulnerable, poor and exploited.
He was drawn to the revolutionary politics of the Congress movement because it sought a fundamentally different order of social and economic relations.
It sought a society freed from the iniquity of apartheid dispossession and subjugation, in which every person could realise their potential.
Measured in his delivery, clear in his articulation, passionate in his conviction, Billy Modise carried the message of our liberation struggle across the world.
It was a message that found resonance even among people who were far removed in both time and space from the troubles and the struggles of the South African people.
It was a message of human solidarity which defied borders and traversed oceans.
It united the peoples of the world in declaring apartheid to be a crime against humanity and reinforced their resolve to struggle alongside the people of South Africa until they had won their freedom.
More than a diplomat, Billy Modise was an internationalist. He inscribed his name in our movement’s foreign policy positions. He had firm principles. He expounded them clearly. He acted upon them decisively.
He taught us that human solidarity is universal.
It mattered not where injustice and suffering were to be found – it was equally and always a concern to him.
He felt the same anguish whether a child died from tear gas in Gaza or in a pit toilet in Bizana. His principles compelled him and us to act to prevent such tragedy.
His spirit of solidarity required that we do not accept the suffering of the Saharawi people in refugee camps any more than we accept families living in appalling conditions on the fringes of our cities.
It requires that we do not accept the detention of Palestinian children any more than we accept that there are still children in this country who have not seen the inside of a classroom.
His humanity and his internationalism imposed a responsibility on us that as we build our nation we should also support all those people who are engaged in a struggle to build theirs.
Billy Modise was a man of honesty and decency.
There was an essential integrity to his being.
The revolutionary politics that he first learnt in the Fort Hare branch of the ANC Youth League could not be extricated from his sense of revolutionary morality.
For him, the conduct of a cadre, a leader, a public servant was material to the purpose they were expected to serve.
Respect, discipline and honesty were important attributes in a revolutionary.
They were essential if one was to serve the people and conscientiously advance their struggle.
His attention to detail, his meticulous planning, his respect for rules and procedures was a manifestation of a deeply-held believe that it is the responsibility of every revolutionary to apply themselves to the greatest extent of their ability.
He belonged to a generation of leaders who joined the struggle at great personal risk to themselves, a generation that was called upon to make great sacrifices and who suffered terrible hardship for their beliefs.
Like so many of his generation, he sought and received no reward.
This was not simply a product of circumstance – it was a conscious political decision to always place the interests of the people above one’s own.
It was founded on an understanding that the wealth of this country belongs to all its people and that to appropriate even the slightest portion for the enrichment of a few is a grave betrayal of the people’s trust.
It is a betrayal of those who fought so valiantly for our freedom.
It was this understanding that explains Uncle Billy’s decision to count himself among those stalwarts who spoke out against the erosion of the values and principles of the African National Congress.
We are charged to forge a new society in which relations between people are characterised by respect, solidarity and equality – and where those who are given the responsibility to lead do so honestly and selflessly.
Throughout his life, Uncle Billy was a unifier.
The desire for unity was an essential part of his nature as much as it was a product of his political consciousness.
Wherever he went in the world, from Lund to Lusaka, from the United Nations to the Union Buildings, he forged strong bonds of friendship and understanding. He made it his life’s work to ensure that South Africa built the foundation for a long-term partnership with Scandinavia.
Cde Billy Modise brought diverse people together, convinced that their common humanity was more powerful and more compelling than any force that could divide them.
Through engagement and persuasion – and no small degree of charm – he rallied disparate people behind a common cause.
He understood that no progress could be made without the unity of the oppressed and that no advances could be sustained without the unity of the South African people.
He was firmly convinced that non-racialism was the only viable, morally defensible response to the divisive and destructive policies of apartheid.
It was both a principle to which one must hold fast and an objective which one must relentlessly strive to achieve.
His commitment to this cause was matched by his determination that women and men should be free and equal in all areas of life.
He fought for a society where gender would never again be a determinant of status, wealth or opportunity.
The struggle to which Billy Modise dedicated his life continues.
It is a struggle against hunger and homelessness, against violence and abuse, against severe inequality and chronic unemployment.
It is a struggle for decent education and relevant skills, for affordable health care, a living wage, decent jobs, land, houses, water and electricity.
It is a struggle for unity, non-racialism and non-sexism; for dignity, respect and peace.
Today, as we lay to rest a great revolutionary, we vow to continue his struggle – to pick up his spear where it has fallen.
On behalf of the people of South Africa, we extend our deepest condolences to Sis Yolisa and the Modise family, to his comrades, his colleagues and his friends.
You shared your son, your bother, your husband and your father with a grateful nation. Sis Yolisa you allowed me a sacred moment to see him and be with him in hospital on the last day of his life. You did this so that he could say goodbye to the organisation that he loved so much and served for his entire life. As I saw him lying peacefully in his hospital bed I wished If only it were possible to bottle his recipe for life, for the dedication he showed to his ANC and the people of our country.
We say farewell to an extraordinary human being, devastated by our loss, fortified by what we have been given, and moved by a deep and abiding affection.
Tsamaya ka Khotso cde Billy, Mogwato o mogolo o montsho wa pelo e tshweu
May your soul rest in peace.
I thank you.
Issued by: The Presidency