This sermon was preached at the funeral of Zwelakhe Sisulu on 13 October 2012.
1 Pet 1:3-9; Matthew 5:3-10
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, dear President Zuma and Deputy-President Motlanthe, dear Sisulu family, clergy and all distinguished people, I greet you all in the precious name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, our Saviour, our Redeemer. Let me also thanks program directors Comrade Duarte and Mr Makhura. In his summation Mr Makhura reminded us of the refrain from Zwelakhe’s poem, ‘Lest we forget’. Comrade Duarte mentioned the cost of apartheid. In the light of these, I want to adjust the theme of my sermon: I want to speak about ‘Lest we forget’ the human face to the cost of apartheid in our times, and ‘Lest we forget’ that the truth will set us free.
We have just sung Zwelakhe’s favourite hymn: ‘This is my story’. And it is in the story of Jesus Christ that we find a place for our own story. Within the story of his birth, his life and ministry and teaching, his death on the cross, his resurrection and his ascension to heaven where he now prays for us – in this story of his, we find a place to make sense of our own story, our lives and our deaths.
As St Peter wrote in his first letter, ‘By God’s great mercy, he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.’ It is kept in heaven for us, it is kept in heaven for Zwelakhe. Zwelakhe’s story is now one with the story of Jesus Christ.
And so today we celebrate the life of Zwelakhe Sisulu, we mourn his death, we commend him to the everlasting love of God, and we share our own grief. As we do this, we also place ourselves within the story of Jesus Christ, so that we too may know that death has been defeated, and find the comfort that he offers to all who seek his solace in their mourning. Finding our story and Zwelakhe’s story in God’s story gives us confidence, and allows us to be honest in our joys and in our sadnesses, as we remember this special man, this child of God, and give thanks for him, even as we grieve his passing.
As the tributes have reminded us, Zwelakhe packed a great deal into his 61 years. When I think of him – as I think also of Tata Walter and Mamma Albertina Sisulu, and so many of your family – other words from our first reading, strike a loud chord. St Peter writes of us suffering various trials, in which we dare to rejoice, because, he says, the genuineness of our faith is being tested, and is being found, through this fiery testing, to be more precious, more valuable, than gold.
Zwelakhe’s faith, Zwelakhe’s life, were ‘the real deal’ – they were certainly tested, but, by God’s grace, the quality of this man kept shining through. I am reminded of that saying that our characters are like tea-bags: we only discover their strength in hot water. Well, in one way or another, hot water – or at least, the heated politics of the last half century and more – shaped Zwelakhe’s life as they have shaped so many lives. And he was found to be strong in rising to the challenges, even when it came at personal cost.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled’ said Jesus. Righteousness is a word we don’t hear very often outside of church – but it is a word we could do with more of, especially in public life. Righteousness (very different from self-righteousness) is about reflecting the character of God, of Jesus – reflecting Jesus’ story in our story. It is about promoting God’s best, in all circumstances. It is about all that is upright, virtuous, just and good, excellent and true.
Zwelakhe showed us that to live in pursuit of excellence, justice, goodness, truth, certainly does bring a deep and lasting fulfilment and satisfaction – those who hunger for righteousness will be filled. And though he was in many ways larger than life – as I well remember from the time when he was running the New Nation out of rooms in our church complex – he was also content to be active behind the scenes. He let his life speak for itself – just as, as a journalist, he let the words speak for themselves, as he sought to make the truth known.
Jesus said that the truth will set us free (John 8:32). Today I want to emphasise, ‘Lest we forget – it is the truth that sets us free.’ Zwelakhe fought for the truth, as a means of fighting for freedom and for justice – so that our whole country could be set free. He inspired a generation of journalists, both in the written press; and across the entire media, as he took the helm of SABC. He demonstrated the value, the importance, the absolutely vital role, of an independent, intelligent, engaged media in the development and sustaining of healthy democracy through open, informed, debate.
My prayer is that we will never forget this.
Truth and transparency are the most effective tools we have for building the society, the nation, for which so many gave so much, even their own lives. Open and honest debate is our most powerful weapon, in combatting all that threatens to undermine the vision of our Constitution. It is indispensable for creating a united nation, in which we can find healing for the divisions of the past; and pursue a just and equitable society, based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights: a society which delivers a decent quality of life for all citizens and frees the potential of each person.
Truth will help us all pursue this. Because truth is the corner-stone of trust. And without trust, the different sectors of society cannot work well together – as the National Development Plan rightly tells us we must work together – in order to achieve the vision of the Freedom Charter, and of the Constitution.
For all of us need to stand together and play our part. Politicians, government, have their spheres of responsibility and action. Others of us have ours – Zwelakhe showed us something of the best contribution that the media can make. Business, academia, civil society, the church – all of us have our places, our responsibilities, our roles. And while none of us can do government’s job for them – we must all be ready to ‘stand in the gap’ and ensure that where politics and government fail, our people and our nation are not failed.
Truth helps show us what is needed; and helps us highlight that need, to ensure it is not forgotten, overlooked, ignored. And truth will help us all find the best way forward.
Truth, about how difficult this task of nation-building is, and about what can realistically be achieved – rather than inflated promises designed merely to win votes – will help our politicians to be the people we need them to be, and to do the job our Constitution asks of them.
Truth about the nature of problems we face, will help us find realistic, workable, solutions, that are rooted in the reality before us.
Truth around financial and commercial dealings – everything from tender processes to wage settlements – are the necessary first step to defeating the scourge of growing corruption – and also to overcoming the corrosive effect that suspicion increasingly has, even where due process is followed.
The humorous playwright, Noel Coward said ‘It is discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty, how few by deceit.’ We might laugh, but this is not the sort of society for which Zwelakhe strove. It must not become a valid description of the new South Africa.
Truth in the financial sector is necessary for overcoming international structural distortions, that fuel global instability in the economic sector that overflows into social unrest – for example over food stability.
Truth about our economic practices is also the foundation stone to reversing increasing inequalities between rich and poor, and in ensuring that the wealth of this country is made to serve those who are in greatest need.
US President, Franklin D Roosevelt, in his second inaugural address, said ‘The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.’ Mr President, sir, if you should, post-Mangaung, find yourself making your own second inaugural address, we trust that you too will make the alleviation of poverty your first priority, in your words and actions.
Truth is what brings the cries of the hungry, the lament of the poor, the grieving of the bereaved, the voice of the oppressed, to the ears of those who have: who have power and influence and material well-being, and the capacity to make a difference that benefits those who are without.
Truth is what will touch our hearts, change our minds, and shape our actions – so that we might become channels of blessing to those who are in greatest need.
Truth is the oil in the wheels of genuine democracy, which allows the voice of every citizen to be heard, and treated with dignity and respect.
Truthfulness in debate is what will rebuild relationships across the chasms that have opened up around Marikana, and the wider mining sector. We pray for Judge Ian Farlam and the Commission of Inquiry, that they may deal in the truth that sets people free – free from the ignorance about what happened, what went wrong, how we can do better in our employment practices, in our policing, in our dealings with disputes.
Truthfulness, and the trust it can bring, are also needed for spanning the gulfs between service providers and those who need – and who have a right to – these services.
Truth is the bridge across which we will have to walk if we are to meet with one another again, and find common solutions to the ills of our nation.
Truth is also the basis of education – of bringing understanding at every level of society. Above all else, our children and young people need to learn. We need to overcome the shocking standards of education which far too many receive (and too often in wholly inadequate facilities); and which leave them with so little hope of finding stable employment, with a decent wage, so they can support a family with dignity.
And though truth puts the spotlight on those areas where we are failing – truth is to be welcomed, because truth truly does set us free. We must never fear truth – even if it may be painful to hear at first. Because truth will take us forward to a better life.
Truth lights the banner of hope – because truth is what tells us the good news stories, of what is being achieved, by so many people, even with such few resources.
Truth tells us that we can make it: with hard work, with effort, with commitment, with perseverance, with cooperation and collaboration.
Truth can bring a smile to our faces, and joy to our hearts, when we hear of triumphs against the odds; of generosity of spirit; of communities uplifted; of courageous men and women, young people and old, who have stood up for what is right and seen good triumph.
Truth tells us that we need not despair – that we are not condemned to lives of uselessness in a failing society.
Truth is the signpost to a better future.
This is the truth for which Zwelakhe stood, the truth for which he strove. And though it breaks our hearts that he has died, facing the hard truth of his passing will help us deal with our sadness and sorrowing.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ said Jesus. If we dare to face our grief with honesty, and bring it before God, opening our hearts to him, then he will reach out to us with his tender, loving touch. Zodwa – our hearts go out to you, your children, to all the family, and to everyone who loved Zwelakhe. We mourn with you, we grieve with you. And we pray with you also, that God’s eternal arms of love will surround you with their compassion, so that you might know his full consolation, even as you are not afraid to weep and mourn. May you find his blessing, his comfort, in your sorrow and sadness.
God the Father watched his own son die on the cross – he knows what it is to mourn. Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus – and then himself experienced dying, in pain and suffering. He has gone before us through those gates that lie at the end of the valley of the shadow – and he holds his hand out to us all, in our mortality, assuring us that we need not be afraid.
We know that Zwelakhe is now safe, in the eternal love of God. He has run the race, he has finished his course. I am sure that he will hear the words ‘well done, good and faithful servant.’ Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord – and let light perpetual shine upon him. May he rest in peace – and rise in glory. Amen