Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Friend Tito

I first met Tito Mboweni, the soon-to-be retired Governor of the South African Reserve Bank, in Lesotho, where we were both living in exile. The year must have been 1981. Our paths crossed in that strange, former British protectorate, which in the 1960s had achieved independence. It was, and is, a country completely surrounded by South Africa. It relies on South Africa for every bag of maize meal, every matchstick, every candle. And yet, because it was independent, it was a place where the then outlawed African National Congress (ANC) could operate.

I was there, having fled the country in order to avoid conscription into the Army. Tito was forced to flee the country because of political activism and was now in the underground ANC. We would, almost certainly, never have met in South Africa, and if we did, we would never have done so as equals. Because that is what apartheid was all about. It was about inequality. It was about keeping people apart and it was about ensuring that if people of different colours did meet, the one would be the master and the other the servant.

But there, in Lesotho, we met as equals. As comrades. Tito was my recruiter and controller, in relation to the ANC. We never spoke of it as such, but that is what brought us together. I did not realise then, that it was going to be the beginning of an incredible journey for both of us, in very different directions.

Tito was a young student, but honed in the fires of revolution. I was just a justice- minded white boy, who thought that apartheid was wrong and not worth defending. But more pertinently, I could quite easily have been a spy. So getting involved with me was a risky business for Tito.

My then wife, Jane, and I grew very close to him. We taught him how to drive in our little Volkswagen Beetle. We spoke long into the night, about “home” and about what the struggle was all about, and about our history and about the nature of oppression and revolution. Sometimes, it was about simpler things. Like how to roast a chicken, or to his incredulity, me explaining what the “Tube” is in London. Tito could not get over the weirdness of a train which travelled underground – until, of course, he saw one for himself.

That friendship changed my life. And for the better. I remember several years later, when both of us were in London or Zambia, how we would be homesick. Not for South Africa, but for Lesotho – where for the first time we were able to live and ordinary human beings together. Lesotho gave us back the humanity which apartheid had robbed us of .

There were times of terror which we experienced together. Like the raid in 1982 into Maseru, when the apartheid army entered the country and killed several sleeping comrades. I remember Jane and I hearing the news in the morning and leaping into the car to drive to Maseru. On the road, we found Tito and another friend Ngoako Ramalhodi hitching into the Capital. On the way in, they were speaking about the struggle – and how we needed now to pick up the fallen spear. There was no bitterness in what they were saying. There was no hatred of white people in general. We were together with them in this struggle. We were one of them. We were together in the struggle for peace and freedom in South Africa.

Moments like these are unforgettable. They change the way one thinks. They shift the way one understands one’s place in the universe. They come very rarely - if ever, for some people. I am one of the lucky ones.

I was Best Man at Tito’s and his then wife Mamokotlana’s wedding. I was amazed and honoured that he asked me to be his Best Man. The marriage ended, but my friendship with both Tito and Kotli has lasted through the years. Tito, on his return into a liberated country, was given a Cabinet post in the new government, and then went on to become Governor of the Reserve Bank. It was an orbit and a realm which I was, obviously, unable to keep up with. But through the years, we have kept in contact, through the occasional text message, a phone call late at night, a chance meeting. He has been at the launch of two of my books and he has done so happily and the feeling between us has been warm.

Now the tide has turned. New political realities have changed the landscape and, for whatever reason, Tito has decided not to be reappointed in the position of Governor of the Reserve Bank. It will be difficult for him, because it was a position he enjoyed. He enjoyed the power, the prestige, the sheer uniqueness of the job. He enjoyed the adulation of people and he certainly enjoyed obeisance. He had some really odd quirks – such as insisting on being called “Governor”, even by those close to him apparently - (something I could never do, and never did). He insisted on having his own photographer, and that only the photos taken by that photographer could be used in the media. These are conceits and affectations, which he has lived with for the past 10 years. I suspect they will be difficult things to give up.

I have heard it said by more than one person (and not only his political enemies) that he is arrogant. That is certainly true. He is. And the job he has held for the past while has allowed that arrogance to grow and perhaps to be unchecked. The arrogance is there, certainly, together with a lack of concern about people, which is sometimes difficult to justify. But I have also experienced something very different as well. I have experienced kindness, and gentleness and friendship and commitment. I have not minded the arrogance, because the other was there also, in good measure. He is a complex character.

I remember sitting in a car, in Roma, the little University village in Lesotho, some 30 minutes outside of Maseru, late at night talking to him. I said to him there was something I needed to tell him, because it may, perhaps, have security implications. I told him I was Gay.

His response was, firstly, surprise. Then he said this. He said “You know, in the struggle, you sometimes see really terrible things. You see necklaces (the terrible method which was used for a while, of placing a burning car tyre around the neck of a suspected spy). You see dead bodies. You see torture.” He went on, “In that spectrum, to find out that someone is Gay, is a very small thing indeed”.

I have always valued that comment, for putting things in a bit of perspective.

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