Homage to Achmat Dangor
A great soul has departed
In Setswana we will say: Setlhare se segolo se ole. Dibaga tsa gauta di kgaogile.
Achmat Dangor appreciated languages. He tried his hand at different languages even though he was nowhere near fluent. In his honour, we must make an effort to appreciate and learn our official languages.
He understood Madiba’s words when he said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his [own] language, that goes to his heart.”
Driving back home from Achmat’s funeral and seeing the sunset reminded me of the great soul whose life had just come to an end.
The news of Achmat’s passing on Monday broke me. I was paralysed by grief. I was doing one last chore at home for the weekend and I couldn’t complete it.
To his family and friends, please receive my deepest condolences. Your loss is our loss too. It is the nation’s loss of a dedicated and talented man. We have lost one of this country’s most talented and caring people.
Achmat was special to me. It is true to say that this has been one of the saddest and heaviest days of my professional life. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
I guess that’s what a mentor does. When he took me to one of my first big meetings in this context at Luthuli House back in 2009, I protested. I’m young! I’m new! Surely there are colleagues more deserving of the honour. Of course, deep down I also didn’t want to go as it was going to be a difficult meeting with the ANC.
All he said, in a gentle Achmat way: “I want you to come with me”. That was the end of discussion.
He was calm, as always, but firm. From that point onwards, Achmat took me along to all his important engagements. I credit him for introducing me to some of the prominent people around the world.
Fast forward a few years later when he was about to retire as CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. When his position was advertised, he came to me and said “apply”. Again in a firm but gentle voice. I thought about it for many days. It worried me! I was still young. Yes with a bit of experience but not at that level. I was green at this level of engagement. He still insisted on me applying, even after hearing all my excuses. He and other colleagues guided me through the process. He was, I was to learn later, worried about my age but confident I could do the job.
Today, I look back at one of the last events that Achmat attended at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He was not feeling well, and yet he showed up. I asked him why he insisted on coming even though he wasn’t well. His answer floored me. He said, and I’m paraphrasing: I’m here because I don’t want you to fail. It then dawned on me that Achmat was always there, even though he refused to speak or to give me any tips, unless absolutely necessary because he didn’t want to rule from the grave.
The main lesson here is that we must always show up. Even when we are tired. We must act in solidarity with those who need us most.
One of the main characteristics that Achmat had was how he used to run and do things whenever there was a possible blockage. He wasn’t one to send you off to face difficulties alone. He was right there with you. One such example was when we were in New York City for the last 46664 concert, which coincidentally also marked the launch of the first Nelson Mandela Day.
At some point during the day, Nelson Mandela’s PA, Zelda la Grange, called, indicating that there was a problem at Grand Central Station where the main fundraising event was to take place later that evening. I informed Achmat who then ran with me to Grand Central Station. He literally had to run as we couldn’t get a cab. His many years at the UN kicked in, and he sorted the problem out and we launched the event successfully with then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.
This trait I inherited to the irritation of some of my colleagues. Now you know, blame it on Achmat!
To Achmat I would say, I will always try my best never to fail in anything that I touch. Mistakes, I will make, learn from them and keep at it.
Robala ka kagiso morwa Dangor. You will always be missed.
• Sello Hatang is the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Dangor was the former CEO.
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