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My heart goes through leaps and bounds

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Obituary of anti-apartheid hero Sedick Isaacs who passed away 18 October 2012, by Moosa Arendt and Mariam Rabbani.


 

My heart goes through leaps and bounds when I divide x by y (with due respect to William Wordsworth). Sedick Isaacs was a modest man with a commitment to facts and a wicked sense of humour. 

He was a student at the University of Cape Town in the 1950s and graduated at the top of his class in maths, chemistry and physics. He grew up in a community where some were involved in the struggle and of many of these would have endless debates without doing much. Sedick grew tired of the theoretical debates which had little or no impact on the problem of Apartheid. He knew many of the arguments because he went to a very politically active school. He therefore gravitated towards doing something about Apartheid. His journey did take him closer to the PAC than to other political organisations in the struggle. However Sedick Isaacs was not a political sectarian. He believed that his contribution to his community was to use his scientific skills to sabotage and end the Apartheid system.

In Dec 1964 he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Escaping from prison was always his goal whenever he was in a detention facility even as an awaiting-trial detainee. He did not see that staying in prison was an achievement. The struggle was outside the prison walls. Hence he looked at sawing through the bars of a cell, making a key to the prison gate, making a raft to sail the sea around the prison, sabotaging the power supply or contaminating the water supply on Robben Island. He developed plans for these to varying degrees of completion and paid the price. 

On Robben Island he was 88364 which meant that he was prisoner number 883 who was admitted in 1964. As a political prisoner he was designated category D which was the lowest category with the least privileges. That meant that he could write two letters per year with a five-hundred word limit. He was limited to one visit from a family member in six months. Sedick would later be demoted to a category of prisoner lower than Category D. Such a category did not exist in the prison rule book. When it came to Sedick Isaacs the authorities often made up the rules as they went along. 

He was always a teacher. He was a teacher at Trafalgar High School when he was arrested in 1964 and continued as a teacher on Robben Island as a member of the Robben Island Teachers’ Association. Sedick also taught in the community before and after he was imprisoned. He was chairman of the Island education committee and after a few years assumed responsibility for Maths and Science at secondary school and university levels. Robben Island prisoner education was being structured like a fully fledged department of education from literacy and numeracy training to post-graduate studies. Sedick was at the heart of it all. But it took struggles against prison authorities to win the rights to access to even a pencil let alone books and learning. The doors of learning and culture had to be gate-crashed. Many of his Robben Island students became high profile post-apartheid personalities. One of those that he taught on the Island was Achmad Cassiem who was a student at Trafalgar High but was not taught by Sedick then. They were sentenced in the same trial to Robben Island. There he taught him mathematics. Because they did not have textbooks Sedick write a textbook on toilet paper. When they were found out they were punished. Learning was indeed a crime. 

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Sedick would always choose the rational over the irrational. For some doing this consistently poses serious challenges. He could not make sense of the irrationality of the prison regime to which he was subjected. He also despaired at the inability of opposing political factions to listen to one another and their ability to engage prison staff rather than their political opponents. Some are even celebrated for having shown a lack of anger towards their former jailers. Not that Sedick was hostile to jailers. On the contrary because he had many degrees one jailer asked him for help with Domestic Science. To the jailer it sounded like science and Sedick studied the course to tutor his jailer. He helped another with Bible studies because after a long struggle for reading materials he was allowed to have a copy of the bible which he duly memorised. Sedick struggled with the lack of compassion political activists showed to one another. It should be that one has one argument for a position, another against a position and rational people ought to then make a decision based on facts. That was not how it worked and Sedick was largely intrigued by the passionate irrationality of struggle heroes. His account in his prison memoirs would not have been welcomed by sloganising political activists. The same deadly mentality pervades post-Apartheid South Africa. The Quran advises that knows one’s enemy with. “Mohammed is the messenger of Allah, those who are with him are firm and hostile towards the kuffaar and compassionate amongst themselves”. He had a clear idea that the Apartheid state was the enemy. 

When he was released from Robben Island in September 1977, Sedick was placed under restrictions for another seven years. He was confined to the magisterial district of Cape Town which were as undefined as the borders of the State of Israel. Here was a mathematician who was not allowed to take up a teaching post or even to enter a school or a factory. He was a qualified Librarian who could not get a job despite vacancies in the local authority owned libraries. He did some mathematics tutoring but that was risky because of the banning order. Hence one has an article in the local newspaper of the best-qualified egg seller in Cape Town. The egg seller had a degree in science, another in library science and a third in psychology. This was and remains an indictment on his community. They kept their heads down and stayed away. It was 1977 a year after Soweto 1976.

There were school boycotts in the community to which Sedick had returned. His community saw the brutality of the Apartheid state and turned a blind eye and condemned him to be ‘an over-qualified egg-seller’. As for the absolute waste by the Apartheid state of the talents of a brilliant and caring man at least they were true to their racist mandate as this was there responsibility.

To get married, in 1979, he had to have permission from the local magistrate because his banning order prohibited him from attending any social gathering (more than two persons). His own wedding ceremony would constitute a gathering (three would arguably constitute a contravention of the Riotous Assemblies Act). In 1981 he managed to get a job as a Statistician and from then on he completed at PhD in about 1992. He has a list of honorary awards for his contributions to medical informatics and statistics. He never displayed these on walls. Yet when he retired in 2005 he continued as a maths tutor where he started in the 1950s because he believed that as a maths and science teacher he could continue to make a difference. He did not accept any payment for his services. Mathematics was all around him. He was always seeking to understand relationships between phenomena and simple ways to express these. As a tribute to the poet Wordsworth, Sedick’s mischievous humour would make him say “My heart goes through leaps and bounds when I divide x by y”. He was blessed in many ways because of the abnormal state in which he found himself, Apartheid. As a scientist ruled and schooled in facts, experiments, the power of wonder and experience, and the limitlessness of infinity and all that is in between.

But to him his own humanity and of those around him, his community also came in to the equation of dividing x by y. These are the true scientists not merely bound by the laboratory environment, but enthused and animated by the human element and the interaction between which provided the impetus transcend the bounds of the laboratory and reach into the community. Making a difference was self-validating and self-vindicating. When he himself was a student and teacher at Trafalgar High School x and y was all around him. He was however, one of those who dared to do the maths. For his struggle was about his humanity and that of others. As a true scientist that quest was continued through all the phases of his life. We find a similar phenomenon with Bertrand Russell when he transcended the university and philosophy to hold the Russell Tribunal into the Vietnam War. Today that spirit lives on with the various Russell Tribunals since then which aim to cast light where there is darkness and challenge the manufactured silences of our times. The life of Sedick calls others to an examination of the distinctions between roles of embedded intellectuals and public intellectuals.

There are many truisms in life and some of find them and live by them whatever the costs may turn out to be. Others maintain these truisms in partial ways as a deep sense of realism descends. These are the compromises that are often made as we sometimes choose to climb the greasy poles of life. In his case, he may not have articulated it as starkly, however he was failed by the community he so much cherished. He used his skills and put himself on the line so that Apartheid could be sabotaged and his people live fuller lives which indeed were stunted by the racist Apartheid project. His preparedness to sacrifice was necessary and there was likely no other way. Turning a blind eye was not an option for Sedick. For others it was the only option. But this is the realism he had to cope with in the post-prison period. He became the consummate award-winning scientist, for that was the one truism for ever action there is a corresponding equal reaction which is predictable and known. This was the one truism he could depend on and regain his sanity and complete his self-worth. At no time was it a cop-out. On the contrary he had a duty to protect and help to provide for his wife and children. This was his primary responsibility as the community had failed to protect and shelter him when he needed them the most to protect his sanity (and was he pushed to the edges by the Apartheid regime?), integrity and self-worth. Simple acknowledgement was hard to come by. For all of us recognition and appreciation are of utmost importance. This intensifies with those amongst us that operate at a different level of understanding and commitment. There are many of these individuals amongst us that are merely hanging on, hoping and waiting for the shelter and community of care to shield their sanity, integrity and self- worth. This is the reality of the lost of Sedick Isaacs. We failed him as a community. He did not fail us as he made a difference. His enthusiasm for his science and his quest for truth and principle propelled him, protected him and allowed him to continue to contribute at the many levels of learning i.e. academia, prison educator, and township teacher.

Sedick Isaacs wrote his account of time served in the prisons of Apartheid because of the distortions in the official public narrative of what had happened on Robben Island. He has a deep and profound respect for truth and facts. He valued honesty and would tell lies sometimes, but only to the enemy and definitely not to his own people. His thin self-published memoir was an attempt to set the record straight regarding Robben Island and some of its most well-known prisoners and political factions. It likely did not endear him to his erstwhile fellow prisoners and comrades. He described a famous political icon’s imprisonment on Robben Island as rather uneventful. That frankness takes courage which of course comes at a price. Sedick did not have a problem with that because he never saw himself as a politician but as a scientist. He dispassionately looked at facts and searched wherever it may be. It might explain why the post-Apartheid South Africa state did not use Sedick as a Minister for Higher Education or Minister for Science and Technology. Yet he taught many of those who took post-Apartheid government positions. For him the other truism, born out of the enlightened mind, was truth and justice. There are no shades of grey to truth or more so the convenience and political gain from lies. He operated in a world such clarity of right and wrong, positive and negatives, but had the boundless charity and generosity for people and the understanding of the weakness of individuals. It was important to give an account of his experience in an unflattering expose of his prison life. It was important to speak out once again to bear witness to what had actually happened on Robben Island between 1964 and 1977. History is often recorded by the victors and not by all who have struggled. When a vacuum exists within nature it is filled by something . He would not have deconstructed the official narrative. He only did what he could to set the record straight. The official anti-Apartheid narrative is filled by the one’s who made the deals in smoke-filled rooms and subsequently who wrote out from history all the sacrifices and contributions of all other political groupings and members. He needed to reset the balance and was reactive, but to him an action requires a reaction He was an active member on Robben Island and the truth about the Island was needed. He previously tried, with Achmad Cassiem to smuggle out notes about conditions on the Island. Of course that had its own consequences. He was doing what was part of him i.e. speaking out about the truth and committing it to paper. Even if it was not on toilet paper, it did not have the backing of a big publishing company to make it more professional, it serves its purpose. He my not have been an aware of the consequences of this account. He could tell something important about Robben Island.

One again he was not acknowledged by the ANC-led government for his contributions to them as individuals and the struggle. He was not given a position within the government to do what he does best i.e. make a difference to people but in a more wider domain. Sedick had the vision and skills to be a Minister of State for Science and Technology or even Higher Education. He was failed by this structure and its leadership. Post-Apartheid South Africa is a state in which ‘some are more equal than others’ George Orwell and the leadership eats on behalf of the masses.

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Sedick Isaacs was a saintly scientist who was assisted along his tortuous principled path by his wife Mareldia whom he “met” through prisoners who were treated at her public hospital. They, who knew him on the island, felt that she would be a good match for him. At the side of every remarkable man stands an even more remarkable woman. For it needs to be acknowledged that his wife is the one who never failed him. He could rely on her when the community and the post-Apartheid state failed him. He could depend on her when the Apartheid state continued to try to break him down after his release from Robben Island. He could trust in her in his times of despair. He could bank on her when his need for protectors, comrades and friends were “missing in action or inaction”. She did not merely stand with him but provided the love and comfort that allowed him to heal. Most of all to nurture the flickering light towards the fire. To continue because he matters , if at any time he did not believe, ‘He matters and makes a difference’. She believed in him and for that she gave him the acknowledgement that was immeasureable. Our thoughts and prayers are with you Mareldia. Sedick was blessed to have you as a wife and confidante. We are grateful for your sacrifice and support. To his daughters Nadia and Wanita and the rest of his family and friends, our heartfelt hopes and prayers are with you. May his legacy not be lost, but be celebrated. This heritage is your birthright and may Sedick’s contributions continue to cast a light on your hearts ahead.

Hamba Kahle Sedick. A luta continua. Now you can indeed divide x by y to your heart’s content on a grand scale. Your shoes will not be filled but you have dispensed your responsibility and showed us the way. You showed us how to live a blessed and meaningful life.

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