Monday, March 20, 2006

Obituary: Duma Kumalo

Duma Joshua Kumalo, who has died aged 48, in Johannesburg, was best-known as one of South Africa's "Sharpeville Six". Along with five others, he was accused, in 1984, of killing a councillor. Duma was at home at the time of the killing, but he spent eight years in jail, and for four of these he was on death row. He received a stay of execution in 1988, hours before he was to die. In fact, when he returned to his cell after receiving the news of his reprieve, his final meal was waiting for him. He ate the meal, but said that something inside him died that day.

Duma's experience, however, also lit a fire inside his heart. He left jail in June 1991 determined to clear his name. This was his only plea to the Truth and Reconciliation commission, where he appeared in 1996. His wish was not granted, but it never deterred him from his struggle for justice.

Duma spoke internationally about his experience. He was a strong advocate against the death penalty and publicly supported Amnesty International. He also told his story through film and theatre. His play The Story I am About to Tell ran for five years in South Africa and internationally. It was last performed in 2001 at the International Conference Against Racism in Durban.

He also made He Left Quietly, with Yael Farber, which was commissioned by the House of World Cultures in Berlin for the drama festival, In Transit.

When I met Duma over 10 years ago I was working at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. He was unemployed and still reeling from his prison experience. I offered him a job in one of our workshops educating local communities about the truth commission. Duma went on to be one of the founding members of the Khulumani Victim Support Group, a self-help group for victims of apartheid violence. Duma exuded warmth, and his sense of humour was legendary: if you met him once, you remembered him. He loved life despite all the hardships it had thrown at him. Duma inspired people. He may have lost some fights in his life, but he won a much bigger war. Muhammad Ali's words are a fitting tribute: "The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before [you] dance under those lights." Duma, you were a champion of a man.

In all his endeavours, and throughout his time in jail, he was supported by his wife Betty, who survives him, along with their two sons, Lucky and George.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, Published in The Guardian, Monday March 20, 2006.

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