The passing of two great fighters

By Devi Rajab

Muhammad Ali and Jules Browde followed the same quest for justice in their different worlds

Muhammad aliTHIS week South Africans witnessed the death of two disparate fighters – the global icon Muhammad Ali (the erstwhile Cassius Clay) and the lesser known but equally significant Jules Browde who has been described as “a war veteran, human rights trailblazer and friend of Madiba”.

While Ali used his boxing gloves as a metaphor to fight anti-black racism in the US, Browde used the law to challenge institutionalised racism in South Africa.

When I think of Ali, what stands out so emotively for me is his rationalisation for not wanting to fight in the Vietnam War: “No Vietcong ever called me a n ***** .”

On a lighter note we all recall his motto: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” His rantings were ugly at times, but his wit was sharp and Machiavellian in his strategy to unnerve his opponent.

I recall as a teenager being impressed by his verbal weaponry. Whenever I had to traverse the prickly thorns of racism I would use my sharp tongue to hit out at my oppressor, belittling the enemy into a stupor. If only I could have met Sparrow or Jansen then I would not have allowed myself to be demeaned by their insights and comments.

I think for Ali his pain went deeper and he sought refuge in Islam as a religion of emancipation from the roots of his slavery. He fought his parents, he fought his community and he fought the prejudice against conversion.

His parents refused to call him by his Muslim name, but he refused to give in. Bilal was the first black Muslim to be entrenched in the theology and its equivalent was not to be found in any other religion in such a dramatic statement of racial equality. But how different was Ali’s Islam to Isis’s anarchy? It is significant that Ali used Islam to reclaim his position in society, but he did not fight to save Islam from its present-day image of anarchic violence.

JULES_20785Advocate Browde was a different kind of fighter. He was more measured and quietly determined. In 1980 in the State versus Adams case, he took on the government over the legality of the Group Areas Act, using the defence of necessity as a principle. He argued that people could not be prosecuted if there was no alternative accommodation for them.

Unfortunately he did not win the case, but he never waivered in his belief that you fought for a cause that you knew you would win but that you also fought if you knew you could not win.

The defining value lay in knowing that you are doing the right thing. His persistence with his arguments laid the foundation for the Richard Goldstone ruling two years later which effectively ended the Group Areas Act.

For 10 years I sat on the Broadcasting Monitoring and Complaints Commission under the leadership of this fine man and I witnessed the “fountain within” this soul.

Like Ali who valued deep friendships, Browde was a great raconteur and could regale his friends with fascinating stories of personal incidents.

He had a smooth, deep and enthralling voice and he spoke with eloquence on any topic. When he chaired a meeting he did so with a lax focus. We certainly got to the end of the meeting having covered all the items on the agenda, but we were enriched in the process by a man with a joie de vivre.

He was a great friend of Nelson Mandela whom he knew as a student when it was dangerous to acknowledge such friendship.

He told the story of how on one occasion Mandela arrived late for a tutorial and took the seat beside another white student who instantly got up and moved to the other side of the room. Jules watched this and realised what had happened. He in turn quickly went and sat in the vacated seat.

Many years later, after Mandela was released from prison, he asked Browde to organise a class reunion and to invite the guy who had done this to him. Browde tried, but much to Mandela’s disappointment the student had passed away a year earlier. When Jules enquired as to why Mandela was so keen to meet this student he replied: “Oh, I just wanted to give him the opportunity to shake my hand as the president of South Africa.”

Browde died at the age of 97 with his boots still on. Indeed he was so mentally alert that even at the age of 90 the Johannesburg City Council were signing long contracts with him, not ever wanting to let him go.

In a grand finale true to his beliefs Browde completed his last report for the Johannesburg Integrity Commission.

This remarkable man was a true grit South African who rose above race and religion to serve his country with dedication and honour. There is a need in the world for fighters like Jules Browde and Muhammad Ali. Long may their memories linger!

Courtesy: The Mercury 7th June 2016.