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Thembinkosi Qondela – Sharing beautiful obituary written by Prof Leslie London

Tembi Qondela, who was a researcher in our School from 2003 to 2008, died of COVID-19 related complications in Groote Schuur Tuesday night (2 June 2020). He had developed severe infection, was admitted to Groote Schuur on Friday 29 May with pneumonia but developed thrombotic complications that were not responsive to treatment. His last hours required morphine to relieve his pain, so I can only say that I am glad his suffering is over, but I am deeply saddened at his death.

He received the best of care and the best of caring from staff at Groote Schuur and I am grateful to Graeme Meintjies and his team for the efforts they made, in face of insurmountable odds.

Tembi is marching at the launch of the People’s Health Movement Right-to-Health campaign (2007),

My deepest condolence to his family and all who knew him.

We were privileged to know someone who put his life into uplifting others.

He was a lifelong activist for social justice. Not many people who knew Tembi realise that he worked on the mines for a year in the early 1990s where he realised the importance of defending workers’ rights and the importance of health and safety at work. That experience, along with others that I am probably not aware of, might have turned on this passion for justice and worker’s rights. After moving to Cape Town, he became involved in various progressive socialist organisations, including serving as Assistant Regional Secretary for the Western Cape Unemployed Workers Union, part-time assistant librarian at both Khanya College and the Trade Union Library and Education Centre, and as Resource Coordinator and then Assistant Researcher at the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG).

His connection with UCT started in 1995 when he took up the position of adult educator and coordinator for Shawco’s Adult Education Scheme and, from 1995 to 1997, he contributed as a newswriter and member of the editorial committee for Varsity Newspaper at UCT. He then worked for the Environmental Advisory Unit at UCT and, a seasoned activist, started as administrative secretary for the Union at UCT, NEHAWU, in 1998. He subsequently took up a full time position as a Purchasing and administrative clerk in the Health Sciences Faculty. Anyone who knew Tembi would not recognise him in that role, so it was not surprising that during that time he fell foul of UCT’s then attitude to union activism. A labour dispute led to his reinstatement at UCT under conditions which required him to be deployed in a context where his skills would be better utilised. It was that set of circumstances that brought Tembi to our School of Public Health, thanks to the suggestion of Phyllis, my partner, who had met him through the Union. Tembi was initially a trainee researcher shared between our School and the Industrial Health Research Group but then stayed on as a researcher on a number of projects in the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health Research until he left in 2008.

After leaving UCT, he started an NGO to bring IT skills to young people in Khayelitsha and served as a Project Manager for the

Thembi with fellow activists

Desmond Tutu Centre at Stellenbosch University. His passion at the NGO, called Whizz ICT, was to empower young people with skills to benefit them and society. We were privileged to attend an award ceremony for his trainees at the NGO premises in Site C, Khayelitsha were we could see first hand his devotion to the young people of his area and what he was trying to do for them.

Tembi was a fiercely independent thinker willing to challenge injustice but who cared hugely for others. One example I remember well. As part of his training on pesticide risks and agricultural safety in our Department, he joined a study tour in Cuba of agroecology. On the tour he was the only black person in a group of mainly US Americans and Australians. So, when he would return to the hotel with the rest of the group, he was stopped from going on numerous occasions because he was thought to be a Cuban, since a black person couldn’t be on study tour! He experienced this as racism that he never expected to find in a socialist country. But unintimidated, he took it up with the study tour hosts, who apologised and recognised that while Cuba had made many strides in reducing inequities, it was not immune from the curse of racism. Tembi’s fierce sense of justice extended to everyone equally. I still have a mug he brought back as a gift for me, with Cuba on the side of the mug, which will always remind me of his feistiness. Being an independent thinker and feisty activist, in the last local elections he stood as an Independent candidate. Although he didn’t win, he got a lot of support.

In his personal life, he experienced much adversity. He was a survivor of MDR TB, and had heavy family responsibilities at times when he was not well off. But he did not hesitate to take in his siblings two child after they died, in addition to his two children. And while looking after his family, he also managed to devote his time to community activism. In the attached photo, Tembi is marching at the launch of the People’s Health Movement Right-to-Health campaign (2007), walking through Site C, where he lived until he died this week. An activist to the end.


About Tinashe Njanji