Tribute to Ambassador Billy Modise by L N Sisulu, MP, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Tuesday 26th June 2018, O R Tambo Building, Pretoria

The Family of Ambassador Billy Modise
Honourable Ministers and Deputy Ministers,
Your Excellencies, Ambassadors and High Commissioners,
The Leadership of DIRCO,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

I would like, on behalf of our government and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to thank all of you who have come to share their grief with us and mourn with the family. We thank you also for taking time to use this opportunity to enlighten South Africans about this somewhat reserved, but amazing son of our country.

Our profound condolences to the family of our leader and colleague, Ambassador Billy Modise. As you have heard from all the speakers, your pain and grief is our own pain and grief. It is with deepest sense of loss that we come together here now, in our case for the fifth memorial service in as many months to pay tribute to one of our leaders, one of our finest, the eminent Ambassador, Mr Billy Modise. President Ramaphosa declared a Special Official Funeral (category 1) for Ambassador Billy Modise, an honour bestowed upon distinguished persons by the President and indeed befitting a recipient of the National Order of Luthuli.

This is very hard as it comes fast on the heels of the departures of other outstanding leaders of our struggle and servants of our people and diplomats – Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Zola Skweyiya, George Nene, Faith Radebe and Eddie Funde.

We, all of us have heard speaker after speaker emphasising the invaluable lessons we have learned from Ambassador Billy Modise. And I hope and trust that many of us will carry these lessons forever and pass them on to the next generation. We will endeavour to live up to the ethos and dedication, hard work, honesty and selflessness that defined this great leader of our country. He had the composure of a sage – no, better put, he had the characteristic composure of the sage that he was. He possessed an extraordinary calm passion which many a time helped him to discharge the necessary accuracy of expression and judgement on very complex issues.

He had the distinct ability to listen intently to everyone; to each and every conversation, even what may, to some, be deemed boring exchanges. He never hurried anyone with pompous zeal or an air of superiority, even to the most inarticulate expressions. In his cool and calm way, he was endowed with an eye of reason that penetrated seemingly hard and unbreakable edifices.

In his interactions he never assumed that nature had made any distinction between human beings – between the highly and the lowly, the mighty and the weak, the royalty and the ordinary; the imperial and the commoner. Thus, through his down-to-earth, self-effacing manner, he became the leader of all of us. In fact, everyone felt so very special in his presence. On the other hand, being the kind of man that he was, everyone who felt special, was indeed special to him. But one thing is certain, he had the talent to make it so.

Behind this absence of arrogance lay a firm character, a solid soul that made him to be an unfaltering, unwavering and committed freedom fighter. Behind this congenial personality was a reliable, meticulous and steadfast perfectionist who drew even the most snobbish and arrogant people to mellow and follow his instructions.

In Ambassador Modise we all appreciated and still appreciate a generation that exuded the superiority of knowledge, wisdom and virtue. Uncle Billy, as he was fondly called by us, joined the ANC when the vibrant students of Fort Hare answered the clarion call to join the ranks of the struggling masses of South Africa. From then on, he never spared himself. He refused to be a bystander when legions of apartheid armed policemen continued to spill more blood of the innocent and defenceless oppressed people; when his people continued to wallow in grinding poverty and wretchedness; when the wealth of his beloved country continued to make whites super rich when his own people, his neighbours and friends were condemned to perpetual destitution.

Uncle Billy left the country, responding to the call from the ANC for the youth of that time to seek better and more effective ways to challenge the brutality of the apartheid regime and respond resolutely so as to speed-up the liberation of our people. As part of his responsibilities, he tirelessly mobilised, especially the Nordic countries to be the true partners of our liberation struggle. Thus, his efforts ensured that a very bitter and difficult struggle had to make critical and necessary advances towards freedom.

As Chief of State Protocol, Ambassador Modise effortlessly enhanced the prestige and standing of our country to great eminence. In him other countries saw a South Africa that was confident without being arrogant. A country that exhibited a true spirit of humanity and which was a natural ally for a world that must attain peace, stability, democracy and prosperity for all its citizens.

We all know today we are poorer with the passing on of our leader, our father, our uncle, our comrade and our colleague as we face the many challenges that lie ahead. Let us find solace and inspiration in the words: “The Hero dies, but his memory lives on”.

The national poet S.K. Mqhayi wrote a seminal poem about the sinking of the Mendi. He addressed the poem to the deaths of South African soldiers en route to Germany to fight in World War I.  In one line, paraphrased, he writes that South Africa sent its finest sons to wage this war and thus sacrificed them.  He asks a rhetorical question if we had not sacrificed them, who else would have qualified for this task and national assignment? In our context we sent the finest of us into exile, to academic institutions abroad, into the diplomatic environment as ANC representatives, to the diplomatic world of a new democratic state, to our protocol section to teach all and sundry, from presidents and kings to ordinary persons what to do and what not to do and how to do it and how not to do it.

Fate protected him from the hazards of exile, diligence cushioned him from the evil hand of apartheid assassins and divine providence lifted him out of the perils of life and allowed him to serve us with distinction. We thank him dearly for walking in our midst keeping a vigil watch over us and his movement.

Ambassador Modise’s personality and character were well suited to his diplomatic calling. A gentleman par excellence, who combined the rare traits of a skilful negotiator with those of an astute activist. A diligent man with the master's touch. A Picasso in the art of diplomacy with his gentle hand. A humanist, an internationalist, a devout father and a loving husband. He was an all-in-one, extremely gifted and yet so humble.

A true public servant of immense resolve to serve and to make a lasting difference in the lives of those that he touched.  Ambassador Modise had a profound presence about him yet soft spoken and unassuming. He did not have to be loud to be heard nor did he have to stand on roof tops to be seen. 

We are weakened by his death, but through his work he has given rise to a new generation of young people who would hopefully emulate his life. It would be in our national interest if we could succeed in producing a few more Billy Modise’s as dedicated as he was to serve others and to serve his nation.

There are few people who are well suited to the calling of their tasks and there are even fewer people who fit the mantle of Ambassador Modise.  He was good to a fault. Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, later turned into a popular song, had him in mind when he wrote;

"Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.  As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story”.

This freedom that we so much cherish derives much from the sacrifices of Ambassador Modise’s and the many, many toils of his generation.

Uncle Billy was one of a galaxy of stars who played a key role in the evolution of our Foreign Policy under the overall guidance of OR Tambo.  Led by Johny Makhathini and later Thabo Mbeki, this team orchestrated the isolation of apartheid South Africa, its expulsion from the United Nations and the declaration of apartheid as a crime against humanity. Even though, by his own admission, he struggled with the resort to arms, Uncle Billy was nonetheless at all times always guided by a firm understanding of the complex interaction and the mutually supportive nature of the four pillars of our struggle for liberation.

His work in Sweden and the broader Nordic community, well covered by previous speakers, will always stand out as having been pivotal in forging a formidable partnership with the Nordics in the global anti-apartheid solidarity movements. Uncle Billy loved Sweden and spoke Swedish fluently. He understood what Nelson Mandela meant 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 language that goes to his heart.” And we have heard today how he had launched himself into the hearts of the people of Sweden.

As the outstanding diplomat that he was, Uncle Billy’s ties to the sister people of Namibia ran deep.  He worked at the Namibia Institute in Lusaka where he became part of preparing many Namibian leaders who are now playing key roles in reconstructing their country.

One of the first assignments he had to undertake in post-apartheid democratic South Africa was as its High Commissioner to Canada in 1995. It was while he was in Canada that I personally experienced the humility of this hard working man. Within a short while after being appointed as chairperson of Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, we discovered that we needed to have some framework around which to create our work of oversight over the intelligence services. Nothing of that nature existed in South Africa, as you can expect. We learned that there was one institution that was legislated to have oversight over intelligence services and that was the Canadian Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Intelligence.

As Chairperson I wrote to Ambassador Modise and requested him to arrange for us to meet with the committee and the rest was as only Uncle Billy could do it. He responded to the letter on the same day! Two weeks later he had already made the arrangements and a month later our committee was in Canada. What efficiency and that was long before emails and the modern technology. This was the first time that we as a committee, grappling with oversight over the intelligence services, representing the NP, IFP, DP and the ANC, amongst others were together. We still harboured our prejudices and we in the ANC stuck together. The rest remained “the others”.

Comrade Billy invited all of us to his house for dinner and to our shock and consternation, treated us all equally, while right through the trip we were looking at the NP as the enemy. Yet there he was, treating the enemy with the necessary courtesy and even seating all of us at the same table. I can confirm that this was the first time that we spoke to the NP members as colleagues, as opposed to the enemy. He helped us break barriers that would have impeded us doing our work. The white people on the committee fell in love with him and began to see us through him as reasonable people. This was an invaluable lesson in the creation of democracy. Only Uncle Billy could create such an environment so early on in post liberated South Africa among people who occupied trenches on opposite sides. Although this was his first assignment as High Commissioner, he was perfection itself in that post.

Of course Uncle Billy’s most shining moments upon return from Canada were as Chief of State Protocol. In a calm, humble and unassuming way he projected the aspirational values of our new country.  He was humane and caring.  A man of deep conviction and patriotism. He loved his country and her people.  So too was his love for life.  One never shy to be the first to grace a dance floor.  That was the Uncle Billy we loved!

A proud African Patriot.  A pan Africanist who would always urge us from the beyond to understand how inextricably linked we are to this continent.  He would urge us to see the advancement of Africa as the centerpiece of our work. He understood that our pride in ourselves is a precondition for the respect we expect others to show us.  We should never betray this vision as we continue to advance our system of international relations.

We share the loss of our beloved brother and comrade with his family. We know yours is a deeper felt pain and greater loss but be consoled for the life he has given to his movement and his country. On the occasion like this Africans advised the bereaved to sleep on the very wound in order to accentuate healing.

On behalf of our government and particularly this department, let us thank his dearest wife Sis Yoli and most beloved daughter Thandi for their fortitude.  Sis Yoli, we know that without your love, care and support we would not have met the Uncle Billy we are talking about today. Thank you for selflessly giving us time with your husband, and Thandi with your father.

Thank you for looking after him to the end. Sis Yoli. In you Comrade Billy found the perfect wife: beautiful, articulate, political, I can go on. But what he would never have known is just how strong you are. He would be so proud of you. We are awed by your strength and love. Thandi, you are an amazing daughter. Look after Sis Yoli and we will be right behind you all the time.

I saw it befitting to dedicate to you this poem by Alora Knight:

At a time of sorrow, it is hard to believe
That the sun will once again shine.
That's when it seems you do nothing but grieve,
With all joy being left far behind.

Still, life has a way of starting anew,
A gradual moving away
From heartaches that linger, as heartaches will do,
If you will allow them to stay.

As spring returns to the Earth every year,
Bringing all of its beauty in view,
So merciful time will heal everything,
Bringing peace of mind back to you.

Know in your heart that love never dies,
No matter whatever befalls.
The only ones who never have tears in their eyes
Are those who loved no one at all.

The greater the love, the greater the loss.
Still, it's love that makes life worth living.
Few are the ones who will not bear the cost
To have shared in the joy of its giving.

Robala ka Khotso Uncle Billy.  May your soul rest in eternal peace. You fought a good fight and you have run and finished your race.

I thank you.


OR Tambo Building
460 Soutpansberg Road





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