Funani George Nqoko, 58, set up an advice office in the tiny, isolated Eastern Cape town of Khowa (formerly Elliot) in a building that had no electricity and was freezing cold.
As an experienced paralegal who returned to the area after decades in Johannesburg, he worked mostly without pay for 11 years to expand the advice office and organise the townspeople against poverty, injustice, the lack of municipal services and many of the other problems found in rural towns.
Funani died on 15 July after a long illness, leaving behind two adult children and a large extended family.
He was born on 22 August 1962 in nearby Barkly East, about 200km inland from Mthatha. His family of farm workers moved to Khowa and he grew up on a white-owned commercial farm, Ola.
He lived the harsh life of a Black child on a white-owned farm under apartheid, saying before his death that he grew up seeing his mother banned by the farmer from brewing umqombothi (traditional beer). She would brew it only when the farmer was away and if he returned earlier than expected, would race outside to tip it into the bushes.
Funani’s father was frequently made to work at night, repairing and thatching the roof of the farmhouse without knowing how much he would be paid. Young Funani witnessed the “baas” tossing his father a few coins for his hard work.
Funani was often made to spend his day pouring pesticides on crops by hand from a bottle rather than attend school. His sister died in her 30s from suspected pesticide poisoning, after a lifetime spent working in the farm’s greenhouses, spraying pesticides with no protective gear.
Funani was enrolled in Matanzima High School in Cala, about 40km away, as a teenager. He moved to Johannesburg as an adult and worked on a gold mine, in a butchery and at several non-profit organisations. Life did not improve for his family members on the farm in Khowa after apartheid ended.
The ANC government bought the farm and under a land restitution scheme transferred it to a new Black owner who immediately evicted the family and banned them from visiting their ancestral graves.
At the time of his death, Funani still was engaged in a years-long battle with the government over the land. He wanted access to his family’s ancestral graves and a section of the farm to be given back to his oldest relative who had lived there, Nolinette Nqoko, 90.
At Funani’s funeral at his RDP house in Khowa on 25 July, his aunt Anne Nqoko recalled their life on the farm. “I married into the family when Funani was a teenager. He was a kind and loving person, always willing to help. There was no rice at the time and I made a lot of cornbread for Funani, up until he became a young man and went to initiation school and then moved to Johannesburg.
“We are very sad to have lost Funani. I am a widow and work on another farm, and even now he was assisting all farm workers in this area,” she said.
Advocating for the people
Funani moved back to Khowa in 2009 to set up the advice office, which was unfunded for most of the years that he worked there as the town’s paralegal. Funani described his work as advocating for anyone who faced injustice, especially vulnerable people ignored by the government and denied their rights because they were assumed to be powerless.
He took the cases of people with disabilities who had been denied health services and grants, impoverished families living in mud houses when they should have been given a government house, farm workers facing illegal evictions, young adults entitled to the Covid-19 special relief of distress grant who had not succeeded in getting it and many others. He also organised campaigns and protests outside the magistrate’s court to demand that rapists be denied bail.
Funani was lauded at his funeral as a true hero of the struggle, one who had worked not for headlines but in the spirit of self-sacrifice and commitment. Funani’s colleague at the Elliot Advice Office, fellow paralegal Babalwa Metzlar, described how Funani would not stop working even if he didn’t have a cent to his name.
“Funani was always walking everywhere, so he was quite effective. He would wake up and walk the 6km to community meetings and walk back home much later,” Metzlar said.
The advice office administrator, Lindiwe Rangana, said, “Funani helped many people who have been fired from work. When he died, he left the office in a good place. Although we don’t have funding, we continue doing the good work.”
When Funani met people who hated injustice as much as he did, he drew them into his circle and would send WhatsApp voice notes describing his vision for the people of Khowa, and dishing out advice about life, family and community organising. He was always advocating for a mass housing rollout in Khowa so that those living in shacks and mud houses in the winter snow could have a decent life. His main vision was to commandeer disused buildings to turn them into shelters for children, elderly residents and people with disabilities who had been abandoned.
His voice notes always ended with him proposing a solution to the problem he had just discussed. In one, Funani spoke of the importance of reading and organising. “I always say you must read, you must take a book and understand your rights, what the Constitution says, and then you will be knowledgeable. Form those forums and fight anything that is wrong. Start something for yourselves and don’t wait, come together even if you are only three people.”
Funani also spoke about how to balance family and activist life. “Families who grew up in poverty can experience a little bit of jealousy and other things, but I can’t help the community at large whereas my family is divided and suffering. You start at home and build unity among the family. For any problem there is a solution. People are talking and talking, there is no action. If we can come together as a group, there is nothing impossible, we can do anything. People will cry about the ANC, but what are they doing about it?”
In another voice note, Funani praised the young, unemployed men of the area for upholding Xhosa cultural practices during times of hardship. “What I like about them is when there is a funeral, they will go and dig the graves, in the way that we do for any family. At night, those boys are patrolling to catch people who are doing wrong things. So why can’t we build toilets for each other? We could also have a group to check on all the grannies around and then assist with all the things that are essential for that area. We don’t have to wait for the government,” he said.
Much loved and respected
“Funani woke up in the morning and thought about his family, which was everyone in Elliot,” said his friend Lavona George, from the Eastern Cape social justice collective the C19 People’s Coalition. “He thought about it all day and he went to sleep with that on his mind and in his heart. He never referred to himself as an elder, but he was the wise grandfather and grandmother of the community. He was not paternalistic, he was a good, loving, kind, caring, considerate human being. He had no frills, he was just very sincere. We could really do with more people like him who make the world a really beautiful place.”
“Funani was my great friend,” said his neighbour Michael Faro at the funeral. “I had to ask him for electricity as I don’t have an electric box, and he readily connected me with an extension cord. We shared a lot of jokes when we had a few dops. He always advised me to stay home when drinking or I would be mugged if I went out. When I was mugged later after drinking, he said, ‘I told you so.’”
Solomzi Ntungwa, an activist from Phola Park in Khowa, described Funani as “a committed ground force who had a deep love for the poor people. I learnt that he knows every corner where injustices are taking place in the farms and is genuinely desiring for his people. A very down-to-earth father.”
Funani leaves much work to be completed. He was frustrated constantly during his lifetime by the behaviour of officials from the Sakhisizwe municipality and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.
“They just leave a lot of cases unattended,” he said in a voice note. “There are cases where women are evicted from farms and there is nothing that happens. They don’t have electricity or water and the municipality doesn’t care.”
But as usual, Funani ended his voice note with a solution: “We will go little by little,” he said, meaning that if he and other activists continued to organise, he was certain they would bring about change.