ISHMAEL MKHABELA holds many titles, but one that sits close to his heart is “community organiser”.

Ishmael Mkhabela and MMC for housing, Ruby Mathang during a housing handover in TurffonteinIshmael Mkhabela and MMC for housing, Ruby Mathang during a housing handover in Turffontein
Meeting Mkhabela at a popular restaurant, he describes a community organiser as “a person who gets leaders to come together and engage in meaningful conversation on issues surrounding the community”.

Mkhabela won the Stan Nkosi Achievement Award in this year’s Johannesburg Development Agency’s Halala Joburg Awards on 12 May. He won it in the category of Believing in Joburg.

Asked what the award means to him, he philosophically answers: “As a community organiser it’s hard to take credit as I only act as a catalyst to parties resolving issues but the award is a celebration of associations, friendships and contacts that have made me a better person and have contributed to making Joburg great.”

Mkhabela, who has been on leave for a while after falling and breaking his leg, amputated when he was young, in two places, adds: “I have not been working full time since 2008 after I fell at home but I’m the type that will never retire, that’s why most of my work is freelance right now.

“Right now I’m concentrating on the Central Inner City Johannesburg Coalition, the National Business Initiative, the Johannesburg Social Housing Company (Joshco), the Steve Biko Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund,” he says.

“I’ve done so much that right now my work is not operational but more about delegating.”

The founder and former chief executive of the Interfaith Community Development Association (ICDA), Mkhabela is also the chairperson of Joshco and holds numerous other positions at other organisations. Since 1999, the ICDA has promoted broad-based relational community organising and community conflict resolution in South Africa.

Daughter Ntsako Mkhabela accept the Stan Nkosi Achievement Award for 2010 on behalf of her father Daughter Ntsako Mkhabela accept the Stan Nkosi Achievement Award for 2010 on behalf of her father
Those who have crossed paths with this selfless individual affectionately call him Bra Ish. He is not only a community organizer, but also played a role in the liberation struggle. He was the founder of the Soweto Action Committee in 1977 and was the founding chairperson of the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) in 1978. He became the president of Azapo in 1984 but relinquished the position a year later to work closely with the community.

He recalls an incident at the funeral of Robert Sobukwe, the first president of the Pan Africanist Congress, where he was accused of swearing at the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Mangosuthu Buthelezi. “We were at the funeral of Sobukwe when along with Allan Boesak and Helen Suzman, [I] was accused of swearing at Buthelezi … I confronted 22 men at a house in Diepkloof in Soweto after I heard they were planning to come kill me, but after I engaged them in dialogue, we came to an agreement and my safety was assured,” he says.

“In the end, Azapo and the Black Consciousness groups never had direct confrontation with the IFP,” he says with much resolve.

From the United Democratic Front and Azapo feuds; from hostel dwellers in Joburg feuding with communities; and taking over hijacked buildings in the inner city, Mkhabela’s work has always involved an element of danger.

“I understand it’s reality that people die but there is no reason to fear death, one just needs to respect life and live it to the fullest,” he says.

“I remember when we had to take over the running of Lake Success and Cresthill in Hillbrow from slumlords and my colleagues feared for their lives. I went to the building and upon entry I was accosted by five males with guns who wanted to know what I wanted there. I looked at all of them straight in the eye, introduced myself and told them I’m not there to fight them but to talk to them and improve their living conditions.

Decent housing is an abiding passion for Ishmael MkhabelaDecent housing is an abiding passion for Ishmael Mkhabela
“Their leader was from Limpopo, not far from my birth place so we related and just like that we resolved the issue and Lake Success and Cresthill have never been the same again.”

Mkhabela reiterates that being a community organiser has nothing to do with how learned you are: “It’s not about how bright you are but how you relate to people you are trying to resolve the issue with. There are three types of people when negotiating: hostile, neutral and positive – so you need to establish the positive ones and try to command their respect.”

While working at the Inner City Office, Mkhabela realised along with others that there was a need for accountability regarding who was responsible for the development of the city. “There was no agency that was supposed to deal solely with the development of the city and that’s how the Johannesburg Development Agency came to the fore.”

Mkhabela has conquered many obstacles in his life; not least was having his leg amputated below the knee, when he was 13 years old. “To be disabled is a challenge but you first need to liberate the mind. Once the mind is liberated you transcend the disability.”

He grew up in Chiawelo in Soweto and is a married father of two daughters and a son. “I got married late, at the age of 31 in July 1964. You know back in those days a guy would be married by 22,” he laughs, before adding sadly: “I had two sons but Lindokuthle passed away while visiting his aunt in a fire when he was still a kid.”

While he might be reducing the number of projects in his diary, there are still some big plans in it. “We are working on building the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. This will be for children in need of specialised medical care. It’s a partnership between the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, the Red Cross and Wits University.”

There seems to be no stopping this leader, achiever and fighter for basic living conditions for the citizens of Joburg, even in his early 60s. Halala Ishmael Mkhabela, halala.

Story: City of Johannesburg