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Jabisile Selby Semela, anti-apartheid activist, dies

Jabisile Selby Semela, a South African activist who later became a caddie, died Aug. 22 after a brief illness. The Columbia, Md., resident was 60.

Though a political exile by age 18, Mr. Semela had a quiet, unassuming manner and his dramatic biography was long a mystery to many who knew him at the Caves Valley Golf Club, where he worked up until a few weeks before his death.

“His back story was pretty crazy,” said Brian Heubeck, the club’s caddie master, who only learned of Mr. Semela’s past by Googling him. “If he was an American, it would be in the history books.”

Born in Soweto, South Africa, Mr. Semela devoted many years of his life working to abolish apartheid, which had became law 10 years before he was born on Jan. 23, 1958. In an era of white supremacy, Mr. Semela was inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement, which he described in a recent interview as a “philosophy of blackness, knowing yourself.”

While a student at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto, Mr. Semela protested the Bantu education system, which mandated that blacks study manual labor instead of intellectual fields. Additionally, a 1974 law mandated the black students take classes in Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch.

“Can you imagine going to school and not being taught in your native language?” asked Peter Maller, a fellow South African who came to know Mr. Semela at Caves Valley.

In 1976, Mr. Semela helped organize a protest in Soweto to oppose the new law. What began as a peaceful student demonstration turned violent after police fired on protesters. From 150 to 700 people were killed in the ensuing months. Mr. Semela said he and other organizers felt “horrible” in the aftermath of what came to be known as the Soweto Uprising. “What had we done? People had died. That was not the plan.”

But they continued to agitate, even blowing up train stations and traffic lights in furtherance of a “Stay-Away,” or general strike, in protest of police violence.

Fearing that his presence in the country was endangering his family, Mr. Semela and his friends fled South Africa for Botswana by dressing as priests. He later moved to London and was eventually granted asylum in the United States.

While living in Oakland, Calif., Mr. Semela became a voice of the anti-apartheid movement from the United States. He advocated for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the apartheid government, and helped to persuade corporations, churches and pension funds to withdraw from South Africa.

Mr. Semela later told an interviewer that he found Americans to be very receptive to the cause. “I was in awe of all the time and effort that Americans were putting into the effort — it was amazing to me. That I had something to do with motivating that was something to be proud of.”

Apartheid came to an end in 1994, and the following year, Mr. Semela returned to his mother country for the first time.

It was around 13 years ago that Mr. Semela began to work at Caves Valley. One of the members he caddied for was Mr. Maller, who was, like him, from South Africa, albeit from a very different background.

Mr. Maller recalled at first feeling a sense of guilt after Mr. Semela became his caddie. “It was almost as if nothing had changed,” he said. Having grown up white in apartheid South Africa, he now had a black South African caddie carrying his golf clubs for him, at a golf club where many caddies were black.

But the two forged a friendship over the four and half hours that Mr. Maller spent on the course every week, and Mr. Maller looked forward to their time together. Mr. Semela was so gentle, Mr. Maller said, “you almost couldn’t imagine him being in an environment where he was helping to blow up bridges and railroad tracks” as he did during the Soweto Uprising.

Mr. Heubeck agreed. “It was kinda crazy like, wow. …This guy, he’s kind of a legend and you’d never know the way he was around all of us.”

When Caves Valley closed for the winter months, Mr. Semela returned to visit South Africa with his wife, Mary.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Semela is survived by his brother, Tumelo; his sons, Linda Mathe of Soweto, South Africa, Rise of Baltimore, Naledi of New York City and Mohapi of Naples, Fla.; and several grandchildren and aunts. A celebration of life will be held Sept. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Francis of Assisi Church on Harford Road.

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