When writing this to thank Willie Simmers, known as Uncle Willie, who has retired as co-ordinator from the Mitchell’s Plain Community Advice and Development Project after more than 30 years, I thought of a quote: “There is no greater purpose than service to others”.
I met Uncle Willie in my youth days in the 1980s, and from this time until now, I have known him to live this quote.
In the 1970s, shortly after moving to Rocklands, Uncle Willie was part of various campaigns in Rocklands, and the broader Mitchell’s Plain. These include the electricity campaign in 1979, the bus campaign in the 1980s, the anti-VAT campaign in the early 1990s, and so on. He spent hours in meetings planning these campaigns, without expecting any remuneration for his time or his petrol.
Uncle Willie was and still is, the person that will stop his car in pouring rain because a drain is blocked, or traffic lights are not working and he would then call the council as soon as he got to a phone to have it fixed.
As youth, we used to call him our unofficial councillor, as any issue that affected the residents in Mitchell’s Plain, he would fight for, which led to the formation of the Rocklands Ratepayers’ Association with other comrades.
His involvement in various campaigns led to his detention in the 1980s, and he spent months at Muizenberg police station cells, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster (now Drakenstein Prison) as a political prisoner, fighting not only for the rights of people in Mitchell’s Plain, but the whole of South Africa under the banner of the United Democratic Front (UDF).
This month we are celebrating 38 years of the formation of the UDF in Rocklands on August 20 in 1983. Uncle Willie played a key role in mobilisation for the launch and was a key leader of the UDF in Mitchell’s Plain.
He was imprisoned with the late Dullah Omar, Joe Marks and Wilfred Rhodes, among others. These deceased leaders were part of the UDF Western Cape leadership.
Prison did not scare him – rather it strengthened his commitment to the people of Mitchell’s Plain, and he continued through various structures, including the UDF, the Cape Housing Action Committee (CAHAC) and the Rocklands Ratepayers’ Association.
Uncle Willie became involved in the Mitchell’s Plain Advice Office in 1991, which later became the Mitchell’s Plain Community Advice and Development Project. The advice office opened its offices in the turbulent apartheid years of the 1980s and played a critical role in helping schoolchildren arrested during the anti-apartheid Struggle, with legal representation. This was accompanied with educating them about their rights to enable them to protect themselves from abuse of power by the police, which was the norm during that time.
The advice office was always at the forefront of the struggles of the Mitchell’s Plain community. People facing evictions from the City of Cape Town would be assisted by the advice office will legal representation. When domestic violence raised its ugly head in Mitchell’s Plain at levels unprecedented, the advice office formed Crisis Line as a separate organisation to focus on the new scourge that was then and even more now, breaking down the fabric of our society. Paralegal support to the Mitchell’s Plain community was and still is the backbone of the advice office’s offerings.
Under Uncle Willie the advice office struck a partnership with the Department of Labour to educate workers and unemployed workers on their rights – the advice office currently runs that same labour education programme with the Department of Employment and Labour as it’s known now.
Uncle Willie retired at the end of July. He was an institution in the paralegal community and a legend to many young paralegal practitioners.
When news of Uncle Willie’s retirement broke, there was a floodgate of messages of thanksgiving, congratulations and good wishes from South Africans and the world on social media. These include messages from Deputy Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Mcebisi Skwatsha: “Wow one of the people that mattered most. Humble grassroots, hard worker. Uncle Willie enjoy your retirement, gentle giant”. High Commissioner Carmen Smidt, South African ambassador to Finland and Estonia, said: “Enjoy your retirement Uncle Willie. Thank you for your many years of service”. Artist, poet and author Tyrone Appollis posted: “Brudda Willie. My wife and I will never eva forget your selfless role u played in the Mitchells Plain community. For me you have won the best reward, A LIFE LIVED FOR OTHERS” (sic).
Brian Alcock, co-ordinator of the Athlone District Advice Office said: “All the best Uncle Willie. Thanks for your dedication and service to the advice office movement over many years. Yes the Mitchell’s Plain Advice Office will never be the same.” Reverend Michael Wheeder, the Dean of St George’s Anglican Cathedral, said: “Rest easy compadre Willie in the shade of the tree of freedom that you helped grow. Even though this tree is often shaken of late, you numbered amongst those who lead by example.” Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, posted: “Nice to see my old comrade from Community House days. Enjoy your retirement, but they will always need advice. Keep strong.”
On behalf of the management and the Board of the Mitchell’s Plain Community Advice and Development Project, we want to say a huge thank you to Willie Simmers for his dedicated service to the advice office and the Mitchell’s Plain community at large.
• Jerimia Thuynsma is the chairperson of the Board of the Mitchell’s Plain Community Advice and Development Project.