Westgate attack: Cape Town’s ‘gentle giant’ laid to rest

South Africa 03 Oct 2013 01:40

Cape Town’s James Thomas, 57, was one of the 67 people confirmed killed in the terror attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre. His body was returned to Cape Town last weekend for burial. At an emotional funeral service in Cape Town on Wednesday, family and friends spoke movingly of a man who seemed to touch the lives of an extraordinary number of people. By REBECCA DAVIS. Daily Maverick.

Funerals are usually occasions where the very best of a person’s character is remembered and celebrated. But even for those who never met the man, it was hard not to leave the funeral of James Thomas, gunned down at 57 years old in Al Shabaab’s 21st September terror attack, without feeling that Thomas must truly have been a remarkable human being.

The evidence of Thomas’s exceptional life was everywhere: in the over 1,300 people who packed the Bishops chapel and overflow rooms to bid him farewell; in the presence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu; in the raw emotion of those present; and in the words they used to describe him. A thinker, bridge-builder, adventurer; a stiller of storms and an owner of dodgy cars.

“He really spent his entire life working for others,” a man sighed before the service began. Shaking his head, he said: “He was just a mensch.”

James Thomas was born and bred in the city his family had lived in for three centuries, Cape Town. A lifetime abhorrence of violence led him to become a conscientious objector to compulsory Apartheid military service, and a keen awareness of social injustice saw him devote most of his life to attempting to help lift others out of poverty through a vast range of business and entrepreneurship training schemes.

Thomas had a particular empathy for the situation of the unemployed. His longtime friend and business partner, Margie Worthington-Smith, said on Wednesday that he had experienced unemployment himself in the 1980s, and she recalled the thick file of his job applications and subsequent rejections that filled up depressingly. “So he went out and made his own contribution,” Worthington-Smith said.

Thomas founded the Triple Trust Organisation, an NGO dedicated to “the alleviation of poverty in South Africa through making markets work for the poor”. But though he was involved in many diverse projects, his speciality lay in developing business training tools. The most successful of these was a business skills programme called ‘BEST (Business Expenses Savings Training) Game’, which won numerous development awards. Developed in Khayelitsha, it is now licensed worldwide and used in 75 countries.

Worthington-Smith said that Thomas recently found out that the tool had been used by 1,100 Chinese trainers to teach 4,5 million learners. Of these, 85% had started businesses, each employing around five people. Thomas phoned Worthington-Smith with enormous excitement and pride to say that he had done the maths, and it appeared that over 11 million Chinese people had been impacted by his Khayelitsha-developed training tool.

Another of Thomas’s successful projects saw small-scale farmers in townships like Nyanga and Khayelitsha bring their excess produce into Cape Town’s more affluent kitchens. His now well-established ‘Harvest of Hope’ scheme sees Southern Suburbs dwellers buy vegetable boxes weekly from primarily women-run micro-farming groups. The project, it seems, had all the hallmarks of a Thomas idea: a way to bridge divides between communities while providing income and occupation for those in need.

The words “visionary” and “genius” were heard several times in the course of Wednesday’s funeral. Thomas once mastered a complex programming language overnight, Worthington-Smith recalled. When Microsoft Excel arrived on the scene, he became adept “instantly”. He was a “veritable encyclopaedia”, with expertise in a surprising array of subjects – “he was an excellent seamstress,” Worthington-Smith said, to laughter.

Not all of Thomas’s schemes worked out. Reverend David Meldrum said he was struck by the fact that Thomas’s CV included a section titled “Nice Ideas I Tried That Didn’t Work Out”. One of them was a plan to introduce airships with tour guides and musicians, to take tourists all over Cape Town. He had neglected to consider Cape Town’s wind problem.

“Honestly, who puts failures on his CV?” Meldrum chuckled. “If you knew James, you had almost certainly been exposed to one of his mad ideas.”

But aside from his entrepreneurial energy, his family and friends also remembered a man who loved fun and laughter. “There’s always an excuse for a party,” was one of his catch-phrases. His son-in-law, Scott Lee-Jones, said that Thomas would never allow a family birthday to go by uncelebrated without fairy-lights and a crazy dress-up theme. Thomas “could bodysurf any wave he chose…until his belly hit the sand,” Lee-Jones said. He never missed a choir performance of his two daughters, Julie and Sarah, or a rugby fixture of his nephew, Sipho, who lives with the family. He used to say that he loved his wife, Colleen, “pathologically”.

Thomas was in Nairobi on the weekend of the Westgate attack because he was carrying out entrepreneurship training for young Kenyans. Kenya was just one of the African countries in which he worked. He had wandered away from his friends in the mall when the attack started, and is thought to have been one of the first to be killed. Lee-Jones told journalists after the service that the final autopsy revealed that Thomas had been shot four times.

Thomas was so renowned within his community for his ability as a peacemaker that his sister, Mary-Jean Thomas-Johnson, told the funeral that during the anxious hours after the shooting when the family was unsure of Thomas’ fate, they hoped he might be negotiating with the terrorists. But even Thomas’s inimitable spirit could not safeguard him against the Al-Shabaab shooters.

“As I stand here today I do not intend to preserve my dignity and reputation,” his wife, Colleen, told the packed chapel. “I do not intend to pretend that the murder of James has not rocked my entire world.” She was filled, she said, with anger. “The death of James and so many others is evil and we have the right to be angry about this.” Colleen Thomas asked the audience to join her in a shout of “NO!” – a lament, she called it, for James.

But Colleen said too that she was deeply moved by the outpouring of support for her family since the shooting, which she said had come from every corner of the globe. “Instead of accepting that this was yet another senseless murder, we must move on to recognising his life’s work,” she said.

The Thomas family had said in advance that it was important to them to have an interdenominational presence at the funeral. The Imam of the Claremont Main Road Mosque, Dr Rashied Omar, was on hand to deliver the condolences of the Muslim community and to condemn the “unconscionable and inexcusable” attack at Westgate. “We need to use this tragic moment to recommit ourselves to working even harder at educating our communities with regard to the need to affirm each other’s full human dignity and to respect the sanctity of life irrespective of religious affiliation,” Omar said.

Omar concluded his message with Islamic words of sorrow and condolence to the family. He was embraced by Reverend Liz Thomas – James Thomas’s sister – and the audience rose to its feet in applause.

Several representatives of the Kenyan community were also present. Robert Wanjohi, of a diasporic organisation called WaKenya Pamoja (‘Kenyans Together’) told journalists after the service that they felt it important to attend. “For us here in Cape Town, the Kenyans, we felt so sad about what happened in our backyard,” Wanjohi said. “This attack happened to all of us. We can unite again.”

More than one friend and family member of Thomas’ said that, driven by his strong religious faith and his personal belief in the power of reconciliation, Thomas would have been able to forgive the Westgate attackers. What would Thomas’s likely response to Westgate have been? a journalist asked his son-in-law, Scott Lee-Jones.

“He would’ve wept, and then he would have gone out to find people to hug,” Lee-Jones replied. DM