Text: Thando Sipuye
Photograph: Wits Historical Archives
Today, 27th July 2017, marks the 90th birthday anniversary of Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, the forgotten, ignored and erased ‘Mother of Azania’ who has endured unspeakable suffering, struggle and pain.
She will celebrate her 90th birthday, as usual, in private, at her humble home, with family and close friends. There will be no glamour, no journalists, and no live broadcast. And quite frankly, the saddest part is that most people aren’t even aware that she’s still alive.
Born Zondeni Veronica Mathe on the 27th July 1927 in Hlobane in Natal, she got married to Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe on the 6th June 1954 and, in line with African tradition and matrimonial rites of passage, she received the customary nuptial name of Nosango. She bore four children, Miliswa, Dinilesizwe, Dalindyebo and Dedanizizwe.
In her intriguing novel, ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adiche Ngozi speaks about the “danger of a single story”, questioning ideas such as the potential of a single narrative to create stereotypes and perpetuate certain erasures.
Although women are the bedrock of society, and in fact, the primary nurturers of socio-economic and political revolutions, when history is told, their stories, contributions and experiences tend to be downplayed or erased.
If, and when, the stories of women are told, only those of the popular, already well-known and overly researched about women get retold slightly differently. Only those whose activism was masked by overt theatrics attract public interest and the imagination of scholars and artists.
The erasure, silencing and neglect of Mama Sobukwe must be read and understood through this lens, exposing the broader systematic project of erasing, neglecting and silencing ordinary Black women and their experiences.
Mama Sobukwe epitomises the collective experiences of many other Black women throughout the Afrikan continent and diaspora, whose roles and contributions in the liberation struggle remain unacknowledged, written out of popular historical narratives, biographical memory and national consciousness.
Forgotten by the ignoramus oligarchs, politicians and authorities of the countries for which they and their beloved sacrificed their lives during the liberation struggle, a majority of them today rely on government pensions and grants to make ends meet.
Mama Sobukwe is a glaring example of this unforgivable shame.
She embodies the rejection of both the racist white-settler regime whom she challenged through her numerous letters to racist apartheid authorities like the then Minister of Justice, Jimmy Kruger and then Prime Minister B.J. Voster, demanding the release of her husband; as well as the current ANC government that undermines the contributions of the Sobukwe’s in the liberation struggle.
In fact today, and perhaps out of disdain for the course of history, the ANC makes concerted efforts to completely erase the name Sobukwe from public memory. Mama Sobukwe’s isolation is, therefore, no accident.
The life story of this indomitable woman is one of constant neglect, pain and erasure. She embodies the totality of the ‘serve, suffer & sacrifice’ dictum coined by her husband, Mangaliso Sobukwe and his colleagues in the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC).
The 90 years old resilient and strong ‘Mother of Azania’ who, although aged and frail, still spends time daily in her garden, is cast as an insignificant shadow of a feared man whose memory remains buried in secrecy and obscurity. She is rendered completely non-existent in her own right, she seems to have no humanity of her own, forgotten, erased and muted.
A simple Google search on Mama Sobukwe’s name tells the story of her enduring invisibility and erasure. Googling ‘Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe’ you only get three significant web-links that speak about her.
The most prominent of these is her 1997 testimony at the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) regarding the complicity of the racist white-settler regime in poisoning Sobukwe, feeding him food with glass while incarcerated, denying him medical help when he got sick until his untimely death.
Followed by a 2014 Daily Dispatch newspaper article titled “Sobukwe’s Grave Cleaned, Declared Heritage Site”, which appeared after the government renovated Sobukwe’s vandalized gravesite in Graaf-Reinet; a 2001 East Cape News article speaking about stupid vandals who hurled a raw egg stuffed into a condom at her home; and a recent Citizen newspaper article titled, “Sobukwe’s Widow Has Been Neglected”, which revealed that Mama Sobukwe relies on old-age pension grants to make ends meet.
What is common in all these web-links is that, while they mention Mama Sobukwe’s name and are related to her in some way, the actual focus of the articles is her husband, Mangaliso. She appears in all these sites merely as the ‘wife’, ‘widow’ or ‘mother’, speaking about her husband and son.
While there is nothing necessarily wrong with Mama Sobukwe speaking about her husband or son in these articles, what is more questionable, and telling at the same time, is why her own life story remains untold.
Unlike other prominent struggle stalwarts, Mama Sobukwe receives no special attention; she gets no honour, no benefits, and no assistance at all from the ANC government. Not a single official gesture of honour and recognition has ever been granted to Mama Sobukwe; no street named after her, no government orders awarded to her, no honorary university degrees conferred upon her, and no institution, except for a local old age home in Graaf-Reinet, is named in her honour.
There is not a single website entry of Mama Sobukwe’s name containing her life story, not even a Wikipedia entry with any detail of who she is. No biography of her exists in any public platform. She just does not exist. Thus, the humble and resilient ‘Mother of Azania’ is consistently rendered insignificant.
No artist has ever rendered any known piece of artwork in tribute to Mama Sobukwe; no publicly known song exists, no paintings, no graffiti, and no book. It was only the sage Eskia Mphahlele who penned a poem titled “Tribute to Zodwa Veronica, A Great Woman”. All others have seen and felt no need to honour this noble woman whose life sacrifice deserves praise.
But rest assured, when the inevitable happens and Mama Sobukwe joins her late husband and Ancestors, all the voracious hypocrites will, in the grand opportunistic posture, want to celebrate her. They will all jump, race and compete to have a say on her and praise her. Tributes will pour from all sides; but this, of course, only when she dies.
I hope the Sobukwe family rejects all of them, their shady gestures and offers, with the contempt they deserve when that time comes.
While it is understandable that the ANC government would ignore and side-line Mama Sobukwe as they do her husband, what is deeply saddening is why PAC leaders and members (without ignoring the troubles ravaging the organization), as well as Black intellectuals in general, have also taken no interest in telling and recording her life story for posterity?
Mama Sobukwe fiercely challenged the then Minister of Justice, Balthazar Johannes Voster, about the conditions surrounding the incarceration of her husband on Robben Island, requesting several meetings which were never honoured. Instead, Voster referred Mama Sobukwe to the then Minister of Justice, Petrus Cornelius Pelser, who in turn maintained the status quo, rejecting all her appeals.
As a health practitioner and an activist in her own right, she single-handedly advocated for the release of Robert Sobukwe from Robben Island, bringing his deteriorating health to the fore. She wrote several letters to the white supremacist government demanding his release. And when all her efforts failed, she appealed to Voster to allow Sobukwe to leave South Africa permanently on an exit permit together with his family. Voster refused, and Mama Sobukwe asked that she be allowed to stay on Robben Island with Sobukwe, to oversee his health herself. Of course, the racist Voster refused.
And what of Sobukwe’s children, they who’ve suffered in silence along with their now 90 years old mother from birth till now: Miliswa (she who is rooted), Dinilesizwe (sacrifice of the nation), Dalindyebo (creator of wealth) and Dedanizizwe (move, you nations)?
Their memory too is forgotten. Their pain, their suffering and their struggles of growing up without a father are also rendered insignificant, bearing no potency, no currency and no attraction to a single historian, journalist or biographer. The death of one of Mama Sobukwe’s twin sons, Dalindyebo, is not registered on any public platform; his, too, was an insignificant death.
The dreadful pain and suffering the Sobukwe family continues to endure goes unrecorded. But more so, the suffering of Mama Sobukwe, whose once lecturer husband’s estate, properties and legacy she has benefitted little-to-nothing from.
In an effort to give voice to Mama Sobukwe, the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust, in partnership with the Blackhouse Kollective, will host a tribute lecture in her honour during Women’s Month at the Mofolo Arts Centre on Saturday, 12th August 2017.
We wish Mama Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe divine blessings as she celebrates 90 years of struggle, suffering and sacrifice.
Thando Sipuye is an Afrikan historian and a social scientist. He is an executive member of The Ankh Foundation, the Blackhouse Kollective and the Africentrik Study Group based at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He writes this article for the Blackhouse Kollective.