Today, July 27 2017, marks the 90th birthday of Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, the ignored and discarded “Mother of Azania” who has endured unspeakable suffering, struggle and pain for most of her years.
She will celebrate her 90th birthday as usual, in private, at her humble home in Graaff-Reinet with family and close friends. There will be no glamour, no journalists, and no live broadcasts. But frankly, the saddest part of all, is that most people are not even aware that she is still alive.
Born Zondeni Veronica Mathe on July 27 1927, in Hlobane, Natal, she married Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe on June 6 1954. In line with African tradition and matrimonial rites of passage, she was given the customary nuptial name of Nosango. She bore four children, Miliswa, Dinilesizwe, Dalindyebo and Dedanizizwe.
Although women are the bedrock of society and in fact, the primary nurturers of socioeconomic 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, it is usually only those of the popular, already well-known and overly researched figures that tend to be retold slightly differently.
The problem with this is highlighted by the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adiche Ngozi in her intriguing novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Speaking of the “danger of a single story”, she notes that a single narrative potentially creates stereotypes and perpetuates certain erasures.
The dismissal and neglect of the story of Mama Sobukwe must be read and understood looking through this lens, exposing the broader systematic project that sought to erase, neglect and silence ordinary black women and their experiences.
Mama Sobukwe epitomises the collective experiences of many other black women throughout the African continent and diaspora, whose roles and contributions to the liberation struggle remain unacknowledged in popular historical narratives, biographical memory and consciousness of nations.
Forgotten by ignoramus oligarchs, politicians and authorities of the countries for which they and their beloveds sacrificed everything for in liberation struggles, untold numbers of them today struggle to make ends meet. Mama Sobukwe is a glaring example of this unforgivable shame.
The life story of this indomitable woman is one marked by constant neglect, pain and erasure. She embodies the totality of the “serve, suffer and sacrifice” dictum coined by her husband and his colleagues in the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC).
She endured the rejection of the racist apartheid regime which she challenged through her numerous letters to the likes of then Minister of Justice, Jimmy Kruger, and Prime Minister BJ Vorster, about the conditions of her husband’s incarceration on Robben Island.
As a health practitioner and an activist in her own right, she single-handedly and repeatedly brought his deteriorating health to the fore, and demanding his release.
When all her efforts failed, she appealed to Vorster to allow Sobukwe to leave South Africa permanently on an exit permit together with his family. Vorster refused this too, and Mama Sobukwe then asked that she be allowed to stay on Robben Island with Sobukwe, to oversee his health herself. Of course, the racist Vorster refused.
Not one of her multiple requests for meetings with the authorities were ever granted. Instead, Vorster referred Mama Sobukwe to the then Minister of Justice, Petrus Cornelius Pelser, who in turn maintained the status quo, rejecting all her appeals.
As if this was not enough she has had to endure the rejection of the ANC government that, in its disdain for the course of history, undermines the contribution made by the Sobukwes to the liberation struggle.
Though aged and frail, the “Mother of Azania” remains resilient and strong, spending time daily in her garden, surviving on a state pension and still in the shadow of a man whose memory has been largely consigned to obscurity.
A simple Google search on Mama Sobukwe’s name tells the story of her enduring invisibility in the public sphere.
Only three or four web-links speak of “Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe”.
The most prominent relates to her 1997 testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) about the apartheid government poisoning Sobukwe, feeding him food with glass in it during his incarceration, and denying him medical help when he got sick. This TRC link is followed by a 2014 Daily Dispatch article titled “Sobukwe’s grave cleaned, declared heritage site”, which came after the government renovated Sobukwe’s vandalised gravesite in Graaff-Reinet.
There is also a 2001 Eastern Cape News Agency article about vandals who hurled a raw egg stuffed into a condom at her house; and finally a more recent Citizen article titled, “Sobukwe’s widow has been neglected”, which reveals that Mama Sobukwe indeed relies on an old-age state pension 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 each article is her husband, Mangaliso. She is present merely as the “wife”, “widow” or “mother” of her sons. Of course, nothing is wrong these roles, but the question, a telling one, remains – why does her life story remain untold.
Unlike many other prominent struggle stalwarts, Mama Sobukwe receives no special attention; she gets no benefits and no recognition from the ANC government. Not a single official gesture of honour and recognition has ever been granted to her, 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 Graaff-Reinet, is named in her honour.
There is no life story, not even a Wikipedia entry with details of who she is. No artist has rendered an artwork in tribute to Mama Sobukwe, no publicly known song exists, no graffiti and no book reminds us of what she stood for or who she is. With one exception – the poem “Tribute to Zodwa Veronica, A Great Woman” by the sage, Eskia Mphahlele – she just does not exist. Thus, the humble and resilient “Mother of Azania” is consistently rendered insignificant.
While it is understandable that the ANC government ignores and side-lines Mama Sobukwe as they have done her husband, what is deeply saddening is why the leaders and members of the PAC (not withstanding the troubles of the organisation), as well as black intellectuals in general, have taken no interest in her life story.
The Sobukwe family as a whole has suffered and continues to endure dreadful pain, none of them more so than Mama Sobukwe who has benefited little-to-nothing from her husband’s estate, properties or titanic legacy.
On her 90th birthday this story in its entirety is one of the great tragedies of our times.
Thando Sipuye is a historian and social scientist, an executive member of The Ankh Foundation, the Blackhouse Kollective and the Africentrik Study Group based at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare)