Epainette Mbeki’s life was entirely grafted on to that of the liberation movement, says Janet Smith.
Johannesburg - There was drizzle on the leaves of the giant cabbages behind Ma Epainette Mbeki’s house. The fir trees shivered on an afternoon weighed in cloud. She clutched her big brown cardigan around her, but her feet were cold in open, broken sandals.
“We don’t even notice the beauty here any more,” she giggled, sitting small as a bird on a kitchen chair in her backyard. “Really. We don’t even look up to the sky like we should. It’s only you people from Johannesburg who comment about it.”
Out in the isolation of Ngcingwane village, two hours outside East London in the ANC stronghold of the Eastern Cape, former president Thabo Mbeki’s then-91-year-old mother was concerned about what she saw as a lack of natural vegetation where she lived.
“Global warming, climatic conditions… who knows why this is happening? But I feel that things are changing, and it’s not good.”
It felt like things were changing on Friday when it was announced that Ma Mbeki had been hospitalised at Life St Dominic’s with heart issues and a chest infection since the last week of May. And that, too, was not good. When a hospital admission involves someone of 98, it tends to usher in a sadness and an expectation of finality.
Yet, Ma Mbeki was no ordinary woman. At 98, she was certainly unlike most people her age. She was still full of life. She was ready for conversation. She got herself around mostly by herself and liked living in her own space.
Ma Mbeki had even allowed herself to become part of the electioneering in April when, as a member of Cope – the party she joined after her son was recalled from the ANC in 2008 – she accepted Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema’s apology for being part of the ANC when it recalled her son from office.
When we met in December 2007, hours before Jacob Zuma was going to be announced as the new ANC president after the fateful Polokwane conference, the heavy rain which loomed above her village seemed portentous.
It was astonishing how profound, clever and engaged Ma Mbeki was around an intensely political conversation.
She raised her hand to chin-level. “The Madiba government took us to this level – a level for which, perhaps, we were not ready. Most of us. So a lot of people misinterpret the ideas about how to be progressive, and the ideas are first class, but the misinterpretation is confusing things.”
Ma Mbeki seemed to find herself in a difficult ideological position. She had spent most of her life observing South African politics, nurturing two brilliant sons – Moeletsi and Thabo – and a beloved daughter, Linda, who died at 61, in 2003, after a history of diabetes. Her third son, Jama, died in 1982.
Her life was entirely grafted on to that of the liberation movement, and she was always desperately proud of its history. But the succession battle which left her son Thabo out in the cold and made Zuma victorious in 2007 hurt her.
“The biggest question for me is: What’s next?” she said – as always, with a smile.
“From the left, the progressive forces, and from the right… it doesn’t matter. After this, it’s going to take a real talent to repair the damage to the movement.”
It was impossible to disguise some emotion in her tone. Ma Mbeki was overwhelmed by respect for her son’s achievements, even if she was not always confident about the government’s policies. But that gallant history of mutual respect did not negate her motherliness – although she said she never made the overtures for chats with her son. She would wait for him to ask for her counsel, if he needed it.
“It’s been like that for a long time. I only offer my opinion if they ask for it.”
One might imagine there would be many images of the prestigious Mbeki family in her tidy little lounge in Ngcingwane, but instead the picture that grabbed attention was a framed beadwork from a massed choir festival, thanking Ma Mbeki “for her brother, Michael Moerane”, who played a role in its success. It revealed something of the quietness and complexity of family that must have occupied her mind for the decades when she was separated from her son and her husband – the venerated SACP and ANC leader Govan Mbeki, who spent 24 years on Robben Island before being released 27 years ago.
He died in Port Elizabeth in 2001 at 91.
Her exuberance and the sheer wit of her banter belied her grand age. Indeed, there was no grandiosity about her presence. Certainly, she was guarded by two policemen posted in a prefab hut near her house, and there was razor wire thrown around it, but in her village there was simply a lot of love and admiration directed at her.
The president’s mother had left Ngcingwane, her village just outside Dutywa in the Transkei, in the early morning and was on her way to the old trading town of Butterworth when she took the call about her son being recalled from the ANC.
She was calm. She said the tension at Esselen Park, where the decision had been made by the National Executive Council of the ANC, and the fate of Thabo resided primarily “in my political consciousness”.
Out there in the quiet rural village, where she ran a community upliftment project and a shop attached to her humble home, Ma Mbeki insisted: “Life must simply go on. It must.”
Then 92, she said: “I’ve been through worse periods than this. I really have”.
She earned enormous respect when the announcement was made that her son had lost the battle for power of the party. She lashed out at Luthuli House in a letter to the media in which she stated her view that the president “is neither an autocrat nor a dictator and works as part of a collective, as is ANC culture”.
“But lately,” she warned, “some members have begun to distance themselves from collective decisions.” She said she kept a quote about “the changing world order” in her head: “It gives place to the now. God fulfils himself in different ways, lest one custom should corrupt the world.”
No doubt, the former president and his wife Zanele, who arrived in the Eastern Cape at the weekend to prepare for his mother’s funeral, will have many quiet thoughts about a brilliant woman who was such a pivot in their lives.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng couldn’t have put it more succinctly, and beautifully, when he said on Sunday, Ma Mbeki was “a true servant of the people, a patriot and an inspiration”.
Cosatu called her a “revolutionary heroine”.
ANC Women’s League president Angie Motshekga was correct, too, when she said the ANC stalwart had sacrificed her life for liberation. And Ma Mbeki never stopped.
She worried deeply about the economic circumstances of the women and children living around her in her village, and so started a sewing enterprise which supplied choirs and churches, schools and organisations. She was always kind to those in need; always compassionate.
Cope spokesman Bongani Mahlangu described her as a “dear mother, great leader, community builder, a teacher, a struggle heroine and a humble servant of the people”.
“As it is a loss to the nation, it is a gain in heaven. She has left behind a legacy that will never be erased.”
Her funeral will be in Dutywa on Saturday.
* Janet Smith is executive editor of The Star.