Louisa Zondo opens up on the death of her son Riky Rick and her journey of healing at the Wellbeing Summit For Social Change

Published Jun 3, 2022


Bilbao - The late French novelist Marcel Proust once said "Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind."

Louisa Zondo is one person who fully grasps the meaning of this profound quote. For her, grief was an immeasurable pain; an intangible emotion that she couldn’t grasp after the death of her son.

A distinguished advocate and board secretary and chair of Oxfam South Africa, Zondo has a list of accolades to add to her name. Many will know her as the mother of the late Rikhado Makhado, AKA Riky Rick.

I recently got the opportunity to watch Zondo guest speak at the Wellbeing Summit For Social Change, held in Bilbao, Spain.

Walking onto a lit stage would be daunting for anyone, but for the diminutive Zondo, her larger than life presence was felt by everyone in attendance.

The minute she started talking, the auditorium simmered down to a hush. You could hear a pin drop.

With her vulnerability exposed, she spoke about how she came to be at that very spot.

“I have not shared parts of what has been there,” she said while referring to the sudden death of her iconic son.

Introducing herself as a 58-year-old black South African woman, she said, “I say the word black to take us into a space.”

Born and raised in a township outside Durban, she explained: “living in a township was not that easy and hard in so many different ways.”

Zondo was the last-born of three sisters. Her mother was a nurse and her father a social worker.

“Just by virtue of their education and line of work, they would have fallen into the category of the elite in the townships. Really, we were not wealthy, but as children, we really were teased at school about being the haves.

"My parents did the best they could, trying to raise their children in apartheid South Africa, and developed an approach to life of making our home environment very restrictive,“ added the CEO of the Bertha Gxowa Foundation.

As she grew up, she admitted she was a young person who closed up to others. But there were contradictions. At the age of 19, she became a mother to a son.

Becoming a mother didn’t stop her journey to further her education. At age 20, she obtained her law degree. Two years later, she completed her post-grad law degree.

In the midst of it all, things fell apart. “My marriage had broken down in a bloody, violent incident,” she revealed. “Four days after that, I was on a plane to study for my masters in law at the London School of Economics.”

She left her kids behind, at which time Rikhado was only 14-months-old.

“It didn’t even occur to me that I needed some counselling, nor did it occur to anybody around me that this was that was needed. In this space, I just carried on,” she added.

Louisa Zondo at the Wellbeing Summit For Social Change. Picture: Marchelle Abrahams

But there was one traumatising event in particular that Zondo recalled.

At age 33 she fell in love with a comrade whom she had met in The Struggle.

“Eight months into that relationship, we woke up to people who had broken into the house. They held us for hours. They tortured and beat us up, threatened to kill us,” she said, reliving those fearful moments.

At some point they were separated for two hours. And even with all the beatings and trying to break her down, psychologically, Zondo said her mind completely shut down.

“Even at that instance, I couldn’t bring myself to walk the journey of healing. I couldn’t see myself sitting and reliving what had happened to me,” she explained.

After her second session of trauma counselling, she stopped. Only after, did she realise there were consequences to her not continuing with it.

For Zondo, trauma had become a bedfellow she had learnt to endure.

Her 24-year-old son Rikhado was admitted to rehab. “And that’s where everything shrunk. I became the smallest entity as I prayed huge prayers. And that’s when I was thrown into a journey of deeper enquiring.”

She continued, “I went into it with hope. I built a community around it to sustain me. And life has been a progressive engagement with the question of who are we? What are we called to do? What does it mean to be connected?”

And then there was the death of her son. Taking a deep breath, she finally shared her story.

“On February 23 this year, our precious son died. In his studio, he had hung himself.

“Some 25 days into that, I was climbing Mount Everest to Base Camp because I had to make sense about how my life had caused a lot of damage to him.

“I just did not manage my resources in the way that would serve to the best of its possibility, including my family and the community that would have benefited.”

All these questions flooded her head while climbing to Base Camp. “For me, it was a series of spirited moments that said Rikhado’s legacy lives on. We must do the best that we can.”

The intimacy of sharing those grieving moments and admitting to her faults as a mother may have been an uncomfortable experience for some, but not for Zondo.

Her strength and willingness to open up is an inspiration to all. While standing on that stage, the awe that many displayed was a sight to see, so much so that she received a standing ovation.

I got the opportunity to meet Zondo on the sidelines of the summit. She greeted me with a warm embrace and whispered in my ear.

The only words I managed to choke out was, “thank you.” She smiled in response.

Her healing had already taken shape.

The Wellbeing Summit For Social Change runs from June 1 - June 3, 2022