Processes such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Timol inquest give citizens a view into the horrors that befell so many of our fellow countrymen and women. They are necessary and a constant reminder of the steep price paid by so many for our freedom.
As we celebrate the last day of Women’s Month, let us reflect on the silent heroines, mothers of the soldiers who died in battle and the role they played in shaping our democracy and our freedom. The mothers, sisters and aunts of those in the front line during the Struggle against apartheid often suffered similar torment.
At times their torment was even worse; they were constantly harassed and threatened. They lived in fear that those they loved the most would never return.
They also had to ensure that their households continued to function normally - children had to go to school, expenses had to be paid, household tasks had to be completed
The spirit of these unsung heroines lives on in millions of strong and capable South African women who every day continue to do their duty without fail.
Women are the glue that holds our nation together, we are strong and resilient, but we too can break.
I remember the day I attended the funeral of comrades who had been cornered and killed in what would be known as the Battle of Mutale in the old Northern Transvaal in 1988. The young soldiers of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) were infiltrating South Africa through Zimbabwe to set up base in South Africa.
Like many stories of MK’s heroism and failures, this too is one of those stories that did not make history. It will remain a footnote in every story told about the Struggle.
This at a time when families had given up on laying their loved ones to rest. This when some of the parents to these gallant soldiers had long died with their hearts mourning for their children and a deep sense of sadness and hope that one day they would close their chapter and mourn properly for their selfless children.
Each family member bore no resentment to the ANC, the conduit through which their children served the people of South Africa. Each family did not apportion blame to MK commanders. Each family were testimony to a proud moment, a moment that would begin the process of mourning that was to help them find closure. Their pride and joy were not misplaced.
The mother of one of my fellow fighters, MaNkabinde, said: “Our wombs carried brave soldiers not out of choice but out of the will of God. We thank the ANC that after 25 years we can now be reunited with our loved ones and return them to dignity.”
Their cause of Struggle should never be deserted.
All the families had their turn to talk. All had no regrets. All were filled with pride and the jubilation in their voices and faces were fused with the sadness they endured for 25 years.
It all took them back to the years of police harassment and humiliation occasioned by the fear of a regime that sought to kill the spirit and resilience of the black child.
The survivors of the Battle of Mutale told their story for the first time as they sent their comrades to their final resting place in dignity. They told stories of pain, bravery, fear, humiliation and sadness. Their story was heard by the people they fought for, history was told that day by the hunted, in humility and gratitude to the people of South Africa who fought side by side with them. They conveyed gratitude to those who showed them love and gave them shelter. They thanked nature for providing all that they needed to help them survive. They apologised to those who they could not do more for.
They did not look like liberators. They looked like the poor masses of our people. They were ravaged by their past and their present was just as unkind. They were resolute that those who came after them would reap the benefits of their blood, sweat and tears. That one day the people would share in the country’s wealth. That land would one day return to those who were dispossessed.
These were the gallant children who became the people’s soldiers of liberation. Only one of them had a job. Only one had a house they called their children’s home. All but one were dependent on family for a plate of food. That there is the story of the children of Oliver Tambo, MK’s longest serving commander in chief.
A member of the Nkosi family said: “The Bible says pray for those who are in authority so that we can live in peace. Out of this prayer we have now been able to get the correct remains of our loved ones for reburial.”
A Lukhele family member said: “We are relieved that we now have closure in this matter. The chapter on the whereabouts of their remains will be closed. They were true patriots who sacrificed their lives for our freedom. Their cause of Struggle will never be deserted.”
This is a day we have long been waiting for. A day where a family would know where the remains of their child was. Their tears and blood gave us the freedom we enjoy today. We thank the ANC and the government for giving us dignity.
There are those among us who live with the gaping wounds of the past and there are those who demand that we should put the past behind us. How is it possible that any South African can be so cruel to call on those whose pain is real to bury the past and move on?
We had mothers who were able to put flowers on our graves and write poems about our patriotism. I sat there and pledged to myself that their cause of Struggle should never be deserted.
When they broke into song, the message was clear, the pain was evident “uTambo angalila uma’sbona sinje”. Loosely translated and in context it says Tambo would weep if he were to see us like this.
On that day the love we shared as MK soldiers permeated through the small venue, all that we were, flashed right in front of my eyes.
Morale suddenly high, eyes sparkling, we sang of our heroism, we sang about Tambo, Slovo and Hani. We broke into slogan doing the Zipra (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, the military wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union) war chant the toyi-toyi. Our spirits rose to heights unimagined. We were finally honouring and laying our beloved comrades to rest in dignity and eternal peace.
On that cold winter day on June 23, 2013 their mortal remains came so close to love, dignity and acknowledgement. They were no longer lying in an unmarked grave their loved ones could not lay flowers on .
I left that funeral and when I got home emotion engulfed me. A lump formed in my throat, my stomach felt weird, my heart was racing and my head felt heavy as tears welled in my eyes. The memories too were bitter-sweet, I had buried my comrades in dignity but we had not done enough for those who lived. We had buried them in ordinary community graves, they were not laid to rest on heroes’ acre. That right there tells you more about us and how we treat our heroes, dead or alive.
I couldn’t bear the burden on my shoulders. But I wondered if there was more I could do to take them out of their miserable lives. They seemed to have adopted the Zambian phrase of “suffering peacefully”. What could they do? They were just happy South Africa was free. Their greatest gratification was that they fought a good fight in the service of our people. Nothing else seemed to matter.
They remain prisoners of hope, hope that one day they will be looked after when they are too frail to fend for themselves.
They live in hope that their ideals for which so many lost their lives, would never be abandoned. They live in hope that at no point should we ever forget where we come from and how we got here. The Struggle continues.
Ayanda Dlodlo is the Minister of Communications