The ‘Mother of Azania’, Mama Zondeni Sobukwe, in her younger days.
ON April 28, a 90-year-old Struggle stalwart and anti-apartheid activist affectionately known as the “Mother of Azania”, Mama Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, was awarded the Order of Luthuli: Silver by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Her son and executive director at the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust, Dini Sobukwe, received the award on her behalf owing to her age.

Significantly, Mama Sobukwe received this long-overdue honour in this year marking the 40th commemoration of the death under banishment of her husband, founding president of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and a liberation philosopher, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, and a day after South Africa celebrated 24 years of democracy.

This is the first time the South African government is has honoured Mama Sobukwe.

Ramaphosa honoured Mama Sobukwe with the Order of Luthuli: Silver for her “tenacious call for freedom of the people, service to the community and steadfast support of incarcerated freedom fighters”, said the Chancellor of the National Orders and Director-General in the Presidency, Dr Cassius Lubisi.

But the ANC government is not honouring Mama Sobukwe out of its own volition or because it has had a change of heart in its attitude towards Sobukwe’s widow or Sobukwe’s legacy; the award on Mama Sobukwe is a shameful indictment on the conscience of a government that is structurally biased and selective in whose contributions and legacies it celebrates.

For the past two decades this government has rendered Mama Sobukwe irrelevant, systematically erasing her from the collective national memory and from any public discourse on South African liberation heroines and Struggle stalwarts. Mama Sobukwe received this national order because of the unwavering and diligent efforts of the young activists of the Blackhouse Kollective who nominated her to receive the highest national honour in recognition of her unsung role in the fight against white supremacy.

Beyond nominating Mama Sobukwe, the Blackhouse Kollective wrote to the Presidency proposing the institution of a completely new national order named after her and dedicated to outstanding women who contributed immensely in creating a just and equal society.

This proposal to the Presidency challenged the current patriarchal constitution and fabric of the national orders, reminding the president and his Advisory Council that of all the national orders that exist, none is specifically dedicated to recognising the specific contributions of women in effecting change in society and restoring people to their true humanity.

There is no national order or award that is named after a woman or dedicated specifically to women; instead, of the six national orders in existence, two are named after men - Albert Luthuli and Oliver Reginald Tambo.

This speaks to the savage patriarchal dominance of male narratives which inherently obliterate women from national memory and consciousness.

Not a single monument exists in this country in honour of Mama Sobukwe, deliberately so.

She represents a group of liberation stalwarts who have been erased and wiped out of the collective memory and consciousness of the nation.

Ostracised from popular public narratives and discourse, Mama Sobukwe lives in her humble home in Graaff-Reinet with her children and grandchildren, the broader community of Masizakhe township who form part of her family, as well as countless individuals who visit her to pay their respects and salute a living legend.

Mama Sobukwe is not honoured in her own land.

We have rather subjected her to further trauma and pain by relegating her legacy and contributions to irrelevance and insignificance to ever mention, let alone celebrate.

We have been more evil to her than ever imaginable; “free and democratic” as we claim to be.

At 90, still going strong silently with profound diligence and a quiet dignity, without ever being acknowledged or celebrated, Mama Sobukwe is a living testimony to the inferior status and position that society reserves for women both in biographical and historical narratives, as well as in our collective social imagination. She is not celebrated because she is not a member of the ruling party.

What a tragedy for the nation and posterity; a tragedy of contemporary injustices we perpetuate collectively on our very own people through omission, exclusion, marginalisation, erasure and silencing. In a neo-colonialist country where patriarchy and misogyny are institutionalised, instituting a new national order named after and dedicated to a woman Struggle stalwart - an individual not aligned to the ANC - would have set a supreme precedence by honouring silenced and forgotten women’s voices and experiences while they are still alive. Mama Sobukwe is a symbol and a part of that greater collective of all those women; a living ancestor in our midst. Those who have sought to blot out her memory and legacy must bow their heads in shame.

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 at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare).He writes in a personal capacity.