Yesterday, on April 28 - a day after Freedom Day, 90-year-old struggle stalwart and anti-apartheid activist Mama Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, was awarded the Order of Luthuli.
Her son and the executive director at the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust (RMST), Dini Sobukwe, received the award on her behalf due to old age.
Mama Sobukwe, affectionately known as the “Mother of Azania”, received this honour in this year marking the 40th commemoration of the death under banishment of her husband, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the founding president of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC).
This is the first time the government is recognising and honouring Mama Sobukwe.
But the ANC government is not honouring Mama Sobukwe out of their own volition or because they have had a change of heart in their 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 and whose memories it remembers.
For the past 25 years this government has rendered Mama Sobukwe irrelevant and non-existent, systematically erasing her from the collective national memory and from any public discourse on South African women liberation heroes and struggle stalwarts.
Mama Sobukwe received the national order award because of the unwavering 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, following a Tribute Lecture during Women’s Month last year.
The Blackhouse Kollective also wrote a letter to the Presidency proposing the institution of a new national order named after her and dedicated to outstanding women who have made selfless sacrifices and contributed immensely in creating a just and equal society.
This proposal to the Presidency challenged the 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.
There is no national order or award that is named after a woman or dedicated specifically to women; instead, of the six national orders currently in existence, two are named after men: Albert Luthuli and Oliver Reginald Tambo, respectively.
Not a single monument exists in this country in honour of Mama Sobukwe, deliberately so. She represents a group of liberation stalwarts that have been wiped out of the collective memory and consciousness of the nation.
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 salute a living legend.
Indeed, “a prophet is not without honour, except in his own town and in his own home”. Mama Sobukwe is not honoured in her own land.
At 90 years old, going strong silently with 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 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 and normalised, 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.
This award bestowed upon Mama Sobukwe raises critical questions about the meaning of honour in South Africa, feminine honour versus masculine honour, and how we choose to honour, not only the elite and popular struggle stalwarts, but ordinary citizens and agents of societal change in our midst, women in particular.
This honour exposes our national shame in forgetting our female heroes.
Mama Sobukwe is a practical philosopher whose life is a testimony to her selfless struggle, service to the people and sacrifice for the nation; a sage who did not become part of the struggle for selfish benefits and personal gains, but for the genuine cause of freedom.It was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe who said: “Africa never forgets These martyrs of freedom, these young and budding women will be remembered and honoured when Africa comes into her own.”
Sipuye is an African historian and a social scientist. He is an executive member of The Ankh Foundation, the Blackhouse Kollective and the Africentrik Study Group based at the University of Fort Hare. He writes in his personal capacity.
The Sunday Independent