History, the dictum goes, is written by the victors. Having arrogated this right to themselves, they are wont to write their rivals out of said history. If the agency of Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe depended entirely on the 1994 victors, the ANC, she could easily have died virtually a pauper, with very little said or known about her.
In exactly 136 words, the ANC had to issue a statement marking her death, on Wednesday at home in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, aged 91.
The ANC had to say something, against the cacophony of tributes pouring in for the woman affectionately known as Mother of Azania, widow of the founding president of the PAC.
“The ANC has learnt with sadness of the passing of Mama Zondeni Sobukwe early this morning,” the oblique statement read.
“Born July 27, 1927, she married the late anti-apartheid activist Robert Sobukwe in 1954 ” it went on, as devoid of emotion as a hired priest presiding over the burial of a pauper.
As if a gun were held to the head, the ANC noted, in fact confessed, that Ma Sobukwe was “a struggle stalwart in her own right, she endured pain, rejection and immense suffering visited on her by the racist apartheid regime which she overtly challenged through her writings, demanding the release of her husband who was incarcerated by the illegimate (sic) regime”.
A lesser biographer would have ensured the correct spelling of an illegitimate government, even one as deplorable as the Nationalist Party (NP) regime that incarcerated Ma Sobukwe’s husband.
Apartheid had to craft a special Sobukwe Clause to keep him in Robben Island, away from the other political prisoners, most notably those of the ANC, Nelson Mandela among them.
Typical of triumphalists, Luthuli House had to remind whoever came within of a whiff of that statement that “Mama Zondeni was this year bestowed with the National Order of Luthuli for her anti-apartheid activism”.
National Orders are awarded to South Africans who have made a meaningful contribution to the struggle for democracy and human rights.
“The ANC extends its heartfelt condolences to the Sobukwe family, her friends and the PAC on their loss.”
But the governing party’s scant praises notwithstanding, Ma Sobukwe was a colossal figure, a political animal in her own right indeed.
A trained nurse, she took the fight to the enemy in the NP of old, questioning the prison diet fed to her husband.
She would testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that shredded glass was mixed into his food.
Those not stingy with the truth acknowledge her openly.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) was less perfunctory in their tribute.
The NMF recalled “a conversation with Mama Sobukwe at her home in the Eastern Cape town of Graaff-Reinet, when she reminded us that her husband would regularly greet people with the words, ‘Remember Africa’.”
But history will not whitewash the fact that Ma Sobukwe was one of the most defiant and fearless icons of the struggle against racism and white supremacy in South Africa, as one tribute attests.
“She fought valiantly against the apartheid state apparatus,” the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust (RMST) said in their own valedictory send-off.
The RMST reminds posterity: “Born of farming parents, Kate Mathe and Stini Mathe, in Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal, she had her first experiences of and direct confrontations with racism, the apartheid state and police at an early age, consistently challenging ruthless authorities and calling for justice on numerous occasions throughout her life.
“In her youth she participated and led protest marches against racist conditions imposed on trainee black nurses at Victoria Hospital in Alice.
“Her leadership of this protest march resulted in her later meeting with Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the then Students’ Representative Council president at the University of Fort Hare.”
Ma Sobukwe stood side by side with her husband in the fight for, chiefly, the return of land to the dispossessed African masses. She picked up the baton and continued the fight upon her husband’s incarceration.
She kept the home fires burning, becoming a mother not just to her own children Miliswa, Dinilesizwe, Dalindyebo and Dedanizizwe, but to the rest of the oppressed.
In her husband’s absence, she took on the roles of both mother and father.
Her son, Dini, told us last week she was the strongest woman he’d ever known. She had to be strong for her own family, and for Azania.
To his credit, President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday declared a Special Official Funeral Category 2 for this fallen giant.
Among those who made a beeline to go and see her at Midland Hospital in Graaff-Reinet were members of the PAC.
It is an indictment on the current leadership of the fractured party that Ma Sobukwe lived to see the once mighty PAC descend into a pale shadow of itself, an apparition unable to repay her for the commitment she displayed to “serve, suffer and sacrifice”.
But try as the victors did, they could not erase the Mother of Azania from public memory and the national psyche.
She is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
After a memorial service on Wednesday, August 22, she will be buried in Graaff-Reinet on Saturday, August 25.