South Africa is in mourning following the death of Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, the widow of the late PAC president Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe

Johannesburg - South Africa is in mourning following the death of one of the country's struggles icons Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, also the widow of late president of the PAC, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.

Her death follows her hospitalisation at the Midland Hospital in Graaff-Reinet, Eastern Cape where she had been for three weeks. 

It was reported over the weekend that her discharge from hospital was delayed because she could not get her medication on time following a mix-up at the in house pharmacy.

In April, Veronica, affectionately known as the “Mother of Azania”, was awarded the Order of Luthuli. 

Veronica was born on July 27, 1927, in Hlobane, KwaZulu-Natal. She and Sobukwe met in the struggle and their story was that of “love at first sight”, as Veronica said some years ago.

At the time, 1949, Sobukwe was the president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at Fort Hare University while Veronica was a trainee nurse at Victoria Hospital in Lovedale. 

The nurses at the hospital had been involved in a labour dispute with hospital management at the time and Veronica was one of the leaders in that strike which caught the attention of Sobukwe and other student leaders.

The late PAC president Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe with Veronica. Picture: Journal of People

In his call to students, Sobukwe said: “The trouble at the hospital is part of a broad struggle. We must fight for freedom, for the right to call our souls our own and we must pay the price.”

Owing to her involvement in that strike, Veronica was expelled from Lovedale College and she and her friend Thandiwe Moletsane (later Mrs Makiwane) went to Joburg after being sent by the then Fort Hare ANC Youth League to deliver a letter to Walter Sisulu to bring to his attention the plight of the nurses in Alice.

It was during those trying times that the bond between them grew and they tied the knot in 1950. 

Veronica supported her husband throughout, including praying together on March 21, 1960, when Sobukwe handed himself over for arrest in protest against the pass laws. 

He was sentenced to three years in prison for incitement, but the apartheid government refused to release him after his jail term ended. 

The government instead enacted a “Sobukwe Clause” which allowed it to keep Sobukwe in jail for as a long as it wanted. 

He was taken to Robben Island in 1963 and kept away from other prisoners as the apartheid government considered him very dangerous.

Twenty-one years ago Veronica recounted the pain of being separated from her husband and the effect it had on their children. She also revealed the ill-treatment and humiliation suffered by Sobukwe while he was in jail.

All these gory details were made public when Veronica appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on May 12, 1997, in her bid to find the truth about the cause of her husband’s death.

Commissioners and members of the public listened in awe as Veronica told them how the apartheid authorities refused her husband access to proper and independent medical examination.

In 1964, Sobukwe’s health deteriorated and Parliament was forced to discuss his release, but it refused. 

“In February 1966, they transferred him to Karl Bremer (Hospital in Bellville). They did not tell me. I heard about this when he came back from Karl Bremer. He was admitted under a false name. They did not consult with me. He was taken back to Robben Island and when I visited him he complained that his food was served with broken glasses,” Veronica told the TRC.

“You mean broken glasses in his food?” one of the commissioners asked.

“Yes, in his food. He was alone at the time… There are things that were done to people in jail at the time and I’m sure that they did these things to my husband, because he was alone in the cell,” Veronica said.

After his sudden release from jail in May 1969, the police continued to haunt the Sobukwe family. 

They refused to allow Sobukwe to go overseas to receive treatment for cancer. They also refused him a passport to leave the country after he was offered a lectureship at the University of Wisconsin in the US.

Veronica also had this to say at the TRC hearings about her  husband's death and commitment to the struggle: “Nothing came to my surprise or shock, because from the day I met him he was in the struggle and he died in the struggle. Everything was to be expected. I was not too aggrieved, in the sense that I expected this to happen.”

The ANC government has in the past come under sever criticism from those who believe that it has neglected struggle icons such as Veronica.

When the government honoured Veronica on April this year, Thando Sipuye, an executive member of the Afrocetrik Study Group at the University of Fort Hare wrote: "...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. 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."

Veronica and Sobukwe were blessed with four children, Miliswa, Dinilesizwe, Dalinyebo and Dedanizizwe. 

The Star