Robert and Zondeni Sobukwe.Pictures: Thando Sipuye, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust
Robert and Zondeni Sobukwe.Pictures: Thando Sipuye, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust
Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, wife of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe
Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, wife of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe
Robert and Zondeni Sobukwe with their children.
Robert and Zondeni Sobukwe with their children.
Zondeni and Robert Sobukwe, soon after his release from Robben Island.
Zondeni and Robert Sobukwe, soon after his release from Robben Island.
Mama Sobukwe was a sad loss to the Sobukwe family.
Mama Sobukwe was a sad loss to the Sobukwe family.
History, the dictum goes, is written by the victors. Having arrogated this right to themselves, they are wont to write their rivals out.

If the agency of Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe had depended entirely on the 1994 victors, the ANC, she could easily have died virtually a pauper, little said or known about her.

In exactly 136 words, the ANC issued a statement marking her death on Wednesday, when she died at home in Graaff-Reinet, aged 91.

This past weekend Sobukwe’s discharge from the town’s Midland Hospital had to be delayed because she could not get her medication on time after a mix-up at the facility.

She had been at the hospital for three weeks before being discharged on Monday.

In July last year, I’solezwe lesiXhosa newspaper reported that she had no identity document and her eldest son, Dinilesizwe, had complained she could not access social services as a result.

Close family friend Thando Sipuye said she had been in a ward with seven other women from the Graaff-Reinet area.

According to Sipuye, the Sobukwes understood that because Midland Hospital was a public hospital she had not received the type of medical care she deserved.

He said the family had been unsuccessful in their attempt to get assistance from the government as no response had been forthcoming.

Tributes poured in for her, with the Pan Africanist Congress, the party her husband founded in 1959, describing her as “very humble, resistant and loving”.

“We had already acknowledged the award or recognition she got from the democratic state but we emphasised that the timing was all wrong because they had forgotten her for too long. There was an attempt to mute her and her colossal contribution to the liberation movement as well as democratic dispensation,” the PAC said, referring to the Order of Luthuli in Silver bestowed on her by President Cyril Ramaphosa in April.

Her family said “although largely unknown, silenced and erased from public memory and national consciousness, she dedicated most of her adult life to the cause of the Azanian people and, for this, was known far and wide as the ‘Mother of Azania’.”

“The Sobukwe family is deeply grateful for the gift of her life and the innumerable lessons she leaves behind and, even as we mourn her passing, we celebrate her humility and the simplicity with which she approached and viewed life. Indeed, a great tree has fallen.”

Ramaphosa honoured Sobukwe “for her tenacious fight for freedom and her steadfast support of incarcerated freedom fighters”.

He said the loss - in Women’s Month - of Mama Sobukwe was a sad loss to the Sobukwe family, foundation and the nation at large.

PAC veterans have complained for years over the state of the houses in which the family lived in Soweto, Mpumalanga and Kimberley.

Sobukwe’s grave in Graaff-Reinet was declared a national heritage site only in 2013.

The ANC had to say something as tributes poured in for Sobukwe.

It 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 ofher husband who was incarcerated by the illegitimate regime”.

Apartheid had to craft a special Sobukwe Clause to keep him on Robben Island, away from the other political prisoners, most notably 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 as well as human rights.

“The African National Congress extends its heartfelt condolences to the Sobukwe family, her friends and the Pan Africanist Congress on their loss.”

But the governing party’s scant praises notwithstanding, Sobukwe was a colossal figure, a political activist in her own right indeed.

A nurse, she took the fight to the enemy, questioning the prison diet fed her husband. She would testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that the professor had been fed a cocktail of shredded glass mixed with his food.

Those not stingy with the truth acknowledge her openly.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation was less perfunctory in its tribute. The Foundation recalled that “in a conversation with Mama Sobukwe at her home in the Eastern Cape town of Graaff-Reinet she reminded us that her husband would regularly greet people with the words, ‘Remember Africa’.”

But history will not whitewash the fact that Sobukwe was one of the most defiant and fearless icons of the struggle against racism-white supremacy in South Africa, as one tribute attests.

“She fought valiantly against the apartheid state apparatus,” the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust said in its valedictory send-off.

The trust 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 at an early age, consistently challenging ruthless authorities and calling for justice on numerous occasions throughout her life.

“In her youth she participated in 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.”

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 continue 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 became both mother and father. Her son Dini said last week she was the strongest woman he’d ever known.

To his credit, Ramaphosa declared a Special Official Funeral Category 2 for this fallen giant.

Among those who visted her at the Midland Hospital in Graaff-Reinet were members of the PAC.

She is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

After a memorial service on Wednesday, 22 August, she will be buried in Graaff- Reinet on Saturday.