Struggle icon Ruth Mompati mothered the movement

Disciplined: Ruth Mompati did not suffer fools or people who didn't respect others. She travelled the world and was in exile for 27 years, but never forgot how to speak Setswana. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP)

Disciplined: Ruth Mompati did not suffer fools or people who didn't respect others. She travelled the world and was in exile for 27 years, but never forgot how to speak Setswana. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP)


RUTH MOMPATI (1925 - 2015)

“I am ready to do what may be required of me for a few more years. I shall then return to this place to be buried with those who died before me.” These were the words of 65-year-old ANC stalwart Ruth Mompati when she returned home to Vryburg in 1990 after spending 27 years in exile.

On Thursday she again returned home – from Cape Town’s 2 Military Hospital where she died in the early hours of Tuesday, aged 89. She wanted to return to her African roots, to be buried among her people.

Though known as a brave and dedicated anti-apartheid activist, Mompati’s comments on gays and lesbians 28 years ago embarrassed the then liberation movement on the international stage, but the anti-gay sentiments certainly did not diminish Mompati’s stature within the party.

When human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell interviewed Mompati in London in 1987, he brought to the surface questions about homophobia in the ANC and forced the movement to embrace gay and lesbian rights.

“I hope in a liberated South Africa people will live normal lives. I emphasise the word ‘normal’ … Are lesbians and gays normal? No, it is not normal,” Mompati told Tatchell.

“I cannot even begin to understand what people want lesbian and gay rights. The gays have no problems. They have nice houses and plenty to eat. I don’t see them suffering. No one is persecuting them. We haven’t heard about this problem in South Africa until recently. It seems to be fashionable in the West.”

Mompati reacted to the formation of gay anti-apartheid organisations in South Africa, saying: “They are not doing the liberation struggle a favour by organising separately and campaigning for their rights. The [gay] issue is being brought up to take attention away from the main struggle against apartheid …”. The interview was published in Labour Weekly and also in London’s weekly newspaper Capital Gay.

Today South Africa is governed by a world-acclaimed Constitution that protects everyone’s rights and Mompati was one of the leaders who upheld that Constitution.

Fondly known as “Mama Ruta”, Mompati was described as a mother figure to many who spent their youth years in exile. Former speaker of the National Assembly Max Sisulu is one such beneficiary of Mompati’s love.

  “She mothered all of us,” Sisulu told the Mail & Guardian this week. “When things were tough she would protect us under her wing.”

Mompati expressed her “deep love for children” in several media interviews. “The years I spent in exile, without my children, drew me to everyone’s children. In relating to them I missed my own children in a manner perhaps only a mother can understand. I tried to be a mother to every child I felt needed a mother.”

When a parcel bomb injured Sisulu and Roy Campbell in 1974 in Lusaka, it was Mompati who was there to play the comforting role of a mother. Said Sisulu: “When I nearly died after being injured in a bomb attack by the boers, Mma Ruta was the first person I saw when I woke up.”

  But she was strict. Sisulu remembered “Aunty Ruth” was famous for a Setswana phrase ga ke batle makgakga (I don’t want nonsense).

Transport Minister Dipuo Peters remembers this phrase well; she heard it a lot during her exile in Lusaka. When the ANC became a ruling party after the 1994 elections, amid uncertainty about what was required from its deployees, leaders like Mompati pushed fellow deployees to build confidence.

“When I was a young MP, I said ‘But mom, I don’t know what it means to be a whip’. She said, ‘My child, all of us are learning. You’ve got to learn and do the job’,” said Peters.

  Mompati regularly frowned upon greed and corruption, though the Naledi municipality she led and her home province of the North West were not immune to these ills. “It’s so sad. This freedom is a result of the many young people who laid down their lives so I could be a mayor and that we could be our own leaders. It’s really not fair, any of this,” she told Financial Mail in 2008 when she was mayor of Naledi municipality.

A beauty to the end, Mompati was fussy about her looks. “She was particular about dress code. She would say: ‘When you’re home … you can dress the way you want; when you go out you must show respect for people you talk to’,” Peters remembers. “Even last week in hospital, she looked good. Her nails were done.”

North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo described Mompati as humble, disciplined, hard-working, respectful and constructively critical.

Last month the ANC in the North West honoured her by unveiling a bust of her in a park in Vryburg’s Huhudi township and bought the veteran a Mercedes Benz. Not one to take credit, Mompati dedicated all the accolades to her comrades, including those who died in exile or in prison under apartheid.

“We were a team … We co-operated; we pushed one another to give each other strength because you never knew whether you’d be the next victim … whether you’d be the next one who’d be shot,” she said.

Last year the ANC awarded Mompati the Order of Isitwalandwe/Seaparankwe, the party’s highest honour, given to those who made outstanding contributions to the liberation struggle.

Before exile, she was a legal secretary for Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo at their law firm. A leader of the 1956 women’s anti-pass march to the Union Buildings, she held several ANC positions including ANC chief representative in Britain; head of the ANC’s religion board; ANC Women’s League representative on the secretariat of the Women’s International Democratic Federation in Berlin;  and ANC national executive committee member. She was South Africa’s ambassador to Switzerland between 1996 and 2000.

  Despite living in many countries, she spoke pure Setswana and would tell those who asked how she maintained the language: “Ga ke jake ka loleme [I don’t visit with my tongue]”.

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice. Read more from Mmanaledi Mataboge


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