Shaka Sisulu: The Gogo stories

It was a week ago, on Thursday evening, that my 92-year-old paternal grandmother, Gogo, died suddenly in her home.

As is the norm in times of a relative’s demise, a flurry of phone calls and other communications urge every family member to assemble at the family home. These calls, though gentle and of the benign “I think you should come to Linden” variety, are still chillingly clear. I was immediately brought back to the evening of my grandfather’s passing.
It was a similar toll that had called me home, on a similarly cold night, eight years ago.

Albertina Sisulu, who died at the age of 92 in her Linden home on June 2, was one of the last of a generation of leaders venerated as struggle heroes. Watch our slideshow of key moments in her life.
For those who may have missed the nuance, they would certainly have caught on soon enough as the media—within the hour—was ablaze with the dreadful news. Before the family had all congregated, in fact, before my grandmother’s body was removed by the undertakers, the messages of condolence were streaming in.

Although I am an avid user of social media—and the media’s quoting of my tweets in the ensuing days would bear testament to this—I really couldn’t fathom the speed at which news travels nowadays. For what seemed like an eternity the family members who were present deliberated on how best to handle this most delicate of matters. Ultimately, the decision before us was patent.

You see, Gogo always held that the truth be told, no matter how heavy. Often just her gaze extracted the truth from myself and many a cousin/sibling, even when we knew that a punishment would undoubtedly be meted out. Somehow you always told the truth where Gogo was concerned. And quickly.

Very quickly, I learned that my phone number was possessed by a great number of people, or was at least accessible to them. But even as my phone convulsed tirelessly with calls and text messages, I knew I still had much to learn about being truly accessible. I recall once coming home from boarding school and being chastised by Gogo. It seems some pupil from my school had called her, anonymously, and reported that I had “an attitude”.

Hmph. I recall how shocked I was by her having taken the call from a stranger, listening, and even believing them! She was then a very active politician; surely she had better things to do with her time, I fumed (silently, of course). As a parent I realise now that a child with “an attitude” has to be a priority. “We don’t act like that in this family,” she admonished, before putting me to my chores. At dinnertime she let me have a second serving; some meals are too good to sulk through. She was a mother of the highest calibre: attentive, an instiller of discipline and virtue, and a dispenser of good food.

President Jacob Zuma arrives at her Linden home
“Oh, she was ...” insert any adjective of greatness here. This was an overriding theme of the past week as political heavyweights, captains of industry, high-level diplomats, three successive presidents and hundreds of ordinary South Africans made their way to Linden to pay their respects to Gogo. Like the dawning of spring, Gogo’s house was suddenly an explosion of flowers. I imagined Gogo’s ready smile broadening and lighting up the room with each successive wave of bouquets.

She was quite green-fingered and I remember her bending over her little patch of garden in the back of her Orlando home. Barely in my teens then, I couldn’t understand her dedication to beauty and cleanliness in the dusty, cramped township. She nurtured and grew life even where conditions dictated that the sand remains bare. She fostered a vision and guarded it jealously, thereby teaching us that indeed, all work begins at home.

Like many South African families, Gogo’s home was to be entered through the kitchen. And were it not for the Dover stove, or later, the fireplace, it certainly would have been her welcome that warmed one. There wasn’t a visitor that was not made to feel at home in Gogo’s presence.

Even before her passing, not a day went by when the child-like adoration of someone she had mentored or inspired from afar didn’t find expression. I remember often dropping in on her at work at Shell House, the then-ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg in the early 1990s. My mother then worked as assistant to Ma-Shope [Gertrude Shope, former ANCWL president], another senior woman’s league leader whose office was right next door to Gogo’s.

The floor felt like an emergency ward. Every day people rushed in tormented and emerged from the theatre of the women’s league offices medicated with hope. She mended broken hearts and souls then, just as she had once healed sick patients with scant regard to the time or cost. And so she moulded everyone around her. Over the years I noted with curious interest how many of the “aunties” that worked with her went on to hold more senior positions, assuming more responsibility with an earnestness that spoke of Gogo’s tutelage.

Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu
She was everyone’s mom, everyone’s Gogo, bringing my family into direct kinship with almost every South African, an understanding that is passed around family luncheon tables like an heirloom. Having had Gogo in such close proximity, we break bread with gratitude for the absolute blessing of having had her in our lives for as long as we did.

It was my grandfather who really brought this sentiment home to me. He and I were in the living room of a cosy little brick house reserved for senior parliamentarians in Cape Town’s Acacia Park compound. Gogo was in the kitchen preparing supper, well, she was actually shuffling between the two rooms fawning over my granddad, tending to his needs and chatting with him about the evening’s news bulletin while generating all sorts of sizzling sounds in the other room.

I, all of 17 and working in my first job, had just come in from the cold and she would not have me do anything except thaw out in front of the heater. So here we were, two Sisulu men, generations apart, being fussed over by this energetic lady regaling us with tales of her intra-parliamentary fights to bring about sustained change to the country’s laws. Suddenly my grandfather cocks his head, laughs and then looks at me with a twinkle in his eye and says “Hey, your Gogo ...” before he returns to their conversation. They were an incredible duo and he was always sure to make known just how appreciative he was of her. I know now this was more than just his trademark humility.

You know, in a few days she will be buried, after four days of national mourning at the behest of the state, although she never assumed any executive position in our government. There is something poetic about a quintessential servant being honoured in such a fashion. There is something poetic about the humblest of us acquiring a station and adulation that could never be purchased, though it seems virtue features increasingly only at sidewalk sales.

I once went into a sale with Gogo to one of those old department stores with a two year guarantee on their electronic appliances. She and Tata Mkhulu bought me my first radio-cassette deck. I still have it. I had wanted a keyboard but my parents talked me down. Gogo didn’t know what either contraption was but was happy to have brought us to the shop (she had fetched my grandfather from his office and duties as deputy-president of an ANC in negotiations with the apartheid government) to get it because I had “passed very well” at school.

We stopped traffic, and got mobbed. Gogo was nonplussed, and, holding Tata Mkhulu’s hands she marched into the store and ordered the cooing management to serve me, all the while reinforcing her message “You’ll keep it up, neh?” Some months later, when I had caused my mother to be called to my principal’s office for the umpteenth time, she reminded me of it and then pointed me towards some chores. She taught me it was the work that we did that differentiated us and that made a difference in everyone’s lives.

Last Friday morning, legions of my Twitter associates joined me in telling some of their favourite stories of their grandmothers under the trending topic #Gogo. Initially many of these were sad, but as the hours and days progressed these tales became upbeat, mirroring my own disposition. I had seen Gogo very often in the past years; we all had; and had noted her transitions between illness and wellness, joy and the confusion that confounds the aged, restlessness and ultimately peace.

We were in little doubt as to the completeness of her work here on earth, so she could only have been staying around for us, to fill our online albums with more memories. But all good things must come to an end, and to begrudge Gogo her time in the sun would only be selfish I reasoned. You will know that not to be a trait synonymous with Gogo.

Walter and Albertina Sisulu
Instead we celebrate that she was a lady lucky enough to have been one half of the most amazing love story that spanned 60 years and now begged to come full circle. And so it is that even as we mourn Gogo’s passing we take heart, consoled that she is with her soulmate once more. Among the more notable moments of the last week has been looking through old photographs as we select the images the world will henceforth remember her by.

It is the happy, smiling pictures of an elderly couple that emerged victorious from all strife that grabbed me the most, because therein lies the most poignant lesson to be take from Gogo’s life—despite any odds, true love does indeed conquer all. Now, isn’t that something to write home about?

To Gogo. May you live forever in our hearts and deeds.

Shaka is the founding member of Cheesekids, a 4 000-strong youth mobilisation organisation working to make community service accessible and appealing to all South Africans. He serves on the board of LoveLife and is an Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellow (2011). He has served as an executive at various media and technology businesses and has consulted on ICT, strategy and communications.

He is also a board member of Foundation for a Safe South Africa and co-hosts the Dinner Club, a forum for young influential South Africans in conjunction with Johannesburg’s Gordon’s Institute of Business Science, where he read for a post-graduate diploma in business administration.

Shaka speaks often and passionately on entrepreneurship, youth issues, community development and civil action. His father Max Sisulu is Speaker in Parliament.

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