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07 Jun 2014 11:19
Mark Gevisser looks back on the life of activist and struggle stalwart Epainette Mbeki.(Anna Zieminski, AFP)
contract to write a small book about a new and somewhat inscrutable South
African president became my grand, decade-long passion when – on a midsummer’s
day in January 1999 – I entered a modest little house on the fringes of Idutywa
and was drawn, through her huge, questing eyes, into the world of Epainette
Later that year, I criss-crossed the Transkei with MaMbeki in a little
rental car, visiting her birthplace to the far north, her husband Govan’s
birthplace to the far south, and the village of Mbewuleni in between, where she
raised her oldest son Thabo, his sister Linda, and his brothers Moeletsi and
hours on end, as we bumped over the region’s impossible roads, the 83-year-old
MaMbeki educated me with her trenchant analysis of rural society and its
problems, entertained me with her wit and easy laughter and challenged me with
acute questions about my own work and ideas. I was being led by an embodiment
of history, and humanity, through an understanding of my country and of the 20th
century that has sustained me ever since.
For the next few years, while I was
A Dream Deferred, I saw
MaMbeki every few months, and my visits to Idutywa were unquestionably the
highlight of my research.
Mbeki was born at Mangoloaneng, near Mount Fletcher, in 1916, to Jacane and
Sofi Moerane, progressive Christian farmers and teachers.
She had six siblings,
and they all went to university.
years later, 15 years further into democracy, there is still so little progress
in uplifting communities like that at Mangoloaneng that one understands the
sentiment behind MaMbeki’s last public utterance, made just before the May 2014
polls: she told a visiting reporter that if she were younger she would have
voted for Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters. As it was, she
decided to stay with Cope, which she joined in 2008.
although MaMbeki had a delightful sense of mischief and loved to play the role
of the provocateur, she was remarkably free of bitterness. This despite her sometimes unimaginably
tough life, and periods of deep and sustained psychological distress. After
qualifying at Lovedale and Adams College, she took a job in Durban in 1937,
joined the Communist Party of South Africa (the second African woman to do so)
and met Govan Mbeki.
marriage was only briefly happy: he dragged her back to the Transkei because of
his determination to develop his home region, and to earn a living as a trader,
outside of the wage trap of the white man. But shortly after they returned, and
set up shop in Mbewuleni, he abandoned her, leaving her with the business and
four young children. Running the store was difficult, there was a fire and a tornado,
and the family became impoverished.
the time Govan was arrested at Rivonia in 1964, their marriage was dead – but
the fact that he was now a famous life prisoner shackled her to him. Meanwhile,
her delicate financial and emotional circumstances meant that she visited him
in jail only twice in 23 years, thus compounding his own grievance.
Mbewuleni, she was constantly harassed by the authorities. Her daughter Linda remained
nearby, a solid and stoic presence, but her three sons disappeared into exile –
and one of them never came back.
murder of her youngest son Jama Mbeki, in Lesotho in 1982, was one of the
deepest of many traumas of her life. This was, not least, because struggle
alliances meant the ANC might have been implicated – and because, for political
reasons, neither her powerful son nor her powerful husband (after his release
in 1987) was willing or able to do anything about it.
This trauma was
compounded by the disappearance of Thabo’s son, Kwanda, whom she raised and
adored, and who disappeared in 1981. MaMbeki assumed that he had gone into
exile, but he did not return in the early 1990s.
the face of such adversity and bereavement, Epainette Mbeki’s greatest achievement
was the world she made for herself in the village of Ngcingwane, outside
Idutywa, where she moved in 1975, and where she has lived ever since.
It was a
world of engagement (she became a beloved and respected member of the
community), of industry and productivity (she set up women’s groups to bead and
sew and farm), and of modesty (she refused point-blank any
‘A mother, not a comrade’She
once told me that Moeletsi and Jama were more like her – feisty and challenging
outsiders who went against the grain – while Thabo was more like her husband,
the diligent revolutionary and party man.
Because of her health she has spent
much time in Johannesburg in recent years, staying with Thabo and Zanele Mbeki
in Riviera, but she has been emphatic about keeping her home at Ngcingwane, and
returning to it: “They weren’t around for all those years,” she said to me of
her sons, once, when I visited her. “These
people are my family.”
am not a member of the Mbeki family, or close to them, and so my observations
about what healing might have taken place during the last two decades are from
a distance. Certainly, she and her husband were not reconciled, and lived apart
until his death in 2001.
Since then, I
have noted how the family gathers around her, and values her, particularly her
remarkable grandchildren. I have noted the affection and respect with which
both her living children, Thabo and Moeletsi, talk about her.
I have noted how Epainette Mbeki – in marked contrast to her attitude in times
past – jumped to the defence of her son when he was dumped by Jacob Zuma and
Previously, she – like her husband – had held hard to the Marxist
dictum that the water of struggle is thicker than blood. During Thabo Mbeki’s
presidency, when asked to comment on him, she was cool, non-committal, and even
something atavistic kicked in, something maternal, when her oldest son’s world
collapsed in 2007. She criticised Zuma fiercely, and publicly defended her son.
Last year, in an interview, she mentioned to the reporter that she had been
invited by Zuma to a function: “How does he expect me to attend his function
when he has fired my son?” she responded.
are the words of a mother, not a comrade.
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