/ 13 November 2015

Lauretta Ngcobo leaves a rich legacy in her wake

Women’s champion: Lauretta Ngcobo
Women’s champion: Lauretta Ngcobo

From 1963 to 1994, Lauretta Ngcobo, who has died aged 85, lived in exile. Escaping the apartheid state’s reach, her husband, Abednego Bhekabantu (“AB”) Ngcobo, followed by Ngcobo and their three children, went first to Swaziland, then Zambia, and finally settled in Britain for 25 years.

When she returned in 1994, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), of which she and her husband had been movers and shakers, was much reduced. The sustained assault on the PAC robbed South Africa of many great leaders, and it is tempting to ponder what Ngcobo would have brought to her homeland had she not been forced to live abroad.

What she contributed on her return was considerable: she served as chairperson of the National Council of Provinces and chairperson of the women’s parliamentary caucus in the KwaZulu-Natal legislature.

But it was as a writer that she gave most and was most lauded. Her debut novel, Cross of Gold (1981), told the story of the 1960 Sharpe­ville massacre. And They Didn’t Die (1990) examined the lives of rural African women oppressed by South Africa’s migratory labour system in the 1950s.

In 1994 she published a book for children, aptly titled Fikile Learns to Like Other People. Her literary endeavours garnered a Lifetime Achievement Literary award from the South African Literary awards in 2006 and the Order of Ikhamanga in 2008, “for her excellent achievement in the field of ­literature and for her literary work championing gender equality”.

Her last book, Prodigal Daughters: Stories of Women in Exile (2012), saw her editing and contributing to a ­volume of 12 women remembering their exile lives.

Adele Branch of UKZN Press recalls: “She had long thought that the men in the ‘struggle’ had always received recognition, yet no one had acknowledged the women. These women were not only those who joined their husbands in exile, but the daughters who were born there, always told about ‘home’ and how one day they would go back.

“However, on their return, they were often dismissed as having led a life of luxury while others battled on the ground. These younger women in particular have battled to adjust, because, when they were in exile, that wasn’t home – South Africa was. On their return, they were shunned and again felt they had no ‘home’.”

To such exiles, and to those who stayed behind, Ngcobo gave comfort because, as Branch recalls, “people mattered to her”.