Dear prisoner number 1323/69,
I have started out writing many letters to you but have never finished one. Today, I feel compelled to pour my heart out to you with the awful knowledge that you will never get to read it. Perhaps my error was waiting to hear the news of your passing before sharing my thoughts with you.
I was born in 1993 to the promise of freedom and democracy. I was told to wait for unending opportunities and a better life for me and my loved ones. As I write this, I am still waiting.
I have heard many tales about your resilient strength in times of adversity. I was told how you showed resolute love in a time of revolution and how you raised your fist to give hope to a people crippled by a system designed to annihilate them.
My grandmother told me that the name Nomzamo in isiXhosa means the mother of all endeavours, she who never stops trying and never gives up — and when I heard it was the name given to you at birth, I knew that she was not mistaken.
Just like you I am black and I am a woman in South Africa. I wake up every day to be reminded of my inherently subservient position in this society. I am reminded daily that this world is not made for people like us and I wonder how you survived 81 years in it.
The history books I read speak of able-bodied black men as the only heroes of the struggle. They portray pictures of figures with revolutionary beards and faded suits. They are tall and strong, these men who languished in jail cells, and they are the protagonists of the struggle against apartheid.
Their wives are peripheral figures who are only celebrated for their ability to maintain homes and raise children in their fathers’ absence. Nothing is said about the torture they endured. The many months spent in solitary confinement. The banning orders and the vilification. The slander they faced at the hands of apartheid media. The history books forgot to mention that, to you, apartheid was not just a bedtime story; it was a lived experience.
They forgot to teach us that you, while raising children in a patriarchal system, involuntarily became the torch bearer of the fight for liberation. They forgot to teach us that you were not just the wife of a struggle icon but the fearless figure who endured painful atrocities for a nation who adopted you as its mother but threw you under the proverbial bus after its father divorced you.
When I think about your life, I am reminded of my mother, my grandmother and many other black women who have laid themselves down as living sacrifices, enduring unrelenting pain so that their communities can thrive.
So, if you will have it, Nomzamo, please accept my apology. I am sorry for helping to demonise you with accusations of murder and violence. I am sorry for never speaking out when you were accused of breaking up a home with five children while failing to hold its father accountable. Forgive me for never telling you while you were still alive that, if God were a mathematician, you would be God’s line of symmetry, where the X-axis of your unwavering strength would meet the Y-axis of your undeniable love and loyalty.
I am sorry for the times I failed to mention that, if God were a musician, you would be the black chords and backbeat of God’s ballads. That if God were a musician, you would be jazz.
I am sorry for believing that you would be a stain on the cleanliness of Nelson Mandela because the truth is that you were the lifeline that kept his name alive. I am sorry for all the times I have weighed down on the importance of black women in our society. I am sorry for only buying them flowers on the days of their funerals. I am sorry for my complacence when they are pushed to the periphery and for watching silently when they are punched by the same fists that were raised with shouts of “amandla”.
I was raised by a praying mother and I have often heard the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is said, sometime between biting into the forbidden fruit and facing the wrath of God, Adam saw it fit to betray Eve instead of thanking her for his liberation.
The Garden of Eden became a courtroom of bigotry, where patriarchy received its powers from the supreme bench of religious judges. It is the place where Eve was sentenced to an eternity of pain and suffering, and many will apparently agree that she was a deserving sinner.
I spent many Sundays in church wondering what look Eve gave Adam during that pivotal moment when his index finger pointed in her direction after God had asked that pertinent question. This scene often reminds me of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where you sat down to answer for the heinous crimes you were said to have committed when the war was at its peak. The man you fought side by side with sat in the grandest seat in the nation. He resembled a God. The first of his kind, our black president.
I wondered when exactly the amnesia had set in. I wondered how it is that everyone forgot that the matchsticks and tyres you stood trial for had won them the liberation they now enjoyed. Like anyone else in a war, you, Nomzamo, were not a saint. You were a fighter and, in your fighting, there were casualties.
Though we may want to crucify you for them, we must never forget that you were also abused and battered by the system against which you fought.
I make this undertaking to you: I will not vilify you like Adam did to Eve. I will not forget that you gave up your own wellbeing so that I could be black and a woman in South Africa. I will not forget that, like my mother and other black women, you stood in the front lines of the struggle and not just as a subservient domestic figure, but as a commander.
For that, I say thank you, prisoner number 1323/69. You may never be celebrated in the same way as prisoner number 466/64 was but, to me, you will always be the mother of all endeavours, the hero who never gave up, and a woman who was able to love in a time of revolution.
A young black born-free