In her brief testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the treatment of her husband in prison, Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe highlighted the toll it took on her children. There were the strip searches that became part of their Robben Island visits, the night-time police harassment that would see them shipped off to boarding school and the torturous incarceration of their father in which he was fed glass and operated on without permission.
“Dedani would weep when he would go see his father,” she told the commission. “For a year he could not do anything. He started drinking. Dedani is heavily affected. I request that the new government, because in 1979 we took Dedani to King Edward for psychiatric treatment… contribute in his rehabilitation. If he could learn some form of trade, some skill. He has kleptomania.”
The appeals made for her children were the same ones echoed for her husband’s release and healthcare when the system failed to release him from the Island, creating a special clause to keep them jailed.
“She wrote combative letters to the system,” says Thandolwethu Sipuye, a master’s student in history at Fort Hare University working closely with the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust. “She was engaged in combat with her pen as a sword. She wrote letters to BJ Vorster, Petrus Pelser, [Hendrik] Verwoerd, Jimmy Kruger… She suffered physical and psychological torture by virtue of being this man’s wife.”
Sipuye believes that, because of the patriarchal and misogynistic portrayal of the struggle for liberation, many of the roles Sobukwe played are not seen through the prism of activism, such as her nursing of casualties in Soweto during the time of the Pan Africanist Congress-led pass protests.
Former Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) councillor Lehlohonolo Shale says: “Walter Rodney, in The Groundings with My Brothers, he talks about a revolutionary executing their task where they are based at.If one is an academic then they must contribute ideas that seek to transform that space. Mam’ Sobukwe was a health practitioner, a nurse. She served her people diligently within that area of health.”
Sipuye and secretary for political and Pan-African affairs in the PAC Jaki Seroke describe Sobukwe as a camera-shy person who rarely gave interviews but she would speak frankly in private. The effect of this is that efforts to memorialise her life have had slow beginnings.
Born on July 27 1926 in Shobeni, a small village in KwaZulu-Natal Sobukwe tasted the pre-Group Areas Act environment when service was vital to communal survival. “She was always reticent and felt like ‘What’s the fuss? I have contributed in a way that many others have done.’ In Graaff-Reinet, Mam’ Sobukwe went to public hospitals deliberately,” says Seroke, who is editing a coffee-table pictorial book on Robert Sobukwe.
“She always felt why should she get private treatment when she knew the people at the public hospital. As a nurse, she knew the kind of help the people needed. She’d be admitted to hospital and start helping the nurses. ‘This one suffers from this, and that one, this what is wrong her.’”
On the pictorial book, to be released through Sechaba sa Seriti, Seroke says Sobukwe’s feeling was one of relief about finally finding the people to tell her and her husband’s story. She contributed some of her treasured photographs alongside those by luminaries such as Peter Magubane and Alf Kumalo.
“I’d depend on the narrative she’d relate,” says Seroke. “This is a story about her husband through anecdotes and directions that she gave me.”
Sipuye, who has also worked on a biography, stresses that by the time Sobukwe met her husband, on the frontlines of a Victoria Hospital nurses’ strike in Alicedale, she was already familiar with systematic racism.
At an early age in Shobane village, her family was evicted from a farm her father owned. “Having had these experiences as a child is why she was able to lead the strike from the frontline,” says Sipuye. “That’s how he [Robert]took notice of her and their relationship began.”
Although Sobukwe had to deal with apartheid’s reality from an early age, she grew up in anurturing family of mostly sisters, says her son Dinilesizwe Sobukwe, which is probably what sparked her approach to life. “Wayengumama onothando [She was a loving mother], that’s one thing I’ll always emphasise,” he says. “Uma ukhe wambona wahlangana naye, kwaku mele wazi ukuthi konke kuzolunga, noma ubunzima bunjani na [When you saw or encountered her, you would know that everything would be fine, no matter the hardship].”
Former Constitutional Court judge Yvonne Mokgoro paints an almost contradictory picture of Sobukwe. “She was very assertive, with a quiet wisdom,” she says. “Her children will also tell you that she also had a good sense of humour, sometimes dry but she could make you laugh.”
Mokgoro met the Sobukwes in Kimberley, to which “Prof” was banished after serving his sentence on Robben Island. He ran a law practice there with a partner. She remembers the period as one of relative quietude.
“Prof had a practice to run with his partner Mr Nzimande,” Mokgoro says, recalling the period just after the Turfloop uprisings of the early 1970s.“Having been banished to Kimberley, Prof was not politically active as he has all these restrictions, like he couldn’t meet more than one person at a time. But he did it anyway, especially at his office where you couldn’t tell who was a client or who was just a visitor.”
In that period, Sobukwe was a nurse at West End Hospital, a tuberculosis hospital in Kimberley. “She played a supportive role at home. Some of the children were there and she’d participate in the conversations when people came home, just like in an ordinary couple. The conversations were political but not in a partisan political manner. They were highly charged convos about the nature of the system of apartheid.”
That Sobukwe chose to stay in Graaff-Reinet, her husband’s birthplace and the place where he lies buried, is, in a way, how she has chosen to guard his living memory. But, as Shale warns, she was also deeply invested in the ideas of the PAC, not merely as a proxy to her husband.
“She exemplified the values that the Prof spoke about,” he says. “It’s very rare to get that type of character where a person speaks less but does more. It’s like: don’t do what I say, do what I do.”
Sipuye says a second memorial lecture in Sobukwe’s honour will be postponed until the family has had a chance to mourn. An honorary doctorate was to be conferred on her by the Vaal University of Technology in September. That ceremony has also been rescheduled because of her death.
For Sipuye, there is dignity in that these moves had been made prior to her death. Death was cheated of its victory dance. Sobukwe upholds a place of pride for the different ways women shouldered the burden during the liberation struggle.