Sacrifice and love. Love is one thing she stuck with and showed to everybody. It wasn’t like you had to be on a certain level or have a title — you could be whoever you are and she would sit with you and have a full conversation and want to genuinely know about you. So, the values and character I gained from her, I would say love and sacrificing yourself for others,” said Adoko Sobukwe-Whyte, speaking about his gogo, Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe.
This sentiment received knowing nods of agreement from Nomfundo Sobukwe, Thando Sipuye, programme director at Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust and the Hlatshwayos, who were neighbours to the Sobukwes and helped them out many times when they were in need. The group gathered at Vaal University of Technology’s Vanderbijlpark campus to talk more about how Mama Sobukwe affected their lives, what the institution’s honorary doctorate meant to them and the larger cause of pan-Africanism and women’s rights in the country and continent.
“This is about inclusion, you know. It’s about a broader understanding of our history that is inclusive. Mama Sobukwe was not a ‘high’ person; she was a humble and ordinary woman. She represents thousands of other ordinary women throughout the continent whose voices remain silent, untold and erased,” said Sipuye.
During the rousing acceptance speech given by Sobukwe’s niece, Fikile Mathe, she reiterated this notion. “On behalf of the Mathe and Sobukwe family, we are greatly humbled by this honour. Mama Sobukwe epitomises the collective experience of many other black women throughout the continent, whose role and contribution in the liberation struggle remains unacknowledged. I hope we do not end with Sobukwe, but continue for the sake of our children and grandchildren to recognise all those who gave up so much in the fight against oppression,” said Mathe.
Executive director and trustee of the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust, Dinilesizwe Sobukwe, believed the recognition from VUT honours his mother’s sacrifices. “My mother endured immeasurable suffering throughout her life without complaining. As a family we are pleased that VUT is bestowing this honour upon her in recognition of her great sacrifice, service and suffering. In celebration of her humility and the simplicity with which she approached and viewed life, we dedicate this award to all ordinary African women whose contributions remain silenced and forgotten,” he said.
For family and friends of the Sobukwes, VUT’s public affiliation with Sobukwe through the honorary doctorate will do much for public education of the country, and help to address the erasure of PAC heros and heroines in the nationalist discourse about the anti-apartheid struggle. “For me, it’s about educating our young people. Our young people need to be informed of the actual struggle heros,” said Thulisile Hlatshwayo. “This is about justice as well,” added Sipuye.” We are dealing with the issues of epistemic violence that excludes and erases other people,” he said.
Hlatshwayo continued: “So, my son, for example. He only knows of the PAC and the Sobukwes because we talk about it at home. So many people in this country don’t even know that Ntate Sobukwe was in Robben Island in solitary for six years. He was alone in a room by himself for six years. People don’t understand the mental trauma he went through for the struggle.”
Through the efforts of the Sobukwe Trust and the seeds of pan-Africanism that were sown many years ago, there are students who are still engaged in Pan-africanist Congress (PAC) values and thought. Jimmy Khosa, Pan-African Student Movement of Azania provincial chairperson in Gauteng, was in awe of the heavyweights in attendance at VUT’s humanities graduation, and touched by the celebration of Ma Sobukwe.
“Thank you for honouring a leader that usually Azanian masses turn a blind eye to. She was the mother of the nation and we owe her so much. To the Sobukwe family, I’m so glad that you came to our institution to collect the degree. Unfortunately, Mama is no more, and we would have wished to honour her in person, but thank you,” he said.
Individual accolades and recognition — and any time in the limelight — was something Sobukwe shied away from. She was a down-to-earth person, and someone who was most comfortable shining the light on others.
“If I just think back to Gogo right now, as Thando was saying earlier, she was a very humble person. In her living room there’s a record of all the times she met different people and she would take you around and talk about all these people but say nothing about herself — that’s the type of person she was. So, with the honorary doctorate, I feel that she would take it and smile, but she would share it with everybody,” said Sobukwe-Whyte.
“Her love and commitment to the PAC was strong,” said Nomfundo Sobukwe. One cannot remove Sobukwe’s talents, skills and activism from her founding membership of the PAC, and her dedication in helping the organisation to survive. In many ways, her legacy is a communal one, as opposed to a singular one.
“She was the true embodiment of what the PAC means when it says: Serve, suffer, sacrifice,” said Sipuye. Nomfundo Sobukwe summed up the values she learnt from her grandmother as follows: “Being humble, being selfless, putting other people first,” she said with a smile. “And she was very strict!” added Hlatshwayo. Everyone burst into laughter, lovingly remembering the Mother of Azania.