If a single image could sum up the life of the late Violet Molebatsi Gwangwa (1938-2021), who died on 6 January and was laid to rest on Tuesday, it might be a vibrant climbing plant. The matriarch of trombonist Jonas Gwangwa’s family tended and nourished such plants wherever they settled.
In Botswana, on 14 June 1985, the apartheid regime blasted the family home, destroying everything. But she made sure green shoots flourished again: in London, the United States and, finally, back home in South Africa.
Those shoots symbolise how she also nurtured the resilient growth of her family and friendships, and the creative spark not only of Jonas, but also of all the artists among her children and his band-mates.
Her life embodied the essential role family members play in creative communities. Alongside that, she was also a highly competent travel professional, was active and effective in several women’s organisations including the Mothers Union, and, in Botswana, courageously undertook underground work for the liberation struggle.
Violet Kabe was born on 21 September 1938. She and Jonas Mosa Gwangwa had been childhood friends in Orlando East. As they grew up, they used the same public tennis court; she asked him to teach her piano, and the two went through all the awkwardness of teenage flirtation and courtship. Jonas paid ilobolo to her family in 1958.
But in 1961 Jonas left the country with the cast of King Kong, and went on to study music in New York. Violet later reflected that it was the “university of life” during the 14 years before they met again that gave both maturity and their subsequent marriage its strength.
Their communication had been disrupted by long silences and apartheid Special Branch interference, but “when Jonas landed in Botswana” on 21 May 1976 for a tour, she recalled: “We just looked at each other, and he said: ‘Jy is nog daar.’ ” They married four days later.
I knew Violet Gwangwa when I was part of the Medu Art Ensemble in Botswana. We all saw her efficiency, warmth and energy in projects for work, church, family and community. She had a very modern approach to family: with most relatives still back in South Africa, her willingness to help wherever it was needed allowed her to build what she called “masika a matirelo” (self-made relatives). “Wherever you are,” she said, “you become part of the people.”
Simultaneously, she was shielding her younger children from the perils of murderous cross-border raids that could occur at any time. Her good sense and prescience ensured no one was home when apartheid’s killers hit on 14 June.
What I did not discover until much later, when helping to edit a family biography, was her secret role in providing a contact point and sometimes a resting or meeting place for ANC cadres arriving in the country. They’d ask at the border post for their “relative, Mrs Gwangwa”; she would do the rest, with the same meticulous care she employed in other parts of her life. No one should underestimate the courage that took.
After the June raid, the family had to move again, to London and then the US. High spots, such as the 1988 Oscars ceremony (Jonas had received two nominations for the Cry Freedom score), interrupted only briefly years of battling racism, immigration rules and family hardship. In London she did domestic work; in the US she studied and qualified as a nursing aide to secure employment and residence. During those tough times, not only her family but Jonas’s playing colleagues in the Amandla Cultural Ensemble and other outfits recall she always had welcoming warmth for them, tirelessly holding links of kinship and friendship together.
In 1991, the Gwangwa family returned to South Africa. As well as setting up a family home in Observatory, Violet established another in Polokwane so the family could reconnect with their roots and draw from yet another wellspring of creativity. “When we are happy,” she observed, “[Jonas] will go to the piano, because something sparks.”
As friend, comrade, wife, mother, organiser and inspiration, Violet Gwangwa gave an immeasurable amount to South Africa’s cultural life. Our landscape would be barren without such strong women. Their stories are vital to our history. Hamba Kahle.