/ 5 May 2024

FROM THE ARCHIVES | Elections 1999: Guess who got Ma Mbeki’s vote

Mambeki Receives Honourary Doctorate At Rhodes University
Former president Thabo Mbeki's mother and widow of ANC stalwart Govan Mbeki, Epainette Mbeki, known affectionately as MaMbeki. (Photo by Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Four trees planted by Govan Mbeki decades ago — before the long years on Robben Island — cast their welcome shade over the rundown house and shop in the dust bowl of Kwa- Sofutha, outside the decaying Transkei town of Idutywa.

Since the windmill gave up the ghost in the 1980s and the thatching grass erased the communal standpipes, water has come from the river. There is no electricity — candles and fires have to do.

Angry young men, jobless and fast losing hope, wander the rutted tracks that pass for roads. Cattle search in vain for a waterhole and parents and children long for a high school.

This forgotten hole in time, not far from president-elect Thabo Mbeki’s equally dilapidated boyhood village of Mbewuleni, is home to his mother, Epainette.

At the age of 83, Epainette Mbeki still runs the little store set up in 1974 when the family moved from Mbewuleni. The shop saw the family through the long, dark years of Govan Mbeki’s imprisonment and Thabo Mbeki’s European exile.

Thabo Mbeki returned to Idutywa for a feast in his honour earlier this year, but he has never been back to Mbewuleni and has rarely seen Kwa-Sofutha. Ma Mbeki will not be drawn on this and it would be unfair, after all, to press the matter. The suffering has been long and there have been other more pressing priorities for simple survival beyond the fragility of feelings.

Now 8am on Wednesday, it is one hour to voting time and an almost beatific smile creases her face as the hubble and bubble from the nearby voting station peppers the deceptive tranquillity. Her eyes begin to light up and she gives her pointed black shoes a final rub and adjusts her special hat. She is immaculate in black and white as we walk to the car for the short drive to the polling station.

06 Jun 04 1999

She stops momentarily next to an African National Congress campaign poster bearing her son’s face, pasted on the peeling wall of the shop entrance. For a moment she looks wistful and her thoughts seem far away.

“I bet you never thought you would see the day,” I gently intrude.

“No,” she says, “I never thought I would. I am just so excited. I never thought that one day he would be president of South Africa, never.”

There is a queue outside the Ngcingwane voting station, but no one minds as Thabo Mbeki’s mother cuts in and makes her mark.

In seconds it is over and her face says it all as she steps into the warming sun outside. The years of hardship and unimaginable anxiety have been swept away in a single pen stroke.

“I voted for my son,” she says, struggling to overcome emotion. It is almost an afterthought as she adds, “and the ANC”, before we head back to her tiny home.

The former schoolteacher seldom speaks to her son unless he has “a problem”, she says, but her message to ThaboMbeki on this special day was a simple one — listen to all people and all advice equally, for “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.