A Speech Delivered at a Black House Kollective (BHK)Veronica Zondeni Sobukwe Memorial lecture and Winter School
The 27th of July 2023 marked the 96th Anniversary of the birth of one of the revolutionary daughters of the Azania revolution, Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, a towering yet humble Africanist. It is the 7th year since Black House Kollective Soweto (BHK) took it upon itself to memorialize the Mother of Azania. The patriarchal historical writing in South Africa has not been kind to her like many other women in the Azanian liberation struggle. In many instances, that form of historic writing has relegated her to merely a ‘wife of Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe’. Her political prowess has been placed in the shadows of her husband.
Notwithstanding the fact that she was the wife of Mangaliso Sobukwe, I think it is imperative that her political acumen be excavated, refined, analyzed, and promoted. Unfortunately, this is a mammoth task in two ways, firstly Zondeni is an African (Black) woman, and secondly, she is of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), a counter-movement that opposed the 1955 African National Congress’s (ANC) multi-racial outlook in South Africa. Professor Simpson in a book titled History of South Africa: From 1902 to the Present (2021) defined the then-ideological contests of PAC and ANC as the “competition between liberation movements”.
After 1994, when the ANC had been ordained the ruling government, a number of liberation struggle memories were curated. These curations were mostly ANC-centric and largely patriarchal. Women’s memories in the liberation struggle were mostly overlooked. Amongst the dismembered was Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, the Mother of Azania.
The dismembering of the Mother of Azania prompted Thando Sipuye to write an opinion piece titled Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe: 90 Years of Struggle, Suffering, and Sacrifice (2017). In the piece, Sipuye argues that women are the bedrock of society and the primary nurturers of socio-economic and political revolutions and revolutionaries. He further claimed that when (political) history is told and written, their (the women’s) stories, contributions, and experiences tend to be downplayed or erased.
While Sipuye made a general observation about women’s stories, his focus was on Mama Sobukwe’s political stories. His focus was also an exposure to the politics of memory that the South African democratic government employs in curating memories.
Colleagues, comrades, and friends, on this day of memorializing Mama Sobukwe, I want to state categorically upfront that the downplaying that Sipuye is referring to is not only related to the women’s history as history but to the vocation of ‘Womanhood’ as a well. I am using the word vocation to mean, the aptitude of ‘Womanhood’.
Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, Womanhood and Maat
I believe that to nurture socio-economic, and political revolutions and revolutionaries, including being a bedrock of a society requires a special type of inclination. An inclination that can only be found within the concept of ‘Womanhood’. This concept, this inclination, I think can only be likened with the Ancient Kemetic principle known as Maat.
Maat is a principle that is understood to represent truth, justice, and righteousness-the correct order and balance of the universe. Its founders are said to have no distinction between human and divine justice. The objective of Maat was to keep chaotic forces away. The Maat is believed to have had the power to make crooked things straight, provide equality where there is none and provide justice in an unjust situation.
In my experiences having been raised within the principles of ‘Womanhood’, I can safely say that I have seen truth, justice, and righteousness in action. I believe that all of us in this venue as African children born in a settler colony, have not only hearkened to Maat, but we have been raised within the spirit of Maat. A principle that expressed itself in ‘Womanhood’. The convocation of ‘Womanhood’ is truth, justice, and righteousness.
With this understanding, I dare say, WOMANHOOD IS JUSTICE, JUSTICE IS A PUBLIC GOOD and PUBLIC GOOD includes HUMAN JUSTICE.
Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe: A Model of Azanian Womanhood
When the invaders settled and occupied Azania, they disturbed the order and balance of the African people’s universe. Their settlement compromised the public good (justice) of Africans which led to the underdevelopment of Africa, as Walter Rodney has excavated.
Imperialism, colonialism, coloniality, apartheid, and neo-apartheid (liberal democracy) in our country have trampled on justice as a principle. To do that, oppressors and their lackeys twisted the truth, redefined righteousness, and ejected the principle of justice for some rhetorical concept known as social justice.
Mama Zondeni Sobukwe, a towering Africanist that was able to analyze the objective realities of her people, resolved to recapture from the invader the meaning of truth, justice, and righteousness and understood it in its ancient Maat-ic form. In her time at Victoria Hospital as a young nurse, she was exposed to the injustice of her peers and when the time came for action, she led a nurse’s strike that halted the operations of the hospital.
Many years later, in the heat of the apartheid regime, when other Africans had bent to white domination, she maintained the Maat-ic principles of truth, justice, and righteousness. She, in truth, stood against invaders and their influence and claimed, South Africa does not belong to all who live in it, but belongs to the African people alone. She maintained as many have done in the Africanist tradition that justice is when the land is returned to its rightful owners- the indigenous African people. She righteously lived a life of service, suffering, and sacrificing, an ethos of the PAC. While these principles were implemented in a political space, the Mother of Azania also applied them in her everyday living. Mama Sobukwe put forth truth, justice, and righteousness even in her household, her place of work, and her social setting.
Mama Sobukwe exerted an Azanian Womanhood Power paradigm in many instances. Consider the naming of her four kids, Miliswa (the one who is rooted), Dinilesizwe (sacrifice of the nation) Dalindyebo (creator of wealth), and Dedanizizwe (move, you nations). In naming, which is an important aspect of personhood in African society, Mama Sobukwe displayed a powerful and ideologically grounded Azanian Womanhood. She did not ideologically misplace her children by naming them Cynthia, Brian, and the twins probably Matthew, and John. In her children’s names, she gave the African revolution and revolutionaries a constant reminder of the magnitude of righteousness, truth, and justice. For the Mother of Azania, justice was not separate from the public good. It is a principle she understood to be bringing order and balance to society and the universe.
In my imagination, I see Mama Sobukwe and her Azanian Womanhood Power paradigm in action. At house number 1526 B White City in Jabavu. In the years 1955/1956, the debate between the Africanists with the multi-racial Charterists is exceedingly broiling. Mangaliso Sobukwe, her husband returns home in the early evening, and Miliswa (an infant) blossoms at the sight of her father. ‘Prof’, (Tata Sobukwe as he was affectionately known by his peers) picks her up joyfully then he retires to the couch to have a chat with his wife.
As I continue to imagine, I can hear Mama Sobukwe enquiring lovingly, how was your day, Mangi’? (Ibinjani imini Mangi). A fatigued but enthusiastic Mangi narrates the ideological debates taking place in the public political space. After a long discussion, Mama Zondeni Sobukwe, I imagine her saying, Asazi ukuba iyakuzalankomonina [trans. We do not know what will emanate from this], however, Africa will not retreat! Africa will not compromise! Africa will not relent! Africa will not equivocate! And she will be heard.
Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe: A Courageous Woman
One quiet morning of the year 1963, Mama Sobukwe received a letter from prison signed by her husband. In the letter, Tata Sobukwe wrote amongst other things, “Since my future is so uncertain, I thought I should take this opportunity to tell you just how much your courage and love have meant to me during all these years of my imprisonment. Human nature is a queer thing, Darling”. In the passage, ‘Prof’ was acknowledging that Mama Sobukwe was not a mere auxiliary to him. To ‘Prof’, she was the pillar that courageously kept Robert Sobukwe steadfast in the Azanian revolution. Prof understood and witnessed Mama Zondeni’s vocation of Womanhood.
The Mother of Azania’s Womanhood was not exclusive to her husband and children, it was experienced by many for many years thereafter. When Mama Nontsikelelo (Ntsiky) Biko visited Mama Sobukwe in the aftermath of the murder of Steve Bantu, she was strengthened by the Azanian Womanhood of Mama Sobukwe. When Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu visited Mama Sobukwe in the aftermath of 1994, they experienced the Azanian Womanhood of Mama Sobukwe. When the Black House Kollective firstly inaugurated the Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe annual lectures in 2017, they were excavating and memorializing the Azanian Womanhood of Mama Sobukwe. Today, on her 96th birthday, BHK continues to be the curators of the Mother of Azania’s memory.
Injustice in the form of dismembering
Like many other Africans who were persecuted during apartheid, Mama Sobukwe was not spared of the persecution. She could not be safe from such considering that she was amongst the central figures that established the Pan Africanist Congress in 1959. The PAC of Mama Sobukwe opposed the multi-racial outlook and accommodation of settlerism in South Africa. It was a revolutionary socialist organization that sought a democracy of the African people by the African people for the African people. Unfortunately, her organization has not amassed enough electoral support since 1994 to implement its Africanist Socialist Democracy idea. Instead, a multi-racial organization has governed South Africa and engulfed itself in liberal democratic paradigms. These paradigms do not have suitable spaces of remembrance for people like Veronica Sobukwe and her memory.
Is the dismembering not expected? I am not amazed about it. You should equally not be amazed by this curated ‘forgetfulness’ because liberal democracy in its dictatorial nature is cruel and unjust. It divides people and their memories into different strata. It classifies people’s memories into zones of being and non-being. It has a rhetoric of justice (in the form of human rights), but it is built on injustice. In life, Mama Sobukwe lived through injustice even her memory continues to experience the injustice of the liberal democratic South Africa.
In modern South Africa, most people think liberal democracy is the best model of democracy. They fail to understand that this form of democracy has impoverished justice to mean ‘social justice’. It is a democracy that conceals its intentions of maintaining the subjugation of Africans to a status of inferiority under the guise of multiracialism. It is a democracy that suppresses the truth, a democracy that maintains chaotic forces, and it is a democracy that is devoid of balancing the universe. In fact, South Africa’s democracy is the new apartheid.
Mama Zondeni Sobukwe’s continual dismembering is curated within the South African exceptionalism school of thought, an ideological framework she abhorred. A framework that continues to be diagonally opposed to her Azanian philosophy. Those who have a similar ideological line to the Mother of Azania must continue to memorialize her Azanian Womanhood paradigm. Her revolutionary character must never be forgotten. If a new Azania will never be achieved where Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, Hilda Mngaza, Elizabeth Sibeko, Rebecca Matsobane, Belede Camagwini Mazwai, Elizabeth Gumede, and Nomvo Booi amongst others will be publicly remembered, then we only have to curate their memories in our hearts, minds and souls.
Long live the spirit of Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, long live!
Long live the spirit of the Mother of Azania, long live!
Long live the BHK, long live!