By Dr Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo
WEDNESDAY 22 August 2018, was the day epitomised by a series of memorial services for Mama Sobukwe held in different parts of the country. At the University of Fort Hare, the Centre for Trans-disciplinary Studies and the Centre of Theology Studies organised her memorial service. The Mother of Azania did not only pass away on the 40th anniversary of the death of her husband, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, but her memorial service was also held at the venue where her husband delivered his popular speech on 22 October 1949 as the out-going president of the Students Representative Council at the South African Natives College which later became known as the University of Fort Hare. https://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/robert-sobukwe-speech-university-fort-hare-president-students%E2%80%99-representative-council-21-oct
During this memorial service, I delivered a tribute to Mama Sobukwe titled: “The Mother of Azania: A Woman of Resilience, Strength, Dignity and Unwavering Love of her People”.
The passing of the Mother of Azania reminded me of SEK Mqhayi’s poem dedicated to the late Charlotte Manyhi Maxeke. The poem ends by saying:
“Ze siqhayisele ngal’amavilakazi.
Az’ angaz’ alityalwe kowabo;
Az’ angaze’ alityalw’ emhlabeni;
Az’ angaz’ alityalw’ e Afrika!
Translated to the colonial masters’ imperial language (English):
“May she never be forgotten by her people;
May she never be forgotten on earth;
May she never be forgotten in Africa.
The life and times of Mama Sobukwe was epitomised by four S’s. These are: struggle, serve, suffer and sacrifice. I summarised her life and times into four key pillars. These are: her as a nurse, a politician of note independent from her husband, community builder, a mother – not only of her family but of Azania- and a spiritual person.
Mama Sobukwe died disappointed by the present government. For instance, in dealing with the case of some Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) members who are still imprisoned. Secondly, the way they treated her. Thirdly, by the levels of corruption and the glaring shortfalls of the present government.
The government’s hypocrisy – pretending to have cared for her by granting her a special state funeral (category B state funeral) – is an empty gesture and opportunistic inclination.
In addition, she was disappointed by the present state of affairs of the organisation she served and her husband founded. The PAC has been overshadowed by its past. It needs to seriously do introspection and clearly define its trajectory.
I then ended by focusing on two fundamental issues. I problematized the opportunistic gesture of the so called special state funeral and outlined her legacy and the greatness of the Sobukwe name in our political landscape.
Her historical contribution and significance is erased from the great man approach and gender bias narrative and memorialisation of the past. This problematic monolithic historical narrative with its hierarchies of representation and inclusion present a disjointed national discourse and account of the past.
Post-1994, Mama Sobukwe did not get any form of support from government and struggled on her own. Her struggles were multidimensional in nature.
Hamba kakuhle Mother of Azania, daughter of the soil.
In preparing for the memorial service, it was interesting to observe that most of the institutions that issued condolence statements and their flags raised halfway when Mama Winnie Madikizela Mandela passed on, did not for Mama Sobukwe. This is the indictment of the ANC mythology – peddling a narrative of the liberation struggle that profiles the ANC and its leaders at the exclusion of others. This narrative is also epitomised by the hierarchies of representation and victor-loser complex. It further illustrates the continuous marginalisation and erasure of Robert Mangaliso and Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, and many other unsung heroes and heroines from the official account of the past.
This observation between the two mourning periods also permeates through to the institutions of higher learning. Their attempts to try to be politically correct and be relevant to the popular politics feed to the officially curated and edited narrative promoted in the present. This is nothing more than popularism, politics of relevance and their artificial transformation and decoloniality. It also points to the hierarchies of representation and inclusion in these universities.
On 25 August 2018, the Mother of Azania was laid to rest. The weather was cold in the early hours but got warm as the day progressed and by the afternoon it was windy. Parallels can be drawn between the weather at different times of the day and the scenes that were observed at the beginning of the official state funeral with the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Mapisa-Nqakula as the programme director, and the Deputy President DD Mabuza to deliver the eulogy.
The funeral service started well with the arrival of the coffin at 6am carried by the APLA /PAC members to her home and then to the Methodist Church, recently renamed Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, in the township in Graaff Rienet. During the church service, the coffin was draped in PAC flag and her Methodist Church regalia.
The official state funeral was planned to take place in a big tent at the cricket stadium. After the church service the funeral continued to the stadium and it was at this point that the discontent started. The unhappiness expressed by the PAC members at the beginning of the ‘official’ state funeral has been widely reported in electronic media, particularly SABC and eNCA , and in some print media including the Citizen and TimesLive – as “Factions of the PAC disrupt the funeral”.
This is nothing more than sensational journalism, negative branding of the PAC and a fallacious observation. The use of the term “factions” was being economical with the truth and lacked scientific merit. I was present at the funeral and I did not see any of the so called ‘factions’. I saw PAC members that were not happy with some of the events that took place at the funeral. They rejected being reduced to being mere observers in their funeral. It would be interesting to know the approach used by these media houses to reach the conclusion they splashed on their headlines and continue doing.
They create sensation even where none exists. The case of Narius Moloto, which was also splashed on media headlines to peddle this view of factionalism is also a case in point. Moloto is not the president of the PAC. Instead he is the construct of the media and the ANC who give him platforms on their news programmes and a platform to speak during the Sharpeville/Langa Day, presently known as the Human Rights Day. Perhaps, this also demonstrates the contradictions of the ANC as it recognises Luthando Mbinda in Parliament.
The two factions of the PAC recently met in Kimberly to find common ground and pave the way forward; and Moloto though invited, did not attend. If the later was a leader of any faction, why did he not attend the meeting? It is because he knows he is not legitimate. He imposed himself by manipulating some individuals. He is a non-issue and the media should stop promoting him as the leader of the PAC.
This sensational journalism and reporting is informed by a discourse of popularism. The discontent by the PAC members demonstrated the dialectics of the notion of the so called ‘state funeral’ by the ruling party for the liberation organisations that are presently not in power. Further, it brings to the fore and in public discourse the complexities of some of the national symbols such as the flag, anthem and others that emerged during the transitional period but have since become permanent without relooking at their political meaning, socio-historical value and relevance in the present. What happened at the funeral give us time to ponder on the question of the state funeral and the related fundamental matters such as the symbols and the non-negotiables.
The shallow and narrow posture of the media as shown by how they reported the funeral failed to communicate the key complexities of the so called state funeral in burying the individuals belonging to the former liberation movements that are not in power. This talks to politics of power, power struggle, arrogance of power, political identity, de-politicisation through the state funeral, acknowledging the past with liberation movements and disrespect. These issues are more important than the approach that was taken on reporting the funeral.
The state needs to rethink and relook the complexities of the so called state funeral for the members of the former liberation movements that are not in power. The funeral of Mama Sobukwe demonstrated the dialectics and challenges. What was experienced at the start of the official funeral reminded me of what was also witnessed at the funeral of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe in 1978 when the mourners did not welcome the presence of Nkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The latter was later escorted out of the funeral. The funeral continued after that with no interruptions as was also observed in that of his wife – a common thread that ran in their funerals, though at different historical periods.
I was not born yet to witness the funeral of the victims of the 21 March 1960 anti- pass campaign both in Langa and Sharpeville. I was too young to witness the funeral of Steve Biko and that of Sobukwe in 1978. But I was old enough to attend the funeral of Sabelo ‘Pama’ Qhwetha and that of the Mpendulo family in 1993. Furthermore, I was to some extent involved in the preparations of the funeral of the Mother of Azania – attended the first planning meeting with the state on the request of the family but did not attend subsequent ones.
The arrogance of power at the funeral of Mama Sobukwe was exhibited at different levels. Firstly, only having the officialdom programme director up until the PAC members objected. They sang and sent a delegation to the programme director demanding to have a co-programme director that would come from the organisation. The officialdom was not sensitive to the PAC up until the latter stood up for itself in the way it did.
As I was present in the first planning meeting – also attended by the premier’s office, presidency and public works- I personally asked about some of the issues that were later objected to the PAC members at the funeral. I was not given a clear response than to be told the matters would be taken to the political principals. So, government was not sensitive instead imposed themselves which proved to be a problem. There are two possibilities of how they handled the matter behind the scenes: Firstly, a response that say ‘we will do it the way we have been doing it’. Secondly, a situation of arrogance overtook rationale.
Secondly, their decision to leave after what they called ‘cutting short of the state funeral’. This arrogance of power and authority saw Mabuza, Ministers Thulas Nxesi and Mapisa-Nqkula and their officials to leave. If that was not the case of arrogance of power but a genuine farewell to the Mother of Azania, they would have remained until the service was completed.
Thirdly, this arrogance of power also surfaced with disrespect. From the start, the state programme director referred to the PAC as the Pan Africanist Congress of South Africa. It is a known fact that the PAC is of Azania not the former. Further, as a former liberation struggle activist and in government she should know that. But she ignored the truth and the political identity of the party and instead imposed the name South Africa. This was an integral part of this imposed state image at the funeral. Irrespective of the so called state funeral, no one living in this country, politically active and with historical consciousness of the South African struggle against apartheid, would commit the blunders she made. This was not a blunder it was rather disrespect, arrogance of power and authority.
The non-negotiables as the government officials stated, which included draping of the coffin in the national flag, flag on the stage, the singing of the national anthem, police services – played into the hands of the arrogance of power by those who were responsible from the officialdom.
The de-politicisation of Mama Sobukwe by the ANC and its officialdom was a violence of a kind, violating her political identity. The claim that the Deputy President left under protection for safety says a lot as that was not the case. There was no security risk that would have necessitated him to leave. If it was so and the PAC was disruptive, the funeral service would not have continued after they left. Further, the fact that Nxesi and the acclaimed programme director of the state funeral with their officials left after the so called state funeral, a period which they were not in power or in control, illustrates the power struggle, arrogance of power and disrespect by them.
The use of the ANC phrases such as ‘Maqabane’, ‘comrades’ in a PAC funeral- contrary to the officialdom claim that it was a state funeral- demonstrated arrogance of power, disregard of the PAC and imposing the ANC political identity over that of the PAC. In the same way this offended the PAC, it would have offended the Muslims if a Christian came to a mosque, led the session and started singing Christian hymns. The act by the programme director was dismissive of the PAC political identity and offensive not just to the PAC members, but importantly, to the Mother of Azania and her family.
Dr Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo is a historian, heritage studies specialist, museologist, the former Rockefeller Scholarship holder at Emory University (US) and the former Fulbright Scholar at Cheyney University (US). He’s previously held the following positions: National Museum Chairperson, Council Member of the Gauteng Provincial Heritage Resources Agency and peer review editor of the international journal – Museological Review- in the field of museums and heritage studies (an on-line journal published annually by a community of PhD students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester in UK). He is the Director and Head of the Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies at the University of Fort Hare. He is writing on his personal capacity.