Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe once honoured by writer Es’kia Mphahlele, who described her as ‘the devoted mother and wife who turned pain into an ever-glowing shrine’.
TODAY marks the 91st birthday anniversary of Mama Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, a woman who has endured much suffering, struggle and pain. Born Zondeni Veronica Mathe on the 27th July 1927 in Hlobane in Natal, she got married to Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe on the 6th June 1954 and, in line with African tradition and matrimonial rites of passage, she received the customary nuptial name of Nosango. She bore four children, Miliswa, Dinilesizwe, Dalindyebo and Dedanizizwe.
Her suffering, struggle and pain has largely been erased from the annals of our history books. Like many ordinary Black women in South Africa and the continent, this is a broader phenomenon that seeks to silence and erase women’s contribution to society and the liberation struggle. We today bring you her struggle, suffering and pain as captured by her submission to the Truth And Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in on 12 May 1997. Read, weep and be inspired by her bravery, courage and tenacity for justice.
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
SUBMISSIONS – QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
DATE: 12 MAY 1997
NAME: ZONDENI VERONICA SOBUKWE
CASE: EC0155/97ALB – KING WILLIAM’S TOWN
CHAIRPERSON: Mrs Sobukwe, are you Zodwa?
MRS SOBUKWE: I am Zondeni.
CHAIRPERSON: Zondeni Veronica. We welcome you Mrs Sobukwe in this hearing and we will ask Reverend Xundu to help you take an oath.
REV XUNDU: Thank you Mr Chairperson.
ZONDENI VERONICA SOBUKWE: (Duly sworn, states).
REV XUNDU: Thank you. Mr Chairperson, she has been properly sworn in.
CHAIRPERSON: Ntsikelelo Sandi will lead you with questions on behalf of the Commission.
ADV SANDI: Thank you Mr Chairman. Let me first greet you, Mrs Sobukwe, this morning. How are you?
MRS SOBUKWE: I am fine thanks. How are you?
ADV SANDI: I am fine thanks. How are you? You have made a request, Mrs Sobukwe, to appear before the Commission today to tell us about Mr Sobukwe. We all know him. Some of us read about himself in books, but today we find opportunity to talk to his wife, Mrs Sobukwe. Let us start this way, Mrs Sobukwe, can you please tell us briefly about Mr Sobukwe.
MRS SOBUKWE: In 1963 on the 30th of May, my husband was to be released on the 30th of May, but he was not released. The Government refused. He was one of the people who built up an organisation. They then decided that they will pass a Sobukwe Clause so that they can keep him. It was on the third of March. On that day I was knitting the jerseys for the children. He also said that I must cook him dinner, because he was coming back home. When I went to visit him I was told that he was transferred to Robben Island under the Sobukwe Clause. I took my younger sister together with her husband and Mr Langa to Cape Town, because we wanted to visit him. My younger sister together with Fabian Ribeirro and Mr Langa from Orlando East, we went to Cape Town, asked permission to visit him. We found him there, he was arrested under the Sobukwe Clause.
ADV SANDI: Before he was sent to Robben Island where was he detained?
MRS SOBUKWE: He resided in number four where he was awaiting trial. He was then transferred to Stoneyard in Benoni. He was then taken to Stofberg, from there to Witbank, from Witbank to central jail. It was where he spent three years. After that he was then transferred to Robben Island. We visited him and then we came back. In November I made an application to visit him together with my children who were in the boarding school in Lesotho. My twins were four years old at the time. We went to visit him. His condition changed at the time. He was not well. When I cam back home I wrote a letter to, Verwoerd was the Prime Minister. I was then directed to Minister of Justice to write a letter to him. I wrote a letter that he should be released so that he can get medical attention at home, but they refused. We also wanted an independent doctor.
In 1964 a district surgeon and neurologist and a physician were sent there to examine him. They said that he was suffering from chronic sinus inflammation. He was treated. I then said to Mr Benjamin we must write a letter to a lawyer so that he can get a specialist. They said that they were treating him, they are not going to allow an independent specialist, because they were giving him pain killing tablets and massages, but in 1964, that was in 1964. In 1965 they refused. He arrived in Robben Island in 1963. He was born in 1924 in December, but in 1964 he was suffering from chronic sinus inflammation. The Parliament would discuss whether he was to be released or not, but they would refuse.
In February 1966 they transferred him to Karl Bremer. They did not tell me. I heard about this when he came back from Karl Bremer. He stayed there. He was admitted under a false name. They sent him to Karl Bremer under a false name. I do not know anything about that. He then came back, he was taken to Robben Island. They did not consult me about this. When I went to visit him the following year his condition deteriorated. I then wrote another letter. I was writing twice a year asking for his release. I wanted him to be treated. In 1965 or 1966 he complained that his food was served with broken glasses.
ADV SANDI: You mean broken glasses in his food?
MRS SOBUKWE: Yes, in his food. He was alone at that time. You would suspect, you would think why they would keep him alone in the cell. There are things that were done to people in jail at that time and I am sure that they did these things to my husband, because he was alone in the cell.
ADV SANDI: At this time, we are talking about a person who has completed his sentence in prison.
MRS SOBUKWE: Yes, he was not even re-arrested, he had completed his sentence.
ADV SANDI: But the Parliament changed the Law of that time. This suppression of Communism Act.
MRS SOBUKWE: It is both the NP and the opposition party of the day that agreed that he should be, he should remain in jail. It is only Helen Suzman who spoke up for him. Even the opposition party said that he should remain in custody. Nobody wanted him to be released.
ADV SANDI: Mrs Sobukwe, you have made a request in connection with the National Party that was the Government of the day. Would you please repeat that request yourself?
MRS SOBUKWE: All those doctors that examined my husband whilst he was in custody, the Government of the National Party must give me answers. Why was he in solitary confinement?
ADV SANDI: Mr Sobukwe passed away in 1978?
MRS SOBUKWE: In 1969, the last letter I wrote was in 1968, November. They wrote back to me saying that they will not release him, because they got information that he was still quite dangerous. In 1969, May, they released him quickly. I later found out on the 26th of April 1968.
ADV SANDI: Was he released on the fourth of May 1969?
MRS SOBUKWE: Yes. The reason why he was released was because he wrote to me a registered letter and also to an attorney and the Minister of Justice of the day. He asked me to come to Robben Island immediately. He said he wanted to inform me about his health. He said that I must request leave without pay at work. I got that letter a few days before he was released. The Minister of Justice took action, because he realised that something must be happening in jail. They then released him quickly in 1969.
ADV SANDI: Was he then taken to Kimberley?
MRS SOBUKWE: Yes. As they had operated on him, his genitals would swell up all the time. If you would take his Kimberley file, you would realise how thick it is because of the illnesses. He started coughing chronically. I do not know what the cause was. He had cancer of the lungs. We requested that he go see a specialist in Johannesburg. They refused. When he was critical they then allowed him to go and see the specialist. He will take X-rays in Kimberley time and time again. All the doctors had different opinions. Nobody diagnosed the cancer of the lungs in Kimberley. The doctor, the specialist from Johannesburg requested the reports from Kimberley. They then sent the reports from the different doctors to Johannesburg when they realised that he was dying.
ADV SANDI: Was he under certain conditions in Kimberley?
MRS SOBUKWE: We were from Mvule in Johannesburg. He was banished to stay in Kimberley for five years, he could not go home. By the time he passed away they were trying to bring you the banning order.
ADV SANDI: Mrs Sobukwe, do you have a request or requests to put before the Commission?
MRS SOBUKWE: I have heard this question, because people have been asked. What worries me is that my husband was attached to my children, very close to them. The one twin Didane, when we could go to the docks in Robben Island, they would be stripped naked. We would take some clothing and food for him. Didane was close to his father. Even the father, when he wrote, he would say he misses Didane with his broad smile. What I realised is that when his father got this treatment after he had been operated on the lungs, when Didane would go to the Kimberley Hospital to visit him, Didane would weep when he would go see his father. For a year he could not do anything, he started drinking. Didane is heavily affected. I request that the new Government, because in 1979 we took Didane to King Edward for psychiatric treatment. I request that our Government, the new Government contribute in his rehabilitation. If he could learn some form of trade, some skill. He has kleptomania. When he gets to the hospital he just takes down curtains and everything. He is not well. Sometimes he would be taken to jail, he would be arrested. They would release him, because he would handle himself well. Shortly after his father died in the hospital he would rob nurses, take their purses and run away. I request that he go, that he be taught some form of skill. Didane is in prison at the moment, sentenced to six months for housebreaking and theft. When he gets into jail he gets parole all the time.
ADV SANDI: Is that all you have to say Mrs Sobukwe before I hand you over to the Chairperson?
MRS SOBUKWE: Yes, but I also have a request that the Commission refurbish the schools in our area and also if there would be a sport field so that people are occupied in a proper way.
ADV SANDI: Thank you Mrs Sobukwe. Thank you Mr Chairperson.
CHAIRPERSON: Reverend Xundu.
REV XUNDU: Thank you Mr Chairperson. I remember the day of the burial of Comrade Sobukwe. There were a whole lot of people. His funeral reflect that a whole, that people supported him. There was Mangosotho Buthulezi amongst those people. He said that he had gone to the funeral, but he was not allowed to attend it. People complained that Buthulezi’s presence at the funeral was putting down the standards of the leadership of Sobukwe. Do you think that this leader should not have been arrested and should have been allowed to be amongst his people? Do you understand my question?
MRS SOBUKWE: No, please repeat your question.
REV XUNDU: The presence of the people at the funeral service of your husband was an indication of the respect of the nation for the contribution your husband had given to the liberation struggle and, further, the fact that people would not allow the presence of persons who were assumed to be collaborating with that system to be present, was an indication that people did not want to compromise the struggle that your husband had waged against apartheid. Would you consider that to be true?
MRS SOBUKWE: A funeral is a funeral. Even if you are a witch you should not be chased away from a funeral. It is not good to chase anybody away from a funeral. It is not a good thing. There is no dignity in that, no honour. No matter how cruel you are, you should not be chased away from a funeral.
REV XUNDU: In the numbers in which they were in, was an indication that the people were in solidarity with your husband in every respect, about the fact that his human rights had been abused. So that it is pain of your pain and the nation’s pain at large.
INTERPRETER: The speaker’s mike is not on. The speaker’s mike is not on.
CHAIRPERSON: To be married to the man of the stature of Robert Sobukwe must have, and his life, must have affected your life, your health and that of your children. How did your life get affected by the fact that you got married to this man, Robert Sobukwe.
MRS SOBUKWE: When I met my husband he was already in the struggle. He had come to the Victoria Hospital in Lovedale. As nurses we did not even know about the Youth League. We were on a strike, because we would do our jobs properly, but we were not properly treated. We wrote down our complaints, ten of them. One nurse was told to leave and we said we are all leaving. We were not members of the Youth League. They were members of the Youth League. However, the people from Fort Hare would come and help us. We were told to go home for two months, unpaid leave. Sobukwe had been addressing a gathering in Queenstown. This is from the early years when I had just gotten to know him. Nothing came to my surprise or shock, because from the day I met him he was in the struggle and he died in the struggle. Everything was to be expected. I was not too grieved, in the sense that I expected these things.
CHAIRPERSON: When he was arrested or his arrest left your home fatherless and you were without a husband, you were the father of the home, as Robert Sobukwe was arrested, were your children still at school or were they working?
MRS SOBUKWE: My first born child was six years old. In 1960, Melissa was six and then my second born was four years old, my twins 18 months old. I took them to Lesotho. I realised that as the police would not even give us a peaceful night, I realised that my children go to boarding school. Then I took them to Lesotho from Sub B up to matric. It was better for me, because at work I would be at peace as my children were at boarding school. Between nine and ten the police would always come. We tried to cheer ourselves up as the ladies and we would laugh, make a joke out of it.
CHAIRPERSON: Did you ever have time to live together as a family after Mr Sobukwe had been released from jail?
MRS SOBUKWE: Yes, from 1969 to 1978 we were able to do so.
CHAIRPERSON: Were your children with you at the time?
MRS SOBUKWE: They were still at school.
CHAIRPERSON: When Mr Robert Sobukwe was arrested how was his health? If you could give us a picture so that we can see and compare his health before he was arrested and after he was arrested.
MRS SOBUKWE: He was a teacher at Standerton. We were staying together. He was lecturing also at VISA. There was not one single day where he would not go to lecture. He was fit, never even complained of a headache, but after he left Robben Island his health had deteriorated immensely. Before he would go to work he would exercise. That is how fit he was.
CHAIRPERSON: My second last question, Mrs Sobukwe. You say that Mr Sobukwe was operated on whilst in custody. They operated on him even though you had not given them permission as his wife. Did the police give you the name of the doctor?
MRS SOBUKWE: No, they never even told me that he had been operated on. He just told me in a letter that he had been operated on. I do not even know what they diagnosed.
CHAIRPERSON: The last question, Mrs Sobukwe, from me. Yesterday was the last day for amnesty applications, Saturday, sorry, it was the last day for the application for amnesty. I do not want to miss an opportunity to have somebody of your stature, if the perpetrators have applied for amnesty, what is your view about these applications? I would just like to know. For example, say the doctor that operated on your husband is one of the people that has applied for amnesty, according to your evidence, his life had deteriorated because of this operation.
MRS SOBUKWE: Yes, even the people that were feeding him, giving him food with pieces of glass.
CHAIRPERSON: So if these perpetrators ask for amnesty, do you want, would you like them
to get amnesty?
MRS SOBUKWE: First they must divulge all. I want to know, for example, why the doctor did not report this.
CHAIRPERSON: Thank you. Are there any questions? No questions. Mrs Sobukwe, we thank you. Before you go down, I would like to thank you on behalf of the Commission for having come before us. We are aware of your age, we are aware of your health, but you sacrificed, came before the Commission to give us a picture of the ill-treatment of Mr Sobukwe whilst he was in custody. We are aware we are talking to the wife of one of the national leaders of our country and, indeed, we are honoured. We will look carefully into your evidence. The TRC has a special hearing that is coming up where we are going to be examining the role of the people who played a role in the medical field. Your question we are going to put forward before these people, even the Warders that were involved. If we have any more details that we need, especially his medical files, we will probably approach you for this information. Thank you.