Struggle icon Zondeni Sobukwe was humble ‘mother of prayer’

FILE PICTURE: Nelisa Sobukwe (left), Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe and family friend Vaida Sokopo during the handover of land for a memorial museum to Robert Sobukwe in Graaff-Reinet. Image: BRIAN WITBOOI/The Herald via Sowetan Live )

Liberation struggle icon Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe — widow of PAC founder Robert Sobukwe — died at her home in Graaff-Reinet at 2am yesterday, aged 91‚ following a long illness.

The Sobukwe family will remember “Mama Sobukwe” for “her humility and the simplicity with which she approached and viewed life”, the family said in a statement released yesterday.

Zondeni Sobukwe, a nurse and resolute anti-apartheid activist who supported her family for decades while her husband was incarcerated and targeted by authorities, was belatedly honoured by the ANC government when she was awarded the Order of Luthuli earlier this year, 40 years after her husband’s death.

Paying tribute to her memory, Rev Jacob Freemantle, Bishop of the Grahamstown District of the Methodist Church of South Africa, said Zondeni “was indeed the mother of prayer who continued to pray even at the time when Father Sobukwe, finally handed himself over to the police after the protest against the dehumanising Pass Laws on 21 March 1960.”

He said: “Mama Sobukhwe was a very committed Methodist Christian who worshiped regularly in the Methodist Church of Graaff-Reinet.

“In the Methodist Church she belonged to Mothers of Prayer Union called Women’s Manyano, a committed group of women who regularly meet, preferably on Thursdays, to intercede for the country’s leaders, the poor, the hungry, the Church, etc.

“Apart from above, her husband was a fully-accredited preacher of the Methodist Church. We have now lost a humble lady of 91 years, a spiritual visionary, a fearless mother of our times who wrote numerous letters challenging the state injustices and corruption. Blessings to such a dear soul.”

Expressing condolences to the Sobukwe family he said: “We continue to pray for the family at this sad time.”

PAC secretary-general Narius Moloto told City Press that although the party was saddened by her death, it was happy and proud of the role that she had played in the liberation movement.

When Robert Sobukwe and Zondeni met in 1949, he was the president of the student representative Council (SRC) at Fort Hare University while she was a trainee nurse at Victoria Hospital in Lovedale. She was expelled from the college for her leadership role in a labour strike that year. The couple married in 1950.

The PAC leader was arrested after he handed himself over for his role in leading nationwide protests against pass laws in 1960. He was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison for incitement, but the government refused to release him after his jail term ended, instead enacting a “Sobukwe Clause” which allowed it to keep him in jail indeterminately.

Considered a threat by the government, he was moved to Robben Island in 1963. There he was kept in solitary confinement to keep him from influencing other prisoners. When his health deteriorated in 1964 the government turned down an application for his release.

After his sudden release from jail in May 1969, he was placed under house arrest in Kimberley. The authorities refused to allow him to go overseas to receive treatment for cancer or to take up lectureships in the United States.

He managed to complete his law degree and started his own practice as a lawyer in Kimberley in 1975. He died of lung cancer in 1978.

Appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997, Zondeni testified about how authorities had refused her husband access to proper and independent medical examination. She also said that during one of her visits to him on Robben Island he complained that he had been served food that contained broken glass.

According to the statement released by her family yesterday: “Mama Sobukwe fiercely challenged the regime on the unjust conditions surrounding Robert Sobukwe’s incarceration under the draconian Sobukwe Clause” and “remained a backbone for her family and sacrificed her life for freedom and the vision of a liberated Azania (SA)”.

The family said it will release details of the memorial and funeral services once they have been finalised.

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