Veronica Sobukwe turns 90
VERONICA Zondeni Sobukwe – the Daughter of Afrika – turns 90 tomorrow.
One of South Africa’s renowned writers and authors, Es’kia Mphahlele, described Veronica, the wife of South Africa’s struggle icon Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, as “a devoted wife and mother, who turned pain into an everglowing shrine”.
Veronica was born on July 27, 1927, in Hlobane, KwaZulu-Natal. She and Sobukwe met in the struggle and their story was that of “love at first sight”, Veronica said some years ago.
Sobukwe was the president of the Student Representative Council at Fort Hare University in 1949, while Veronica was a trainee nurse at Victoria Hospital in Lovedale. The nurses at the hospital had been involved in a labour dispute with hospital management. At the time Veronica was one of the leaders in that strike, which caught the attention of Sobukwe and other student leaders.
In his call to students, Sobukwe said: “The trouble at the hospital is part of a broad struggle. We must fight for freedom, for the right to call our souls our own and we must pay the price.”
Owing to her involvement in that strike, Veronica was expelled from Lovedale College in 1949 and she and her friend Thandiwe Moletsane (later Mrs Makiwane) went to Joburg after being sent by the then Fort Hare ANC Youth League to deliver a letter to Walter Sisulu to bring to his attention the plight of the nurses in Alice.
It was during those trying times that the bond between them grew and they tied the knot in 1950. Veronica supported her husband throughout, including praying together on March 21, 1960, when Sobukwe handed himself over for arrest in protest against the pass laws.
He was sentenced to three years in prison for incitement, but the apartheid government refused to release him after his jail term ended.
The government instead enacted a “Sobukwe Clause” which allowed it to keep Sobukwe in jail for as a long as it wanted. He was taken to Robben Island in 1963 and kept away from other prisoners as the apartheid government considered him very dangerous.
Twenty years ago Veronica recounted the pain of being separated from her husband and the effect it had on their children. She also revealed the ill-treatment and humiliation suffered by Sobukwe while he was in jail.
All these gory details were made public when Veronica appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on May 12, 1997, in her bid to find the truth about the cause of her husband’s death.
Commissioners and members of the public listened in awe as Veronica told them how the apartheid authorities refused her husband access to proper and independent medical examination.
In 1964, Sobukwe’s health deteriorated and Parliament was forced to discuss his release, but it refused. “In February 1966, they transferred him to Karl Bremer (Hospital in Bellville). They did not tell me. I heard about this when he came back from Karl Bremer. He was admitted under a false name. They did not consult with me. He was taken back to Robben Island and when I visited him he complained that his food was served with broken glasses,” Veronica told the TRC.
“You mean broken glasses in his food?” one of the commissioners asked.
“Yes, in his food. He was alone at the time… There are things that were done to people in jail at the time and I’m sure that they did these things to my husband, because he was alone in the cell,” Veronica said.
After his sudden release from jail in May 1969, the police continued to haunt the Sobukwe family. They refused to allow Sobukwe to go overseas to receive treatment for cancer. They also refused him a passport to leave the country after he was offered a lectureship at the University of Wisconsin in the US.
During the TRC hearings, Veronica Sobukwe was not asked about her own sister, Florence Ribeiro, who was gunned down along with her husband, Dr Fabian Ribeiro, in their home on December 1, 1986. Earlier, in March 1986, their house was bombed, but they survived the attack.
All this affected Veronica, but clearly did not break her spirit. At the TRC hearings, she had this to say about her husband’s death and commitment to the struggle: “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 aggrieved, in the sense that I expected this to happen.”
It is because of her commitment to the cause that Mphahlele paid tribute to Veronica in an interview with the Sunday Times on March 25, 2003, and said: “You were there with Mangaliso, Mama Veronica, ever ready for him to draw the vigour, succour from the family warmth that only one can know in his woman’s embrace, a million times reassuring you were there with him Daughter of Afrika, at the banging and clanging of prison doors and gates.
“They (the police) were in the busy wards where your man lay, listening to the ravaging beat of his pain.
“You had been there witnessing it all – a man fixed on a course, to set black humanity free; a man breathing the hills and breaking his feet on rocky road.
“Always, you were reminded this – that no one in all of savage Christendom could break your man’s mind or spirit, or trample on the sanctity of your home – divine gift of supreme one attended by the ancestors.
“This could be made a heading: We salute you Daughter of Afrika, devoted wife and mother who turned pain into an everglowing shrine.”
Happy birthday. Thank you for your love and bravery.