Text: Thando Sipuye
Photography: Supplied

On the 28th April 2018, a day after Freedom Day, 90 years old struggle stalwart and anti-apartheid activist affectionately known as the ‘Mother of Azania’, Mama Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, will be awarded the Order of Luthuli: Silver by South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House in Pretoria. Her son and the Executive Director at the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust (RMST), Dini Sobukwe, will receive the award on her behalf due to old age.

Significantly, Mama Sobukwe receives this long-overdue honour in this year marking the 40th commemoration of the death under banishment of her husband, founding president of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and a liberation philosopher par excellent, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, and exactly a day after South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy.

This is the first time the South African government is recognizing and honouring Mama Sobukwe.

President Cyril Ramaphosa decided to honour Mama Sobukwe with the Order of Luthuli: Silver for her “tenacious call for freedom of the people, service to the community and steadfast support of incarcerated freedom fighters”, said the Chancellor of the National Orders and Director-General in the Presidency, Dr. Cassius Lubisi in a statement released on Thursday.

But the ANC government is not honouring Mama Sobukwe out of their own volition or because they have had a change of heart in their attitude towards Sobukwe’s widow or Sobukwe’s legacy; the award on Mama Sobukwe is a shameful indictment on the conscience of a government that is structurally biased and selective in whose contributions and legacies it celebrates and whose memories it remembers.

For the past 25 years this government has rendered Mama Sobukwe irrelevant and non-existent, systematically erasing her from the collective national memory and from any public discourse on South African women liberation heroines and struggle stalwarts.

Mama Sobukwe is receiving this national order award from the Presidency because of the unwavering and diligent efforts of the young activists of the Blackhouse Kollective who nominated her to receive the highest national honour in recognition of her unsung role in the fight against white supremacy, following a Tribute Lecture in her honour during women’s month last year.

Beyond nominating Mama Sobukwe as a recipient of the national order, the Blackhouse Kollective further wrote a letter to the Presidency proposing the institution of a completely new national order named after her and dedicated to outstanding women who have made selfless sacrifices and contributed immensely in creating a just and equal society.

This proposal to the Presidency challenged the current patriarchal constitution and fabric of the national orders, reminding the President and his Advisory Council that of all the national orders that currently exist; none is specifically dedicated to recognizing the specific contributions of women in effecting change in society and restoring people to their true humanity.

There is no national order or award that is named after a woman or dedicated specifically to women; instead, of the six national orders currently in existence, two are named after men: Albert Luthuli and Oliver Reginald Tambo respectively. This speaks to the savage patriarchal dominance of male narratives which inherently obliterate women from national memory and consciousness.

Not a single monument exists in this country in honour of Mama Sobukwe, deliberately so. She represents a group of liberation stalwarts that have been completely erased and wiped out of the collective memory and consciousness of the nation.

Ostracized from popular public narratives and discourse, Mama Sobukwe lives in her humble home in Graaff-Reinet with her children and grandchildren, the broader community of Masizakhe Township who form part of her family, as well as countless individuals who visit her to pay their respects and salute a living legend.

Indeed, “a prophet is not without honour, except in his own town and in his own home.” Mama Sobukwe is not honoured in her own land. We have rather subjected her to further trauma and pain by relegating her legacy and contributions to irrelevance and insignificance to ever mention, let alone celebrate. We have been more evil to her than ever imaginable; so-called free and democratic as we claim to be.

We are a nation that has never taken a moment to celebrate the contributions of ordinary citizens in the struggle for total liberation and the overthrow of white supremacy, let alone ordinary women like Mama Sobukwe who have steadfastly remained Pan-Africanist in outlook, in views and in perspective till this very day.

At 90 years old, still going strong silently with profound diligence and a quiet dignity, without ever being acknowledged or celebrated, Mama Sobukwe is a living testimony to the inferior status and position that society reserves for women both in biographical and historical narratives, as well as in our collective social imagination.

She is not celebrated because she is not a member of the ruling party. What a tragedy for the nation and posterity; a tragedy of contemporary injustices we perpetuate collectively on our very own people through omission, exclusion, marginalization, erasure and silencing.

In a neo-colonialist country where patriarchy and misogyny are institutionalized and normalized, instituting a new national order named after and dedicated to a woman struggle stalwart - an individual not aligned to the ANC - would have set a supreme precedence by honouring silenced and forgotten women’s voices and experiences while they are still alive.

Mama Sobukwe is a symbol and a part of that greater collective of all those women; a living ancestor in our midst. Guilty of perpetuating epistemic violence against women, the government missed a lifetime opportunity at genuinely celebrating women by not instituting the proposed new national order.

Whilst the award bestowed on Mama Sobukwe’s honourable name is a well-deserved honour, it is an honour too little too late, and we must remind government of their reprehensible complicity in the systematic and institutional erasure and omission of Mama Sobukwe from public memory. The government is guilty of perpetuating epistemic violence against women.

This award bestowed upon Mama Sobukwe raises critical questions about the meaning of honour in South Africa, feminine honour versus masculine honour, and how we choose to honour, not only the elite and popular struggle stalwarts, but ordinary citizens and agents of societal change in our midst, women in particular. This honour exposes our national shame in forgetting our heroines.

Mama Sobukwe is a practical philosopher whose life is a testimony to her philosophy of selfless struggle, service to the people and sacrifice for the nation; a sage who did not become part of the struggle for selfish benefits and personal gains, but for the genuine cause of freedom. She has outstood the test of time, outshone all her adversaries and outlived many of her contemporaries.

It was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe who said: “Africa never forgets…These martyrs of freedom, these young and budding women will be remembered and honoured when Africa comes into her own.”

Indeed, when Africa comes into her own, Mama Sobukwe’s sacred name and indelible memory – and many other forgotten women - will be remembered and crowned with the highest honour in the land she fought and sacrificed her life for; her name shall be glorified by and marvelled at by forthcoming generations.

Those who have sought to blot out her memory and legacy must bow their sick heads in shame.

Thando Sipuye is an Afrikan historian and a social scientist. He is an executive member of The Ankh Foundation, the Blackhouse Kollective and the Africentrik Study Group based at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He writes in his personal capacity.