In April, Veronica Zodwa Mathe, affectionately known as the “Mother of Azania”, was awarded the Order of Luthuli. Born (Zondeni Veronica Mathe) on the 27th July 1927 in Hlobane in KwaZulu-Natal, she got married to Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe on the 6th June 1954. She was an activist in her own right. She and Sobukwe met in the struggle and their story was that of “love at first sight”, as Veronica said some years ago. Ma Sobukwe, the wife of the late Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) founder and first President, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe died on Wednesday, 15th August at the age of 91 at her home in Graaff-Reinet, Eastern Cape.
In her youth she participated and led protest marches against racist conditions imposed on trainee Black nurses at Victoria hospital eDikeni (Alice). It was then that she met Robert Sobukwe who was the President of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of Fort Hare.
On the 16th August 2018, President Ramaphosa announced that Mma Sobukwe will be accorded a Special Official Funeral Category 2. This category is reserved for distinguished persons specifically designated by the President of South Africa on request by the Premier of a province. In accordance with this funeral category and in her honour, the country flags are on half-mast as a sign of mourning until the day of the funeral.
According to Thando Sipuye‚ an executive member of the Africentrik Study Group at Fort Hare‚ who paid tribute to her last year to commemorate her 90th birthday.
“Mama Sobukwe epitomises the collective experiences of many other black women throughout the African continent and diaspora‚ whose roles and contributions to the liberation struggle remain unacknowledged‚ unrecognised in popular historical narratives‚ biographical memory and national consciousness. The life story of this indomitable woman is one marked by constant neglect‚ pain and erasure.”
Veronica Zodwa Mathe Biography and Profile
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”, as Veronica said some years ago.
She endured the rejection of the racist apartheid regime which she challenged through her numerous letters to the likes of then Prime Minister B.J. Voster, demanding the release of her husband; as well as the current ANC government that undermines the contributions the Sobukwes made to the liberation struggle.
At the time, 1949, Sobukwe was the president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at Fort Hare University 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 and 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 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-one 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.
Veronica also had this to say at the TRC hearings 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.”
The ANC government has in the past come under sever criticism from those who believe that it has neglected struggle icons such as Veronica.
When the government honoured Veronica on April this year, Thando Sipuye, an executive member of the Afrocetrik Study Group at the University of Fort Hare wrote: “…but the ANC government is not honouring Mama Sobukwe out of its own volition or because it has had a change of heart in its 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.
“For the past two decades this government has rendered Mama Sobukwe irrelevant, systematically erasing her from the collective national memory and from any public discourse on South African liberation heroines and Struggle stalwarts. 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 wiped out of the collective memory and consciousness of the nation.”
South Africa Owes Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe Gratitude
Johannesburg – South Africa owes Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe gratitude for her role in the fight against the apartheid regime, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies said:
“Mrs Sobukwe epitomised the courage, endurance and loyalty of the innumerable women whose husbands or partners were imprisoned, banned or exiled because of their political activities yet continued to further their ideals while also raising families and serving their communities. South Africans owe her, and all the other unsung heroines of the liberation struggle, an enduring debt of gratitude,” the SAJBD said as it paid tribute to the widow of Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) founder Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. She will always have an honoured place in South African history for her loyal, steadfast support for her legendary husband, the great Pan-Africanist leader Robert Sobukwe, during the struggle against apartheid.”
Narius Moloto said: “We will honour her for her contribution in the (anti-apartheid) struggle. She contributed to the struggle by supporting her husband‚ Robert‚ through thick and thin. When Robert was arrested‚ she was there. It was she who was supporting him and raising their children while he was incarcerated.”
The Sobukwe family says it will remember Zondeni‚ the wife of Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) founder Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe‚ for her “humility and simplicity”.
“The Sobukwe family is deeply grateful for the gift of her life and the innumerable lessons she leaves behind‚ and even as we mourn her passing‚ we celebrate her humility and the simplicity with which she approached and viewed life. Indeed‚ a great tree has fallen.”
“She had her first experiences of and direct confrontations with racism‚ the apartheid state and police at an early age‚ consistently challenging ruthless authorities and calling for justice on numerous occasions throughout her life.”
“In her youth she participated and led protest marches against racist conditions imposed on trainee black nurses at Victoria hospital in Alice. Her leadership of this protest march resulted in her later meeting with Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe‚ the then Students’ Representative Council (SRC) president at the University of Fort Hare.”
“Following the Sharpeville uprising on March 21 1960‚ Mama Sobukwe fiercely challenged the regime on the unjust conditions surrounding Robert Sobukwe’s incarceration under the draconian Sobukwe Clause (which Parliament enacted‚ empowering the minister of justice to prolong the detention of any political prisoner indefinitely)‚ remained a backbone for her family and sacrificed her life for freedom and the vision of a liberated Azania (SA).”
Veronica and Sobukwe were blessed with four children, Miliswa, Dinilesizwe, Dalinyebo and Dedanizizwe.
- Zondeni Veronica Mathe Biography and Profile