Julius Malema: My humbling encounter with MaMbeki

2014-05-04 06:00

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Our travels since the start of the election campaign have indeed been rich, productive and humbling.

But one of the most humbling encounters happened when we met Mama Mbeki.

This was not supposed to be in the programme and certainly not set for electioneering, but if you are campaigning in the area of so great a person and name, you cannot help but attempt even to pass by and say your salutations.

Well, the reality is that one cannot actually say they know Mama Mbeki. She is someone I know as political, having been active in the congress movement, but I have never heard her say a speech, seen her in one of the conferences or heard even a proposal that she must be in Parliament, even back when she still did have the energy.

I have had to admit to myself that I know very little, except what we read and often these are no reliable references for claiming that you know someone.

If I have learnt anything from own my experiences, it is precisely that what one reads about others is often far from who they truly are.

This is attested also by her final words to the media that day when we met her in her house that “do not say the things we did not say”, because she is well aware of this fact about writers.

We drove into Dutywa with members of the media following us all the way from our meeting with King Dalindyebo. Off the tar road we went on to the dusty gravel roads of rural Eastern Cape.

One of us immediately remarked: How could Thabo Mbeki, having been in the presidency since 1994, not fixed roads that go to his own home?

But soon before the thought even found completion, we arrived into the place where they say Mama Mbeki lives. Humble indeed! And certainly not different whatsoever from all the houses in the surrounds. You would not say there is the home of the former president, or her husband, the former Robben Islander, Govan Mbeki.

We were ushered into the house by two men, one of them a member of the family and the other his friend. Mama Mbeki was seated on a couch directly facing the door, with a tea table at her knees; on it were two exercise books, one covered and the other not; and a pen and a newspaper.

We entered and immediately greeted her in isiXhosa, she smiled happily and said: “I have been seated here waiting for you since 9am this morning. I even thought maybe you are no longer coming.”

It was just before 2pm. This shocked us because the appointment was set for 2pm.

“But I am happy you are here,” she said, and asked that refreshments be prepared for us.

Having lived with and being raised by an elderly woman, this immediately touched my heart because I knew what it meant. I knew we were truly welcome and our coming kept her enthused.

More touching was when she repeated: “I said if I were young I would have voted for the EFF.” She added, smiling: “I do not know who it offended.”

She told us we could speak isiXhosa or Sesotho – both were her languages and she knew them well. Next to her sat the gentleman who had escorted us and had introduced himself as Mbeki and a child of the home we were in.

I noticed right next to the door on the inside was a photo of Thabo Mbeki, directly facing her on her couch. Interestingly, this was a portrait of Thabo Mbeki when he first became deputy president of the country; this was one of those framed pictures that hang in government buildings.

There were other pictures on the wall, some with groups of people where it seems they were hosting her at some events. The truth is, our eyes keep picking up these details because in essence she remained a mystery to us.

Nevertheless, she allowed us to talk, to introduce ourselves and say what the purpose of our visit was. We told her we were not here to campaign, although we were in an elections campaign; that we were in the neighbourhood to see King Dalindyebo and thought if she agreed, we could pass by and say our greetings.

We told her that we had started a party, but we thought we should also offer an apology if our role in our previous political home might have offended her and her family.

That if we had said anything during the political disagreements with her son that may have rubbed her badly, we wished to apologise and explained that we had been misled by those who were leading us.

As we explained, she interjected and said when you are done talking, please tell me so, so I can also speak. We all laughed and quickly concluded.

She told us not to worry about the past. She said when all of this started she told those who were close to her that it was only the beginning and many great things were still coming because change in the country was upon us.

She indicated that for her, in her old age, only two things were important: one is delivery for all and not for some. She said it does not matter which party it came from, as long as it was quality service delivery.

At this point, Mama took us into how economics work in Eastern Cape; the importance of farming, water and supporting local production; and the consumption of agricultural produce.

She said Eastern Cape does not have minerals, and therefore its key economic development must be based in agriculture.

We were listening attentively, sometimes in awe of the coherence and wit of Mama Mbeki – the precision of political and economic use of language and her general prose and delivery told us we were meeting a teacher and a sharp mind. Absolutely fascinating and captivating.

Later, Mama said what made her happy was to see an active youth that makes rumbles.

This I was not hearing for the first time coming from an old woman comrade. The first time I heard it was from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, to whom the youth – the politically active youth – was always crucial.

We presented her with a gift: a winter blanket. She accepted it with excitement, indicating to us that as a Sotho person, a blanket defined her.

I cannot say that I now know Mama Mbeki, but that day, we all felt like we had been with someone divine: she carried so much wisdom and grace. Meeting her has left a signature that I will bare for good.

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