The mothers of our heroes

2014-08-08 06:45

More often, when we celebrate struggle heroes, we tend to give credit to the liberation movements that gave them prominence and to which, in turn, they gave prominence.

We neglect those who played a crucial and primary role in shaping and forming their personalities, which made them attractive to the liberation movements they led.

As we celebrate Women’s Day this year, I want to pay tribute to Noqaphi Nosekeni Mandela and Alice Biko, the mothers who gave birth to, and inspired, the adored and admired Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, respectively.

In doing so, I also want to highlight the high price the mothers in question and their sons paid in giving up the precious bonds that they shared as mothers and sons.

But more than that, I want to acknowledge the gift and sacrifice the mothers gave and gave up so that the nation could benefit.

Madiba and Biko’s fathers died when they were young.

In his book Conversations with Myself, Madiba’s pain of giving up being with his mother as a consequence of commitment to the struggle comes out sharply: “Being together with my mother in her home filled me with boyish excitement. At the same time, I could not avoid a sense of guilt as my mother was living all alone and 22 miles from the nearest doctor.”

Not that Madiba did not try to get his mother to live with him in Johannesburg. She refused, preferring the rural life of the then Transkei to the fast life of Johannesburg.

Still, Madiba’s conscience would not cease gnawing at his mental and emotional state: “I have often wondered whether a person is justified in neglecting his own family to fight for opportunities for others.

“Can there be anything more important than looking after your mother approaching the age of 60, building her a dream house, giving her good food, nice clothing and all one’s love? Is politics in such cases not a mere excuse to shirk one’s responsibilities?”

With unconcealed admiration, Madiba recalls that when his siblings tried to render their mother “financially comfortable, she chose to live an austere life and saving what one child gave her to distribute to any of her other children who happened to be in need”.

This observation gives us an appreciation of where Madiba’s spirit of generosity and sacrifice came from. It was the same with Biko.

In his personal memoir anthologised in Biko’s book, I Write What I Like, Father Aelred Stubbs recalls that it was Biko’s mother who “provided?...?an indomitable base of support”.

When the notorious security police enquired about her son, she gave “vacant stares and blank denials. Even if she felt fear, she never showed it.”

Biko’s dedication to the struggle resulted in him failing and abandoning his medical studies.

His pain is best captured by Stubbs again: “When Steve returned to King [William’s Town] …?he was just 26 and it must have seemed that he was returning to his home town as a failure. He was not qualified for any profession?...?the chances of employment for a banned ‘bantu male’ in a ‘dorp’ like King?… were slender. But more than that, he would seem to the local community to have failed in every respect.

“He had not qualified as a doctor, which would have been a great honour for the Ginsberg community and a special pride to his mother, who had sweated for his education.”

It is Stubbs’ empathy for Biko’s mother that captures my imagination as he fondly writes about his “admiration for his [Biko’s] mother, struggling to give her four children a better education than she could afford, and becoming prematurely aged in the process”.

She must have aged more as she had to bury her child who was killed brutally at the hands of the brutal system. Her child did not bury her; she buried him.

In Madiba’s case, the son was not allowed to bury his mother. The apartheid system was too indecent. Not content with confining him to a prison cell, it would not allow him the therapeutic process of laying his mother’s remains in her grave. The mother died longing for her son.

» Sesanti is an associate professor at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s department of journalism, media and philosophy.

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