The other gogo who inspires me

2012-01-21 10:36

Last year, not long after the passing of gogo Albertina Sisulu, I received a summons from my other grandmother, MaAgnes Msimang. Upon arrival, she thrust a newspaper in my face. On the front page was a picture of her. And next to it, the name of my recently deceased grandmother.

A tale of two grandmothers mixed up. I laughed. It was not the first time this particular error had been made in a publication. Apparently, all old ladies with Afros look alike.In drafting a notice of correction, I began to illustrate what I thought were the real similarities between my respective gogos.

Chief among these was that both my gogos are heroes – to me and many others.While the story of gogo Sisulu is well documented, my other hero shares a life-long dedication to the betterment of her community. Accordingly, I thought it fitting to kick off this series with her story. What makes MaMsimang tick? Definitely her children.

Not just her biological children. Having worked at the ANC’s Social Welfare desk since her return to South Africa after 31 years in exile – tending to the welfare of many children born of now deceased Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) cadres – she has amassed a brood she fiercely defends as her own.

Senior ANC leaders will tell of her fight for resources for her kids’ orphanages, of her arm-twisting for bursaries and of her ability to sweet-talk high-flying businesspeople to find employment for them.

While my cousins recall sharing their rooms with a new house guest every so often, my uncles share similar stories of sharing their home with her pupils.

Before Tanzania’s independence, English bureaucrats left the country, resulting in a shortage of skilled professionals to work in the public sector. In a quid pro quo for land and refuge, then ANC president OR Tambo put his professional comrades to work to fill this gap.

MaMsimang’s profession was teaching.MaMsimang soon made a mark as her scholars excelled in their studies. She was a self-appointed social worker who gave vocational guidance to her scholars, intervening in their domestic troubles – even bringing them into her home when needed.

She boasts about still being in communication with children she taught long before I was even born. She speaks with pride of how many of them turned out, the same pride with which she recounts her methodology: “You must prepare before you walk into the classroom?.?.?.?know how to make a subject interesting.”

The one subject interesting to me, but which I struggle to coax out of her, is her decision to go into exile in 1960. I gather it was more than simply following her husband, Mendi Msimang (an activist then articled at Mandela and Tambo’s law firm), who evaded police capture by slipping into Swaziland as the persecution of anti-apartheid activists increased.

With two toddlers by her side and a baby on her back, she was smuggled into Botswana and flown to Tanzania. She tells of how late struggle heroes Duma Nokwe and Robert Gresha organised her travel, and of how she received her marching orders from my other grandfather, Walter Sisulu. Mysteriously, she refuses to divulge the details of her “secret mission”.

It would be two tough years of reallocations and ridicule at the hands of the locals before she was reunited with her husband. She had begun teaching in Lesotho in her early 20s after having studied there on a scholarship organised by a famous rector.

Men of the cloth and their schools took up the brunt of educating many black people at the time, something which the introduction of Bantu Education policies curbed by voiding the school certificates of church schools. A young Agnes Skhosana experienced the closing of one of her schools, St Thomas in Faraday, because of this.

The second of three daughters to a widowed domestic worker, she moved about frequently during her youth, staying with different relatives as either illness or poverty shunted her to the next place. Only her academic excellence – and her family – afforded her an opportunity for stability.

It was in Lesotho that she met her husband, who introduced her to politics and a community of freedom fighters. In the 1970s, she would again join him in India as one of the chief representatives of the ANC, creating another link in a global chain of anti-apartheid solidarity.

There, faced with extreme ignorance of Africa in general, she started Africa Clubs to educate the Indian people about the continent. The Indians, meanwhile, educated many South Africans in key professions such as medicine.

She drifts off as she wistfully recounts the many contributions people across the world made to the South African struggle.

People like the Zambians, where were she was next posted as deputy head of the women’s section. Again she beams as she speaks of her work with many young women that today play recognisable roles in government and business. Here she began to attend to the welfare of bereaved families.

Shortly after her return to South Africa, she worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, finding burial sites, sharing heartbreaking truths with bereaved families and arranging pension benefits for those left behind. Today she arranges for the exhumation and return of fallen MK soldiers.

Ironically, her own son remains in a Zambian cemetery.Speaking to MaMsimang of her past, one gets the feeling that though life was harder then, it was simpler for principles. There is a selfless stoicism that her generation was gifted with that we can only marvel at.

“You people were lucky, born with silver spoons in your mouths,” she trails off, not mentioning how she helped put the spoon there. Instead, she reaches over to a pile of documents at her bedside, pouring over letters appealing for help.

Since her 83-year-old hips began troubling her, she spends more time working from home, although she can be found shuffling into her office at Luthuli House at least three times a week. A picture of consistency. And determination. Like a quiet engine. Or any hero.

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