Mme: The level-headed heroine

2017-06-08 06:00
On The CouchTarzan Mbita

On The CouchTarzan Mbita

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“Mme”. That is how everybody refers to the senior citizen and Struggle stalwart who now goes by the honorific of Dr Mandu Mildred Ramakaba-Lesia, courtesy of an honorary doctorate degree in Public Management from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology(CPUT). It is such a mouthful, when one considers that an obsession with titles or some such niceties remotely befits her modus operandi.

So Mme will suffice.

And since not very many older women are referred to as “Mme” these days- for once they reach a certain age, the demeanour changes and society deliberately refers to them as ‘Gogos’; only good enough for the gogogos or dustbins of society- this Mme has stood the test of time, the vicissitudes of life notwithstanding.

During our couch moment at her house, it emerges that Mme is still so level-headed that just talking of her own contribution to the Struggle is in itself an aberration, for she always uses the collective ‘we’ in reference to the years of her youth and the ANC, the ANC Women’s League, the Communist Party, the Elsies Rivier Civic Organisation(Erco), the Brick, Cement and Quarry Worker’s Union, the Federation of South African Women, detention without trial, the Goodwood Treason Trial, Oscar Mpetha, Zolile Malindi, Looksmart Ngundle, the jailer’s wife, the United Democratic Front, the Mass Democratic Movement, Makana Square, the Grand Parade and many more.

Also add to the list the Flying Eagles Rugby Football Club, which Mme says she founded with Simon Makgetha and Portia Lufele. In the era of political banning orders and underground political activities, the club was supposed to be a political vehicle, only disguised as a rugby club. Thats revealing. These are the things and people that came to define her life.

It also emerges that people of her calibre are a dying breed in a society headed by a political leadership that is now becoming known more for its verbosity, blustery, pomposity, skulduggery, treachery and the betrayal of the gains of our Struggle.

It is once she settles down to talk about anything and everything that our conversation begins to take more shape, with an interesting turn of snippets of her social and political life.

Her full name is Mandongoane Mildred Ramakaba. But people she grew up with in Langa still refer to her as ‘Mandu’.

Mme was born in Langa in 1933, and because they were backyard dwellers then, when Kensington came to being, they relocated there. But she has lived in places far and away in the Free State, where her family originally comes from, including such as Sharpeville, Alexandra and Bothaville. There’s a tragic tale to her grandparents relocating from Lady Brand to the Cape.

A plague was sweeping through the village, and by fate appeared to afflict only the kith and kin of the Bakoena ba Ramakaba clan, and the young children were dying like flies.

After an Imbizo among the clan elders, it was decided to break up the families, so that each could relocate to their place of choice. It was done to save the progeny and ensure the continuity of the clan.

The clan was so decimated that others believed their misfortunes lay in the name; thus today you find the Tenyane lineage of the Ramakaba clan. It was tragic. While others spread across the country, her grandparents opted for Cape Town, and that’s how they came to be.

As we talk, I notice that scores of young women come in and out of the house. They are relatives, and Mme tells me just the thought of being alone scares her to death. That having people in her house all of the time is a trait she inherited from her parents, who in turn, inherited such from their own parents.

“There were always people in our house. Lots of people...singing songs and dancing to them...”

Nostalgia for a homeland that brought only misery played a great part in these songs of remembrance.

She speaks greatly of her father, an upright man, she says, whose death changed the course of her life for ever.

“He imbued in us the principles of resoluteness, fairness, justice and the love of our people...”

Mme suddenly opens up: From Kensington they moved to Elsies River, and they stayed amongst their kinsfolk in a squatter camp called Maseru, which was inhabited mostly by Sesotho speaking natives.

The year 1954 was a turning point in her life. The Bantu Education Act was looming on the horizon and the prospects for the Black child were looking bleak. The ANC was organising marches against this law coming into being. As a 21-year-old, she joined Erco, the ANC and the Women’s League, and they marched to the School Board to voice their distaste for the act.

“The organisation was the voice of the voiceless then, and unity among comrades was at its highest...”

Ubuqabane was very firm and the love among comrades was such that you felt you could die for each other..” Mme is in nostalgia mode. She was the first treasurer of the Maseru branch of the league.

Mme also reveals that then, the Grand Parade was their battle ground, as major report backs were done right there; the Freedom Charter report back, the 1956 Women’s March report back all took place there. “Bertha Gxowa, nee Mashaba and Helen Joseph always kept the masses in the loop.”

Mrs Jibiliza, Louisa Mkhonto, whom she regards as the best orator ever. The names roll out of her mouth like she is in front of them.

Makana Square in Langa was also a battle turf, where things happened. “People would come from as far as from Worcester to come to listen to these women speak...”

Mme reveals that she was also a union organiser, a job that came with its own challenges. For a start, this was volunteer work, which meant they only received travel and lunch stipends.

“You’ll never be a good leader if you do not understand the struggle of the working class,”. That was the drill, thanks to the communist party and the union. She says every Thursday, women descended on the foreshore, waylaying railway and dock workers to recruit them into the CPSA and the union.

“Working with migrant workers, it was tough. They were semi-illiterate and required a lot of patience, but once they caught on, the fruits were immense, as they would bring many others to the next meeting.”

She says doing this kind of work among married men who were regarded as mere boys by successive Apartheid regimes required guts and gusto.

“They were married but were deprived the benefits of their matrimony, so you can imagine a young woman coming into their single men’s quarters.”

Once they gave her mageu in a dirty mug during a visit in their hostels, but because she was competing with the authorities for their hearts and minds, decided to gulp the drink without putting much thought to her hygiene.

“Queasiness made way for the battle to win their dignity back...”

“In the next meeting, the hostel mess hall was full,” and Mme is certain it was not because of her looks, although she overheard one of them remark: “ibomvu le ntokazi(edited),”. There were no yellow bones then. Again, Mme says she was not sure whether it was on account of her membership of the communist party. She was married and pregnant, but had thrown herself so much into the struggle of the working class and women that she miscarried

“It was the march against the application of the pass laws to women.”

Mme is adamant though that she was not alone in these struggles as there were many other women who made even greater sacrifices.

Because of her their activities, some of the women who had permission to be in the Cape were threatened with banishment to ‘their’ homelands. In her case, when this failed, she was incarcerated under the 90 days detention law, which men she could be kept in prison at the behest of the Justice minister and without being charged.

They regarded her as ‘harde gat’ or thick skinned, and was kept in solitary confinement at a Ceres police station cell.

“... The jailers wife suddenly took care of me. I think as a woman she felt pity for this little Black woman and plied me with food.”

It was whilst in that cell that she reflected on her father’s teachings.

“Stand for the truth, he said, don’t chase people away, don’t throw food away when you do not know how your neighbour fares...”

Three months after this ordeal, she and 44 other were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act, and faced a treason trial for sabotage.

It was called the Goodwood Trial, and among her co-accused was the late stalwart Oscar Mpetha, a man she credits with an analytical mind, who even predicted the outcome of the trial.

The 60’s were a time when everybody who faced the wreath of the regime chose either to go into exile or stayed inside.

Mme chose the latter and bore the brunt of successive banning order, detentions and harassment. “The likes of Helen Joseph and Mama Dorothy Zihlangu, as senior leaders of the movement, made us stay the course,”

She is still a member of the branch named after the latter in Gugulethu.

Mme still believes in the cause of the ANC.

“People come and go... They may bring it(ANC) into disrepute and be filled with arrogance for their deeds, eventually the movement will wash them away, as it has done in the past, like the sea discards the unwanted. That is the ANC we know,”.

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