I'd like to believe MaMbeki is not dead but asleep

2014-06-07 16:41

I will never forget the elation on Epainette Mbeki’s face when I merely greeted her. “Le kae Mme?” (How are you Ma’am?) I said. For a moment, she froze.

“Hawu, you speak Sotho, my son?” she asked in Sotho.

As I was about to respond, she raised her soft but piercing voice, calling for the women who were busy with their sewing project in the backrooms to come and listen to her speak Sotho.

She later explained her euphoria.

“I am Sotho but haven’t spoken the language in ages. I am glad you came by and reminded me of where I come from,” she said.

Fondly known as MaMbeki, she was born 98 years ago in a Sotho-speaking part of Mount Fletcher in the then Transkei.

I have always held her in high regard. Once, when I was travelling with a colleague between Mthatha and East London, I suddenly remembered that MaMbeki resided somewhere in Dutywa.

I thought it would not kill to try to secure an interview with her. I called and she asked me to give her an hour as she was still queuing at a local clinic for some medical attention.

Later, after driving deeper into Ngcingwane village outside Dutywa, we arrived at an old house attached to an equally-old rural store. MaMbeki used to run the store but she had since rented it out to someone else.

I had expected the former president’s mother to live in a mansion behind a high-walled security fence, with a paved yard and a beautiful garden. Not MaMbeki. She did not want to live in a style any different to the other villagers.

Her house had seen several extensions over the years. Her sitting room was homely with some old-style but well cared for sofas with wooden armrests. The brightly painted wall was adorned with framed artwork and a few pictures of her son Thabo.

I would not be surprised if anyone said today that MaMbeki was stubborn. She had earlier reprimanded one of the two security officers on the premises who escorted us into the house when he asked if her sons where aware she was talking to journalists.

“Don’t worry, they are my sons [referring to Thabo and Moeletsi]. These people are here for me and I need no one’s permission,” she said to the security official.

“He doesn’t know that my sons come to me for advice. Why must I now ask for their permission to talk to you?” she said.

“Thabo called me for advice when he was sacked and I told him to shut his mouth and he did just that.”

She said the ANC leaders were aware that she is a Cope member but “they still come to me for advice.”

Later, she explained her obstinacy and justified her modest lifestyle.

“My children have always suggested tampering with my modest life and giving me some fancy house and all, but I would not allow it. My husband [Govan Mbeki] and I built this house and I love it this way,” she said.

I then asked her about her good health at her old age. MaMbeki’s vision was strong and she could still read.

“I am old but I believe I eat right with all these traditional dishes. I would have cooked you some sumptuous samp if I had known earlier that you were coming,” she said jokingly.

“I eat pap and morogo and the only time rice is ccoked in my house is when there are visitors.”

I later learnt that no one leaves the Mbeki house without a meal as MaMbeki ordered cold drink and cookies for us.

She had her opinions on politics. I had visited her about two months before the ANC conference in Mangaung and although President Jacob Zuma seemed not to be one of her favourite people, her son’s former deputy still had her support as the leader of the ANC.

MaMbeki said she had once turned down an invitation to attend a Zuma function.

“How does he expect me to attend his function when he fired my son?” she asked.

She, however, would rather Zuma lead the ANC than Kgalema Motlanthe. MaMbeki said Zuma “was not right because he doesn’t have ideas of his own. He accepts advice from anyone and is bound to make wrong decisions because of this”.

“Motlanthe is more dangerous, though, because he will impose his ideas and do what he wants, whether you like it or not. Zuma is bad but he could be better if he can make up his mind as a president and not allow confusion from people who want to use him to their own advantage. For reasons I don’t know, he allows them to,” MaMbeki said in 2012.

I really would have loved to get her opinion on Zuma now, after he had been re-elected.

I last spoke to her telephonically, seeking her reaction a day after Nelson Mandela had died.

“He is not dead, he’s asleep,” MaMbeki said of Mandela.

I too believe MaMbeki is asleep and not dead. May her soul rest in peace.

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