My brother is a strong man - Tutu's sister

2015-08-06 13:28

Johannesburg - When I first set eyes on Archbishop Desmond Tutu's youngest sister Gloria Radebe my mouth drops.

She is wearing a purple robe and for a moment I think it is the ''the Arch'' himself - the wide smile, the twinkly eyes, the same body language. They could have been twins.

''Come in,'' beckons Radebe, popping her head round the front door of the home in Munsieville that has been the family home since 1945.

Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu's sister Gloria Radebe. (Photos by Jenni Evans, News24)

Until she emerged I thought his family had cleverly secreted Tutu to the modest peach-coloured house on the outskirts of Krugersdorp so that he can recover away from the glare of the media.
Ouma Radebe, as she is known in the close-knit community, talks animatedly and directly, just like her 83-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winning brother.

She is waiting for a call from the family to update her on his health and because evening is approaching, we arrange a suitable time to meet the following day.

Not the first health scare

It was her neighbours who had earlier insisted I pop in to say hello when I dropped by to take a photograph of the house.

        The family home.

It's not her brother's first health scare. He took three years to recover from tuberculosis when he was a boy, keeping up with his schooling and writing his exams in his hospital bed.

Then, in his 70s, he was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer.

He has been admitted to hospital twice in recent weeks for what his daughter Reverend Canon Mpho Tutu called a problem ''below the belt'', so naturally Ouma Radebe is worried about her big brother.

The following day, settled in at a table at the Munsieville Care for the Aged Centre, which she calls ''daycare for grannies'', Ouma Radebe says of her brother, ''I so love him.''

''I even cried when he was admitted,'' says the feisty woman in between greeting friends as the smells of a curry lunch waft over from the kitchen.

‘He never complains’

Shortly before he was admitted to hospital, she had attended the renewal of the Tutus' wedding vows on July 4, with Mpho fondly conducting the ceremony between her mother Leah and her father, who have been married for 60 years.

''It was so beautiful,'' she says. ''He was in pain, but he never complained. He never complains,'' she says.

Ouma Radebe and Leah Shenxane were school friends at the St Paul's Anglican mission school in Munsieville, where her father Zachariah taught, and she laughs as she remembers how her brother fell for Leah.

         The local Anglican church.

''He loved her so,'' she recalls, and adds that the two married quickly when they were older.

Her and Leah regularly have long telephone calls between Cape Town and Munsieville, never tiring of hearing each other's news, or supporting each other through difficult times.

Leah is Tutu's rock she says.

''He was always away, and she would have to stay at home. Many women would not put up with that, and would leave.''

‘We are very close’

Besides staying in regular contact with Leah and her brother, her older sister Sylvia still lives in Krugersdorp, at a home for the aged in Lewisham.

''We are very close. A day never passes without us talking. They are not selfish, they send me to Cape Town, they share,'' she says of her famous brother.

They had agreed that she should live in the family home, and they help wherever they can as, like many others of her age, she has to make her pension stretch.

This is unlike some families in the area who have terrible fights over who is entitled to the family home, she sighs.

Although her brother became an outspoken opponent of apartheid, they did not talk much politics at home, where her mother Aletha and father kept a tight rein on the children, instilling discipline, a sense of duty and Christian values.

As a stay-at-home mother of three girls, Ouma Radebe played her own part in her community, helping people with complaints at the council, or helping as a mediator in family fights in the community.

To retain some of her privacy, she asks that I not write too much about her husband or her daughters, but will say that one of her daughters is at her house as we speak, cleaning it for her.
Asked whether the young Tutu's home was a hive of politics, she shakes her head and laughs.

''We would just hear what he was up to on the radio or saw in the newspaper that he had said something. Once he phoned me from the airport and told me a whole lot of police had arrived for him.''

‘We were pushed off pavements’

In the 80's, Tutu was targeted by the apartheid government for his relentless campaign for international sanctions against South Africa as a way of hastening the demise of apartheid. At times he was branded a “terrorist”.

She has to be coaxed into talking about the family's experience during that time of total segregation of races in a town once steeped in apartheid - as though she would rather not open that door.

“We were pushed off pavements. Apartheid was bad, it was very bad,” she says.

She did not feel that the family was targeted or victimised because of her brother's views and actions, but she had her own brush with the law when as part of a civic organisation, she was taken with a group of other people to the Krugersdorp police station.

“We really vloeked [swore at] them. But they let us go.”

On her father's urging, her brother also became a teacher, but later decided to become an Anglican clergyman.

‘My brother freed us’

She explains that the legislated separation of whites and blacks prevented any interaction during apartheid, so they were dumbfounded when one day Anglican anti-apartheid cleric Father Trevor Huddleston came to visit her brother.

“We were shocked that a white man had come right up to our door to visit. We were not used to a white person just coming to visit.”

As a woman next to her starts preparing songs sheets for the centre's choir hour, Ouma Radebe turns to me and finally says what seems to have been on her mind the whole morning.

“You know, my brother is the one who freed us. He freed us with the sanctions and when the leaders such as [Nelson] Mandela were in jail, he was outside, fighting for them. He was their spokesman outside jail,” she says proudly.

“Ooooh my brother was hated. But he was very stubborn. He used to defend himself. He is a strong man.”

We don't go into the ANC's verbal lashing of Tutu when he started openly criticising the party, and the flak he receives over the government's refusal to let his friend the Dalai Lama visit.

I sense she wants to get on with her routine.

Some of the women in the centre stop me on my way out to say a prayer for me, and I see Ouma Radebe already bustling around the hall as the centre manager James Louw and I say goodbye.

Little fuss in town over Tutu

On the way home I marvel that unlike Soweto's ''Nobel Row'' Vilakazi Street, with its guided tours and souvenirs for tourists keen to walk in the footsteps of liberation heroes Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, the sunwashed Matlabe Street in Munsieville is so unassuming, a bit like Ouma Radebe.

Apart from the small library in Munsieville named after Tutu, there is no fuss over one of the town's most famous sons.

The only sign that the old mining town was once home to the man who loudly criticised the apartheid government, was a small colour photograph on a pinboard in the town's Chamber of Commerce office, which doubles as a tourist association.
And then I remember that one of Tutu's opponents, the last apartheid head of state FW de Klerk, also has roots in the town.

He was educated at the Monument High School which I pass on the way back to Johannesburg and I marvel that out of this town came two Nobel Peace Prize winners - and at one time each was at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Read more on:    desmond tutu  |  mpho tutu
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