Oration of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, at the Funeral of Ellen Motlalepule Kuzwayo, Soweto

Honourable Judge Moloto and the rest of the family of the esteemed Ellen Kuzwayo
Fellow mourners

Three days ago many leaders of our people gathered at the well known Soweto church, Regina Mundi, to bid farewell to a queen of our world. They met at a place of worship that must, as it did to hers, remain forever in our hearts as a hearth of the life-giving hope that is inspired by the profound conviction native to our people, that however bleak the future might seem - sesafeleng seatlhola!

They met at a place of hope that carries the evocative name - Regina Mundi, Queen of the World - to pay their respects to a Queen of our World, during a year when we have reminded ourselves that we must remind ourselves:

  • of the brave uprising of Inkosi Bambatha and his combatants in KwaZulu-Natal, 100 years ago;
  • of what was done by Mahatma Gandhi and our fellow South Africans 100 years ago, that gave birth to the powerful philosophy and struggle that he bestowed as a gift to South Africa, India and the world, under the famous name, satyagraha;
  • of what the heroic women of our country did 50 years ago, which democratic South Africa celebrates today as Women's Day; and
  • of what happened 30 years ago in the neighbourhood of this church, St John's, when young blood flowed in the streets around us, because those who had usurped power in our country had closed their ears to the gentle but insistent voice of the Queen of World, Ellen Motlalepule Kuzwayo.

The circumstance that it is during the very year of the commemoration of these historic anniversaries that Ma K departed the world of the living, must surely mean that wherever we gather for such purposes, we must, in reverence to her and all heroines and heroes of our protracted struggle for freedom, salute Ellen Kuzwayo as a dear daughter of our people, who will forever occupy a permanent place among the galaxy of our exemplars.

This must be so because like Ingrid Jonker's "Child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga", surely, in body and spirit, Ellen Kuzwayo has always been present "at all assemblies and law-givings", including those we commemorate this year.

She has been everywhere, the child from Thaba Nchu grown into a giant that trekked through our country and all Africa and journeyed through the whole world, without the pass of indignity that brought 20 000 women to the Union Buildings 50 years ago.

And what better words can we find to express the historic presence of Ellen Kuzwayo in our past, our present and future than those composed by yet another of our heroines, the esteemed and world renowned artisan of the universe of words, Nadine Gordimer, who said, "Ellen Kuzwayo is history in the person of one woman"!

A month after the beginning of the Soweto Uprising 30 years ago, one of our poets, Lindiwe Mabuza, composed verses that served as a song of rebellion, which she entitled - "To whom it may concern". The poet wrote to salute the risen youth of Soweto and issue a warning to those who had chosen to use death-dealing guns to close the doors of learning to the African youth.

Without her permission, but knowing that she will not object, today I make bold to dedicate her creation of pained passion and confidence in the future, to the Queen of our World, Ellen Kuzwayo. Here is what the poet said:

When you feel our wrinkled anger bellow
When you hear our cries rise from below
And when these two seem to climb mountains of despair
Just remember that this too will pass?

When you have fed the world your lies
When you convulse from the birth of your demise
And the children of labour emerge breathing a new and valiant air
Just remember that this scourge will come to pass?

When the seasons have come and Ulundi snows melt
When the symphony of floods converge on your laager belt
And when the knowing sun tosses its hell Running the enemy out his lair,
Just remember this our pain will pass
Where will you be?

At last 1994 came, bearing in its rough hands our infant liberty. Nelson Mandela proclaimed from the same steps at the Union Buildings on which the heroines of 1956 had stood tall despite their oppression that the sun would never set on so glorious a human achievement as was represented by the emancipation celebration on our first Freedom Day.

At last, as the poet had foreseen, the scourge that had afflicted Ellen Kuzwayo and her people had come to pass, as had their pain. The native symphony of floods had converged on the laager of fear and the knowing sun in our skies had indeed tossed the enemy of freedom out of his lair.

I did not see Ellen Kuzwayo on that memorable day. Nobody has told me what she said to herself and those around her. And yet, though unknowing, I know still that she would have told those who had for many decades refused to listen to her that our pain had passed.

I know that, as they convulsed from the birth of their demise, she would have asked of those who had thought they were ordained with divine power to sustain pitiless injustice for ever - since our scourge has come to pass, where are you now!

Perhaps because much too often words are lightly spoken, on occasions such as these, when we convene to bid farewell to our heroines and heroes, we comfort ourselves with the statement that we meet not to mourn the departed. We say we meet to celebrate their lives that are so full of meaning and nobility and immeasurable weight.

I lack the courage to spurn the comfort conveyed by these delicate words. I am not gifted with the boldness of spirit or the reckless abandon that would enable me to say anything other than what is said by others wiser than I.

I too seek to assuage my own grief by peering deep into the good and fulfilling deeds we rightly attribute to the departed. Thus do I refuse to burden my soul by contemplating the consequences of the sudden reality of the emptiness of the physical space the dead used to occupy.

Nevertheless, today I shall do the impossible, and invite you to join me in the effort. I ask that the millions that Ellen Kuzwayo represented, led and inspired, and those of us who now sit temporarily separated from the streets of Soweto by the physical perimeter that defines St John's Anglican Church - separated from the streets that turned red with the blood of the young, 30 years ago, should attempt and do the impossible.

I ask that all of us, together, should both celebrate the extraordinary life of Ellen Kuzwayo and mourn her departure. It may be a difficult thing to achieve, simultaneously to laugh and to cry, both to ride the crest of a joyful wave of the untamed oceans and sink under the fury of the waves.

Ellen Kuzwayo lived through the dark ages of which Lindiwe Mabuza spoke. But even as successive generations of the oppressed bellowed their anger with no visible result, their cries of rebellion issuing from below the nailed and unrelenting boots of the oppressor, seeming only to echo against an unscalable mountain of despair, Ellen Kuzwayo ensured that the enslaved did not surrender, by repeating to them in word and deed, and everyday - the scourge and our pain will come to pass!

It is this that we must celebrate, that the girl child from Thaba Nchu matured into a black woman who inspired millions, especially the women and the youth of our country, fully to understand what another outstanding woman revolutionary from a distant land, Dolores Ib?uri of Spain, La Pasionaria, meant when she called on her people to oppose the fascist scourge that cost millions of human lives during the Second World War, saying - "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!"

Ellen Kuzwayo spoke to the millions of the oppressed through her actions. We are today free because, she and others like her refused to succumb to despair, because at times the goal of freedom seemed far and virtually impossible to achieve.

Through her actions that demonstrated her willingness to sacrifice everything for the emancipation of her people, Ellen Kuzwayo succeeded to inject deep into the souls of the oppressed the conviction that, "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!"

We were blessed that this Queen of our World lived long enough to experience a lifelong dream fulfilled, and, at the age of 80, serve in our national legislature as an elected people's tribune.

Ma K left us as she was approaching her 92nd birthday. And yet despite these years and because of what she did with those long years, today, standing in front of the small house of wood that contains her frail remains, I ask that we mourn her departure.

I ask that we mourn her departure because she left us much too soon, because she left us before the new society for which she had fought throughout her life had established firm roots. The child to which she had given birth still needed her, to nurture it at least to attain its mature infancy.

In 1994, our nation, including the great movement of liberation of which she had been part, began a journey which nobody in our country had ever undertaken.

It was inevitable that as we traversed what for all of us was uncharted territory, some among us would get lost. Our society, or sections of it, would occasionally get diverted into side roads that the martyrs who sacrificed their lives so that we could be free could never imagine or desire.

Contrary to all that, we have an obligation to use the political power for which Ellen Kuzwayo engaged in struggle, to strive to achieve what she also fought for - the liberation of our people from poverty, hunger and want and therefore the elevation of the wretched of our earth, as did the Queen of our World.

In her Foreword to Ellen Kuzwayo's well-known and outstanding autobiography, "Call Me Woman", the novelist, Bessie Head, said that in apartheid South Africa, "the black skin (was) a kind of rhinoceros skin at which are hurled tear gas, batons, bullets and ferocious police dogs."

She then wrote: "The autobiography of Ellen Kuzwayo puts aside the rhinoceros hide, to reveal a people with a delicate nervous balance like everyone else? But at the end of the book one feels as if a shadow history of South Africa has been written; there is a sense of triumph, of hope in this achievement and that one has read the true history of the land, a history that vibrates with human compassion and goodness."

I dare say this today that Ellen Kuzwayo became a Queen of our World also because she embodied the value system of our democratic revolution in the person of one woman. She infused into our struggle the noble values that Bessie Head described as human compassion and goodness.

The struggle she waged imposed an obligation on those who would emerge as the victors, that when the symphony of floods had converged and swept away the laager belt, they would build the new South Africa informed by the values of human compassion and goodness.

Thus must we, who are the beneficiaries of her dedication and sacrifices, repeat what Ellen Kuzwayo wrote in her autobiography. Today, because she no longer lives and therefore cannot speak, I will dare to take on the privileged responsibility to be her voice - usomlomo weqhawekazi. And thus, speaking as her oracle, I recite what she wrote in her autobiography, "Call Me Woman":

"It is not easy to live and to bring up children in a community deprived of its traditional moral code and values - a community lost between its old heritage and that of its colonisers. The black people of the whole of Southern Africa had very strong traditional moral values, most of them enshrined and intertwined in their languages? 'Motho ke motho ka motho yo mongoe' means 'No man is an island'? In the black community a neighbour is seen as very important and so is the neighbourhood? The courage, generosity and support of my people have over the years helped me to carry a load that under ordinary conditions I would not have found easy to bear. I am amazed when I observe the power, strength and self-confidence that are born of involvement in work on behalf of one's own hard-pressed people?I look forward to the day when the chain of sisterhood shall develop the potential of black women of my country and of other black countries and countries abroad, to its maximum, and thus enhance their dignity, integrity, self-reliance and independence both as individuals and as productive members of their community?Even now, at the age of 70 years, I tremble for what the future has in store for my grandchildren and those of their age group if things continue in the state in which they are at present. I am all the more determined to join the struggle, and fight with all the means I have at my disposal for change in my country so that the coming generations can enjoy a better life in their ancestors' country?Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika!"

I feel elevated that today I could, as Ellen Kuzwayo did throughout her life, and in her name, speak of our traditional African moral code and values; of the courage and generosity of our people; of the power, strength and self-confidence that are born of involvement in work on behalf of one's own suffering people; of the dignity, integrity, self-reliance and independence of the women of our country Africa and the world; and of the philosophy and practice of ubuntu, as the fundamental perspective that must guide us as we strive to reconstruct and develop our society.

Even as I have enjoyed the intoxication of that sense of elevation, I have been consumed by a feeling of foreboding as well, that, even from her grave, Ellen Kuzwayo will also ask me some questions that might be difficult to answer.

She will ask that since our pain has come to pass and, as the poet predicted, the children of labour have emerged, breathing a new and valiant air, why then does she see those who pretend to be her successors:

  • abusing the name of her movement to serve their personal interests;
  • treating her movement, its values and traditions with contempt, in an effort to turn it into other than a genuine representative of the people;
  • corrupting the political power that should belong to the people, trying to turn it into an instrument for self-enrichment and advancement;
  • stripping the new state that is being born of all morality, seeking to turn it into a pliable and amoral entity serving the dictates of those who exercise power;
  • fostering public anarchy to create space for the commission of foul misdeeds;
  • eroding public confidence in the legal certainties and protections for the people provided by the institutions of the democratic state and the legal order emanating from the exercise of power by the people; and,
  • spitting on the effort to return to and reassert the values of ubuntu that colonialism and apartheid consciously sought to obliterate for all time.

If ever Ellen Kuzwayo returns to ask me these questions, I will not deny that she has just cause to ask. But I will say that, despite her age, she departed our midst earlier that she should have. I will remind her of what she said of what she remembered of Charlotte Maxeke, the founder of what became the ANC Women's League, that her bearing "proclaimed her as a woman of character and principles" and that she "appeared firm and composed, a woman of values and standards".

I will say that, because she too was a woman of character and principles, a woman of values and standards, we still needed her gentle voice to guide us as we worked to construct the new, as earlier generations had listened to her voice as they engaged in struggle to destroy the old.

Today we mourn her departure because she left us much earlier than she should have, exposing us to submission to raw animal instincts whose seduction she had resisted for many decades.

We have gathered at St John's Anglican Church to bid farewell to a Queen of our World. We meet at yet another place of worship in Soweto that must, as it did to hers, remain forever in our hearts as a hearth of the life-giving hope that is inspired by the profound conviction native to our people, that however bleak the future might seem - sesafeleng seatlhola!

Any attempt to corrupt the purpose of her struggle will also reach its ignoble end, as did the scourge of white domination. The true inheritors of her legacy will ensure that the exercise of power by the people, to which she dedicated her life, will be informed by the perspective that 'Motho ke motho ka motho yo mongoe'.

Once again, the scourge and the pain will pass, as the symphony of the African floods converges on the laager of the greedy, and the knowing African sun tosses out of their lair the poverty, indignity and all who and which present themselves as the new enemy of the masses that Ellen Kuzwayo loved and served.

Thus will be fulfilled the hope that Nelson Mandela expressed in 1994, when he said that out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster of colonialism and apartheid that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.

And thus will our shared future not impose on the grandchildren of Ma K the fears she expressed about what would happen to them.

Perhaps these children will, like their grandmother, have the opportunity to ask of those who have refused to listen to the gentle but insistent latter day voice of Ellen Kuzwayo, as she insisted on the morality of the cause of liberation - since our scourge has come to pass, where are you now!

On behalf of all our people, our government and in Zanele's and own name, I am privileged to convey our condolences to the family of the esteemed Member of our National Orders, Member of the Order for Meritorious Service, Mama Ellen Kuzwayo. Our nation prays, Judge Justice Moloto, that you and the rest of the family, your relatives and friends will accept that death is but part of the ordinary rhythm of life, that dictates that, in due time, all of us must transcend to the world of the ancestors.

May the Queen of our World, Ellen Kate Cholofelo Nnoseng Motlalepule Kuzwayo, rest in peace.

Thank you.

Issued by: The Presidency
28 April 2006


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