Pallo Jordan, Business Day
MME Mofokeng, Aunt Piny, MaMbeki and many others are the expressions of affection she earned in a life of service. The passing of Epainette Moerane-Mbeki on June 7 truly marks the end of an era.
Born in February 1916 to a family of African teachers, who had migrated from Lesotho, she grew up as a member of the tiny landowning African elite made up of peasant farmers, professionals and clergy. Like others of their stratum, the Moeranes invested in the education of the children.
The Moerane family, like thousands of others in the colonial world, was the outcome of events unfolding thousands of miles from the tiny village of Mount Fletcher. Like many modern African peasants, the family were practising Catholics, and consequently lived in two worlds. One was the traditional setting of the rural Eastern Cape, before the collapse of the peasant economy in the 1930s. The second was an international faith that linked them not only to millions of co-religionists throughout the world but, through the written word, to the rest of humanity as well.
Thus it was that one year after her birth, in February 1917, a women’s demonstration on the streets of Petrograd escalated first into a citywide uprising and then into a revolution that was to have a decisive effect on her life and that of her family.
Mme Mofokeng, Aunt Piny was the sort of activist movements dream of. Possessed of a singular dynamism, she was the initiator and supervisor of developmental projects within her community. She was active within the village she had made her home in 1941 until the eve of her admission to hospital.
She joined the Communist Party of SA in 1938 and remained committed to its vision until her passing.
Like the Catholicism into which she was baptised, communism was an international movement, but one committed to the emancipation of all humanity from oppression and exploitation. In SA, the Communist Party was the only one that admitted people of all races as equals.
Perhaps providentially, the week during which the mortal remains of this outstanding heroine are laid to rest coincides with the 50th anniversary of one of the great turning points in her life and the life of her family. All too often we focus on the heroic dimension of the struggle, sparing little thought for the toll that such commitment takes on the individual lives. Moerane married her fellow teacher, Govan Mbeki, in January 1940 and bore him four children, a daughter and three sons, between 1941 and 1948.
The political commitments of the Mbeki parents conspired against family life. After Govan took up the editorship of the New Age in the mid-1950s, they virtually lived apart. The intensification of the struggle finally led to a life sentence on June 10 1964. Like many others, Aunt Piny became a struggle widow for the next 27 years.
Epainette Mbeki initiated community development projects in Idutywa from the year she and Govan settled there. Using a shop as her base, she built up co-operatives of peasant producers and crafts workers that remain active till today. But she was trying to do this in a Transkei radically changed since her youth. Her second son, Moeletsi, characterised the ancestral homestead in Mount Fletcher during the 1960s as having the "Chekovian air" of lost wealth.
The destruction of the landowning African middle class was indeed one of the objectives pursued by the National Party of DF Malan, JG Strijdom, Hendrik Verwoerd and BJ Vorster. Alongside others, the Mbekis had organised to fight this onslaught through the Transkei African Voters Association, of which Govan became secretary in 1941, and the Transkeian Organised Bodies, a federation of local peasant bodies. The thrust of national government policy, supported and administered by a corrupted traditional hierarchy, led to the peasant uprisings of the late 1950s and early 1960s that Govan Mbeki so ably reported in New Age.
Mme Mofokeng leaves behind a country, a continent and a world that has been completely transformed from the one into which she was born. In thousands of unnoticed interventions she made her own singular contribution to that change. In February 1916, the great powers of Europe were engaged in the first international conflict of the industrial age, to reorder the world’s geopolitical hierarchy. The disequilibrium that conflict produced resulted in a revolution in Russia the following year.
The new power that revolution gave birth to inspired a global movement committed to ending oppression. Like thousands of her generation, Aunt Piny heard its call, and she responded. Her impressive track record in the struggle derived as much from a passionate commitment as from her profound grasp of the social forces required to make change possible.
Tsamaya hanthle Mme Mofokeng.