The man that shaped #Gogo

The man that made #Gogo. A retrospective

First Published in Loocha Magazine, July 2011


In the last months that we shared with our beloved Gogo (grandmother), MaAlbertina Sisulu, my generation of the family increasingly found that her many moments of quiet were filled with what must surely have been happy memories of her childhood.

They must have been happy for her face was very often lit in mirth. They must have been of her childhood because she very often referred to people and places of this era in her life.

At times like this a special treat for us would be to venture back in time with her, reading her chapters of her joint biography with our grandfather, Walter Sisulu, called In My Lifetime (by Elinor Sisulu), and quizzing her on the happenings of times long since past.

At times like this we would be privileged to glean some measure of insight into what made Gogo tick; we learned of the little things that eventually made her into the grand old lady that so many people across he world would come to respect and honour as we saw first hand in the days following her passing last month.

One of Gogo’s fondest memories was of her own grandfather.

Qingqiwe was the local headman in Xolobe in the Eastern Cape. A well heeled wool farmer, he was highly respected, a member of the Bunga (a tribal parliament) and a great philanthropist. He would arrange assistance for the old and infirm and organized groups of youths to plough their fields and those of widows.

Whilst not Christian, he distributed the donations of the local missionaries. And whilst a staunch traditionalist who proudly wore the red ochre blanket of the amaQaba, he was a huge proponent of education and instructed every man to ensure that the children of the area went to school. This appreciation for scholarly education meant that soon child-labour fell away in the area and much later raids would be conducted on homesteads that kept children away from school. Perhaps this is what informed Gogo’s own love for education, one that she herself tried to imbue in all who spent time with her.

In her own time she was a diligent student that was always at the top of her class. A disciplined scholar she was prefect and later head girl and keep far from the distractions that afflict so many of us today. Barely a teen she dreamed of furthering her education at the least cost to her grandparents. So she enrolled for and won a bursary on the strength of her academic achievements. She was soon in boarding school, excelling there on her way to becoming a conscientious nurse, which in those days was a very laudable profession.

Growing up under a headman one witnesses many instances of difficult decision making, with the best interest of the community always the deciding factor. The sense of responsibility that he had for everyone within his dominion could not have gone unnoticed. Could this have inspired Gogo’s own devotion to her community, starting with her family?

At a tender age her parents passed away, one after the other, with her dad specifically asking her on his death bed to look after her brothers and sister. Even though she wasn’t the eldest, she undertook this duty and carried it forth into adult life. Only with the passing of her last surviving brother last year did she see fit to join to her beloved partner’s side in the afterlife. Whilst she had missed TataMkhulu terribly over the years (there was a time after his passing that many believed Gogo would not see the ripe old age of 92 as she did) perhaps it is a sense of purpose, deeply etched into her, that allowed her to keep her commitments to her dying father.


Qingqiwe’s own participation in the Bunga meant that the concepts of justice, law and punishment were not foreign in his homestead. Could this then have been the source of Gogo’s own lifelong thirst for justice and fairness? Perhaps it is this background that gave Gogo the steely courage to pursue her ideal of justice even as she faced many tribulations?

In the many long arduous years that Gogo found herself seeing her husband very infrequently and only through a window pane in the visiting cells of Robben Island, she often spoke of the state of their gardens. This was code for the underground movement that they had both worked tirelessly to foster. A harvest of seedlings germinating into strong plants with deep roots meant that the cadreship was growing in spite of many worms (Apartheid government agents) or the arid conditions that bannings, arrests and harassment presented.

Had any of the guards listening in on such a conversation become suspicious then even a cursory check on Gogo’s background would reveal that she was indeed a keen gardener. She devoted much time to her garden even when it was a tiny patch in the back of a small Soweto home. She had come into a love of gardening when as a child, her and the other girls amidst her 31 cousins growing up in the care of her grandfather Qingqiwe helped their mothers and aunts cultivate fields abrim with potatoes, pumpkin, beans, oats, barley and sorghum.

Could there be even the casual link between the patience, care and attention that cultivating a garden requires and the same attributes that enabled her to keep cultivating freedom fighters even when the seasons were particularly unforgiving? If so it would thus have been a fitting code to use. Today many recognisable leaders credit her green fingers for having a hand in their development.

Whilst history tells us the tale of a woman that contributed much to South Africa’s people and begs us aspire to the sort of impact and legacy that she left behind, there exists also the little-known story of a man who through the example of his life’s must certainly have inspired this legacy.

This isn’t necessarily a story of a unsong hero, rather the story of the chains and linkages of people’s actions and decisions that shape a future unseen to themselves. It is a story of hope that suggests that each virtuous action doesn’t go unnoticed, rather it lives on and perhaps even multiplies in the action of those who see them. And whilst I miss Gogo terribly, I take comfort in the knowledge that like Qingqiwe a life well lived can create another Gogo in someone else.

2 thoughts on “The man that shaped #Gogo

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