Maverick Citizen

Gladys Mpepho (1957-2020)

Obituary: ‘Makhanda East was her home and her battleground’

Gladys Mphepho during an interview in 2014. (Photo: thinkafricanngos / Ayanda Kota)

One of the Makhanda activists instrumental in the landmark ruling that the Makana municipality be dissolved, suddenly died on Friday night as she was waiting for the court to decide on the government’s application to appeal against the ruling. Described as fearless and completely unbribable, Gladys Mpepho was known as the woman who was offered a house in exchange for her silence, and refused to take it.

I am told every year on 27 April that I am free. But I have never seen freedom. Even those who claim to be free are not. They claim freedom because their conscience is dead. Go and get people from the dumping sites, integrate all of us into this society, give us access to jobs, water, economy and land. Only then I will say I am free. I am hungry, I am not free.

– Gladys Mpepho

“Perhaps, there is no better way to celebrate Gladys Mpepho’s memory than to be reminded of her own words,” Ayanda Kota from the Unemployed People’s Movement said, quoting her while paying tribute to one of the founding members of the movement who died at the age of 63 last week.

Mpepho was instrumental in the UPM’s bitter legal battle with the Makana Municipality that led to legal history being made earlier in 2020 when the Makhanda High Court ordered that the municipality be dissolved for its unconstitutional failure to provide services to its residents. She died at her home on Friday.

“Makhanda East was her home and her battleground,” Kota said. 

“She had these sharp and focused eyes,” Kota said. “She had a life fully committed to human beings and she was always ready to stamp out injustice.” 

“She called me on Friday afternoon around 5pm, she wanted to know when is the judgment in our [leave to appeal] case against Makana Municipality. I said next week, and I could sense on the phone that she was disappointed. She said she thought the judgment would be on that day. She passed away around 8pm that evening.

“She was a very committed activist. She was 63 years old, but still attending all our meetings and would travel daily from her house to the Masifunde offices.

“She was vilified and threatened for her activism. She was unshaken. Her commitment for a just society was immense.

“Comrade Gladys was a founding member of the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement (UPM) and the chairperson of the organisation between 2012 and 2018. She was not moved by the abstract idea of humanity or by a generic ideological framework. Instead, she was non-sentimentally moved by the suffering of actual human beings in our midst, by the poor who remain poor on account of centuries of dehumanising disregard,” he said.

He said when she was offered a house when UPM started exposing corruption relating to RDP houses in Makhanda, she refused to take one.

“I am not a baby. When the baby cries she or he will be given a warm bottle of milk and put to bed to sleep,” he recalled her saying.

He said even at church she was not quiet.

“At a night vigil in the cathedral she became angry: ‘I am sick and tired of being told that the pastor and his family are hungry. We must give offerings and money. Who is feeding us? Who is feeding the unemployed carers and their families? If they are hungry, they must join us in the struggle to fight hunger together. They must close the church. I don’t go to church myself,’ ” she declared, according to Kota.

Professor Pedro Tabensky from Rhodes University said that she was the most loveable, angry and scary person he knew. 

“She commanded so much respect. When she was offered an RDP house in return for her silence, she refused. She was completely unmoveable when it came to her cause. She chose to live with the poor.

“I met her a few times. She always looked angry, and she was a bit scary. She scolded me at least once for being absent from the UPM meetings once too often. She did not take any nonsense. She was completely dedicated to the cause.

“She very rarely came to what she called ‘the rich side of town’. 

“She was a deeply committed African woman who was deeply committed to the cause. People knew she was not for sale. Everyone knew that under her leadership nobody would take bribes and nobody would be quiet. She had a sharp tongue and she did not take crap from anybody.

“To me, she was a quiet hero. She did not like the limelight,” Tabensky said.

The current president of the Unemployed People’s Movement, Sikhumbuzo Soxujwa, said he was only 11 when he got to know Mama uMpepho. 

“Most of our activists were inspired by her. Because of her, we fought every day — for water and for electricity. This is a very big loss for us.

“She was so happy when we won the court case,” he said. MC