Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Obituary

Nyameka Goniwe (1951-2020): In pursuit of justice, on a mission to love

Nyameka Goniwe, widow of Matthew Goniwe, one of the Cradock Four. (Photo supplied)

Nyameka Goniwe, the widow of Matthew Goniwe, one of the Cradock Four, a group of anti-apartheid struggle activists who were killed in 1985 by the security police, died in her home town at the weekend. Described as a woman who remained on a fierce quest to get justice for her husband, her family, friends and community remembered her for her soft heart, wisdom and selfless service to others. She was an activist in her own right.

“She was a person who would go out of her way to help others even if it was to her own detriment,” was how Nyameka Goniwe’s family described her on Monday after her sudden death on Saturday at the age of 69.

“She was feeling a bit unwell. She went for the Covid-19 test. The doctor discovered that her heartbeat was abnormal and her blood pressure was high. The doctor said they must wait for the result of the Covid-19 test before starting treatment,” Matthew Goniwe’s nephew Mbulelo Goniwe said.

“Then she collapsed and died before she got her results. She tested negative for Covid-19 so we think it might have been a heart attack.” 

From Left, Sparrow Mkonto’s wife Sindiswa, Fort Calata’s wife Nomonde and Matthew Goniwe’s wife Nyameka in 1985. (Photo by Gallo Images / Media24 Archives)

Goniwe was born and bred in Cradock and after qualifying as a social worker returned to her beloved town. She was married to Matthew Goniwe, one of the Cradock Four who were killed by the security police in 1985. She is survived by their two children, Nobuzwe and Nyaniso. 

Until her death, she was trying to obtain justice for her husband, but those close to her said that while this was a fierce and unrelenting mission, her heart was always filled with love for her community.

“She liked living,” Mbulelo said. “She tried to be happy no matter what the circumstances were and was always attempting to make the best of every day. When I think of her I will always remember how she went out of her way to help others, even if it was to her own detriment. Her greatest dream, and that is also the dream of the family, was to make sure that the monument built for the Cradock Four would be operated in a way that will benefit the community. She wanted to see the place blossom.” 

The graves of Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli, collectively known as the Cradock 4 – a group of United Democratic Front members who were abducted and killed by apartheid security police. (Photo by Gallo Images / Oryx Media Archive)

In her evidence before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Nyameka described her life as follows:

“Matthew came from a political family and his political activism was strongly influenced by the death of his brother Jaques, who died in exile in the ’60s. His active involvement began when he took up the post as a teacher at a village school in Kandule, in what was known as Transkei in the early ’70s. He was arrested with four friends in 1976 for setting up a political discussion group or cell in Transkei. My ordeal started then. 

“In 1976, the year Matthew was arrested, I was enrolled at the University of Fort Hare to do a degree in social work. In pursuit of my studies, I decided to leave my eight-month-old baby, which is Nobuzwe, with Matthew’s mother in Cradock. My biggest challenge at the time was to be available to my baby as often as possible, to attend to my studies and also give support to my husband in prison. I remember that year being one of the toughest years I have faced in my life. I was short of money and had to rely on my brothers-in-law for assistance, and the small grant I used to get from the Dependants Conference of the SACC.”

She told how her husband went missing and how they had found his body on Saturday 29 June 1985 and had to endure two judicial inquests into his death, with their hopes of someone being held accountable failing again and again. 

“Whatever befell him on that night of the 27th was known to the police and they killed him,” she said in her evidence.

Speaking of her initial reluctance to give evidence before the TRC and her failing hopes to find justice for her husband, she told TRC commissioner Alex Boraine:

“We had to go through a long inquest, and we were bruised by it, emotionally and physically, and I guess we had high hopes as well. I remember when the finding was announced, we were so disappointed. I don’t know what we were expecting at the end, so I suppose we are approaching the commission in the same sort of light. That is me. The second reluctance was over not knowing what it is, that’s going to happen here… I had little information. But now that I am here I’m sort of humbled by the experiences of the others. I’m happy to say, I’m happy that I came.

“We have two inquests running and it didn’t come nearer to who was the killer, maybe, you know, that it is with those people within the security forces but who they were, we don’t know, I think we need to crack that, we need an inside person, we need a witness and I would appeal to those people who are still out there and still concealing the truth, to come forward. I mean that you can laugh, you can sing, you have hope even if you have been traumatised. It gives great hope for this land.

“I mean it just makes you say, maybe South Africa is God’s favourite, because, and it’s good, that we must hear the pain of everybody, and for people to know that this freedom was not cheap and that people must learn to nurse it, because it was bought at a very, very great price,” was how she concluded her testimony.

President Cyril Ramaphosa paid tribute to Goniwe in a statement issued on Monday 31 August.

“Thirty-five years ago, after a period of sustained harassment of her family by security police, Mrs Goniwe suffered the loss of her husband, Matthew, at the hands of a police hit squad. Security operatives targeted Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sicelo Mhlauli, and Sparrow Mkhonto (Mkonto), known as the Cradock Four. 

“The president’s sympathies are extended to the Goniwe and Puwani families, friends of the Struggle veterans, residents of Cradock, and the leadership of the Chris Hani District Municipality and Inxuba Yethemba local municipality. The passing of Nyameka Goniwe is a great loss to all of us. Her passing during Women’s Month draws our attention and respect once more to the leadership capability and bravery of women in our society. 

“While Nyameka Goniwe suffered harassment under apartheid and was brutally deprived of her life partner, she was unbowed by the inhumane excesses of apartheid. She waged her struggle in her own right and, true to her values and those of Matthew Goniwe, she devoted her contribution to a democratic South Africa to the betterment of the lives of the communities in which she lived. She played various leadership roles in local government in the service of her community and exemplified ethical leadership that put people first. Cradock’s loss is South Africa’s loss but Nyameka Goniwe will live on in our history and in her enduring legacy of struggle, service and the inspiration and upliftment of communities.”

Premier Oscar Mabuyane also added his tribute.

“As the premier of the Eastern Cape province, I send my heartfelt condolences to the Goniwe family following the death of Mrs Nyameka Goniwe. I want to take this opportunity to appreciate the role played by Mrs Nyameka Goniwe in the liberation of the people of our country. Mrs Nyameka Goniwe was a leader of the ANC whose commitment to the liberation struggle started at the time when fighting the racist apartheid system was very risky for many comrades who fought this evil system.

“We have lost a pioneer, a trailblazer and a woman of extraordinary fortitude who paved the way for the democracy we all enjoy today. She will be greatly missed by so many around the country and beyond and will remain long in our hearts.”

“It was because of her experience, commitment to the people of our country that she was deployed by the ANC to various positions of responsibility, especially the people of our province. As we thank her for her service to our people, we understand the pain that her family feels during this time and we too share that pain, because Mrs Nyameka Goniwe was a leader of our people, a leader of the ANC deployed to the iNxuba Yethemba Municipality and the Chris Hani District Municipality where she continued to work to service the people of our country.”

The executive mayor of the Chris Hani District Municipality, Wongama Gela, described Goniwe as a person who put others and her community first.

“As we mourn her passing, we are reminded of her humanity, respect and immense loyalty to the cause of the people. Her first concern was never for herself but always for her community, how she could make our district and her locality a better place for every family living there and every individual passing through. We know we speak for many others when we say we came to appreciate, respect and love Sisi Nyami for the helpful, supportive, and caring friend and leader that she was. She always put others first and we benefited greatly from her friendship.

“Her passing marks one of the most painful moments in our district. We are indeed thankful that we had a privilege to be part of her life, and words are not adequate to explain the loss of this gentle soul. On behalf of Chris Hani District Municipality, we offer our heartfelt condolences and sympathy to her children, Nobuzwe and Nyaniso, and their beloved family at this difficult moment. We also extend our deepest sympathy to the community of Inxuba Yethemba Local Municipality which Cllr Goniwe has worked with for so many years. We have lost a colleague, a friend, a great leader and a patriot whose life was dedicated for the betterment of others.”

He said Goniwe joined local government ranks in 2011 as the executive mayor of Inxuba Yethemba Local Municipality. In 2016 she became a full-time councillor in the district before she was redeployed back to Inxuba Yethemba Municipality as a council speaker. 

“She was the type of person that you would want to be your neighbour, your best friend and your speaker. The immense courage that she showed in the most difficult days of our struggle inspired and sustained so many throughout the darkest of times in our communities. Her courage was quiet yet unyielding. It drew its strength from the unshakeable bonds of family, friendship and community that she served all her life.

“We have lost a pioneer, a trailblazer and a woman of extraordinary fortitude who paved the way for the democracy we all enjoy today. She will be greatly missed by so many around the country and beyond and will remain long in our hearts.”

The whip for the Democratic Alliance in the Inxuba Yethemba Municipality, Rika Featherstonehaugh, described Goniwe as an “extraordinary person”.

“On a personal level, I am grateful for the lessons I have learnt from her. She was too good for this world where she got to know sorrow on a deep and intimate level. We all can and must take something positive from her life. I just want to say thank you for the soft and kind way you all showed us what wisdom looks like.”

More information on the Cradock Four can be found on this well researched website by David Forbes. We thank Forbes for pointing out some spelling errors in the captions supplied by Gallo Images. DM/MC

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