South Africa

Maverick Citizen Tribute

Nyameka Goniwe, veteran Eastern Cape activist and local government politician: A personal memoir 

Nyameka Goniwe. (Photo: Twitter)

Documentary filmmaker David Forbes shares a personal and intimate portrait of activist and widow of Cradock Four activist Matthew Goniwe and her life of love, loss and fortitude, inextricably interwoven with South Africa’s history of repression, violence, resistance and betrayal.  

Nyameka Goniwe, who died in Cradock on 29 August 2020 at the age of 69, was a difficult person to interview. She was quiet and humble, soft-spoken and almost hesitant, as if choosing every word carefully. Her integrity stood taller than the monument to her husband and three others on the hill above Cradock’s Lingelihle township, her last home.

It was intimidating. She oozed moral authority and seriousness. It was only much later that I realised how soft and kind she really was, so generous and warm behind her dignified courteousness.

What she told me was a genuine, old-fashioned love story, the story of the relationship between herself and her husband, the activist Matthew Goniwe, which was tragically cut short by his assassination by apartheid security forces in 1985.

I first contacted Nyami in 2003. I had wanted to make a documentary film on the four anti-apartheid activists known as the Cradock Four for a long time, but had not been able to raise any interest or money for it, not even with the SABC. I decided to go ahead and finance it myself. I began by asking the widows of the four men for permission to make the film.

I approached all four – Nyameka Goniwe, Nomonde Calata, Sindiswa Mkonto and Mbuyiselo Mhlauli. They all gave their blessings. At the time, Nyami was living in Cape Town, so our relationship was via e-mail and telephone calls.

As the film progressed over seven years towards completion, the pieces slowly fell into place: the many interviews, the dramatic recreations, finding a French co-producer, sourcing archives and photographs, and of course, writing the script. The key interview with Nyami was one of the few outstanding. By this time, she had moved back to Cradock and I finally managed to get her to sit down, put a microphone on her, rolled the camera and we settled down to talk.

Her mother had died when she was three, and her father had placed her with her grandparents on a farm outside Cradock. For her secondary schooling, she moved to Lingelihle. While doing her Standard 8, Matthew taught her science and maths, and then she moved to Port Elizabeth to do her final years at Union High in New Brighton, in the Greater Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality, to be near her father. After matric, she trained to be a nurse in Port Elizabeth.

By this time, Matthew was teaching in the small town of Mqanduli, in the then Transkei, and writing fiery letters to the Daily Dispatch newspaper in East London. “(He) was here in Cradock for holidays. And I happened to be here in Cradock on holidays, so we met up and sort of fell in love, and then we were separated, obviously the distance. I was training in Port Elizabeth at Livingstone Hospital, so we kept that contact, through correspondence and phoning. It was a distant love relationship, but it grew over time.

“Our love relationship grew and I got pregnant, and we got married. I had to join Matthew in the Transkei to be closer to him at the time of my pregnancy. We lived together for a couple of months,” she told me.

In July 1975, Nyami returned to Port Elizabeth to give birth to her daughter, Nobuzwe, and then joined Matthew at Mqanduli. The five months until the end of the year was one of the few times they had some time to themselves. Matthew taught her political theory and they discussed politics. She joined his clandestine Marxist study group.

Over the festive season, Matthew introduced Nobuzwe to Cradock and then Nyami was forced to leave their daughter with the family while she went to study social work at Fort Hare University in Alice. Matthew had organised bursaries for her.

But the study group had been infiltrated by a Fort Hare student spy and Matthew was detained by the security police on 19 July 1976, barely a month after the Soweto uprising. Nyami remembered it all clearly: “When the riots started, Matthew was here in Cradock and we heard it over the radio, what happened, and it was like, sho! It took the whole country by surprise, and everybody was talking about it.”

Matthew returned to Mqanduli after the holidays, and was detained shortly thereafter. He was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act, with four others, including the Ntsebeza brothers, Dumisa and Lungisile, and after a controversial year-long trial, Matthew and the other four were convicted on 1 September 1977.

Four of them were sentenced in the Umtata High Court to four years in jail. When he emerged from Umtata Prison on 31 August 1981, the security police sent Matthew to Cradock.

Nyami describes those years as “very painful” and some of the “most difficult periods of her life”. They were alerted to Matthew’s detention by a phone call from the house where Matthew stayed, and then they were awaiting trial for a year, during which time Nyami had to hike from Fort Hare to visit him.

“There wasn’t any regular transport at the time, so I had to find a way to go and see. The system made it so difficult for the family to have access to Matthew. We were worried about him, and what they might do to him. I was so worried that I might have to leave school, and I was thinking what’s going to become of my child, and Matthew and me.”

She was being watched by the security police who put barriers in her way each year when she reapplied for admission to Fort Hare.

When Matthew was jailed, Nyami said she felt “something had been taken away” from her. “I realised then I had to be raising my child and going through school alone. That was the beginning of my woes, and my struggle, financially and emotionally.”

“But I had this sense of inner strength … how I can pull the thing together and make it work. I can’t change it, but I have to work within it. That’s how I endured. It was very hard for him. I have letters from Matthew, letters consoling me. He wrote many letters in prison.

“Those letters kept me going, and gave me strength at a time when I was feeling very, very low. They inspired me to be strong for myself, for our family, and for him. I tried to write him letters of (she pauses briefly) of hope.

“I remember when I had to go and visit, he would tell us horrible stories of being kept alone, [in] solitary confinement, all sorts of psychological torture they went through. The other thing he told us, which he felt was the worst of the worst,” said Nyami in her soft voice, “was that the cells were next to the block where prisoners were executed, so they had to hear the screams and the singing, and all the horrific things that happened.”

Nyami tells how Matthew studied in jail, wrote poetry, corresponded with the poet and academic Guy Butler at Rhodes University in what was then known as Grahamstown, and also fell sick, developing a TB of the spine, and had to be temporarily hospitalised.

“We had these stories that Matthew was at a particular [private] hospital, so word went round and friends went to see him (she laughs) but you know, quietly, and of course, he must have developed some kind of friendship with the guards.

“Matthew also started yoga when in prison, and I think that got him out of the illness.”

When Matthew was freed, Nyameka had been working for two years as a social worker in Port Elizabeth, for the (she paused to laugh) Department of Plural Affairs. After being locked up for so long, he was “a bit reserved”, and of course, immediately the local security police visited and began to monitor him. Nyami got a transfer to Cradock, but Matthew got offered a job to be principal of a failing school in Graaff-Reinet.

He turned the school around in a year with discipline and hard work, especially for the teachers who used to come to school drunk, but he only stayed a year, because he and Nyami had been separated again, she in Port Elizabeth and he in Graaff-Reinet.

“We needed to be together and build a home for our child, and I was expecting a second child, Nyaniso. I didn’t want to live in Graaff-Reinet,” she said. There was an opening, at Sam Xhallie Secondary School in Cradock, so Matthew started there at the beginning of 1983.

“It was a year of many things. It was the beginning of the United Democratic Front (UDF), the beginning of all the structures and organisations here, and (former ANC secretary-general) Canon Calata died, so it was a year of many things happening politically,” Nyami says.

The township residents, dissatisfied with potholed roads and high rents, asked Matthew to intervene, as he had political experience.

“Matthew said ‘Are you serious? You really want to challenge this?’ and they said yes.”

Matthew called a meeting, which Nyami chaired, although she doesn’t say so. That is how the Cradock Residents’ Association was formed, which would become so united and powerful that the community would drive out puppet councillors and call Lingelihle a “liberated zone”. They were experimenting with direct democracy, using street committees, area committees, zone committees and so on, so that it really was “government by the people, for the people”.

This plan was called the “G-Plan” or “Goniwe Plan”. It certainly enraged the apartheid generals, who saw the province “going up in flames” as Matthew’s rural organising for the UDF and his work underground for the ANC’s Military Working Committee paid off. He and fellow teacher Fort Calata were running rings around the security forces. They became targets.

The security police told the education authorities to transfer the “troublemaker” to Graaff-Reinet and, in the cold securocratic way of the regime, they sent him a curt telegram informing him of the transfer. Matthew refused, sparking the longest schools boycott in SA history – 15 months.

Nyami and Matthew were severely harassed, from a “tomatie” (tomato) bugging device placed secretly in their home which could hear “everything”, constant open surveillance outside their home, having a police lieutenant pull a gun and hold it at Matthew’s head, to the banning of meetings, phone bugging, and other measures.

“Besides the death threats, Matthew was threatened, physically threatened by a police officer. We were taking the national road to town. Halfway, we were stopped by a police officer by the name of Fouche. He dragged Matthew out of the car, and pointed a firearm at his head, saying ‘I am going to kill you.’ Matthew’s response was, ‘Well you can go ahead. I won’t be the first one, and I won’t be the last.’”

At the end of March 1984, Nyami once again suffered the trauma of seeing her husband dragged off into detention, under Section 28 of the Internal Security Act. This time, the community was behind her. Violence escalated until the community began a boycott of white-owned shops.

The police released the detainees – Matthew, Fort Calata, Madoda Jacobs and Mbulelo Goniwe (Matthew’s cousin) – on 10 October 1984, leading to the famous photograph of the four men walking down a street in Cradock on the day of their release. This photograph is often mistaken for a photo of the four who were murdered (Goniwe, Calata, Sicelo Mhlauli and Sparrow Mkonto).

After another boycott of white-owned shops in December 1984, known as the “Black Christmas”, tensions escalated. Matthew tried to defuse the situation. But the securocrats had already decided at the highest level that he, Calata and Mbulelo Goniwe should be killed. Their names were listed on the notorious military signal that signed their death warrant. The signal called for their “permanent removal from society”.

On the fateful day, 27 June 1985, Matthew, Calata, Mkonto and an old friend, Sicelo Mhlauli, travelled to Port Elizabeth for their weekly meeting with the UDF leadership. After the meeting, Matthew was invited to stay over because it was late. He declined, saying he didn’t spend enough time with his family, and they set off for the return trip to Cradock.

It was a decision that would cost them all their lives.

“Just before he went, we used to discuss extensively the question of his safety. The disappearance of the three Port Elizabeth guys, that was still fresh in our minds. I used to warn him not to travel at night or come back very late at night, and, well, Matthew used to take these things very lightly.”

Nyami waited anxiously at home, with a family friend, Oom Gillie Skweyiya, as it got later and later. “I knew if he had decided to sleep over, he would have told me, but when he didn’t phone the night before or early in the morning, I knew something had happened. I had that terrible feeling, that strange feeling. Everyone was waking up and saying: ‘Did Matthew return?’ And there was this sudden silence.

“I went to town, awkward, and shattered and numb, and there were rumours circulating, especially in the white community of Cradock, that you know, ‘Jou koning is dood’ (your king is dead).

School principal Monde Stemele recounts the Lingelihle community’s reaction: “When it was announced that Matthew and his three comrades were missing, there was a silence that I’ve never witnessed in my life at Cradock. Everybody went out of the hall, only to go and fight.”

The police phoned to say the car had been found, burnt out. Then people took Nomonde Calata, who was expecting her second child, to join Nyami. She takes up the story: “I got there, Nyami was crying. I started to cry also, I burst into tears. I did not know why Nyami was crying, but because she was crying I started to cry also.”

They were then told that the bodies of Mkonto and Mhlauli had been found.

Mhlauli’s widow, Mbuyiselo Mhlauli, relates the day her father-in-law went to see his son’s body. “Tata went down to New Brighton police station, together with the other comrades. Oom Bra Gillie was among them, I remember. When they came back, my father-in-law was not himself at all. He kept on talking to himself. He said, umtwana, my child, they’ve killed uSicelo, they’ve killed my child. And I don’t know why (she breaks down and sobs uncontrollably). They killed him so brutally. I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, I’ve seen his body, his body is badly burnt.”

The funeral of the Cradock Four, on 20 July 1985, was attended by tens of thousands of activists from all over the country. That evening, then president PW Botha declared a partial State of Emergency, and the crackdown began immediately, with people being detained on the buses on their way home.

But it was the beginning of the end of the apartheid regime. President Nelson Mandela, visiting the graves in 1995, on the 10th anniversary of their killing, said that they were “the true heroes of the struggle” and that the “regime could no longer govern in the old way”.

The shockwaves of this brutal assassination reverberated worldwide, and it was one of the most spine-chilling incidents of the apartheid era. It was something the widows never recovered from, and which was made worse by the failure of the new democratic government to prosecute those who had been denied amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. None of the widows ever received counselling.

The struggle for justice, which the families have been pursuing unsuccessfully for 35 years, is what finally got to Nyameka. She reported being depressed and low before her death.

Former activist and friend Di Bishop, whose civil rights lawyer husband Brian was killed together with outspoken activist Molly Blackburn in suspicious circumstances in December 1985, had this to say about the assassinations and the effects of apartheid: “There is a great deal of woundedness, and there is a very great depth in the woundedness of people, and I do not think the horrors of what happened to these four people disappear from families.”

Nyami said of her husband: “Matthew was a loving father, he adored his children. I remember Nyaniso as a piccanin, he would come back from school, in his suit and nice navy jacket whatever, and Nyani, as a small boy of about two years, would run to Matthew in his dirty feet and dirty hands, and Matthew would just embrace him. He also loved his mother. He loved his mother so much, and his family. I think it’s his softness and sensitivity that made him take up politics. That’s why he got so involved with politics, and sacrificed his life for it.”

Time cut our film interview short.

Nyameka influenced many people, through her work as a local government politician, among others. Although her early death is tragic, at least she is reunited with the person whom she really, really loved, and who really, really loved her.

But the last words are those of the late Oom Gillie: “They are walking free. The murderers among us. That’s what Simon Wiesenthal wrote about the Holocaust. There are so many murderers walking around free, and they have not been apprehended.

“Democracy was bought at a high price, a very high price.” DM/MC

David Forbes is a documentary filmmaker who made the award-winning film The Cradock Four in 2010.


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