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15 December 2017 20:10 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

My mother the accountant-activist-farmer: Ntombi Msimang (1951 - 2014)

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

It never occurred to me that my mother would die. The thought, even as she struggled with a swollen ankle, and joked about getting older, simply didn't occur to me. But she did. Suddenly on a regular Sunday night, in the bath. She took off her clothes, put her reading glasses on the side of the bath, and folded a newspaper. She sat down and put the jacuzzi setting on. She breathed deeply, I imagine. And then the high blood pressure and the high cholesterol that she didn’t even know she had until three weeks ago, had their say. She had just turned sixty-three.

Like many African women her age, my mother was the pillar of the family. She supported countless children, was an auntie and mother to many. She was the very special grandmother to a new crop of little ones too. Because of her – her laugh and her magnanimity and her curious mind - ours was the house where everyone gathered.

She was also a farmer, an activist, an entrepreneur and a policy-maker. She ran an agricultural loan fund that gave strategic support to small black commercial farmers. Her mantra was that she didn’t expect any of them to plant a single seedling until they had figured out their market.

As a founding member of the African Farmers Association of South Africa (AFASA) she had the kind of expertise and practical experience that all the political parties debating the land question could tap into. As the Chairperson of the Agri-Sector Unity Forum (ASUF) – which brought black and white commercial farmers together around the same time for the first time ever – she had the kind of respectful empathy that would have had Nelson Mandela clapping his hands. Yet somehow, neither the black farmer nor the white ones ever felt short-changed. She managed difficult, sensitive and often painful conversations that required the ceding of power from the old to the new.

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My mother was the best kind of role model for how to be a partner who is both in love and able to love herself. As we got older, my sisters and I often teased her about her ‘boyfriend’ – our dad. They loved each other deeply over a span of forty-two years. They drew close when it was necessary but they also let each other be.

The enduring memory of my childhood is of hearing them waking up in the morning and tuning the old Grundig radio. Three short sharp beeps. Then: 'This is the BBC World Service.' Then their voices, making plans and talking and laughing. It seemed that they never ran out of words for each other. They were making plans and talking and laughing until the very end.

When she decided to become a farmer, my sisters and I were incredulous. It seemed random and hard and we worried about the financial viability of it. She, of course, made it a success. In 2005 she won the South African farmer of the year award, exporting table grapes to the EU, and making friends with the farmers in her new North West neighbourhood. We ate our words as we proudly framed her picture on the cover of Farmer’s Weekly.

When my parents returned to South Africa in 1993, after the unbanning of the ANC, my mother immediately found work in the corporate sector as one of only a handful of black accountants. She quickly realised that a lifetime spent poring over other people’s business affairs had equipped her to start her own.

She left the comfort of a nine to five job, and began a fascinating, difficult but immensely rewarding journey. That journey took her from being a qualified accountant to owning a restaurant to investing in an airline catering company to becoming a powerful small business credit activist, to becoming a farmer to establishing herself as agriculture banker. The road had a few sharp bends as banks refused to take a gamble on her despite her obvious talent. But it also had its highs as she triumphed over narrow-mindedness to prove time and again that she could do anything she set her mind to doing.

Somehow she never made it seem hard. Each obstacle was an adventure. Each triumph a reason to celebrate and bring the family together.

In the last five years my mother had really hit her stride. She was energised by the farmers and their collectives. She provided loans at exceedingly fair rates (looking over her books in the last few days it is clear that she was making no money off the loans but was subsidising; she made money from other bits of work her company took on). More importantly, she wasn't just in the business of lending: she helped farmers to think about their farms as businesses as well as legacies.

It would be a lie to say that she was ready to die. She wasn't. She was hatching plans and dreaming. She was in the throes of life - financially independent, professionally accomplished, and a proud mother to independent daughters.

In the wake of her death we now have two priorities. The first is the establishment of a scholarship fund for tertiary students of agriculture. The generosity of her friends and family has allowed us to support bright young South Africans and we will launch a scholarship programme in partnership with one of our leading universities.

The second priority is to talk about the fact that non-communicable diseases are now a significant killer of women in South Africa. Ischemic heart disease – which was responsible for my mother’s heart attack – is the number three killer of women in South Africa – right behind AIDS and stroke.

It has been hard for us to accept it, but our mother died of a completely preventable disease that gave us ample warning (now that we know what we should have been looking for). My mother was moderately active. She was round but certainly not obese. She had access to medical care and advice. She had three educated, doting daughters. She also had two parents who died in their fifties – likely of heart disease. Despite this, none of us knew a thing about her condition until after her death.

Luckily, saving your mother is as easy as getting her to get tested for high blood pressure and high cholesterol in time. It’s as easy as reminding her that her health matters as much as that of her grandkids. It's as easy as recognising the warning signs.

In the days after she died, someone said to me that you have an invisible umbilical chord that ties you to your mother and that when you lose her, you suddenly feel the tug of that chord. It's true. This has been incredibly hard. But we find solace in her many, many good deeds and are strengthened by a determination to ensure that her sprit lives in the lives of those she cared so much about.

Long live the spirit of Ntombi Msimang, long live. DM

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  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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