Rica was born in South Africa on the 1st of July 1920. Her adult life was devoted to the struggle for democracy. She was banned, detained, house arrested and exiled by the apartheid government, only returning after 27 years. In her book “Foot Soldier for Freedom”, published when she was ninety, she recounts her remarkable story. At her moving memorial, a true celebration of her life, everyone agreed that she was not a mere foot soldier.
Our paths had crossed in the early days but it was only when she came home that we became close friends and she became a significant person in my life.
By the dawn of the new century our freedom euphoria was diluted by our anxiety over the signs of severe social dislocation. While we had emerged from an oppressive history it was clear that we remained a traumatized nation. What we didn’t read in the newspapers we heard more directly from the victims. As psychologists we focused on minds that had been warped by 300 years of colonialism and the harsh vicissitudes of everyday life. We set about converting a two story building into a mental health center which we called Ububele, an isiXhosa word which means kindness but which extends to include the idea of compassion and concern for others.
When Tony and I began to think about Ububele our friend Rica endorsed our idea. After a lifetime of service to struggle she had retired from her job as Walter Sisulu’s secretary. When we opened the pre-school in 2000 she was there to help. I cooked for the children then and Rica helped by going to the market to buy a weekly store of vegetables. As we grew and acquired a full-time cook, Rica continued to help wherever she could. She delighted in the children and never missed a graduation and Xmas concert.
Our principal, Mrs.Thembi Motsoane, gave a talk on Alex FM about Ububele in January 2000. She talked about early education and the kind of pre-school we would set up. Within two hours a young mother, Zanele Ndlovu arrived, tugging two little boys, Tshepo and Sizwe, after her.
She told us that she wanted her children to learn and be happy but she didn’t have money to pay us. Both she and the father of the boys were out of work. We told her that she didn’t have to pay but suggested that she help out at Ububele for one morning a week instead.
Zenele brought her two happy little boys to school every morning. We soon became aware of the fact that she stayed on doing all kinds of chores and helping out where ever she was needed. We spoke to her, concerned that she had not understood that we had suggested she work one morning a week. “I want to come everyday”, she answered, “you don’t understand that Ububele has changed my life. I am so happy to be in this beautiful place watching my children”. We understood – Ububele softened the hardship of her life in the township.
Well into the second year when Sizwe was about to graduate we noticed that Zanele was losing weight. Soon Sizwe reported that his mother couldn’t come to school because she was sick. Zanele wasn’t at the end of the year concert when Siswe graduated and when school started the following year Tshepo didn’t return. We were shocked to hear that Zanele had died over Xmas and that both the children had gone to live with Zanele’s mother. How could they possibly deal with this? In the light of this tragedy they needed a safe place to contain and help them to deal with this tragic loss of a loving mother. Added to this was the loss of a familiar and safe haven in Ububele.
We tracked their gogo down and asked her to make an appointment to discuss Tshepo and Sizwe with us. It was difficult to make a definite appointment as she worked in Pretoria . She would get in touch with us when she had some time off.
A week later we were having lunch in the boardroom. Rica had joined us. While we were chatting and munching away, there was a buzz from the receptionist at the front desk to tell us that the grandmother of Tshepo and Sizwe wanted to see us. We expected a worn-out old gogo to appear. Instead a nifty, youngish woman in the uniform of the S.A. Defense Force appeared.
She introduced herself as Rosie, the gogo of Tshepo and Sizwe . as we shook hands. Then she saw Rica and exclaimed, “Oh my God! Rica! Am I dreaming?” Rica looked slightly bemused as she asked “do I know you?” Rosie responded with excitement. “Yes you do. I’m Rosie from Tanzania. Remember the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College.” She walked over to Rica and threw her arms around her. Rosie joined us for lunch and told us the following story.
She was 16 years old back in 1976 when the children rose up in Soweto. She had gone back to school after having given birth to Zanele when she was 15. After the uprising she left S.A. to join Umkhonto we Sizwe. Her mother had brought up her daughter Zanele. When she came home again her daughter had grown up. They were strangers to each other. She felt bad that she had left her child. But she had a good job with the Defense Force and was able to help Zenele until she died. Now she would try to be a good mother to her children.
We were all moved by her story and her wish to make reparation. She was warm and engaging as we talked. Rica took all this in her stride as they exchanged stories. We, on the other hand, were left with a sense of wonder and a renewed conviction in the value of Ububele, Rica’s favourite haunt!
Rica’s death is surely a time to celebrate a remarkable woman. When she turned 90 she told me lightheartedly that she thought no one should be allowed to live beyond 90. I think that Rica lived much longer than she wanted to, but since we humans don’t have a say in such matters. She faced her old age with grace. The devotion of her loved and loving Spencer, Claudia, granddaughter Tanya and husband Victor, cushioned her frailty and helped her fade away gently.