Nov 27

A tribute to Nyameka Goniwe

3 June 1951 – 29 August 2020

It is Heritage Day 2020. My thoughts turn to the legacy of a remarkable South African woman, Nyameka Goniwe of Cradock in the Eastern Cape. Her unexpected, lonely death has shocked many and it is out of deep sorrow that I put pen to paper.

Nyami (or Nyame), as she was known, was the mother of two delightful children, now young adults, Nobuzwe and Nyaniso. Their father was the late Matthew Goniwe, one of the ‘Cradock Four’ who dedicated themselves to attaining justice and freedom from the grossly inhuman system of apartheid and minority government in our country. The Goniwes were a fine family. Those who knew Matthew believed he would one day be the Minister of Education in a Constitutional democracy for which freedom-loving citizens longed and for which Matthew gave his life.

Nyami was less well-known, but no less of a leader. She was a social worker by profession. At school in Cradock, she had been taught mathematics, science and history by Matthew and she went on to study for her Social Work degree at Fort Hare University. She married Matthew a little while later and was appointed as a government-employed social worker in Cradock.

When Matthew was assassinated in 1985 by the white minority National Party-controlled government after successive detentions, imprisonment, blatant official interference in his teaching career and harassment of himself and his family, Nyami could no longer live with herself drawing an income from the apartheid government, but there was no alternative social work post open to her in her rural home town.

Believing the assassination of the “Cradock Four” (Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, ‘Sparrow’ Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli) was a turning point in the history of SA, Professor Pieter le Roux of the Institute of Social Development (ISD) at UWC raised funds for a reward for information about the murders. Funds flowed in from his academic colleagues and the reward was publicized. This gesture of solidarity with the community most affected by the cruel torture and ‘permanent removal’ of four active members of the Cradock Residents’ Association, opened the way for Prof le Roux to offer Nyami a social work post in Cradock, funded by the Ford Foundation and ISD, UWC.

Her task was to enable the unfolding of community development that would benefit the Cradock community, most particularly those who had been forced to live in Lingelihle. ISD, with the support of the then Rector of UWC, Professor Jakes Gerwel, provided resources to support Nyami’s efforts.

1986 was an extremely difficult year in which to initiate relevant community work that was both accountable to ‘the community’ and safe from state interference. The high esteem in which Nyami was held and her astute insights and experience enabled her to soon win the confidence of those to whom she reached out. She connected with a small group of Cradock residents who had worked in Cape Town for many years. They were committed to spending their future retirement ‘back home’ engaged in community work. Their organization, Masizame, was built on a solid foundation of friendship nurtured by regular contact between its members during their time off from work during weekends. They maintained a keen interest in developments in Cradock and kept active ties with their families there. Nyami facilitated the introduction of young CRADOYA (banned at the time) leaders to Masizame which led to their visionary collaboration to achieve common purpose for the benefit of the undeveloped and under-developed areas of Cradock that were cut off by segregation and very neglected.

The discretion with which Nyami worked cemented good working relationships with all committed to working for a preferred future for the town. It is to the credit of UWC that a house was purchased on the ‘white side’ of Cradock to serve as an office for Nyami and a point of contact with UWC. It was modestly but comfortably furnished, thereby affording Nyami the dignity which was her due as a much respected and widely appreciated professional. Importantly, Nyami encouraged prospective students from Cradock, de Aar and other nearby rural towns to consider the University of the Western Cape as their choice of tertiary educational institution. One such student is today a gifted teacher at one of Cradock’s high schools.

Travel between the Eastern Cape and Cape Town caused Nyami to recognize the potential benefits for her children of having enhanced educational opportunities in the city and she moved with her family to Vredehoek in the city bowl. Despite the continued pressure of public exposure through numerous media and other interviews, as well as the ongoing investigation into the deaths of the Cradock Four, Nyami came to enjoy the advantages of her own ‘corner of peace’ where she lived in the city.

When the ISD project ended, the Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT) offered Nyami a post as ‘fieldworker’ for their funding and development programme in the more remote parts of the Western and Eastern Cape. Being a confident driver and retaining her commitment to community work aimed at improving the lives of ‘the rural poor’, her fieldwork took her far and wide in pursuit of her role as mentor, enabler, facilitator and encourager of local development agencies in rural towns. She had an unwavering belief in the potential of communities to be their own change agents.

Her competence in this work earned her recognition of her leadership potential and she went on to become a senior fieldworker and later, director of SCAT.

Nyami returned to Cradock after a brief period of working for the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation that was established after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – at which she and her three sister widows gave evidence – had run its course. Nyami was drawn into the politics of local government after the political change in 1994. She served two terms as Mayor of Cradock and looked forward to her retirement. She had bought a house on the previously designated ‘white side’ of the town and set about making it home with her own flair for design and innovation. Her garden was destined to be her pride and joy.

Nyami was a wonderful mother, a treasured aunt, a special friend to many and a gentle, loving human being. She attributed her ability to find some balance in her life to friends around the country who enabled her to have times of rest and enjoy a measure of recreation when she was off-duty. She loved a party and had an infectious sense of humour. Despite this, she carried the burden of early widowhood with a very heavy heart, but never allowed her emotions to impinge on her children’s lives. She sought to spare them from the potential negative effects that her own brokenness might have due to the dramatic circumstances in which their father died.

Nyami will be deeply missed, but her legacy of commitment and valued contribution to achieving the ideals of justice, reconciliation, kindness and caring live on in the hearts and minds of all who had the privilege of knowing this strong, unwavering champion of the rights and responsibilities of all. May the spirit of Nyameka live on as we walk in the paths she opened to us and in the spirit of Ubuntu which she lived so well.

Di Oliver
September 2020