By Mbangwa Xaba

On Thursday afternoon, 7 September, Mama Florence Thembekile Kumalo took her last breath at the Bheki Mlangeni Hospital in Jabulani, Soweto.
The 83-year-old teacher, anti-apartheid activist and community leader departed this world in her sleep. It was on her terms – peaceful and tranquil. It was as if it was a deliberate contrast to the turbulent life she lived under apartheid.
Her passing was almost choreographed, with up-to-the-minute coincidences.
It was a well-timed commemoration of her martyred son Bongani Kumalo – a Cosas activist and student leader who was assassinated on 13 September, 1984.
Bongani was murdered a day after the commemoration of the brutal slaying of Black Consciousness leader Steven Bantu Biko. The apartheid government killed Biko on 12 September, 1977.
Thank you MaKumalo, most of the martyrs of our liberation struggle like these two, are fast becoming a distant memory in a democratic society of plunder and mediocre.
As she intended, and as I reflect on her own life, I cannot help but remember Bongani through her teachings to all of us.
Sis Thembi, as the community affectionately referred to her, was a community leader, an education activist, a loving and generous mother.
As a neighbourhood child, I visited the Kumalo household for an assortment of reasons, mostly sent. Our family interacted with the Kumalos closely.
Mr Kumalo, Themba Gilchrist Kumalo, was an Angelo Dundee of Dlamini and surrounding townships, the likes of Rockville and Senaoane. He mentored generations of boxers in the area. Most boxers before, during and after the class of ’76 who passed through his hands called him “Bra Skhulu”.
Two of my own uncles, the late Herbert and Emmanuel Gumede turned professional boxers thanks to Bra Skhulu’s stewardship.
As his name suggests, there is a touch of Sis Thembi there, education was a central theme. Little wonder that some of his protégés ended up as veteran liberation struggle icons today such as Jabu Ngwenya and many others.
Bra Skhulu was especially valuable in securing fights for his apprentices who wanted to pursue boxing professionally.
Even this basic sporting opportunity was a big hustle under apartheid and Bra Skhulu mastered tricks to undermine the system to find fighting opportunities and producing boxing champions along the way.
From the middle of the ’70s when yours truly was still wet behind the ears to the mid-80s when I joined Cosas, I was always an enthusiastic beneficiary of Sis Thembi’s ever-present lemonade and cookies and, of course, that permanent question, “what are you studying now?”
She cared deeply about education and this character was embodied in her youngest son, Bongani. Bongani demonstrated maturity at a young age, making it obvious that he was ahead of his time. More significantly, Bongani epitomised his mother’s teachings and persona to the hilt.
He was neat, measured and articulate, responsible yet courteous and considerate. He was a teenage statesman, nothing boys his age can ever be. Bongani was a typical Cosas member of the ’80s; an intelligent straight A student but an astute leader.
Bongani frequented my grandmother’s house. Several senior Cosas leaders will often have meetings there. These included his older brother, Jabu, with whom we are still friends to date. Jabu, together with the likes of Mnyamezeli Booi, Lulu Johnson and Kenny Fihla, were in the National Executive Committee of Cosas.
They worked closely with my uncle, Veli “VVO” Gumede who served with Bongani, Voice Mabe, Mogomotsi Mogodiri, Mbali Seheri, Lancelot “Manyambane” Giba, Eric “Pilo” Nkomo and Neil “Bob Marley” Thobejane, to name a few in the leadership of the Soweto branch of Cosas.
I recall many occasions of counsel from “Dibongza”, as we nicknamed him. These were often at dusk or dawn when he and VVO trekked to school or Cosas meetings. Once he learned that I was also an activist, having started a branch of Cosas at Sedibathuto Primary School in Mapetla in 1984, he got worried about my schooling.
Our conversations would always be quick at the gate. They were always under the same ambiance – dust from the street, thanks to the morning traffic or smoke-filled atmosphere coming from the multitudes of Soweto coal stoves chimneys in the evening.
“Study hard mchana. Never let your schoolwork suffer because of the struggle. If you miss a class, form study groups with other comrades to ensure you always catch up with your work,” he would advise.
Then, there was a matter-of-fact warning: “Don’t forget to flag down the coal wagon in the afternoon.”
Failure to do this, always resulted in a lashing for me. He obviously took mercy for me in the wake of my impending assault.
His advice stayed with me even after his assassination. By 1985, when I was in high school, apartheid police had declared war on children. They were killed and detained without trial, schools were closed and opened like cinema curtains.
I was also hunted down like an animal by the police.
The horse-drawn coal carts vendors’ routine was replaced by the scaling of fences in the dusty streets with high-speed police vans in hot pursuit. The event always featured rubber bullets and teargas, with occasional live rounds. These skirmishes led to the now-common place mass funerals.
The trigger-happy police and the military that roamed the streets made life a living hell. I lived in hiding, missing class for several days. The advice from Dibongza came in handy as we already had study groups.
Bongani the activist, the boy with the maturity of an adult helped to ensure I managed high school education under impossible conditions.
Thank you, mama, for giving your own life so we can recall those bloody days and help us commemorate our comrade and brother.
In death, like in life, MaKumalo was ready to forgo herself for others. This, I suppose comes with being a black woman of her time. MaKumalo withstood the toughest times under apartheid.
Apartheid was a cruel system of government, but its wickedness was most diabolical for black women. They faced discrimination on all fronts. They experienced the same discrimination and harsh treatment as black men. In addition, women were forced to live under a wide range of repressive laws that treated them like minors, denied them freedom in a political, social and economic context.
They couldn’t own property, they faced the humiliation of the pass system, a lack of choice of where to live under both the Group Areas Act and the homelands policy of the apartheid state.
They were treated shockingly by white employers.
These conditions made it almost impossible for many women to remain apolitical. MaKumalo, although not overtly, in her own way, championed the course of the struggle against apartheid. Education was her trusted weapon of choice.
Despite all obstacles, she studied to become a teacher and continued to study until late in life. She studied and taught as an act of defiance against apartheid. This method was soon to be turned into a beacon of hope, an empowering flame she kept sharing and acquiring till her twilight years.
Come to think of it, I am able to string together these words; it’s all thanks to the legacy of Sis Thembi… Fare thee well mama wethu!

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