Mabuza, Lindiwe 1938–
Lindiwe Mabuza 1938–
South African Ambassador to Germany
Lindiwe Mabuza is one of those kaleidoscopic achievers who adapt to any new situation. In the course of her working life she has been a college level teacher, radio journalist, an editor, and an ambassador, as well as a much-published poet and short story writer. Almost all these callings have pointed towards one goal—abolishing apartheid in South Africa. Mabuza has had the satisfaction of seeing this happen in her own lifetime.
Lindiwe Mabuza has come a long way from her working class beginnings in a drab coal-mining town called Newcastle. The daughter of a truck driver and a maid, she spent her childhood in desperate poverty, a familiar story to most black families in apartheid-era South Africa. She was not encouraged by her parents to seek the education that would have made it easier for her to earn an adequate living. As a result, she was the only one of the family of five to finish high school. “When I told my family I wanted to go to university they thought it was a joke,” she told Tribute magazine in March of 1992.
The one member of her family who did not laugh at Lindiwe Mabuza’s goal was her grandmother, with whom she lived while her parents stayed on-site at their places of work. As she often noted, Mabuza’s grandmother had a spirited respect for education and its power to improve life. She never lost an opportunity to cheer her granddaughter on to success or to build her pride in accomplishment with an endless fund of stories about the family’s heroic Zulu heritage.
In time, the seeds of encouragement planted by the older woman produced two sturdy plants. Not only did the determined young Lindiwe go on to college, she also gained a deep understanding of her native literature, which she would one day pass on to others. Instead of entering a South African college, Mabuza opted for Roma University just over the border in Lesotho. There she majored in literature and history. She came back to South Africa in 1961 and applied for an instructor’s post at a teacher training college in Vryheid, a town not far from Newcastle.
It was not an auspicious time to come home. The country was still reeling from the events of March 21, 1960, when a demonstration against the apartheid regime’s
At a Glance…
Born 1938, Newcastle, Natal, South Africa; father: truck driver, mother, domestic worker; divorced; one daughter; two grandchildren Education: BA, Roma University, Lesotho, 1961; MA (English) Stanford University, 1966; MA, American Studies (University of Minnesota), 1968; Diploma in Diplomatic Training, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1993.
Career: Teacher, English and Zulu Literature, Manzini, Swaziland, 1962-64; Lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota, 1968-69; Assistant Professor of Literature and History, Ohio University, 1969-77; Radio journalist, African National Congress Radio Freedom, 1977-79; Chairperson of African National Congress (ANC) Cultural Committee, Lusaka, Zambia; Chief Representative of the ANC to Scandinavia, 1979-87; Chief Representative of the ANC to the USA, 1989-94; Member of Parliament, Republic of South Africa, 1994-95; Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, 1995—.
Awards: Honorary Ph.D., University of Durban-Westville, South Africa, 1993; Yari Yari Award for contributions to Human Rights and Literature, New York University, 1997.
pass laws for blacks had left 69 protestors dead in a Transvaal township called Sharpeville. Now the government was flexing its muscles as a warning to the increasingly vociferous demands of non-white political groups. By the time Mabuza arrived, the country’s leaders were well on the way to giving the Security Police the power to arrest people for 90 days without trial or access to a lawyer. “Political agitators” of all colors had been warned of a new sabotage law, that threatened house arrest sentences ranging from five years and up. In a plan initiated a few years earlier, non-white students had been forced to leave formerly multiracial universities and enter all-black institutions with curriculum offerings strictly controlled to prevent the spread of “dangerous” political ideas like communism or racial equality.
This brought the dream of an education-based career to an abrupt end for most of the non-white teachers who had stuck to their calling after 1955, when Minister of Native Affairs Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd had pruned both permissible subject-matter and salaries. Nevertheless, despite the blizzard of resignations and the resulting shortage of suitably trained black teachers, Mabuza was refused the position she sought at the Vryheid Teachers’ Training College. “My having gone to Lesotho was seen as a rejection of Bantu education,” she later recalled.
She barely paused to register the rejection. Instead, she redirected her search for a career that would offer both opportunities for advancement and intellectual stimulation. She soon found what she was looking for in neighboring Swaziland, a country where education was rightly regarded as a basic necessity. For two years she contentedly taught English and Zulu literature in Manzini, the country’s second-largest city. But by the end of 1963, Swaziland’s tranquility began to pall, and the lure of a greater challenge beckoned.
The beginning of the 1964 academic year found Mabuza embarking upon a master’s degree in English literature at Stanford University in California. It took her two years to finish it. Then she moved on to the University of Minnesota, where she rounded out her education with a second master’s degree, this time in American studies.
After her 1968 graduation Mabuza took a post at the University of Minnesota, where she taught sociology during the academic year. During the summer she worked on the Way Community Project, a program designed to keep unoccupied high school students out of mischief. She tried to interest them in the works of Langston Hughes, feeling that they might acquire a feeling for the similarities that American and South African blacks were experiencing in their battles for equality, but she was unsuccessful. Students on vacation were singularly unimpressed with anything relating to literature.
Never one to give up on a task accepted, Mabuza decided to tackle the problem from a different angle, as she recalled in 1995 for Elaine Upton of Feminist Studies magazine. “Okay, we forget Langston Hughes,” she told her charges: “Let’s write our own literature.” Exercises in short story writing and poetry were set out. Then, to challenge the budding poets, she began to write poetry herself and soon found she had a natural talent. From the first, her work showed an interesting dichotomy. It bore the precise powers of description which only a wide education in international literature can give, though its vivid imagery and its rich detail were pure Zulu. Many of the works from this period were later published in a collection called Letter to Letta. Later poems sometimes appeared in magazines. “To Quincy” one of her longest poems, was published in Feminist Studies in 1995, together with an earlier interview.
In 1969 Mabuza became an assistant professor at Ohio University. Here she stayed for eight years, teaching literature, history, studies of injustice and international racism. It was a course-load that suited the country’s major events, which included the end of the Vietnam War, President Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China in 1972, and the president’s resignation just two years later after the Watergate scandal.
It was a course-load also profoundly appropriate to the march of events in South Africa. Buoyed by a booming economy, the Nationalist Government was stepping up their efforts to keep South Africa white by forcibly removing black South Africans from their segregated urban townships to the “homelands,” the isolated, undeveloped acres of land mandated by the former Minister of Native Affairs Verwoerd. According to Section 10 of the Black Urban Areas Act, only three qualifications could save a black South African from exile to a “homeland”: birth in the city, employment in the same job for ten years or more, or continuous residence for more than 15 years. With mounting rage, township dwellers protested in the few ways still left to them. Walls bearing the message “We Won’t Move!” began to appear all over the cities.
By 1975 the black South Africans left in the cities were smoldering. The spark that ignited a new wave of violence came at the beginning of the year, when the Bantu Education Department insisted that Afrikaans be used as one of the official languages of instruction in black schools. Because Afrikaans was considered to be the language of oppression by nonwhite South Africans, this proved to be the last straw.
Lindiwe Mabuza agreed. Her heart went out to all those enmeshed in this human rights struggle, and she felt she could no longer remain uninvolved. In 1975 she joined the African National Congress (ANC) and offered her services to them. Although it had begun as an underground organization the ANC had won considerable international support. Some of it came from sympathetic African leaders who had supported the organization’s guerilla wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and provided bases for it since its 1962 formation by Nelson Mandela. But even more support came from Europe through Oliver Tambo, Mandela’s former law partner. Tambo had fled to London in 1960 right after Sharpeville, but he had no intention of giving up the antiapartheid battle. Working as part of the ANC’s international arm, he enlisted the sympathy of the British Liberal and Labor parties. He also set up an ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
Lusaka was Mabuza’s first stop as an active member of the ANC. She was sent there in 1977, to become a radio journalist for Radio Freedom, the ANC station, and also to become an editor for the ANC women’s journal, VOW (Voice of the Women.) As befitted the current worldwide feminist revolution, VOW was a boldly feminist journal, in which women were kept up to date on the latest political and military developments of the ANC, were praised for efforts such as consciousness-raising, and were offered clearcut female role models to follow.
More than anything else, VOW gave its readers a forum in which to express themselves and their feelings and to tell the world about their lives. They were at last being given a chance to speak out, after generations of African tradition which had denied them a voice equal with the one that men had often enjoyed, and silenced them further because they were black. Entranced by this miracle, many of them chose to tell their stories in poetry, which appeared as a collection in 1980 under the title Malibongwe, meaning “Let Their Name Be Upheld.”
While she was intent on giving these women a voice, Mabuza had another purpose in publishing Malibongwe Poetry, she decided, could be used as a potent pro ANC cultural weapon in its own right. Always in search of the succinct statement rather than the drawn-out one, she told Elaine Upton of Feminist Studies in 1995. “Poetry is part of the struggle. You use the armed struggle; you use political agitation methods…. You recite a poem. It’s better than a three-hour speech. It gets to the heart of the matter. It moves people.”
By then the ANC had found another mission for Lindiwe Mabuza. Experienced and well-traveled, in 1979 she was sent to the office in Sweden to open other ANC offices throughout Scandinavia. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland all had a long history of sympathy for African liberation movements. Since the early 1960s, when the United Nations had appealed to its members for help, the governments of Scandinavia had been sending funds for educational and social projects to several political groups, the African National Congress among them. This firm support assured Mabuza of a warm welcome in Stockholm.
Scandinavia had met ANC representatives before. Oliver Tambo himself had visited the region a year earlier, to discuss the possibility of further action against the South African government with the foreign ministers of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. They listened to his pleas with respect, for in the 18 years of his exile Tambo had supervised the establishment of 14 ANC offices in many parts of the world, including India, the German Democratic Republic, Canada, and Italy. There was so much enthusiasm in Italy at the prospect of smashing apartheid that June, 1978 saw the launch of an Italian-language edition of Sechaba, the official ANC magazine. Nevertheless, Mabuza’s assignment of opening offices all over Scandinavia required a great deal of tact and diplomacy. By the end of 1987, when the African National Congress sent her to America, the 13 internationally-based offices had grown to 28, with Finland, Denmark, and Norway joining Sweden’s longestablished operation.
Lindiwe Mabuza returned to the United States in 1986 as the African National Congress’ chief representative. She arrived shortly after the U.S. government instituted sanctions against South Africa. Along with bans against buying South African minerals, agricultural products, textiles, and coal, the United States now forbade South African Airways planes to land on U.S. airstrips. But, although the South African economy suffered and the country was effectively isolated, this decline was not enough to topple the government.
It was Mabuza’s job to organize boycotts of remaining South African events. She also spurred participation in anti-apartheid rallies, which attracted such well-known human rights activists as Jane Fonda and tennis star Arthur Ashe. Most importantly of all, her efforts on college campuses all across America galvanized huge companies like Coca-Cola, General Electric and General Motors into withdrawing their investment in South Africa and closing their facilities.
As the 1990s dawned, Mabuza found herself busier than ever. On February 2, 1990, the African National Congress was legitimized in South Africa—a major press event for her. Ten days later came the release of Nelson Mandela, the organization’s charismatic leader, who visited several U.S. cities in June to thank Americans for their long and loyal support. Once again she found herself performing at peak pressure, supervising the issue of press releases, and traveling. In 1993 the last bastions of apartheid crumbled with the lifting of sanctions, and frenzied preparations began for South Africa’s first-ever multiracial elections the following year.
In 1994 Mabuza became a member of the new multiracial Government of National Unity, but she was not destined to stay there long. Within a year she was offered an opportunity to become South Africa ’s Ambassador to Germany, and she jumped at the chance. In 1995 she presented her credentials in Bonn. Her current duties center around the international economy. It is her responsibility to promote imports of South African manufactured goods and minerals, and also to find ways in which the excellent German products can find greater markets in her homeland. Another important challenge is persuading German entrepreneurs and government officers to visit South Africa so that they will invest in the country once again.
To Sweden from ANC, Swedish Social Democratic Party, 1987.
Letter to Letta, Skotaville Publishers, 1991.
Illustrated History of South Africa—The Real Story, Reader’s Digest Association (Cape Town, South Africa), 1994, p. 446-47.
Nicholson, Harold D., South Africa, A Country Study, American University, 1980, p. 258.
Saunders, Christopher, Historical Dictionary of South Africa, Scarecrow Press, 1983, p. 5.
Ebony, May, 1996, p. 52.
Feminist Studies, fall, 1995, p. 615.
Kalahari Review, spring, 1992, p. 41.
Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1990, p. 4.
New York Times, June 20, 1990, p. A25; April 25, 1993, sec. 1, p. 52.
Sechaba, January, 1979; November, 1988.
Tribute, March, 1988, p. 91.
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