Compelled to work as a domestic worker to survive and care for her children, her ambition to rise above her circumstances, never left her. Her refusal to succumb to the forces that tried to shape her destiny remains a powerful leitmotif in her story.
Ending up at the United Nations might not have been in her purview in the 1950s but that is where she landed.
That ambition to become “something”, despite the many obstacles, was not only personal. It was part of the DNA of the oppressed at the time not to let racial oppression, poverty and gender discrimination define us.
Many of us used our bad education to study and to use even the very inferior education thrust upon us to beat the Nationalists at their own game.
The motivation was no different to what drove the founding members of the ANC in 1912 to form a political movement of resistance against their colonial oppressors, using their missionary
education to chart a new way forward.
That is what also defined the genesis of the African People’s Organisation, the New Unity Movement and the Teachers’ League of South Africa – movements which held Bantu education in contempt.
In fact, I attended a high school founded by members of these organisations, who openly discouraged us from seeking admission to the “Bush Colleges” in the belief we should demand integration and equal education from South Africa’s white “Ivy League” universities.
And so, at least my generation had ambitions to matriculate and attend South Africa’s leading universities even if choices of discipline were restricted to black people.
But where did these ambitions come from?
Our working-class parents nurtured them in us. All they wanted was a better life for their children, believing implicitly that education was the ticket out of poverty.
Watching the opening of parliament last week, I was struck by how this spectacle might have extinguished the ambitions of millions of young people to even consider a career in politics.
Unlike us, who sought an education in the social sciences to serve our country, today many young people do not see a future for themselves in those disciplines – never mind parliament.
As a young woman I was invited to the American embassy to meet young Republicans and Democrats.
Groomed for political and diplomatic careers, they were proud about having political ambitions that would shape their futures.
Thursday evening killed the ambitions many of our young people might have had to enter politics. When I asked my daughter if she would ever consider returning to South Africa, she would mockingly say: “You deserve (President) Jacob Zuma, I don’t.” She implicitly blames us adults (who were all a part of the struggle) for allowing the ANC to sink “below sea level”.
Frankly, I was not shocked to see parliament’s descent into anarchy on Thursday. It was the logical outcome of years of abuse levelled at the opposition and critics.
In this, all sectors of society were complicit. Big business for shutting up lest they be restricted from making deals; civil society for acting as apologists for the ANC for at least the first decade of its rule; and the media for behaving like fifth columns, instead of providing us with the unvarnished truth.
What we sowed, we have reaped, and the fruit is rotten!