The death of an exceptional woman

The cruel and lonely COVID-19 death of the South African land and rural women’s activist, Siza Ngubane.

Sizani Ngubane. Courtesy of Martin Ennals Award.

Confirmation of the death at age 74 of Sizani Ngubane—the world-renowned activist for the rights of rural women—on December 23, 2020, sent shock waves through her extensive South African and international networks. When the announcement was made, she had been dead for perhaps a week or more, having suffered a tormented COVID-19 death alone in her Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal home. Fingers are now being pointed at the provincial Department of Health and the local police for their failure to respond to the barrage of pleas from her son, Thulani, who was at the time himself hospitalized seriously ill with COVID-19.

At the end of November, Sizani began showing symptoms of what appeared to be COVID-19.  On December 3, her son took her to Boom Street Clinic in Pietermaritzburg where, after waiting for a few hours, they were tested. Thulani, who had also developed COVID-19 symptoms, dropped her off at her home in Hilton and returned to his own home at Imbali township in Pietermaritzburg. On December 5, he was notified that he had tested positive. He was worried about his mother but when he tried to call, he could not get through. Thulani’s symptoms worsened and on December 7 he was contacted by a nurse at the Boom Street clinic, who advised that an ambulance would be sent to take him to a local hospital. He pleaded with the nurse to arrange tracking and treatment for his mother who was still at her Hilton home. Thulani waited another three days for the ambulance to arrive to take him to hospital (he complains bitterly about the attendants unhelpful conduct, demanding that he walk to meet them despite the fact he was battling to breath). He was eventually transferred to a facility in Richmond, a town 60km south, where he spent 10 days being treated and quarantined.

On December 14, Thulani again called the clinic and spoke to the same nurse D, asking her what had happened to his mother. She said she would call him back, but he never heard from her. On the same day he also called the Hilton SAPS and asked them to check on his mother. It appears that no proper check was carried out by the SAPS.

Thulani was released from Richmond hospital on December 20 and after arriving home early evening, exhausted, he slept through the whole of Sunday. On December 22, he went to his mother’s Hilton home together with his 23-year-old son, who had been writing exams. They made a gruesome discovery—Sizani’s naked body, in a state of decomposition, on the sofa. There was no sign of forced entry or theft, so there is little doubt that she died alone, an agonizing death from high fever and delirium. When they reported to the Hilton SAPS detachment, the death was recorded as having happened that day, despite clear indications that Sizani had been dead for some time. A series of alleged delays and corruptions by the police, the medical examiner, and the Department of Home Affairs added to the trauma the family experienced in their efforts to finalize a death certificate and funeral arrangements.

The failure of the SAPS to respond to Thulani’s urgent call to do a wellness check on December 14 is currently under investigation by his lawyer. The conduct of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health raises serious questions about its response when people test positive for COVID-19. Sizani’s death suggests it is a futile exercise, since there was no real effort, it seems, to track an elderly woman who tested positive, despite the attempts by her seriously ill son to get a response. Sizani was simply left to die.

Her death leaves a void in her brainchild, the Rural Women’s Movement. A member of the National Women’s Coalition and active in the Association for Rural Advancement in Pietermaritzburg in the 1990s, Sizani was determined to empower rural women in KwaZulu-Natal. In the early 2000s she registered the movement and conducted outreach to the furthest corners of the province.

The Rural Women’s Movement played, and continues to play, an important role in advancing the legal rights of rural women. It made a significant contribution to the 2010 striking down of the Communal Land Rights Act of 2004 by the Constitutional Court, one of the arguments being that the legislation was passed without due input from rural residents. The Rural Women’s Movement, and a number of its members, are also applicants in the pending High Court case against the Ingonyama Trust, its Board, ministers, and others, relating to the imposition of leases by the Trust, and rents to be paid by the rural poor. Tragically, Sizani did not live to see the outcome of this important case.

Through her vision and hard work Sizani was able to obtain support for her work from funders. Many people came from around the world to work with her and learn from her. In 2020 she was among those honored with an award by the Martin Ennals Foundation, a Swiss human rights group, for her achievements in protecting the rights of women.

Her death leaves a leadership vacuum in the Rural Women’s Movement, which must now be filled so that the crucial work continues and expands. In an interview some years before her death, she spoke of her dream to set up a place of healing for abused women. The legacy of distorted customary law in Kwazulu-Natal and the recent passing of the two draconian “Bantustan Bills” means it is critical that the dedication and fighting spirit of Sizani Ngubane lives on.

Further Reading