South Africans sadly don’t have a strong sense of history. Political exiles’ harsh years and necessary contributions are now unfairly dismissed as cowardice or derided as a means to enrichment. Those who governed Apartheid or benefited from it, both whites as a class and black collaborators, are celebrated and treated better by history. For example, see the pushback by Afriforum, the Democratic Alliance, and their supporters against the eventual decision to rename William Nicol Drive in Johannesburg to Winnie Mandela. At the same time, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who led a violent Bantustan regime and managed a proxy war for Apartheid, was elevated to statesman by News24, the country’s largest news website, which also provides space for whites defending the reputation of Nicol, who was associated with the Broederbond and had Nazi sympathies.
Gladys Nzimande-Tsolo, who died at 83 years old on September 27, was a South African freedom fighter. Originally from Kwazulu-Natal, she fled South Africa in the early 1960s, joined the ANC’s Umkhonto weSizwe in Botswana, received training in the Soviet Union and Tanzania, and eventually ended up in East Germany. The latter was a depressing experience politically, apart from training as a nurse, meeting her husband Mike, and giving birth to their first child, Julia. Mike, who also went by Nyakane, was in exile after leading the Sharpeville uprising as a member of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), which radicalized political resistance in 1961. Gladys gradually grew disillusioned with the class politics of the ANC and joined the PAC. The family eventually fled to the Netherlands, where they arrived as refugees, lived and worked as ordinary people, and did activist work against apartheid for more than 20 years.
In 1990, the Apartheid government announced formal negotiations with liberation movements. Exiles began to return to South Africa. Gladys and Mike made the same journey in 1992. Though they continued their activism (at some point, Mike ran for office in Gauteng), the couple eventually withdrew from formal politics as the contributions and skills of South African freedom fighters were increasingly sidelined in the new South Africa.
People like Gladys and Mike are now mainly forgotten in public life. As their daughter Julia told a local news site in 2018: “Nyakane Tsolo is the man who led the Sharpeville protest and is unknown, completely erased from our national narrative and the memory around human rights. He’s never been mentioned, he’s never honored, there are no monuments, he’s nowhere in the curriculum.”
By the late 1990s, Gladys and Mike were in Cape Town. Julia, who had returned to the country with her parents, also lived with her then-husband, Rogier, in Cape Town, which is how I met Gladys and Mike. I was Julia and Rogier’s next-door neighbor in a block of flats at the top end of Kloof Street. (Another downstairs neighbor was Wolfie Kodesh, who had been Oliver Tambo’s speech writer, but that is a story for another day). I had moved back to Cape Town following graduate studies in Chicago and was now working at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. The Nzimande-Tsolos would see me pass by their window and, while it was unusual in that part of the city, invite me over for dinner. These dinners resembled a mix of seminars on South Africa’s political histories and a family reunion. At times, I would also go on outings with the Nzimande-Tsolos. Julia, her parents, and Rogier wouldn’t realize how much I cherished those “chance” encounters and late nights.
At some point, Gladys and Mike returned to Rotterdam, which is how I visited them on one of my work trips to the Netherlands and met their son Zakhele (much younger and with an attachment to the Netherlands, he had decided to stay in Rotterdam). I also got a sense of their lives away from home. They eventually returned to South Africa again and settled in Johannesburg. Gladys, once speaking on South Africans’ xenophobia against black Africans from elsewhere, what she correctly termed Afrophobia, reminded her compatriots: “It is quite important for ‘South Africans’ to understand that we too were once considered ‘foreigners’, ‘homeless’, ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’ in various countries around the world.”
In 2002, Mike passed away from a stroke. Julia has worked hard to highlight her parents’ political activism, including starting a foundation in her father’s memory. A few days ago, via Messenger, Julia informed me that Gladys, born in 1940, “went peacefully at home in her sleep.” I felt sad for Julia and sent her my condolences because I know how much she loved her parents and how proud they were of her. But I also felt a sense of pride and accomplishment for having known freedom fighters like Gladys and Mike. May Gladys rest in peace.