Remembering my grandmothers

A few months ago I got a  tattoo with my grandmothers’ names: Hlathi and Bhele. Hlathi is my paternal grandmother’s isiduko and Bhele is my maternal grandmother’s isiduko. I have also been fascinated by how no one called them by their names but rather their family names. Their names are part of a picture of Xhosa women dancing taken by Constance Stuart Larabee. It is on my arm above my elbow. Below that is an image a student of mine drew of a woman wearing a headwrap and where there’s supposed to be a face there’s a fist: she told me it represented parts of who I am: strength, black consciousness, black womanhood.

Constance Stuart Larabee's picture which appears on my arm

Soon after got the tattoos with my grandmothers’ names I was caught in a bit of a whirlwind in my personal life. I found it quite strange that after etching their names on my arm I was faced with what I saw as adult experiences and more often than not I found myself looking at their names thinking what would Bhele do in this situation? What would Hlathi do in this situation? I couldn’t find the answers.

I was estranged from both my grandmothers at a young age. My eldest sister has wonderful memories of both of them and we always teased her as umntwana kaBhele, umntwana kaMakhulu. I’ve always been quite jealous of my sister’s bond with both her grandmothers. A few years before Hlathi died we visited her Ezibeleni and she had Alzheimer’s. Throughout the afternoon she kept asking us “Ungubani kanene wena?” and we had to introduce ourselves anew as she had forgotten who we were. By the end of the afternoon I was fighting back my tears because of the reality that she didn’t know who we were and had no memory of who we were as kids. I began to mourn the loss of her before she even died because  realised I had missed out on a crucial life experience of having a grandmother who had stories and experiences to share that my parents never could.


 I was less mournful with uBhele even though I became estranged from her when I was 7 years old when we moved to the suburbs. Before she died she and my mom rekindled their relationship which gave permission for me to visit her again. I spent a few days with her months before she died and asked her about her experiences of growing up and being an adult in apartheid South Africa. She showed me a copy of her pass book and I asked if I could keep it after she passed away (my aunts were very conscientious about making sure I got it when they were clearing her room after her death). She told me about how stylish she was and how she got away with being cheeky because ngumtwana kaMfundisi. I didn’t have enough courage to ask her about her lovers and how she came to have 6 children by three different men. She told me about moving to eMdantsane in the early 1960s. It was winter and the house was a skeleton compared to the home she had had in Duncan Village. She told me about the harshness of moving to a destitute place that had houses that were incomplete and wind was blowing through the crevices in the winter with young children to look after (some of whom who were subsequently shipped off to be looked after by friends and relatives which would have dire consequences for family relations when they became adults).

uBhele in her youth
I have always remembered this story about my grandmother and recently the story came to mind while chatting to a friend about the pain we inherit from our grandmothers and the lessons we can learn from them about our lives in 2018.

I have a few stories about uHlathi. Mostly snippets based on what people said about her. I know she liked wearing heels; granny heels in her old age. She was also stylish and prided herself on her style and ability to still be wearing heels in her old age. At her funeral people spoke about the pride she had about being one of the most educated people in her village as she had stayed in school as far as Standard 6 (Grade 8). This was an accomplishment given that she married my grandfather who hadn’t managed to get very far in school. This means she knew how to write and read and she was a seamstress who was known for her handiwork (just like uBhele who was still sewing clothes for people late into her life).

For both my grandmothers, the ability to sew and make clothes for others became a lifeline; they were able to be financially independent in spite of the crushing economic, social and political structures which granted them little to no humanity. Bhele never married. Hlathi married my grandfather, Jabavu (fondly known as uJ). Mama tells me stories of the effect of migrant labour on Hlathi when uJ would come home once a week looking dapper like a man about town and nothing but fish for supper to show for his toil in the small town of Queenstown. Hlathi was able to remain alive because she sewed and made money and her sons had jobs in the store nearby.

I think a lot about my grandmothers as I get older. What I lost and who I am because their blood runs through my veins. I am my grandmothers’ daughter. When Bhele died I had a burden on my heart to embody her rebellious spirit because she said what she wanted to say and gave middle class respectability the middle finger: her father was a Baptist minister, she had been educated at Shawbury Girls, her brothers were Fort Hare alumns. For all intents and purposes she ticked the boxes of the Africanised, Christianised elite of the Eastern Cape but she shunned that by remaining a single woman with children much to her father’s chagrin.

I have bits and pieces of who my grandmothers are. And I love both of them deeply for the memories I have but also what they represent. My work has led me to the historiography of black women in the early 20th century. Both my grandmother’s were born in the 1910s and 1920s and became adults as apartheid began to build a stronghold on both their lives. In spite of the pain of what it meant being a poor black women somehow they survived to see us live our lives in the new South Africa. They saw the best and the worst of the rainbow nation: Bhele had to bury two sons because of HIV. Both stayed in the townships where they had established their lives as adults with their children. I think about what it meant to build homes in spite of the pain of being subjugated and tormented by an oppressive, racist system that did not value their dreams and personhood. I think about what it meant to be black women with desires and visions during this time and have to surrender those dreams because fighting was too much of a risk. And yet they both lived well with a community around them until they were both in their 80s.

And now here I am, their granddaughter contending with the ugliest and best parts of living in South Africa in 2018. I am free in relation to my grandmothers. I am educated beyond their wildest dreams, I have a voice and an opinion which I share on public platforms. But I am still a black woman who has to contend with what it means to be in a system that pretends to uplift black women while stifling our personhood. More often than not my friends and I talk about how this system does not see black women: no matter where we are we are often infantilised and cast aside but we continue to rise.

The one inheritance from both my grandmothers which keeps me alive has been the ability to survive and remaining steadfast in my faith. Both my grandmothers were part of uManyano. Both of them had a skill like sewing which gave them meaning, status in their communities and financial independence. Unlike the women whom I read about in my research, they were not privileged, they were not highly educated but they were here. They are part of the story of what it means to be a black woman. They are part of my story about what it means to be who I am.

And every time I am overcome by pain and feeling like I want to shrink because I am being crushed by circumstances, I think of uHlathi noBhele and the many black mothers, aunts and grandmothers my friends and I talk about and I am inspired to look beyond the pain and choose to live. I choose love, friendship and faith every time I think about these women.


Enkosi Sisi for this! I smiled and cried as I read about your 2 most powerful and influential grandmothers, uMamfene, uMaHlathi and remembered my own maternal great gran uMamfene! I love aMaBhele too, they are very warm and loving!
I am from eZibeleni, and so chuffed to know that you have strong links with that township. I admire you and the work that you do, and I just want to say, thank you again, ��!

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