LAURETTA NGCOBO: GRACE and PASSION
© Agnes Sam 2015

Lauretta Nozizwe Ngcobo, Novelist, Essayist, Editor, Teacher, Member of the Provincial Legislature, died in Johannesburg on 3 November 2015.

Lauretta Ngcobo was born in Capazi a small village in Ixopo, Natal in 1931. At the age of eight she began school when children in other ethnic groups began at five and a half or six. This was the beginning of the life of a woman destined to rise above colonialism and apartheid.

The schoolgirl was born Lauretta Gwina. At the age of eight she knew that she wanted to become nothing else but a writer. Yet she was fifty years old before that knowledge, that dream, would materialise and become a reality. What her education consisted of, the books she read, whether she had access to a library, what prepared her for writing should be the focus of biographers, researchers and students of her life. Whatever that colonial African education consisted of, Lauretta Gwina gained entrance into university.

There she was in Natal with the University of Natal at hand, but she left Natal to attend Fort Hare University sited in a dusty, sandy place off the beaten track, near a place called Alice in the Eastern Cape. The Universities of Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Rhodes, Stellenbosch, and Rhodesia and Nyasaland were out of bounds to non-Europeans years before apartheid was implemented. At Fort Hare University Lauretta Gwina would have met young African women and men who would later become the future political leaders of their own countries because they also were denied access to the established universities.
Lauretta Gwina became a teacher, met and married Abe Ngcobo then went into exile with him, first to Swaziland, then to Lusaka in Zambia and finally to the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom, Lauretta Ngcobo worked as a teacher, then Headteacher of a primary school in Hither Green, London, across from the river.

Lauretta Ngcobo’s first novel “Cross of Gold”
(ISBN 9780 5827 85199) was published by Longman in 1981. Ten years later in 1991 her second novel “And They Didn’t Die” was published. She was sixty years old. In between those ten years she edited “Let It Be Told” published in 1987. Her output of novels might have been more prolific had she been afforded the opportunity to write full time. But the emphasis then, as it still is now, was on ‘young’ novelists or ‘now even younger’ as the cover of one journal proclaims.

Like several non-Whites writers and artists who came from South Africa into exile in the United Kingdom, Lauretta Ngcobo’s creativity was a balance between non creative work and art. South Africa’s non-White artists exiled in Britain struggled to achieve publicity, to obtain literary agents, and to reach the potential denied to them in South Africa. Denis Brutus also from Fort Hare University and from Port Elizabeth quickly made tracks from England to America where he was celebrated as a poet. Arthur Nortje, a poet from Port Elizabeth who studied at Oxford University, is unknown in the United Kingdom and was alleged to have committed suicide in Oxford. The artist James Dorothy from Thaba nChu, son of a Jewish woman (Dorothy Setlogelo) who encouraged his art, and an African father (Dr Setlogelo) died a few years ago here in York in absolute obscurity.

Lauretta Ngcobo adorned with the graceful outlook she brought to everything she encountered in life continued writing while working full time as a teacher and Headmistress.

It is England’s shame that an African woman, exiled from South Africa, writing in the English language when her mother tongue was Zulu, was not fully appreciated. I have no recollection of ever hearing Lauretta Ngcobo interviewed on the BBC radio or seeing her on television discussing events in South Africa, Southern Africa, or her own work. Perhaps the World Service may have done so. I am open to correction.

Lauretta Ngcobo was passionately committed to the struggle of African women and that commitment forms the theme of her writing. Membership of the Pan African Congress may have placed her at a disadvantage both inside and outside South Africa, because the mantra of the PAC is “Africa for the Africans” when the opposing mantra of the African National Congress is “South Africa belongs to all who live in her.” (Freedom Charter)

She explained to me – (Lauretta Ngcobo was my personal friend. She was at my home in Heslington, and I at her home in Hither Green) – that the PAC mantra was not racist, but a reality. Opponents of apartheid failed to differentiate the condition of Africans under apartheid and colonialism. Many people are ignorant of the stratification of races in South Africa with Europeans at the highest level, ‘Coloureds’ (the first people to call themselves ‘Afrikaners’ in South Africa) in the second layer, Indians in the third strata, African men fourth, and African women fifth.

Lauretta Ngcobo explained that all women must smash the glass ceiling to reach their potential. But it is the African woman’s sympathy for the humiliation of the African man under apartheid, and the position African women occupy in traditional society, that placed African women below African men.

Lauretta Ngcobo on her return to the new South Africa served as a Member of the Provincial Legislature from 2000 until 2009.

A woman unwavering in her opposition to unjust oppressive social systems recognition for Lauretta Ngcobo came late in life. She was given a Lifetime Achievement Literary Award (2006); recognised as an eThekwini Living Legend in 2012; presented with an honorary doctorate from Durban University of Technology (2014).

If it is not yet so, Lauretta Ngcobo’s writing, her life, her achievements, and her struggle to be a writer should be the focus of research and reading for schools and universities throughout South Africa and not confined to her home province.

Lauretta Ngcobo was a woman of grace, compassion, kindness, tolerance and passionate commitment to oppose the oppression of African women.

“South Africa Belongs to All Who Live in Her” (Freedom Charter). Lauretta Ngcobo lived and died in South Africa. She belongs to all South Africans.

© Agnes Sam 2015