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Epaulette Mbeki (1916 - )

The Order of the Baobab in

Epaulette Mbeki (1916 - ) Awarded for:
Her exceptional contribution to the economic upliftment of the underprivileged communities in the Eastern Cape and her commitment to the fight against apartheid.

Profile of Epainette Mbeki

Epainette Mbeki (née Moerane) was born in February 1916 in Mangoloaneng, in the Sotho-speaking section of the Mount Fletcher district of Transkei.

She attended Mariazell Mission, before studying at Lovedale Teachers College and graduating as a secondary school teacher from Adams College in Durban. She obtained a teaching post at Taylor Street Secondary School. One of her fellow teachers was Govan Mbeki, the man who would later become her husband.

The Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) recruited her in 1937 – making her only the second black woman to join the CPSA, after Josie Palmer (Mphama). Mbeki became an active member of the liberation movement in Durban. She volunteered to work for the Child Welfare Organisation, helped to organise a rent boycott, worked as an agent for Inkululeko, the CPSA's newspaper, and ran the party's famous night school.

In 1940, she got married to Govan Mbeki and they moved back to Transkei, driven by their calling to help uplift and emancipate their home region's impoverished rural masses. The Mbekis obtained a concession to set up a trading store in Mbewuleni, in the Idutywa district, which became the family livelihood. While Govan Mbeki became involved in national politics, Epainette ran the store and raised her four children – Linda, Thabo, Moeletsi and Jama – while also contributing to her husband's newspaper, Inkundla ya Bantu, and being an active member of the Zenzele movement, of which she was recording secretary for many years. She was also a founding member of the National African Chamber of Commerce.

After her husband had been sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia Trial and her three sons had gone into exile, Mrs Mbeki remained at Mbewuleni. It was a time of deep trauma and hardship, as she attempted to eke out a living from her shop while enduring unspeakable harassment from the authorities.

What kept her going then, and what keeps her going now, was her unflinching belief in community development, as well as her faith in self-help projects as a means towards social and economic advancement. Even during her most difficult years, she remained active in the community. This ranged from assisting the youth of Mbewuleni to complete their schooling and find employment, to serving year after year as the secretary of the Idutywa agricultural show.

In 1974, Epainette Mbeki moved away from Mbewuleni to Ncgingwane, closer to the town of Idutywa. Here she set up her shop again, and continued to work as an activist for social upliftment.

A firm advocate of making a difference in one's own community, she remains in Ncgingwane to this day. An impassioned supporter of land tenure reform in the Transkei, she is the patron of a successful community farming project. She has organised the women of her village into a highly motivated craft and beadwork co-operative called Khanyisa. This initiative has just received funding to set up a craft village on the road between Idutywa and Willowvale.

Mbeki has worked tirelessly to bring quality secondary schooling to her district. Her efforts have been rewarded with the establishment of the Nobeko Mbeki Secondary School, named after her, and of which she is patron. She is also involved in the establishment of an AIDS hospice at Mbewuleni and a children's home at Komga. At the age of 90, she still works a full day, supervising her many projects, and dispensing advice and assistance to all who seek it.

This unassuming, remarkable woman has made great sacrifices for the liberation and advancement of the oppressed in South Africa and continues to be an inspiration to many.

Epainette Mbeki could have lived out her old age in the comfort of official residences in Cape Town and Pretoria. But she has chosen, instead, to remain with her community.