Nomonde Calata met her future husband, Fort, when they were both very young, and she fell head over heels in love with him. They married and lived in the Eastern Cape town of Cradock — already well on its way to becoming a struggle crucible in the 1980s.
A teacher, he was also a fierce anti-apartheid activist. When he and three others (the Cradock Four) were tortured and killed by the security police in 1985, Calata was 25 years old and seven months pregnant with their third child, Thamani.
Her wail of raw grief when she had to relive the horror of her husband’s death before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1996 became one of the TRC’s defining moments.
“I lost everything. I lost my husband, my friend, my child’s father. I loved him. I was about to have a baby when he died. He wanted a girl. I wanted a boy. The day he left I was supposed to go to the doctor. The last thing he said was: ‘I want a girl. Tell the doctor.’ When she was born I couldn’t even take her in my arms.”
Because of the association with her husband, Calata lost her job as a nurse at the local hospital. Later she got a job in a clothes shop by using her maiden name, but nearly lost that too when it emerged she was Mrs Calata.
She still suffers from her husband’s death. She still has vivid dreams about him. She bears his memory like a torch. Like the other widows of the Cradock Four, she has never married again.
Calata is seen as a pillar of the Cradock community; people approach her for help and advice and she’s only too willing to assist where she can. She worries about plans to frack the Karoo for shale gas. She’s helping, community leader, Thamani to raise her children. She’s investigating the purchase of a bakery in the township, which she wants to staff with women, and all the while she hangs on to the vision for South Africa that her husband held so dear.
Like the other widows, she not only bears the weight of her husband’s death but also what he stood for and sometimes, when things look bleak, her strength wavers and she wonders: “is this what my husband died for?”.
“Things are not perfect in Cradock, but I’m seeing positive changes. When white people speak to me, they respect my husband, and say they now realise he was a teacher, not a terrorist.
“I see hope in the town’s integrated schools. When Thamani went to Cradock Primary and Cradock High, she didn’t see races any more, just people. These children are colour-blind. Fort would have liked that.”