Dear Mama

Sis’ Beli


I find myself writing this letter to you, 24 years after your death. I am writing this letter to you because so many people want to know about you. About the kind of person you were. So many people want to know about this woman who birthed the Mazwai sisters, but mostly this woman whose energy they can STILL feel.


Mama you were a heavyweight in your lifetime. To many, their mothers are heroes….but to some people in this country, you truly were a hero.

There are times I meet people you impacted and they still burst into tears. Mama you are missed….that, or the impact of your spirit in your lifetime was truly and deeply felt.


You gave birth to me when you were 22, so the, you I remember, is from your mid twenties to your early thirties. Now that I am 36, I realise how deeply profound it is, that you died so young.


When I was a child, I was asthmatic. It was you who stood night and day by my hospital bed. Sometimes you would bring women to pray. I did not understand the gravity of my health, despite laying there on a drip. Mama you were so full of life, even when death was at the doorstep, I was blinded by your light. You were always full of laughter. You chatted to me through all of my hospital stays, sometimes up to a month. Never once did I feel unsafe, never once did I feel unhealthy.


I broke my wrist when I was 6, at The Rand Easter Show on the bumper cars. I was not nervous of doctors… but nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for how you picked me up and carried me shouting ‘yhuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!!! Umntwanami!!!’ as the crowd dispersed to make way for this charging elephant.

My mother the hero.


You did the same for Mpho and Mphonyane. I met these Siamese twins through you. You were a journalist and social activist at the time. You did a story on them and it caught national attention,. Then you and your friends collected money for the family, for hospital expenses and living expenses, you even had a tv installed into the mother’s hospital room. This was at a time that our country was undergoing a state of emergency and Africans did not have rights.

Mpho and Mphonyane were national heroes, and we followed their journey. Sadly the one twin died. But it was you who spearheaded such missions….and there were many.


It was you who got fired from teaching in a catholic high school in Soweto for teaching the students Black Consciousness in the 80’s. You had been hired to teach English and History. I sometimes meet your students and it is with pride that they tell me Mrs Mazwai was their History teacher. Mama, it is the way they say it… is the tone with which they say ‘Mrs Mazwai was my teacher,’

Mama, it is the way they say it.


When I was 8 you took us to St Katherine’s School for Girls in the leafy suburbs of Parktown West. What an interesting journey that was, considering I had a mom like you.

You were life walking. You could not be ignored. Your spirit was loud. Your chatter was infectious. Imagine such a character in those fair English gardens?


Soon after our enrolment, our headmistress asked you to come see her. You were geared up, you were rocking, you were ready to represent us. Mamkhulu tells me that you went via her before coming to school. You looked stylish as you usually did. You told her you had a very important meeting.

When you got to the headmistresses office, she looked at you and told you that your meeting would no longer be necessary.

It turns out, the meeting was about our hair. The headmistress wanted to address the fact that we do not brush our hair. When you walked into that office with your hair…like ours, nappy and unapologetic, you put that debate to rest.


What Mrs Rivett-Carnac did not know is that at home, we were not allowed to abuse our hair with chemicals. It was a strict rule you enforced. Back then, I envied the other little girls, even with their burnt scalps.

Knowing what I know now, mama, you did me a service, thank you.

You instilled in me the comfort of being in my own hair. You did not make vanity a big deal; and you did not allow me to chase other identities.


I remember when I was going through my pre teen vain years. I asked you what makes me special. I was waiting for you to tell me that I am pretty, and you said

‘Ntsiki, you’re really good at maths.’

Yazi, I was so insulted. I felt like you splashed cold water in my face mama. Tjeeeer! But it did make me have a long, hard think about what makes me special.


You were a leader and member and of the PAC Pimville Branch. You and tata were that revolutionary couple who would have secret meetings in our home. I was really young, but I do know that I grew up amongst comrades. I am a comrades baby. You were pan Africanist, lucky for me., this means that my breast milk is Afrika.


Rumour has it that you were by far more radical than tata, and I can believe this.

You raised me in a home filled with books and black heroes, for this I am eternally grateful. While people who have not had this type of upbringing, cower at their blackness, my blackness is out for the world to see.

Because of you, I do not apologise for my blackness.


You were also just a trickster, I remember when I was around 5, my next door neighbour and best friend, Boni and I had a doll we always fought over. One morning we found it dismantled in our playroom at Boni’s house. We ran to Boni’s mom,

‘Mama! Mama! A robber came at night and broke our doll!’

Boni’s mom looks at us with concern and says

‘wooooo, I think you need to call the police about this, go to mama Beli and call the police.’


This was now some serious stuff for us. Boni and I dash off to you with the same story, this time adding that mama Mary says we should call the police.

You look at us with concern too, and you say

‘The phone is locked and tata has the key, go back to Boni’s house. The number for the police is 1-2-3-4-5-6, did you get that? It’s very important bantwana bam. 1-2-3-4-5-6. Say it to me?’

Together we say.


We ran back to Boni’s house shouting ‘123456, 123456, 123456,’

I think Boni’s mom also gave some dodgy excuse and I remember us running back to you still shouting ‘123456’


Your sense of humour was wicked but you also had a temper to match. I could always tell just by the tone of voice and the name you used, what time of the day it was. When all was honky dory, I was Nontsiki but the minute I stepped out of line I would hear you bellow from your bedroom “NONTSIKELELO!”


See as much as you were generous and compassionate, you didn’t have any time for bullshit. Am I allowed to say that? I’m a grown woman now, but never too grown for you….but honestly, in your life, you just didn’t take shit. And when you occupied that space we called home, you occupied the whole space.

Big spirits are often overwhelming to be around, they appear dominating….but mama you were a joy to be around. I always noticed how your friends and family loved being around you. Everybody called you sis Beli.


I have memories of you laying on the sleeper couch in the family room, yes, the grey one with dots that we knew we had to vacate when you stepped into the room. Everybody would have to find their spot somewhere around you as you lay comfortably stretched out watching movies.

I also have vivid memories of you walking up and down the house stark naked, on most days.


Belede means the Mother of Generations, literally it means Long Breast. When I look at us, the children you gave birth to, and I look at my niece Malaika, I understand the poetry in your name. It is your spirit which resonates through all of us. It is your spirit which captures the nation. We are a long generation of you, mama.


You used to wear Chanel #5, a scent I will never forget. I always promise to buy myself a bottle, so I can at least smell you. But that has always felt too soon, something I want to keep at a distance. I know how you smell because I was always wrapped in your arms. I was one of those 11yr olds that was a mama’s baby. I loved climbing on top of you. Owning you. Loving you. Holding you. Being close to you. You were the most comforting space I have ever known.


It’s so funny how you just died without notice yazi. So thoughtless.


In all honesty though, you birthed me, so you know about my 6th sense. Remember just before we left for New York, Just before you died I asked you

‘Mama are you dying?’

That must have been quite a bit of a shocker of a question for you, from your 11yr old daughter. I remember I wasn’t even really asking, just needing confirmation. I noticed how you kept going to the hospital throughout your pregnancy. I also had a strange dream, something about being on a bus with you and then seeing a dying chicken. I remember the dream because it was recurring and would have me up in night sweats. I even told you about the dream and you brushed it off.

So when I asked you

‘Mama are you dying?’

I was asking you for real.

You, calm as a cucumber, said you were just fine. And you said it with such reassurance that I never thought about it, until you died.


You also just happened to be brilliant, when you died you were about to graduate with 7 distinctions. That’s the thing about you, when you set your mind to something, you always exceeded all expectations. You did everything with such class and excellence. You were the kind of woman other women loved to be around.


I remember that men too found you attractive….and you were. Tall and voluptuous with a radiant smile. You were difficult not to like. You were like a blazing fire, warm to be around, but dangerously hot.


You were one with community and you were always ready to help, is what most people remember… I remember your beautiful voice. Omg. I would go to church on Sundays just to hear you sing. My favourite part of the service was always when we sang Nkosi sikelela iAfrika, oh my god, mama your voice. You sang like an angel. I would stand there beside you and just listen to you sing. It felt like the whole church was your backing vocals. My word, mama you could sing. And when you sang, my heart melted a 1000 times. Your soprano touched me in a place I can’t explain, your alto hit me in my stomache. Eish mama, you could sing.


Sometimes I would be still in the house just to hear you humming and singing as you went about your house. Your voice, your singing, your comfort. I loved your voice as much as I loved hugging you.


After my 10th birthday party at Gold Reef City, you secured the Best Mom spot in my class. Mama, you were fun. The most fun mom ever. I grew up on imagination. I grew up allowed to make noise. I grew up in a democratic home where everybody’s voice was heard. We would host plays for the neighbourhood kids at our house. Mama you knew you had given birth to a cast that was to live on stage.


You gave me the freedom to speak my mind. I know that when I was young everybody complained about my back chat….I never once tried that ish with you. I knew where to draw the line. I think that if you had been alive, I probably would not be as brave and fearless as they say…thing is akekho ugogo!


Another rare thing happened just before you died. The last time I saw you, was the day we left for New York. You and I had a big fight. You and I never fought. That day you slapped me. You have never laid a finger on me. (I don’t count being belted as a youngster.)

My point is that our relationship had never been like that, where you hit me. That day you hit me. I was pissed off at you so I didn’t come say goodbye to you properly. I just shouted from the door

‘Bye Mama!’

Little did I know that those would be my last words to you.


Your funeral was packed mama. For that time and place, and a woman in her 30s, that was quite a departure. Your funeral was headline news. Remember Jojo, our favourite comic in the Sowetan newspaper?

Jojo cried when you died mama. There was a cartoon of us standing by your grave with tata, and Jojo was in the background, with his signature hair, crying.

He said ‘Rest in peace sis Beli.”


The community was gutted when you died mama. We your children had always been your first love, three daughters and a new born son. The only phrase I remember from that time is…..’Abantwana bakaBeli…..’

Your death brought with it a silence into our home. A silence and a loneliness. A silence and a loneliness and a grown man weeping in his bedroom. Tata was devastated when you died mama. You were his anchor. You were his love. You were his leader and follower.


Your big spirit left a big gap in the world. Some comrades even say you would have been president. I know I am always safe and protected in this world because in some way or another you touched many people who now, even from a distance, watch out for me.

Even my peers, have heard about Ntsiki’s mom and they wish that they had met you.


You are so difficult to describe. There are so many stories I have not told which show your greatness. I am continually picking up pieces. I find comfort in seeing the depth of emotion people feel for you.


I feel guilty for all the years I have hung painfully to your memories. For all the years I have held you hostage with my grief. How can you rest in peace when I keep you unsettled with my sadness? How will you talk to me in my dreams, if I am not ready to receive you? My tears have kept you far from me, tonight I remember your smile, I want you close to me.

Tonight, I remember who I am……I, the daughter of a great and powerful woman who once lived.


For so many years I have mourned your death……..when I should have been busy celebrating your legacy.



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