Nyameka Goniwe, an activist, politician and social worker who survived the death of her husband in one of apartheid-era South Africa’s most brutal extrajudicial killings and went on to campaign in vain for his assassins to be brought to justice, died on Saturday in Cradock, South Africa. She was 69.
She was awaiting the results of a coronavirus test, which proved negative, and the cause of death was not known, a nephew, Mbulelo Goniwe, said.
Local authorities in Cradock, in the Eastern Cape region, said she had displayed symptoms such as headaches and shortness of breath and had been in self-isolation.
Ms. Goniwe was propelled to global prominence in 1985 as a 33-year-old mother of two when a hit squad abducted her husband, Matthew Goniwe, and three other men as they traveled by car from Port Elizabeth to Cradock, where Mr. Goniwe was a schoolteacher and political leader.
The men were taken to an area of dunes along the Indian Ocean coastline, and were repeatedly stabbed and then set on fire by their attackers — all security police officials, both Black and white. The intention was apparently to silence the men, quash resistance and to present the murders as an example of Black vigilante violence.
One of the assailants, Johan Martin Van Zyl, testified at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998 and offered a detailed account of the killings of the four men, Mr. Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Fort Calata and Sicelo Mhlauli, who came to be known as the Cradock Four.
Mr. Van Zyl was seeking amnesty in return for a confession of what he depicted as political acts in the struggle against foes of apartheid. His application was refused but, despite his admission, he was not brought to trial.
The funeral of the four men drew huge crowds and turned into a defiant statement of the anti-apartheid cause. But it also presented the newly widowed Ms. Goniwe with emotional challenges as she wrestled with her loss.
Shortly after the funeral at a dusty soccer stadium in Cradock’s segregated Black township, where the Goniwes lived, the South African authorities declared the first of two states of emergency that served to deepen their country’s international isolation and, paradoxically, to hasten the end of apartheid with the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.
When he visited Cradock in the 1990s, Mr. Mandela called the slain activists “the true heroes of the struggle.”
Yet, Ms. Goniwe’s own story offered a granular counterpoint to the big-screen moments in South Africa’s modern history, tracing the hardship facing spouses of imprisoned activists; the brutality of their abrupt and often unexplained loss; and evoking one of the most tortured conundrums of the post-apartheid era: how could survivors come to terms with the actions of perpetrators?
“They have to show us remorse, that they’re sorry for what they did,” Ms. Goniwe told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, long before Mr. Van Zyl’s testimony.
“I don’t say that, I mean, it would immediately make us happy,” she said in her statement to the commission. “It’s a challenge. We’re going to be challenged in that kind of way and grapple with that, inside, and it will take a long time. Healing takes a long time.”
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Nyameka Puwani was born on June 3, 1951, in Cradock and trained as a social worker. Her parents were farm workers. She married Matthew Goniwe in 1975 and they had two children — a daughter, Nobuzwe, and a son, Nyaniso. A year later, Mr. Goniwe was charged with political activism and was jailed until 1981 under the Suppression of Communism Act.
“My ordeal started then,” Ms. Goniwe told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, describing the strains of life divided between her studies in social work at the University of Fort Hare in Alice, South Africa; the needs of her youngest child who was cared for by Mr. Goniwe’s family in Cradock; and her efforts to support Mr. Goniwe in prison.
In 1982, the family moved to Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape before being transferred to Cradock, where in the years before Mr. Goniwe’s death, the township became a crucible of unrest that threatened to embolden disaffected Black South Africans across the land.
In her account of those years, Ms. Goniwe focused on her husband’s deepening involvement in marshaling Black dissatisfaction to the extent that the township effectively slipped beyond white administrative control. “Running battles between the police and the youth became the order of the day,” she said. Again her husband was detained only to be released as revolt deepened.
He was not the only target. “The whole family bore the wrath of the security police which took the form of harassment, early morning house raids, constant surveillance, death threats, phone bugging, short term detentions for questioning, mysterious phone calls, tampering with cars etc.,” Ms. Goniwe said.
Later she discovered that their home had been bugged. “That device could pick up the slightest sound, even the drop of a pin, everywhere in that house, in all rooms, so they could hear us sleeping in our bedrooms, everywhere, they could hear us argue, whatever, whatever happened in that family.”
After her husband’s death, Ms. Goniwe was active in efforts to promote social change, particularly in rural areas of South Africa. She later became a mayor and speaker of the local municipality council in Cradock, a position she occupied at her death.
Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting.