Hamba Kahle Sister Bernard Ncube


Sister Bernard Ncube

Sister Bernard Ncube
died on August 31 – the last day of Women’s Month in South Africa. I am overcome with sadness although I know that she lived a full and rich life. I got to know Sister Bernie in 1995 when I volunteered as her aide in Parliament. A mutual friend introduced us, thinking I might be helpful to her in her new position in Parliament and the Constitutional Assembly. It was the heady first year of the new ANC-led Parliament under the historic leadership of President Nelson Mandela. The ANC bench was filled with heroes of the struggle like Sister Bernie whose years in prison or exile were not far behind them. They served side by side with poets, journalists, academics – intellectuals who had been the voice of the liberation movement.

Sister Bernie and her comrades had vision and conviction but not necessarily much experience legislating. As a lobbyist for a social justice organization in the US, I suppose the thought was I could instruct her in the legislative process, but for the nearly six months I worked in Sister Bernie’s high ceilinged office in the Victoria Building, I was the learner. She was the one who taught.

She explained how the church tried several times to excommunicate her for being, variously: anti-white, anti-male, anti-church. This came after I asked how she was able to continue in her Catholic order given her views on abortion, and other issues. Sister Bernie laughed and told me she countered every accusation leveled at her with words from scripture, completely confounding her detractors. She also explained that she had seen too many women in hospitals bleed to death from botched, illegal abortions. She could not continue to support a policy that quite simply endangered women’s lives. And that’s what this tiny nun, with her white habit on her head, told the Parliamentary committee considering liberalization of the harsh, Apartheid-era anti-abortion laws.

Just as she cared about women, so too did she love children. Her dream was to build a child care center near where she grew up that would offer comprehensive services for young children, their mothers, and grandmothers in a totally secure environment. I don’t know if the center was ever built, but I know that she had plans over which she pored and studied with great enthusiasm.

She loved her family – her parents whom I met in Soweto once when the two of us were in Johannesburg for a large conference with religious leaders on the Constitution – her siblings and their children and was very proud of their successes.

In the end, it may have been true that Sister Bernard wasn’t initially sure about the legislative jargon and technicalities as a brand new Parliamentarian who’d had no orientation or preparation whatsoever. But it was also true that she needed no tutoring or introduction to the issues. She was passionate about doing the right thing — about making sure that she effectively spoke up for women, children, non-violence, and equality. She wasn’t a firebrand who made long impassioned speeches or sought the limelight — she was far too humble for that — but she spoke up for her causes and worked behind the scenes. Although she was a loyal ANC member when I met her, she was candid about her frustration with the politics and posturing that slowed down the process of building a new South Africa and implementing the ideals of the RDP. She preferred serving her assigned constituency, interacting directly with real people and problems. It was no surprise to me that she became mayor of the West Rand municipality in Johannesburg in 2002.

The South African news media and President Zuma took note of Sister Bernard Ncube’s passing and, many miles away, I sat at my computer and cried, remembering a remarkable woman who taught so much.


(Photo Credit: Mail and Guardian / Gisele Wulfsohn)