Seeing with new Eyes: Sabelo Mbatha

My name is Mthokozisi Sabelo Mbatha and this is my story. I was born on the 12th of March 1976, I was born in Baragwanath Hospital. I was born to Thandi Johanna Mbatha and Thamsaqa Jerold Mbatha. Both my parents were children of migrant labourers. My father was born in Kwa-Nongoma in Kwa-Zulu Natal and my mother was born in Evaton in the Vaal.

Sabelo pictured here with his wife Lynette, son Siyanda and two daughters Thando and Khanyelihle.

My paternal grandfather came to Johannesburg in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s; he lived in the hostel as many migrant workers used to do in those days. My maternal grandfather was born in Sophiatown, and his family was later moved to Alexander. Although my maternal grandfather’s family was also from Nquthu in KZN, the family had been in Gauteng for much longer than my mother’s family.

My parents were married in 1974, in what my mother has always and still describes as a fairy-tale wedding. However their fairy-tale was short lived, five years later my father and two of his brothers suffered capital punishment under the apartheid government. My father and 2 of his bothers were hanged in 1979. When my father died he was only 32 years old, and my mother was only 29 years old when he became a widow. I was only 3 years old when this happened, as a result I don’t know my father and I have no recollection of him, as I was still too young remember anything.

Needless to say, I was brought up by a single parent. I must also state that I was lucky in a way as I am a good example of that African saying that says, “It takes a village to raise a child”. My mother had a very strong support structure from her parents, as a result for the first 6 years of my life I was brought up by my maternal grandparents. I only started living with my mother when I started school. There’s a funny story that my mother always tell what happened when I started living with her. The story is that I actually thought that grandmother was my mother and that my mother was my sister. I actually found out the hard way that she was my mother when I was dragged kicking and screaming to go and live with her. She tried to explain a number of times that she was actually my mother to no avail. However after some bribery with toys and other nice stuff, I very soon felt at home. I suppose the fact that I was the only child also helped as at my grandmother’s  house there were lot of us, almost all the grand children lived there as all our parents were working.

When I was living with my mother again the community around played a very important role in bringing me up. My mother worked as a nursing sister, so her shifts were 7am-7pm, so this meant that I had to have someone looking after me when I came back from school until my mother came back from work. This responsibility was left to our neighbours, the neighbours would keep an eye on me and make sure that when I came back from school a fetch the house keys from the neighbour’s house, change from my school clothes and then lock up afterwards and then take the key back to the neighbour’s house, and only then I would be allowed to go and play. When it got dark, I would go and sit and wait at the neighbour’s until my mother returned home from work. This was indeed a very different time, as what used to happen was that all the elders in the community were your parents and used to look after your wellbeing.

Growing up in Soweto was not easy, in the mid 80’s as there were a lot of disruptions to schooling life due to public unrest that was directed to the oppressive regime. As a result of all the civil unrests, my mother decided to take me to Ermelo in Mpumalanga to live with her cousins. The plan was that I will get some education without the constant interruptions that we experienced with the civil unrests in Soweto.  I was in Ermelo for 2 years from 1986 to 1987. I was given very strict instructions when I got there, i.e., not to ever mention that I was from Soweto, as I could be sent packing if they found out I was from there. I suppose Soweto had a very bad reputation for having civil unrests at that time, so I was told that when other kids at school asked me where I was from, I must just say I was from Standerton, the funny thing is that I didn’t even know where that was, and I had never been there before.

Two years later I was back in Jozi, the pace was high and the political situation was become tenser day by day. The political violence was very rife, as a result some of the things we saw as kids are things that no one should see or experience in their lifetime. By the age of 12 years myself and my peers had already seen and been exposed to many dead bodies, that was not something that scared us anymore, we just used to it. Things were really getting out of hand in the old township where we lived, took a decision that we must move to a newer township in Soweto. I guess this was her own way that she tried to protect us from what was happening around us. By this time I had a sister, she was only six years old when we moved.

The new area was much more calm and quiet and the houses were much bigger than the four room houses we were used to. For the first time in my life I was looking at possibility of having my own bedroom as our new house had 3 bedrooms and for the first time we had toilet and bathroom inside the house. For me, this was heaven. However as soon as we moved into our house, my mother set me and my sister down and explained to us that we should not get too comfortable in our own bedrooms as we might need to share our space with our relatives that might need our help from time to time.

There was one thing that my mother has always been and still is passionate about, that is education. She always made reference about how education changed her life as she came from abject poverty. My mother was the first of 11 children, 4 girls and 7 boys. She literally brought up her siblings. In 1984 my maternal grandmother passed away after a short illness and my grandfather passed away shortly after that, in 1986. So growing up my mother always looked after two households. She made sure that we knew this as her kids and we understood that even though she worked very hard, we cannot have all the things that we wished for in life. We had the basics and the only thing that she never compromised on was our schooling. When it came to that she made sure that we had everything that was required, and she always tried to make sure that we got very good education. As a result when the Model C schools opened up to all races in the early 1990’s, I was amongst the first group of African kids that started attending these schools. She also made sure that her younger siblings got good education as well, as well as some of our cousins that their parents could not afford good education, my mother took them in ensured that they got good education. So for as long as I can remember there was never a time in our lives that we never used to live with a relative in our house, both in our old house and our new house. My mother always told us that she was helped by other people to get to where she is and she is always going to play it forward and help other people as well, as especially when it comes to education.

I guess it was at this stage when I became a teenager that it was very challenging for my mother to raise me as single parent. I suppose I was starting to feel the unfairness of life, not having all the things that peers had and all the things that I wished to have. I was starting to feel that maybe if my father was still alive things would have been different. It was at this point that my mother sat me down and explained the realities of life. She took her payslip, showed it to me, I could see how she was earning and gave me a breakdown of her monthly expenses, which included our school fees and our monthly transport cost. That for me was a life changing moment, I then realized how hard this woman was working to look after all of us, her kids and her extended family. She literally used to work 24 hours a day, she would knock off from 7am – 7pm and go and start another 7pm – 7am shift. Whenever she was on leave from her employment where she was permanently employed, she would work shifts in other hospital. She did all of this to ensure that she put food on the table and also make sure that we had everything we needed for our schooling. The amazing thing is that she did all of this to ensure that we had better education and we could afford the bare minimums. It was during this conversation that she told me that I must stop feeling sorry for myself as the world did not owe me anything.

There are a lot of life lessons that I took from my mother, one of the lessons is that hard work has never killed anyone and that hard work pays off ultimately. Seeing her struggle to bring us up made me make sure that I never disappoint her in life, so I had to make sure I don’t fail at school and when I got to tertiary, I made sure that I don’t repeat any class. I literally had one chance to do everything. As a result I finished my qualification in a record time; there was no other option as I had to make way for the ones that were coming after me. At the centre of everything thing that we did was our religion, something that my mother taught us very early in life that praying and going to church and our church community being the centre of everything that we do.

I grew in the Anglican Church firstly in St Pauls in Cross Road in Soweto, we later moved to a church that was closer to our home, which was St Mary Magdalene in Protea South in Soweto. This where my faith was solidify, I was involved in all the youth activities in church, from being a server to being in the youth. In the later years I was also involved in the other church committees.

In the 2nd year of my tertiary education, at the Wits Technikon, now known as Johannesburg University of Technology, this is where I met the love of my life, Lynette Marera. I fell in love with this lady the first time I saw her and I have been in love with her ever since. This was in 1996, we first became friends and it was only in June 1998 that we started dating. When we started dating, I told her that she is going to become the mother of children and she didn’t believe me. Since we met I have a friend and a comrade, someone who I can confide in, someone who I could tell all my fears and worries to without her judging me. We dated for 6 years and then we were blessed with our firstborn Siyanda Botshelo Mbatha. We got married in 2008. In 2009 on the 25th of February, on my wife’s birthday, we were blessed with our first daughter Thandolwethu Reitumetse Mbatha. Our last born Khayelihle Basetsana Mbatha was born on the 16th of December 2012. It was very important for us to give our kids names that represented both our families and heritage. My wife is Motswana and I am uMzulu as I have mentioned before. I can safely say there’s no one in the world that knows me better than my wife does, she can immediately pick up if there’s something troubling me, even before I can open my mouth. She’s certainly my pillar of strength and the engine that keeps our family running. If you ask my kid who is the Boss, they will tell you that Mom is the Boss.

My wife soon after the birth of last born Khayelihle felt that we needed to find a spiritual home, as it had been a year since we had moved up north from the South of Joburg, and we had not found a spiritual home. She didn’t want any other spiritual home but the Anglican Church, as she knew that I grew up within the church. The nearby church that she could find was St Francis of Assisi in Parkview. One day I just heard her say, we are going to church on Sunday, and I’ve found a church close by for us. We fell in love with the church, Father Tim ad the whole congregation made us feel very welcomed. All our kids were baptised in the church in 2014.

My wife is the reason I’m standing in front of you today, for some time I had lost my way and stopped going to church especially after I had moved out of my family home to be on my own. My wife insisted that we found a spiritual home for our kids, especially after we had moved to this part of Johannesburg. When nothing happened from my side, she took it upon herself to search for a church and she found one right here in Parkview. Our kids have basically grown up inside this church for the past five years and with God’s help we will keep them dedicated to this congregation for many more years to come.

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