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Sister of mercy

The Saint Mary’s convent in Kagiso is not hard to find. The double storey building is in one of the oldest parts of Kagiso, in a place called Vlei One. The big, white building stands out like a light in this dark and dusty part of the township.

But since 12 June last year, the light in Vlei One has not shined so brightly. On that day, a very special person was taken away from the convent — and from the people of Kagiso. Her name is Sister Bernard Ncube.

Sister Bernard was detained together with other leaders from Kagiso and the nearby township of Munsieville, and held under section 29 of the Internal Security Act. Last month she was charged with “sedition” and “assault”.

Sister Bernard, who is the President of the Federation of Transvaal Women (Fedtraw), has done much to help the people of Kagiso and Munsieville.

She spent many years teaching at St Mary’s Catholic School in Munsieville and St Peters in Kagiso. Sister Bernard also worked for the Self Help Centre in Kagiso, helping students from poor families to get bursaries. These are some of the things she has done to help the people – and that is why people in Kagiso call her “Mmarona” – which means “our mother.”

So special is Sister Bernard to the Kagiso township that many people think that she was born there. But that is not so.


“Sister Bernard, or Naniki, as we used to call her, was born in Pietersburg,” says her father, Mr Benedict Ncube. Mr Ncube and Sister Bernard’s mother, Mme Anna Ncube, live in Dube, Soweto.

“When Naniki was still young, we left Pietersburg and came to live in Johannesburg,” says Mr Ncube. “We stayed at a place called Edenvale where Naniki started her schooling. She later went to Village Main school in Johannesburg. She then went to train as a teacher in Lesotho. She was a very clever child and always passed with high marks. We were very proud of her.

“When she decided to become a Sister, nobody was surprised. Our family has always been religious. I remember our daughter used to sing this hymn, ‘Nna ke tla direla Morena’ which means ‘I will serve the Lord’.”

“When we moved to Dube in 1956, she did not come with us. She went to stay with the other Sisters in Krugersdorp. She visited us often and always told us about the people of Kagiso.

“When my daughter was detained last year, I was heartbroken. I do not even know why she was detained. She was only doing what God wanted her to do. She has always wanted to help people. Why do they detain those who try to stop the suffering of others?”


Many people who know Sister Bernard feel the same way as her parents. Phola Mkhize was taught by Sister Bernard at the St Peter’s Mission school in Kagiso. Phola remembers how all the students loved and respected her.

“When you came into our class, you would not think that Sister Bernard was a teacher there. There was always laughter and happiness in our classroom. She told us that teamwork was very important. She always told us to help one another.

“She never beat us. If you made a mistake, she would tell you to pray and ask for forgiveness from God — and not from her. In that way, she was different from the other teachers. We liked her so much that we used to visit the Sisters at the Convent just to talk.”


“It is her belief in God that makes her work so hard for her people,” says a young man from Kagiso, who did not wish to give his name.

“She says that Christians always pray for food, clothes and houses — but she believes the people must fight for these things if the government does not provide them.

“As a Christian, she wants to see peace in this country. The Kagiso community love her for this. We remember how she helped us when we were boycotting the Greyhound buses in 1986. She asked the courts to protect us from the police. She told the court what the police were doing to the people of Kagiso.”


But for Sister Bernard, it was not enough to be a sister, a teacher and a helper in the community. She wanted to join hands with other women in the fight for a free and just South Africa. In December 1984 she helped to start FEDTRAW — an organisation for women in the Transvaal.

Ma-Vesta Smith, who is now vice- president of FEDTRAW, will not forget the day she met Sister Bernard. “I met Sister Bernard at a meeting a few years ago. It was on the 9th August – the day that is called “Women’s Day.”

“There was no FEDTRAW at that time. Also, there were very few women’s groups. At that meeting Sister Bernard spoke about the need for unity among women. She said women must unite so that they can be strong. She told us that a nation can only be strong if the women are strong.

“We started organising womens’ groups in the Transvaal. Sister Bernard was a hard worker and every- body soon liked and respected her. After much hard work, FEDTRAW was born. We elected Sister Bernard as our first president.

“When she was detained, we felt lost without her. She was so loved and respected in FEDTRAW that we again elected her president while she was in detention.

“Our work is difficult with the State of Emergency — and it is difficult without Sister Bernard. But we will still march forward. We will work hard to lead South Africa to a peaceful future — because that is the wish of Sister Bernard. We must make sure that her wish comes true.”


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