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In death, the women who knew and loved businesswoman and philanthropist, Dr Thandi Ndlovu, broke the silence of the domestic abuse she faced for years but hid. They have vowed to honour her legacy by speaking out.
The most powerful moments in the over five-hour official provincial memorial service celebrating the remarkable life of Dr Thandi Ndlovu was when the women who knew and loved her – her sisters, friends and colleagues – took to the stage, in their black mourning glory, to speak out about the horrific domestic abuse Ndlovu had endured and kept hidden for almost a decade.
The optics of the memorial service, which took place at House of Treasure Ministries in Johannesburg on Friday 30 August, attended by ministers Lindiwe Sisulu, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane and Nathi Mthethwa, as well the order of the programme itself, highlighted the many facets of Dr Thandi Ndlovu’s life.
The service began with stern-faced male soldiers silently marching alongside Ndlovu’s coffin, with her red and white Methodist Women’s Prayer and Service Union (known as the Women’s Manyano) uniform draped on top as it made its way into the venue. Only fitting for a woman who was once an MK soldier.
As mourners began to be seated it was the plaintive voices of the Women’s Manyano, entering the venue singing hymns and ringing bells which revealed what had become paramount to Ndlovu in the last years of her life – her deep faith. And it was the women’s voices which brought something vital to the service.
Then came the numerous tributes from those who had known Ndlovu in the business world, where she became the most successful black woman in construction in South Africa.
But about an hour into the service, when all the platitudes and tributes were done, it was her close women friends who gathered on a public platform to say the unsayable – that Thandi Ndlovu was an abused woman, so much so that she feared for her life up until the day she died in the car crash.
“How does it happen that somebody who has gone and fought for so many, someone who can handle and dismantle an AK47, ended up with scars on her back?” asked friend Khanyi Chama, surrounded at the podium by a group of Dr T’s friends all dressed in black, wearing “pearls and hats”, as she would have liked it.
Chama, head of Responsible Business at Old Mutual, told those gathered that “at every police station that Dr T went to report the abuse, they kept saying to her ‘why don’t you go home and talk things out’.”
The day before Ndlovu’s tragic death on 24 August en route to a funeral in Rustenburg, said Chama, the businesswoman had attended a lunch hosted by the women who were closest to her.
“At that event, you spoke yet again about your abuse and implored women to speak out. My sister, we promise you, we promise you, and that is why I am here and speaking out.”
Defining domestic abuse as “an evil crime”, Chama added, that continued in “the sacred spaces we call home”.
“You are not hanging dirty linen in public when you speak out and seek help from abuse. Your silence is the one that enables domestic abuse,” she said.
There were those, said Chama, who had thought it inappropriate to speak out at Ndlovu’s funeral about domestic abuse.
“People said you will tarnish her image,” said Chama “but you can only say that if you don’t know Dr T. If she could stand up now and jump out of this coffin she would say, ‘Khanyi, I told you you must tell them.’”
That “such a warrior, such a giant like Dr T” could be subjected to domestic abuse would continue if women kept silent.
Chama mused on how ironic it was that a woman who had built thousands of homes for others “could end up in a corner because that is where she was hiding”.
© Provided by The Daily Maverick PTY LTDDuring the provincial funeral for Dr Thandi Ndlovu her sisters, friends and colleagues gathered on stage to speak out about the horrific domestic abuse Ndlovu had endured and kept hidden for almost a decade. Screengrab from SABC News.
Granny Seape, one of Ndlovu’s sisters, told those gathered that at the time of Ndlovu’s death, she had so feared for her life that she had employed a bodyguard.
Seape said her sister had gathered a group of female friends in May 2019 and had “told us about the horror and pain you were forced to endure”.
“Literally at the hands of someone you called your husband. Subsequent to this you made a conscious decision to again put yourself aside and to elucidate the demonic nature of domestic violence. My sister, you were abused, including physically, by somebody who lived under the same roof with you.”
Seape added that while her sister had faced emotional, verbal and physical abuse, “the most painful part of this narrative is that it was shrouded in silence”.
“You were a formidable woman who ran an empire and who was confronted by, who faced, this abuse – every day, and all alone. Thandi, for 14 years you struggled to say ‘enough is enough’.”
Behind Dr T’s “big smile” her sister was “lonely and lost”, added Seape, “and we were protecting an undeserved secret”.
Ndlovu, said Chama, had planned to write a book and would have titled it “Madness in the Land”.
But, she added, Ndlovu “is not dying as a victim of women abuse. Ours is to make sure we raise this issue. If you really want to honour her, you are going to have to do something about it together.”
Ndlovu’s desire that her domestic abuse should be spoken about, and that her sisters, friends and colleagues have honoured this wish at her memorial service, is an important moment in South African public life.
There is formidable power that all of these women hold collectively, but can it be harnessed and sustained to halt an epidemic which so threatens the lives of women in this country – violence by their male intimate partners?
Will the horror of what Thandi Ndlovu was exposed to and bore for 14 years in silence make any difference to the thousands of women each year whose lives are taken by their intimate partners?
Will the SAPS officers who turned her, and other women like her, away from charge offices, ever learn that they are part of the epidemic? Will the SAPS leadership ever be able to extract accountability from its officers? Will the politicians and comrades who sat through Ndlovu’s moving memorial find the political backbone to begin to stop the abuse, the rape and the slaughter?