Formidable activist Novisisanani Thinta home at last

For many years, she was battling an aggressive cancer while opposing the repressive tactics of the state against landless people whose only dream is to have a place that they can call home.

Redoubtable Eastern Cape land activist Novisisanani Thinta has finally come to rest at Kwamashu-eBhubesi village, which is situated near Matatiele in the foothills of the scenic mountains that were her home for over 30 years.

The people of the village had been eagerly awaiting Thinta’s homecoming. Before her body was brought into the yard of her family home, a small group of men stood at the entrance to welcome it with a goat prepared for slaughter. The meat was eaten a day later, in line with tradition, and the goat’s bones burnt to ashes as it is forbidden that domesticated animals consume them.

Born in the small town of Mount Fletcher, about 70km away, Thinta became a resident of the village around 1988 when she moved in to be with her husband. It’s here where the couple built a home and the umbilical cords of their daughters, Nontembeko, 32, and Vathiswa, 28, were planted.

Thinta’s soul departed her body far from her ancestors’ land, in Gauteng. She had come to the province in 2010 seeking greener pastures and worked as a cleaner for about three years. Her death was not an event but an excruciatingly drawn-out process. This was underscored by her coffin, which was almost half the size of what she was in times of good health. 

Undated: The only picture that Novisisanani Thinta’s daughter Vathiswa ever managed to take of her mother, who always refused to be photographed. (Photograph courtesy of the Thinta family)

Her illness started with a black spot on the sole of her foot that soon sprouted, causing her pain. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, a decade after it had first shown up. Doctors from Tembisa and Charlotte Maxeke hospitals had been trying to treat it, but the cancer was stubborn, moving from one place to another and up Thinta’s leg. “She would severely bleed every single day [from ulcerating wounds],” explained one of her nieces, Zingiswa Mkholokotho, 24.

“Last year, around September, she began experiencing a running stomach and she’d throw up,” recalled Vathiswa, who quit her job to look after her mother. “Doctors said her intestines were coiled and intertwined.” As a result of this, Thinta underwent surgery and got a colostomy bag.

She died on 4 June at the age of 55. “It was around 3pm when her health rapidly deteriorated,” said Vathiswa. “I rushed to warm up the water so that I could bathe her and take her to Tembisa Hospital. While I was doing that, I noticed that she was dying.” 

Vathiswa says witnessing her mother’s prolonged struggle against the illness was traumatic and it will forever linger with her. “She was in pain, day in and day out,” she said.

A mother for everyone 

Thinta wasn’t only battling with cancer. She stood up against the state’s war on impoverished people who are rendered landless. “My mother’s motto was simple: all she wanted was a home for all of her children so that when she leaves this world, she’d be assured that her children are safe,” said Vathiswa.

In 2017, Thinta joined Abahlali baseMjondolo, the largest movement in South Africa that supports shack dwellers to organise themselves and build democratic power to counter the state’s oppression. Since its inception in 2005, Abahlali has experienced constant threats from the state’s security apparatus and its allies, which collude to weaken and crush bottom-up formations through violence, harassment and even murder. 

19 June 2021: Mourners carry the coffin of Novisisanani Thinta, who died at the age of 55 after battling an aggressive cancer for many years. 

In March last year, Thinta was instrumental in the Zikode land occupation in Tembisa, in the east of Gauteng, where at least four similar attempts had taken place without success. For her resilience, she will forever be remembered for being among those who successfully occupied and established a settlement, which has now grown to at least 170 shacks.

Thinta’s family remember her as someone who “had a lot of humour. She’d tell us her childhood stories. She did not like negative energy,” said Mkholokotho. Thinta’s nephew Rorisang Lebeta, 27, added: “She’d use strong words when she’s angry, like mnqund’wakho (your arse), which at times she’d use playfully. She did not like to pretend and did not take any shit.” 

22 June 2021: From left, Johann Nkosi and Julia Moloi work in the vegetable garden in front of Moloi’s shack in the Zikode occupation in Tembisa on Gauteng’s East Rand. 

Thulani Molife, 33, became the chairperson of the Zikode land occupation because Thinta recommended him. He says he’ll always remember her forthrightness. “As Zikode village, she was our mother and a grandmother. She was someone who was a straight talker and if you had done something wrong, she’d never wait for dawn – she’d reprimand you immediately.”

Julia Moloi, 62, Thinta’s neighbour in Zikode, says she got a stand to build her shack on because of the activist, who had encouraged her to come to the settlement. “She was the kind of a person who did not want to see anyone not having a place to stay,” she said.

Moloi says Thinta used the ulcerating cancer wounds on her leg to shield the occupiers from metro police officers who came to demolish their shacks. She would sit down and show the officers that she had open wounds and could not run away when they were being fired at with rubber bullets. Because of this, she was one of the first people to permanently occupy a shack in the settlement. However, on one occasion the police confiscated her building materials as well as her medication.

Her people’s rock

During the initial stages of the occupation, the residents of Zikode heard that a convoy of army soldiers would come to destroy their shacks, triggering many to flee for safety. But Thinta and two elderly women remained resolute and never left the settlement. One of the women, Johann Nkosi, 67, recalls that during these difficult times they did not even have plates in which to dish up food. 

“We spent an entire winter trying to erect shacks at night when metro police officers had destroyed our shacks during the day. During this period, it was cold and tough. But Thinta never gave up. She remained with us for the entire period,” said Nkosi.

Thinta was so fond of elderly people that she persuaded the other residents to reserve the street in which she lived largely for seniors – and it became the gogos’ street. “I am so hurt that she’s gone. My heart is aching,” said Moloi.

20 June 2021: From left, Vathiswa, Nontembeko and Rorisang Lebeta Thinta say they will always remember their mother as the anchor and protector of their family. 

Moloi has a small garden in front of her shack for which she credits Thinta, who advised that they move their shacks back a little for more space to plant vegetables such as spinach and cabbage.

In Zikode, Thinta will forever be remembered as imbokodo (rock) and an unwavering comrade. “Her wounds helped a lot when it comes to umzabalazo (the struggle),” said Melita Ngcobo, who lives in the Vusumuzi settlement. “She gave us a lot of inspiration. She was a strong woman. Even when she was building her shack, she’d carry all the building material by herself. She was strong to the point that you’d never see that she was sick.”

Now resting peacefully in her ancestors’ land, Thinta’s comradely spirit is not silenced even by death. She may no longer physically be at the forefront of the revolution, but the Zikode community is at ease knowing that cancer can no longer torment her. And while the repression and violence meted out to them may not be over, the state’s machinery will be disheartened because she is safeguarding ubuhlali (communal spirit) in Zikode from another dimension.

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