Her name is Fezeka: Memory of a remarkable soul

Once in a lifetime, you meet someone whose essence never leaves while you are on this side of the grave. Fezeka was such a person. Fezeka, or Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, or who many now know as Khwezi would have turned 50 this year. I had the privilege of loving her during our university years. Her untimely death in 2016 sparked profound introspection, compelling me to revisit all the fragments of her remarkable life and the enduring influence she wielded upon those privileged to share a portion of their journey with her.

Something dimmed in my life in 2016 when she died. This is our love story. Fezeka was a beacon of strength and resilience. As we traversed academia, her presence illuminated the mundane landscape of lecture halls and campus grounds. In her, I found a kindred spirit, a soul whose laughter echoed through the corridors of our shared experiences.

Fezeka possessed a sharp intellect…

The dynamics of our relationship were multifaceted — friendship, camaraderie, and a love that transcended mere romance. Fezeka possessed a sharp intellect, her thoughts a constellation of brilliance that illuminated conversations and constantly challenging conventional perspectives. Her laughter was infectious and warm.

Woven into Fezeka’s existence was a narrative fraught with challenges. Her courage in facing adversity, particularly the ordeal she endured as a survivor of sexual engagement with a man who would become president, was a testament to the strength that resided within her. In a society often quick to stigmatize and silence survivors, Fezeka stood defiant, demanding justice and refusing to be reduced to a mere victim.

The contours of our love story unfolded against the backdrop of innocence of our youth and the struggle to live better. Fezeka’s activism, fuelled by a desire to challenge the status quo, transcended the confines of our personal relationship. She became a voice for the voiceless, a symbol of courage for those silenced by the weight of societal expectations. And yet the highly publicised sexual incident does not define her full measure.

No tribute can encapsulate the entirety of Fezeka’s essence.

Tragically, Fezeka’s journey on this earthly plane was cut short by an Aids-related condition, leaving a void that can never be filled. Her departure serves as a poignant reminder of the fragility of life and the urgency to honour those who have left an indelible impact on our hearts. As I pen these words, I am aware that no tribute can encapsulate the entirety of Fezeka’s essence.

We met sometime in November 1995 in Durban. I was law student at Natal, returning home for the festive recess, my journey to Mpumalanga went through the small kingdom of eSwatini. I tended to stay in Piggs Peak in my late grandfather’s homestead for a day or two with relatives before proceeding to Barberton through the small Josefsdal border post.

That Saturday morning as I approached the taxi that I had been shown, I noted that there were already three or four passengers. After some few minutes I began talking with a young woman who was in company of an elderly woman. The young woman introduced herself as Fezeka and pointed out that the elderly woman was her mother who was travelling to Swaziland. I was struck by her beauty, smile and wit. When it was time for the taxi to leave, she hurriedly gave me her number. In 1995, there were no cell phones and so I gave her my campus residence details, and we parted. Her mother, noting the quick exchange, smiled and called her over to her window. Clearly, I was the subject of the quick whispered mother-daughter exchange. To be honest, I was already infatuated with Fezeka. Little did I know that this chance encounter was the prologue to a love relationship. It was a chance encounter that left an indelible imprint on my heart, and as the festive break proceeded, the ache of longing for her company made the days seem unbearably long.

Back on campus, I found myself scanning the bustling students

Back on campus in February 1996, I found myself scanning the bustling students, hoping to catch a glimpse of Fezeka. And there she was, one afternoon, merging into the vibrant tapestry of students and lecturers heading to various classes.

We chatted briefly. She never stood still, always rocking from side to side. She shared the details of her residence, and we made plans to meet. One Saturday morning I decided to pay her a visit at her student residence Anchor House. Until then, I had never visited a female student’s room, nor was I interested, until now, in a love relationship. My journey to Natal University was, for me, a dream come true. I was determined not to squander it. As a self-professed introvert, my social sphere revolved around classes, a few fellow students, grocery shops, libraries and the dining hall.

We sat with her mother in her room chatting

However, when Fezeka and I started conversing, she was taken aback by my depth of knowledge about politics and the overarching history of the anti-apartheid struggle. On that memorable Saturday morning, we sat with her mother in her room chatting; they were very close, almost like two sisters. We spent less than an hour together, laying the foundation for a connection that would transcend time.

In the ensuing days, our meetings became more frequent. One Friday night she came over to my room, and we spent much of our talking on our personal histories. She was interested about my family and childhood and insisted I speak siSwati to her. So, I spoke siSwati and she in turn spoke Zulu punctuated by English language. We must have talked right into midnight. Suddenly she said she was starving and we looked around the room for something to eat. There was nothing except eggs and macaroni.  We ate that laughing aloud.  During this intimate conversation, Fezeka shared the intricacies of her upbringing, a narrative woven with threads of exile and struggle. She recounted her return to South Africa with her mother, detailing their sojourns in Zimbabwe and Swaziland. In a poignant revelation, she spoke of her father’s sacrifice, his life claimed by the struggle for justice. Her own life and that of her mother were intricately intertwined, bound by a profound love. For Fezeka, the African National Congress (ANC) was more than a political affiliation; it was home. She spoke of personal connections with many individuals in the government, for her the political landscape was a deeply personal terrain of aunts and uncles. Perhaps sensing my initial awkwardness, Fezeka began teasing me playfully about my glasses, establishing a light-hearted ritual that would accompany our moments together. She thought I was serious for my age. Nobody had said that before and I burst out laughing. Her infectious laughter, punctuated by bursts of giggles, became the soundtrack of our growing connection. She seemed oblivious to her allure, and even if she was aware, it appeared inconsequential to her. Her long, uncombed hair and the colourful simplicity of her clothing made a statement, a unique deviation from the norm among young black women of striking a well-kept attire and hairdo on campus.

Fezeka was dedicated to her studies in social work

Neither of us ventured into the realm of sexual overtures. Our connection thrived on the enjoyment of extensive discussions about politics and social development, creating a unique dynamic between us. Fezeka was dedicated to her studies in social work, a field that mirrored her commitment to fostering positive change in society.

Despite her academic pursuits and dedication to social work, Fezeka faced financial challenges. She shared with me the arduous efforts her mother undertook to secure additional funds for her education. The sacrifices and resilience within her family underscored her determination to overcome those obstacles in pursuit of a better future. Her mother had been trying to repatriate the remains of her father from Zimbabwe. The process was slow and stressful. There was a certain detachment when she told of this process. This detachment disappeared when she spoke about the joy of reading what her father wrote while working as a research assistant at the University of Natal in the 1970s. Fezeka loved her father and losing him at the age of 10 affected her. Fezeka was the daughter of Judson Kuzwayo. His father at the time of his death was the chief representative of the ANC in Zimbabwe. He continued to work for the ANC until in 1985 when he died in a vehicle accident.  After spending ten years in Robben Island he was released in 1973. Fezeka was born the following year.  In 1977 he left South Africa for exile firstly settling in Swaziland.  Family was important to her. She expressed some pain that she was not close to her father’s child from another relationship. Swaziland was a special place for her having spent some childhood years there.

Our plans to reunite began to take shape

As 1996 marked my final year in my undergrad B Proc degree, I confided in Fezeka about my discomfort with the prospect of private practice and my desire to work in public service. She expressed pride in my academic achievements and sadness at the potential distance that graduation might impose on our connection. Assuring her that we would see each other again, I made a promise that would soon come to fruition. After completing my final exams at the end of the year, I left for Swaziland, as eSwatini was then called, and our plans to reunite began to take shape. We agreed that she would visit Swaziland, a place she knew well and held a deep affection for, to meet my relatives.

But Fezeka did not come. I spent much of the day at the eManzini taxi rank having travelled from Piggs Peak, awaiting her arrival. As the hours passed without any sign of her, I decided to return to the family farm at Piggs Peak. My disappointment and embarrassment were palpable, after eagerly sharing the news of her expected visit with my aunt and uncle.

A few days later, Fezeka sent me an email and offered sincere apologies for not keeping to our planned rendezvous. She explained that she was grappling with internal challenges and needed time to navigate them. I was hurt. My feelings for Fezeka ran deep, and yet the internal struggles she was contending seemed insurmountable.

She was not ready for a commitment

She indicated that she was not ready for a commitment and felt that meeting my family might be premature while she was battling some other issues in her personal life. Having lived in Swaziland and knowing siSwati culture, she knew great value is placed on visiting a homestead. In my own mind I felt that she probably feared the possibility of kraal ritual that is done as a precursor to a traditional marriage.  I in turn told her that I loved her and was willing to give her time.

In some way I felt that I needed to understand her exile experience which had influenced her personality and character.  The irony of her situation cut deep – her father had sacrificed his life for the struggle against apartheid, and now, as comrades, her aunts and uncles, assumed positions in the new democratic government, but her expected support was conspicuously absent.

Do you call this living?

Fezeka’ s experience was a revelation for me. The exile experience, particularly for those who spent extended periods away from South Africa, was a unique and devastating journey. Unlike many of us who never contemplated existence beyond our homeland, those who endured prolonged exile faced multiple challenges. There is a story of a leading ANC executive member, Joe Slovo, during his exile that captures the existential dilemma faced by many – when a stranger knocked on his door and inquired if Mr Slovo lived there, Slovo, with bitter irony, retorted: “Do you call this living?”

Conversations between us deliberately skirted around the ANC, a topic that neither of us wanted to delve into. Fezeka knew I wasn’t a member of the ANC, nor did I harbour any inclination to join. However, the ANC had become an undeniable reality woven into the fabric of all our lives as South Africans. We engaged, aware of our divergent political stances. My conservatism ran deep, and even if I had joined the ANC, I know I would have become disenchanted. I am serious about my beliefs. The constitutional status of the death penalty, the celebration of abortion as a feminist affirmation of empowerment and rights, and the classification of prostitution as a form of work are just a few examples where my convictions differ markedly from the ANC’s stance. In my view, all politics are local; each town should have a local governance structure directly elected by the people. I advocate for occasional public referendums on certain issues, allowing the people to have the final say. These positions diverge significantly from those of the ANC.

Our animated debates would continue until late into the night

Fezeka embraced feminism and saw no role for herself within the ANC. Our differences extended to polygamy, which I accepted as a cultural norm. Our animated debates would continue until late into the night punctuated by her warm smile, followed by that infectious giggle. I miss that voice that could seamlessly transition to a new subject with the words “let me ask you this,” sparking another lively discussion.

Reflecting on my personal journey, Fezeka stands out as the woman destined to be my life partner in a society where the east is east, the west is west, and the sky is blue. However, our journeys and experiences were different.

After I had left university in the late 1990s my situation was dire as I struggled to secure employment. For a time, we relied on my mother’s pension, and the responsibility of caring for my late sister Lindiwe’s four children fell on our shoulders after her death in 1995. During those difficult years, amongst many shocking job-hunting experiences, I encountered job discrimination when a former schoolmate, who now held a position in the ANC, explicitly stated that there was no assistance for non-ANC members. Ironically, he was later convicted of fraud in the Travelgate scandal involving parliamentarians. I hear these days he is a member of ActionSA. A story of another time.

She had been raped and contracted HIV.

After months of job hunting, I secured a temporary position with the justice department as a public prosecutor. This provided a temporary reprieve, allowing us to put some decent food on the table and provide new clothes for my sister’s children. During this time, I often visited an internet cafe in Nelspruit to check my emails.

One day I opened an email from Fezeka, and was left shocked. She had been raped and contracted HIV as a result. Despite the gravity of her situation, Fezeka, put on a brave face and assured me that she was fine. However, the emotional toll, coupled with financial struggles related to her studies, led her to make the heartbreaking decision to drop out of university.

The news devastated me, and the bus trip back to Barberton felt like the loneliest journey of my life. My sadness was accompanied by a profound sense of failure, as if I had not done enough to protect her. Compounding the frustration was the difficulty in communication, relying on unreliable public phones with limited access. The absence of a landline in our home further hindered our ability to stay connected during these challenging times.

She was actively involved with the Treatment Action Campaign.

In 1999, I returned to Natal for my postgraduate studies. Fezeka had relocated to Gauteng and found employment. The challenges of a long-distance relationship, especially in its early stages, began to take a toll. My professional life, marked by the articles of clerkship I secured in 2000, added to stresses. The law firm where I clerked was a bad experience.

Fezeka visited me in the small, terrible back room I had rented in Ermelo from an absent landlord. Despite the challenging circumstances, she appeared radiant, having put on weight. Her humour helped ensure that our time together was a temporary respite from the hardships we both faced.

Fezeka, now on antiretroviral treatment, candidly shared her experiences and observations about the challenges and triumphs of the regimen. She was actively involved with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and outspokenly critical of the Minister of Health at the time, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang whom she called her aunt. The contentious stances taken by Tshabalala-Msimang and then-President Thabo Mbeki on HIV treatment hindered access to life-saving AIDS drugs, costing many lives. It remains a stain on their legacies.

Stress led to my hospitalization

Fezeka’s involvement with the Treatment Action Campaign, an organization tirelessly advocating for HIV treatment, highlighted the unwavering commitment of activists who fought against formidable odds. Regrettably, the leaders and organizers of TAC, despite their crucial role, have not received the recognition they deserve in a society that claims to be led by moral figures.

The failure of acknowledgment and gratitude, considering the magnitude of their impact, not just around access to treatment in South Africa, but forcing a global drop in then high priced antiretrovirals, reveals the moral erosion within our society.

Our love was a struggle for normality amidst the difficulties that engulfed our lives. My stint in Ermelo was a period marked by hardship and pain. The salary was frankly an insult to my professional education and integrity.  Low as it was the principal attorney battled to pay us on time. Stress led to my hospitalization for ulcers and diarrhoea at Barberton General Hospital after I was summarily dismissed by the attorney who learned of my job application to another firm. My subsequent complaint and other Road Accident Fund (RAF) related complaints resulted in his removal from the roll of attorneys. It turned out that he had used RAF monies for his own benefit. His feeble attempts to be reinstated in 2010 were met with rejection, with the court stating that he should never have been admitted as an attorney in the first place. Curiously enough, he had also spent some time in exile where he was a member of the ANC.

          I temporarily lost contact with Fezeka. My challenges made it difficult for me to contemplate love. The spectre of poverty for my family loomed large, a constant reminder of the black experience in our country. When we reconnected in 2001, I had moved back home and was working in Nelspruit as an articled clerk. A closer relationship evaded us. Fezeka, in her characteristic selflessness, believed it would be unfair to subject me to the pain that her reality, being HIV positive, might bring. She felt that having children was not practical for her.

Fezeka’s HIV status was a challenge, yet my love for her remained steadfast

Having lived among the Swazi people, Fezeka felt that she understood the value placed on having children, especially sons, within the family. These were complex and difficult issues to navigate. I often pointed out that, while her consideration was not misplaced, it amounted to her making decisions on my behalf. My love for her was unwavering and provided solace during that challenging phase of my life. Fezeka’s HIV status was a challenge, yet my love for her remained steadfast. Love, in its essence, is not designed for perfection. Love perfects the imperfect. Attraction may stem from beauty, but true love goes beyond superficial allure. Beauty, too, is flawed, and love embraces imperfections.

Fezeka and I both needed love, and our connection went beyond societal expectations. Youth often comes with embarrassing ignorance, but the experiences encountered during those formative years shape the future. The challenges faced in youth are akin to the necessary watering that ensures the grass is green in the elder years. Love, in its authenticity, remains a vital thread weaving through the complex fabric of our lives.

Fezeka endured a trial that turned into a circus.

 In 2006, a sensational news story erupted involving the deputy president of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, who was accused of rape by a young woman. While our legal system protects the identities of those raped, the media frenzy surrounding the case revealed enough details for me to realize that Fezeka was at the heart of the storm. The trial became a national spectacle, especially given Zuma’s popularity in the ANC and society at the time. Fezeka, known as Khwezi to conceal her identity, endured a trial that turned into a circus. Our legal system allowed the accused to bring up the previous behaviour of the complainant, turning the trial into an invasion of Fezeka’s privacy and dignity. She was portrayed as a woman with a history of accusing men of rape, a narrative that ignored her relationship with Zuma, whom she considered an uncle from her childhood and whose daughter was her friend.

The trial resulted in a miscarriage of justice in my opinion. Despite the lack of evidence supporting accusations of extortion or a political conspiracy, Fezeka’s credibility was tarnished, and was harshly judged. Their house at Umlazi was burnt down. Fezeka’s life and that of her family was now in danger. The ANC government failed to protect them, forcing them to seek asylum in the Netherlands. It was reported in the Netherlands that the asylum was held at high political level which is very strange indeed since if this was indeed done by the ANC government it effectively conceded that there were some parts of this country of which it was not in charge.

I am a Khanga

This tragic episode exposed the failures of our democracy and its promise to protect women’s rights. The very organization that had fought for freedom and equality had, in this instance, betrayed those principles. Zuma’s defence, claiming consensual relations, sought to deflect attention from the moral depravity of his actions. For somebody aspiring to be an ANC leader to say that he showered afterwards to wash off HIV contamination spoke volumes about his leadership and real personality, and none is good. He never deserved the public offices he held in our democracy. Kakistocracy was laid bare for all to all see. The trial underscored the challenges faced by women in their quest for justice and safety, even in a post-apartheid South Africa.

The last conversation I had with Fezeka was just before the trial commenced. She confirmed that he had raped her, in her opinion, and that there was no relationship. While in the Netherlands, Fezeka composed a poignant poem:

I am Khanga

I wrap myself around the curvaceous bodies of women all over Africa

I am the perfect nightdress on those hot African nights

The ideal attire for household chores

I secure babies happily on their mother’s backs

Am the perfect gift for new bride and new mother alike

Armed with proverbs, I am vehicle for communication between women

I exist for the comfort and convenience of a woman

But no no no make no mistake …

I am not here to please a man

And I certainly am not a seductress

Please don’t use me as an excuse to rape

Don’t hide behind me when you choose to abuse

You see

That’s what he said my Malume

The man who called himself my daddy’s best friend

Shared a cell with him on [Robben] Island for ten whole years

He said I wanted it

That my khanga said it

That with it I lured him to my bed

That with it I want you is what I said

But what about the NO I uttered with my mouth

Not once but twice

And the please no I said with my body

What about the tear that ran down my face as I lay stiff with shock

In what sick world is that sex?

I am not the dying type.

In one of our conversations, Fezeka remarked: “You know, Amos, I am not the dying type,” punctuating her statement with that infectious giggle of hers. Fezeka’s earthly journey concluded at the age of 41. I was two years her senior.

 I hesitate to say Fezeka died, or anyone truly dies. Life, in its eternal essence, transcends the imperfections of our mortal bodies, which inevitably yield to age and illness.  Fezeka has not died. She never died. She is not the dying type. Speaking out against Zuma challenged power without flinching. Her violent treatment by ANC leaders exposed the moral depravity of those who claim to lead.  We do not move mountains by simply saying we move mountains. We need to live that commitment. A man whose morality has no compass committed a heinous act and the ANC chose him not once but many times. Look around and see where we are as a country. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu later said of Zuma: “This man does not represent me,” it was from a broken heart.  He may have been acquitted of raping Fezeka and yet history would have the final say. 

Fezeka encountered significant hardships, a common thread binding many of us navigating life’s challenges. Yet, if you met her, you’d be hard-pressed to discern the scars or wounds. She emanated joy and empathy to everyone fortunate enough to be touched by her presence. I was one of the fortunate ones.

Click here for more from Amos.

Amos was born in Barberton. He did his early education in the local schools until he proceeded to Natal University where he obtained two law degrees. He is currently with the Council for Medical Schemes in a legal compliance role. He is an admitted Advocate.


  • Nomvula O’Meara

    This is an amazing story about humanity at its core. The recipe for love requires so little, the spontaneity we possess in love’s attraction, a smile, laughter, the cadence of one’s voice, respect for traditional symbolism it’s a beautiful African love story.

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