Celebrating an inspirational man

Members of Backworth Croquet Club form a guard of honour as the coffin is carried to the hearse. Picture by David Turnbull
Members of Backworth Croquet Club form a guard of honour as the coffin is carried to the hearse. Picture by David Turnbull

A service was held in Tynemouth to celebrate the life of an anti-apartheid activist who was jailed with Nelson Mandela.

Zola Ntambo, also known as Archie Sibeko, Zola Zembe and ZZ throughout a life devoted to resisting apartheid and racism, died on March 27, at the age of 90.

Zola and Joyce, pictured 10 years ago.

Zola and Joyce, pictured 10 years ago.

It was standing room only at Tynemouth Sailing Club last Monday for the vibrant commemoration.

Those who spoke included his wife, Dr Joyce Leeson; a daughter and granddaughter who had travelled for 24 hours from South Africa with other family members; a friend representing Backworth Croquet Club where he was an active member; Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell; Rita Stringfellow, of Tynemouth Labour Party; the Deputy High Commissioner for South Africa; African National Congress representatives; and the Regional Secretary for Unison.

Zola was one of the founding members of the South African Congress of Trade Unions and was arrested in 1956 with Mandela and 154 others in the notorious Treason Trials. They were imprisoned for a year before charges were dismissed for 70 of them, including Zola.

He became a hero of the ANC Liberation Army and later travelled the world campaigning for trade unions to support the fight for freedom in South Africa and the underground trade unions there.

Zola's granddaughter Thoka at the service. Picture by Andy Jones

Zola's granddaughter Thoka at the service. Picture by Andy Jones

Zola and Joyce helped set up a schools charity in his birthplace, the Tyume Valley in the Eastern Cape. He retired in 1992 on health grounds. In 2005, he received the Order of Luthuli in Silver (equivalent to a knighthood) from the South African government and in November 2017, he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law from Newcastle University.

Zola and Joyce came to Tynemouth from Manchester to be near her daughter Helen.

He found the locals friendly and welcoming but the sea far too cold.

Joyce said: “At last he had a little time for a life of his own and as well as becoming a writer, he became an artist, a fell walker, a bird watcher, an allotment gardener, a trad jazz fan, active in local community and political organisations, and in the last 16 years he became a croquet player of note. This was all fitted round his visits to South Africa and his continued commitment to playing his part in improving the world we live in, and it also brought us many good friends, some of them here today.”

Joyce acknowledged that her heart was breaking, but was able to smile as she announced two pieces of good news: Zola would have an official Eastern Cape Province funeral in Kwezana, his beloved home village, with the ashes taken there by his daughters Nomonde and Shula and granddaughters Thoko and Thato; and her English grandson Tom had called their new baby Arthur Zola.

Tom Herron held up Zola’s colourfully-decorated croquet mallet, which had won him many competitions, and which would be the trophy for an annual Zola Ntambo Memorial Competition.

He said: “It will remind us of the man: a weapon for winning battles but also for joining in with a group of comrades to enjoy good company. It is is very like himself – instantly recognisable, distinctive and unique.”

“He would joyously engage in battle, shout in disappointment or triumph, or run around the lawns. He never played in a quiet, reserved English style.”

Alan Campbell said: “When the golden threads of politics and history are woven together in a story, some people play important but small roles; others play an exceptional role. Zola played such an exceptional role in the fight against apartheid and the extension of freedom to his country. We are proud of Zola’s story and proud that he chose to live out the later stages of his life in our community.”

Rita Stringfellow, of Tynemouth Labour Party, said: “When he spoke, he commanded everyone’s attention. He always posed the challenging question and made us realise how much we take for granted here in Britain. Zola would tell us that we were all very good at talking to each other. He would ask, in his charming and eloquent manner, ‘But what are you going to do?’ He advocated talking to your neighbours about politics, even on the local allotment, where had very clear ideas about how to do things. Joyce had to tell him this was horticulture in the North of England and not agriculture in the Eastern Cape!”

After the speeches. the huge gathering then sang together Nkosi Sikelel‘ I Africa, the South African national anthem.

The coffin was then escorted outside by a guard of honour of croquet club members in their whites, and friends and family members carried it to the hearse for a private family cremation.

On Wednesday, April 18, in Cape Town, the ANC Western Cape held a memorial service for Zola.

Former arts and culture minister Pallo Jordan recalled first meeting him on the Grand Parade in 1960 shortly after the Sharpeville massacre and the first state of emergency, declared by the apartheid state.

He praised his achievements and his humility. Zola had requested that after his death, his gravestone should ‘not be higher than the average gravestone at his place of burial’.

On Saturday, April 21, there was an official funeral in the Eastern Cape Province after which Zola’s ashes were interred and were returned to the earth that he loved in Kwezana village.