A contract to write a small book about a new and somewhat inscrutable South African president became my grand, decade-long passion when – on a midsummer's day in January 1999 – I entered a modest little house on the fringes of Idutywa and was drawn, through her huge, questing eyes, into the world of Epainette Mbeki.
Later that year, I criss-crossed the Transkei with MaMbeki in a little rental car, visiting her birthplace to the far north, her husband Govan's birthplace to the far south, and the village of Mbewuleni in between, where she raised her oldest son Thabo, his sister Linda, and his brothers Moeletsi and Jama.
For hours on end, as we bumped over the region's impossible roads, the 83-year-old MaMbeki educated me with her trenchant analysis of rural society and its problems, entertained me with her wit and easy laughter and challenged me with acute questions about my own work and ideas. I was being led by an embodiment of history, and humanity, through an understanding of my country and of the 20th century that has sustained me ever since.
For the next few years, while I was working on A Dream Deferred, I saw MaMbeki every few months, and my visits to Idutywa were unquestionably the highlight of my research.
Epainette Mbeki was born at Mangoloaneng, near Mount Fletcher, in 1916, to Jacane and Sofi Moerane, progressive Christian farmers and teachers. She had six siblings, and they all went to university. I will never forget the way she marched me up to the crest of a hill at Mangoloaneng and pointed out the bounty that had once been her birthright: the farm her father had established, with its handsome stone buildings, its dairy, and its acres of orchards and grainfields. Such had been the depredation of apartheid capitalism that there was now nothing left.
Fifteen years later, 15 years further into democracy, there is still so little progress in uplifting communities like that at Mangoloaneng that one understands the sentiment behind MaMbeki's last public utterance, made just before the May 2014 polls: she told a visiting reporter that if she were younger she would have voted for Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters. As it was, she decided to stay with Cope, which she joined in 2008.
Still, although MaMbeki had a delightful sense of mischief and loved to play the role of the provocateur, she was remarkably free of bitterness. This despite her sometimes unimaginably tough life, and periods of deep and sustained psychological distress. After qualifying at Lovedale and Adams College, she took a job in Durban in 1937, joined the Communist Party of South Africa (the second African woman to do so) and met Govan Mbeki.
Their marriage was only briefly happy: he dragged her back to the Transkei because of his determination to develop his home region, and to earn a living as a trader, outside of the wage trap of the white man. But shortly after they returned, and set up shop in Mbewuleni, he abandoned her, leaving her with the business and four young children. Running the store was difficult, there was a fire and a tornado, and the family became impoverished.
By the time Govan was arrested at Rivonia in 1964, their marriage was dead – but the fact that he was now a famous life prisoner shackled her to him. Meanwhile, her delicate financial and emotional circumstances meant that she visited him in jail only twice in 23 years, thus compounding his own grievance.
Alone in Mbewuleni, she was constantly harassed by the authorities. Her daughter Linda remained nearby, a solid and stoic presence, but her three sons disappeared into exile – and one of them never came back.
The murder of her youngest son Jama Mbeki, in Lesotho in 1982, was one of the deepest of many traumas of her life. This was, not least, because struggle alliances meant the ANC might have been implicated – and because, for political reasons, neither her powerful son nor her powerful husband (after his release in 1987) was willing or able to do anything about it.
This trauma was compounded by the disappearance of Thabo's son, Kwanda, whom she raised and adored, and who disappeared in 1981. MaMbeki assumed that he had gone into exile, but he did not return in the early 1990s.
In the face of such adversity and bereavement, Epainette Mbeki's greatest achievement was the world she made for herself in the village of Ngcingwane, outside Idutywa, where she moved in 1975, and where she has lived ever since.
It was a world of engagement (she became a beloved and respected member of the community), of industry and productivity (she set up women's groups to bead and sew and farm), and of modesty (she refused point-blank any mother-of-the-president privileges).
'A mother, not a comrade'
She once told me that Moeletsi and Jama were more like her – feisty and challenging outsiders who went against the grain – while Thabo was more like her husband, the diligent revolutionary and party man.
Because of her health she has spent much time in Johannesburg in recent years, staying with Thabo and Zanele Mbeki in Riviera, but she has been emphatic about keeping her home at Ngcingwane, and returning to it: "They weren't around for all those years," she said to me of her sons, once, when I visited her. "These people are my family."
I am not a member of the Mbeki family, or close to them, and so my observations about what healing might have taken place during the last two decades are from a distance. Certainly, she and her husband were not reconciled, and lived apart until his death in 2001.
Since then, I have noted how the family gathers around her, and values her, particularly her remarkable grandchildren. I have noted the affection and respect with which both her living children, Thabo and Moeletsi, talk about her.
And I have noted how Epainette Mbeki – in marked contrast to her attitude in times past – jumped to the defence of her son when he was dumped by Jacob Zuma and the ANC.
Previously, she – like her husband – had held hard to the Marxist dictum that the water of struggle is thicker than blood. During Thabo Mbeki's presidency, when asked to comment on him, she was cool, non-committal, and even critical.
But something atavistic kicked in, something maternal, when her oldest son's world collapsed in 2007. She criticised Zuma fiercely, and publicly defended her son. Last year, in an interview, she mentioned to the reporter that she had been invited by Zuma to a function: "How does he expect me to attend his function when he has fired my son?" she responded.
These are the words of a mother, not a comrade.