Annastasia Thula with her only surviving child, Noli Mboweni, and grandson Dumi.
Amazing woman has many stories to share
Annastasia Thula fills a room. Although her memory is not what it once was, the 83-year-old is larger than life. She has a way of drawing a person in with one look and leaving little doubt that she is a woman with a past as powerful as her presence.
A resident of Rand Aid’s Ron Smith Care Centre in Lyndhurst, Annastasia lived next door to Winne Mandela in her younger years, and later was Nelson Mandela’s neighbour in Houghton. Both relationships were close. It was Winnie who introduced Annastasia to her future husband, Gibson Thula, popularly referred to as ‘Mr Gautrain’; and Madiba was a beloved second grandfather to her grandchildren.
But Winnie and Madiba are only one part of Annastasia’s story, which establishes her as a legend in her own right.
After a meaningful career as a nurse, Annastasia committed her ‘retirement’ to uplifting her community. It was the 1980s and South Africa was in turmoil. A state of emergency was in place and the apartheid government used brutal methods to suppress the majority of South Africa’s population.
Thousands of people were arrested during this period of time and many were tortured or killed. Education was in shambles.
Then a Soweto resident, Annastasia and fellow community volunteer Agnes Gcwabaza decided they could not sit back and watch their community destruct without doing what they could to alleviate the suffering.
They joined forces to form the Bophelo Impilo Community Association and inspired other local women to get involved. The result was a range of upliftment programmes, including crèches, saving schemes, food garden programmes and support for the aged.
“There is no reason to be hungry when you have hands that work and soil to plant in,” maintains Annastasia.
Teen pregnancies was one of the reasons why Annastasia and Anges started crèches.
“Community women were trained in early childhood development and basic hygiene and young moms could go back to school, knowing their little ones were in safe hands,” says Annastasia.
Annastasia is passionate about education, believing it is the key to changing one’s path, and so in the late 80s, she was again compelled to act, this time against the sub-standard education offered in black schools. Many teachers were not qualified, and Afrikaans and English were the mandatory languages of instruction. Youngsters were refusing to go to school and growing increasingly militant. Many young girls were falling pregnant and forsaking their education because of ostracisation.
Anastasia and Agnes’ response was to start the Bophelo Impilo Private School in 1989. It was initially housed in St Margaret Church in Diepkloof but was given an old school building in Mayfair in 1991. Today, nearly 30 years later, the school upholds its founding tradition of challenging its learners to rise above their circumstances. The school has boarding facilities, a successful soccer academy and maintains good academic results.
Lawyers, doctors, teachers, leaders and entrepreneurs are proud Bophelo Impilo alma maters.
Annastasia grew up in difficult conditions. Her mother was a domestic worker struggling to raise her children on her own and Annastasia had to balance her studies with the responsibility of helping her mother make ends meet.
While still in primary school, Annastasia was taught how to brew African beer, which was sold to supplement the family’s income. The practice was illegal, however, and the brewing drums had to be hidden in a large outside coal and wood box. This clever concealment was no match for Annastasia’s honesty, however. One day, when she was alone at home, the police arrived and started searching for the beer. Little Annastasia helpfully told them they were looking in the wrong place, before leading them to the coal box.
The contents of the drum were emptied out and as a result, the family face a harder few weeks than normal.
“My grandmother was not educated,” shares Annastasia’s only surviving child, Noli Mboweni. “However, she was very determined to do the best she could for her family and was adamant that they all be properly educated. It was her dream to see her children work in an office, with a pen behind the ear, which in those days was a symbol of success.”
Her vision paid off, with her descendants all well-educated and successful.
Noli studied teaching and worked as a science educator for 10 years before venturing into the world of business. To supplement her BA in education, she enrolled for a Management Advancement Programme at the Wits Business School. This was followed by a number of short courses, including corporate governance at the Gordon Institute of Business Science and various project management courses offered by the Institute of Directors in Southern Africa.
Today, she is regarded as one of the country’s inspirational women and has achieved great success in the corporate environment. Among others, she is a shareholder in Bombela, the consortium that developed the Gautrain; is the CEO of Vela International and a director and shareholder in Sun International’s Afrisun Gauteng.
Just like her mother, she is a community builder and runs a mentorship programme for women on balancing work and family and maintains a bursary fund.
The children of Noli and medical doctor husband Lincoln – Dumi, Vela and Nene – are doing equally well, one as a doctor, like her father, and the other two in the corporate world. A great-granddaughter who lives in London is the youngest of Annastasia’s clan.
Madiba, Winnie and the Thulas
Noli shares how intertwined her parents’ lives were with Winnie and Nelson. “My Dad and Winnie were social workers. Winnie had a boyfriend but Nelson had his eye on her and so my Dad arranged that Nelson, who had a car, would pick Winnie up and give her a lift. Their relationship developed from there.”
Winnie returned the favour, setting out to fix Gibson up with her trainee nurse neighbour, a young Annastasia. Her matchmaking worked well and Gibson and Annastasia enjoyed a wonderful life together until his death in 2016.
When Noli was married 29 years ago, it was Winnie who received lobola on behalf of the family and when Velani, one of the Thula’s children, was shot by the apartheid police in 1988, at the age of 21, Winnie played a pivotal role in the funeral.
Later in their life, Annastasia and Gibson were happy neighbours to Madiba in Houghton and the two sets of grandchildren spent much of their time playing at Tata Madiba’s house.
Noli remembers a time when her children went next door for a playdate and when she went to fetch them, they ran upstairs and hid from their mother in Madiba’s bedroom. He was president of South Africa at the time, and they instinctively knew that Noli would not follow them into the president’s most private space.
She went home. A little later, Mandela himself phoned Noli and asked that she bring pajamas over. “But Tata, we had not planned on a sleepover,” she argued, to which he replied, “Bring over their PJs or I will go to Killarney to buy some. He always got his way,” she chuckles.
She recalls another time when her son Velani and one of Nelson Mandela’s grandsons (the son of daughter Zindzi) were having a joint 10th birthday party at McDonald’s Cresta. Mandela was in Cape Town for Parliament but insisted that he would fly home in time to attend.
“We had a group of 60 very excited children waiting for Tata to arrive, so we could start. When he arrived at Wonderboom, his bodyguard phoned to say that they were on their way. The estimated time of arrival came and went, with Madiba not arriving. Eventually we phoned the bodyguard and asked what the delay was,” recalls Noli.
It turned out Madiba was indeed there, but outside interacting with all McDonald’s young customers. “He was signing autographs, kissing babies and posing for photos while we were being driven crazy by a roomful of children!”
Her last memory of Madiba is bittersweet. “He was being cared for at home by a team of doctors and nurses and heard that my son Velani – by then all grown up – would be visiting.
“I had an important business meeting to attend but collected Velani and drove him to Madiba’s house. A hospital bed had been placed under a tree in his garden and he was sitting on the edge of it, as ramrod straight as ever. When I hugged him hello, he pointed at my car key and said, ‘I see you are driving a Mercedes’.
“He then asked to see the key. He took it and promptly put it in his pocket, all the while chatting to Velani. Eventually I was desperately late but did not know how to retrieve my key.
“Then Mike, one of his favourite bodyguards, whispered to me, ‘You know you have been hijacked, right? Madiba heard that you had to leave, and he purposely took your key’.
“Two hours later, it was time for Madiba to receive medical treatment and I managed to leave. Two days later, he passed away. In retrospect, I am so blessed to have spent that time with him in his last days.”
Noli attributes much of her success to her amazing mom, who remains a powerful force in the family.
When Noli and grandson Dumi arrived at Ron Smith Care Centre for an unscheduled visit one afternoon in August, Annastasia’s already animated face lit up even more. Beautifully made up, with her face virtually unlined and a smile never far, it is easy to see why Annastasia has had such a great impact on her family and community.
She speaks with great conviction and within the shortest time of meeting her, it is evident that her life has been guided by her faith, her family and her unwavering desire to make a difference. “She is a force of nature,” says Noli.