The youngest child of Mozambican immigrants, Sibongile (Bongi) Susan Mkhabela (nèe Mthembu) grew up in Zola, one of the poorest areas in Soweto, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng). Her mother never went to school, while her father worked as a painter but was exploited by his White employer. When her mother died in 1971, her father had to look after the family on a salary of just R20 a week.

While still a young girl, Mkhabela would visit political activist, Ellen Khuzwayo, at her home where her political consciousness started to mature. Being in such spaces, learning about the Black Consciousness Movement, as well as living in a community rife with poverty ignited her desire for change. This desire led her to become politically active while she was still a student at Naledi High School, becoming an executive member of the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC) and the General Secretary of the South African Students Movement (SASM) – making her the only woman in the leadership core. She also joined the Students’ Christian Movement (SCM). However, it was the SSRC and the SASM that became the driving force behind the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976, a revolt which soon spread throughout the country. Mkhabela played an active role in this revolt.

After the protests, Mkhabela (who at the time was eighteen about to turn nineteen) was one of eleven student leaders arrested, with her being the only woman. While in police custody, she refused to incriminate her peers and had to endure severe torture at the hands of the security police. After being held in custody for more than a year, they were charged with sedition under the Terrorism Act in September 1978, in what became known as the Soweto 11 trial.

            I knew the state wanted to destroy the emerging black leaders, and that’s why they went after students. But they couldn’t destroy my spirit. I was in control, no matter how brutal they were. The Soweto uprising was…also a celebration of having found our spirit. (Mail & Guardian, 1999)

She was held at the Fort Prison in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, Transvaal, before being moved to spend her three-year jail sentence at Kroonstad Prison in the Orange Free State (now Free State Province) then later to Pretoria Maximum Prison in then Transvaal.  She spent almost two years in solitary confinement. When she was moved into prison, she continued to rebel against the inhuman treatment faced by the prisoners. For example, the overalls they were given could only be changed once a week. Mkhabela protested this by stripping down and walking around in her underwear. Following this, they were given clean overalls three times a week.

After her release in 1982, Mkhabela was involved in the establishment of a Para-legal Advice Centre Association which provided free services to aggrieved non-unionised workers on issues relating to public law. During her time in jail, her numerous applications to study were denied. On the second day after she was released, she was served with a three-year banning order that restricted her from entering any place of education. As a result, she completed her matric by correspondence in 1983. Thereafter, she formed and worked with several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to help those in need. In 1989, already a mother of three, she decided to stop working to pursue a degree. Through the University of Zululand (UNIZULU) she obtained an honours degree in Social Work.

Over the years, Mkhabela has become a Joel L. Fleishman Civil Society Fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, United States of America (USA), a Fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Centre in Italy, has several graduate diplomas, and has also completed various management courses through the University of the Witwatersrand Business School in Johannesburg.

The time she spent working in senior positions at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Education Programme in Southern Africa, as well as the South African Council of Churches has all added to the wealth of her experience on development issues she has amassed over the years. Part of this experience saw her serve as the Programmes Director in the office of then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki. In her role, she was responsible for programming and establishing the National Development Agency (NDA) along with ensuring that the country implemented UN agreements on children’s rights.

Working as the Programme Director of the Development Resource Centre, she paved the way for the establishment of the South African Grant Association (SAGA).

For many years, Mkhabela was the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (NMCF) and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust (NMCHT), where she was instrumental in spearheading the fund’s mission to change the way that society treats its children and youth, as well as establishing the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital – the second dedicated children’s hospital in the country. She has also served on the boards of numerous companies, including being the chairperson of the Black Sash.

In 2018, Mkhabela received the Government’s National Order of Luthuli in Silver for her contribution towards the struggle for freedom as well as her continued work towards social justice and the well-being of children and the youth. In that same year, she was appointed as a member of the board of trustees of Trust Africa, an independent, African-centred foundation with a focus on democracy, justice, transformative governance, and unbiased development in Africa. She has also been awarded the Ellen Khuzwayo Council Award in recognition of her immense contribution to higher education beyond the bounds of teaching and research.

Mkhabela captured her story of the Soweto Uprising in her book, Open Earth and Black Roses (2001).

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