Born on the 3rd November 1933, community worker Florence Barbara Ribeiro was the fourth of five children. Her father, Henry Mathe, was a labourer in a Coal Mine at Hlobane. He died when Florence was 12 years old, leaving her mother, Kate, to raise her and her three older sisters. Kate, a staunch Roman Catholic, was an uneducated domestic worker who managed to provide a good education for all her children. Ribeiro became a teacher and her three sisters were trained nurses. Having been born in November, she was affectionately called Vemba.
She started school in Alexandra, then completed standard four to six at Marianhill Convent at Inkemane, and standard six to seven at Inanda Convent at Kwamashu, Natal. She met her future husband, Fabian Ribeiro, at Inkemane. After completing her teacher's diploma at Marianhill in around 1953, she taught domestic science, but left the teaching profession in 1957 to become a businesswoman when she married Ribeiro, who was a medical student at the time. The couple lived at Glebelands, Natal and in Welkom in the Free State, where Ribeiro's husband opened a medical practice in 1958. They settled in Mamelodi, Pretoria in the early 1960s.
Ribeiro opened a butchery and enrolled for a BCom degree through University of South Africa (UNISA). However, she had to give up her studies to raise her four children, three sons and a daughter, and to concentrate on her business. Ribeiro was a sensitive person who felt deeply for her people who suffered under the apartheid regime. She was intensely committed to the struggle for their liberation. She often recounted how her poor mother managed to educate her children single-handedly by selling traditional beer. Her mother used to hide the beer in underground shelters in back rooms in their yard. The police would ransack these rooms looking for the beer and assault all those present when they found it. Kate was frequently arrested and locked up for a weekend for augmenting her meagre income in this way.
Florence and her sisters would be left alone to fend for themselves when this happened. Experiences such as these made an indelible impression on the young girl. In the 1960s she was influenced by Robert Sobukwe, who had married her sister, Veronica. He made her acutely aware of the social injustices in South Africa. In the face of extreme racist animosity she unremittingly strove for justice. One incident in her life illustrates this clearly.
In 1971, when she and her husband were driving their children to school in Natal, they stopped at a fast-food outlet in Bloemfontein. Fabian Ribeiro remained in the car, while Ribeiro and her children went into the shop. The owner of the outlet informed her that she was not permitted to buy from the self- catering section, but had to do her purchase at the rear end of the shop. When Ribeiro went to the back of the shop, she found that black people were served from a small window. She went back to the front section of the shop and duly placed her order, to the consternation of the white customers. The police were summoned and Ribeiro and her children were threatened that they would all be locked up for trespassing. She waited for her order and then proudly marched her family out of the shop, leaving it behind.
In the 1980s she attended the World Women's Conference in Central Africa. The theme was women's power and the empowerment of women and it made a deep and lasting impression on her. Ribeiro was a pillar of strength in the Mamelodi community. With her husband she worked tirelessly. They collected extensive evidence about the atrocities committed by the apartheid government. They sheltered victims of apartheid and helped people who were wanted by the government to the country. The couple also gave financial assistance to many promising, needy pupils. The couple and their children suffered because of the commitment to justice. Their house was gutted by fire in February 1986. During that traumatic period it was Ribeiro's strength that carried the family.
Because of their activities Fabian and Barbara Ribeiro were high on the hit list of their adversaries. After having survived several attempts on their lives during 1985 and 1986, the couple were tragically gunned down in the courtyard of their home on 1 December 1986. She may have had a premonition of her early death as she told her children on more than one occasion that freedom would not come in her lifetime.
In 1997 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that the Ribeiro's had been assassinated by agents of the state. In 1999 the Amnesty Committee of the TRC granted amnesty to their killers.
Prepared by Christopher Ribeiro, labour officer, Department of Labour, Pretoria. The new dictionary of South Africa biography Volume 2, Vista University, Pretoria, 1999.