FEW PEOPLE WOULD dispute that South Africa's democratic dispensation, though relatively young and without question still maturing, has quickly attained a status of permanency. So much so, that it is easy to forget what has been and how changes have been brought about. It has taken some time for history to be reclaimed, particularly when one looks at the process of renaming places, roads, buildings and other public spaces to commemorate leaders and events that were written out off official history books. It has even taken surprisingly long to erect statues or dedicate buildings to leaders in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid, let alone to replace or remove statues idolising champions of a supremacist ideology. With so many people, actions and events crying out for memorialisation, perhaps it is appropriate that such a process takes time and careful consideration. How does one decide which person or event is most deserving to be commemorated, or most emblematic of a particular era or site of struggle?
In Thought Matters, Rosieda Shabodien makes a strong case for ensuring that the roles and contributions of South African women in bringing about democracy are not forgotten and asks why their actions and experiences have not been memorialised. Rosieda is the initiator and Director of the Women's Museum.
Memorialising the roles of women in South Africa's past and present
By Rosieda Shabodien
It is unfortunate that legendary women leaders like the Charlotte Manye-Maxeke, Madue Hall-Xuma, Cissy Gool, Ray Alexander Simons, Winifred Siqwana, Ida Mntwana, Dora Tamana and Annie Silinga, to name a few, unlike their male counterparts are not household names. No monuments have yet been erected to honour their memory.
(Dr Z Pallo Jordan, Minister of Arts and Culture, at a media briefing on International Women’s Day to launch the 50th Anniversary of the Women’s March to Pretoria, 8 March 2006)
READING THIS QUOTE made me wonder how many South Africans actually know Charlotte Manye-Maxeke, Madue Hall-Xuma and the other women referred to by Dr Pallo Jordan. Is it not true that women leaders are less celebrated and known than their male counterparts? South Africa is in its twelfth year of democracy and it is surely astounding that no monuments have yet been erected and hardly any buildings, streets or universities have been renamed to honour women’s role in the apartheid struggle. Why is it so? Did women play less of a role in the anti-apartheid struggle and do they therefore not deserve to be honoured and memorialised in a democratic South Africa?
Historical narratives overwhelmingly point to the fact that South African women of all races, but in particular black women, have been instrumental in the liberation of South Africa. In fact, women were a critical force against the apartheid ideology; their determination and decisive actions were key to weakening the apartheid regime. One of those remarkable defiance actions by women during the apartheid era culminated in the much written and talked about Women’s March of 9 August 1956, when 20,000 women marched in protest against the extension of pass laws to women. These women knew that passes were effectively utilised to restrict the movement of Africans in South Africa. Women leaders like Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophia de Bruyn and others mobilised women from all communities. Although a remarkable moment in history, it is merely one event against a myriad of other actions by women. It would be a great injustice not to recognise the many other moments in history when women engaged in activities that shaped and bended history. Rather, the 1956 Women’s March serves as a prism to represent the courage, determination and decisive role women played in the struggle against apartheid.
In seeking to pinpoint those other moments and events when women played a decisive role in the anti-apartheid struggle, and in trying to find out what impact apartheid had on their lives, one naturally turns to documented history. In the past decade, a flurry of biographical and autobiographical material on leaders in the ant-apartheid struggle has been published. However, a quick scan of the material reveals that women leaders have either not been given the opportunity to write their stories, or there is possibly no public interest to document and read their stories. Often the stories of these women are woven into the narratives of male leaders. It is only when we read these biographies that one realises the impact these women have had on the way our struggle has unfolded. But these narratives often do not capture these women’s own struggles with male patriarchy in their organisations, nor do they capture the complexity of their struggles of being an activist, care-giver, mother, daughter, wife, and so on.
The fact that these women were often in the background makes it probably easier to erase their contribution. It is only when one puts on a gender lens in reading our recent history that we realise that these women were pioneers and partners in working towards the eradication of colonialism and apartheid. They were seldom one thing, but took on multiple roles: they were in the forefront of the struggle for a free South Africa and simultaneously played an important role of taking care and being the nurturers of communities, families and society. These women seemingly seamlessly bridged the divide between being a wife, a mother, a provider, a caregiver and a leader in the struggle. In his autobiography Ahmed Kathrada captures these multiple roles when he says: It is almost impossible to measure the influence of activist such as Mrs Pahad. Her name was never to be found among the speakers at political rallies and she played no part in strategy discussions, but in his autobiography, Nelson Mandela wrote: ‘I often visited the home of Amina Pahad for lunch, and then, suddenly, this charming woman put aside her apron and went to jail for her beliefs. If I had once questioned the willingness of the Indian community to protest against oppression, I no longer could.’” There are many such women who have shaped our current leaders and are not written into the pages of history. Poignantly in her memoir, Zarina Maharaj writes about the lack of credit to political women who were married to men who were politically active: “Wives in the struggle, even those known to be actively involved, were generally not credited with an identity of their own by the majority of their fellow comrades.”
These are only a few examples of what needs to be unearthed. As a nation, we need to hear, respect and affirm the diverse and unique stories of women in the apartheid years. From Mama X who sat up the whole night painstakingly sewing small ANC flags and Aunty Y who organised her pseudo “Tupperware & Tea parties”, to the activist in the underground, those who were in jail and so on. These will be stories of suffering, sadness, loss, determination and heroic deeds.
The time has come to finds ways of telling these women’s stories in a manner that will capture the imagination of people who come to know about these women. This has not been done in South Africa as yet. Yes, women’s stories do feature in the contemporary South African narrative. But for the most part, the contribution of women as a group is weaved into the broader historical tapestry of the South African liberation struggle. The names of great people like Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko dominate the minds of South Africans and the global community. In this process, the story of women as a gender goes lost.
Documenting and memorialising the roles and actions of South African women in the struggle for liberation is imperative. For one, it is their right to get recognition and affirmation for their diverse experiences and for their contributions that have influenced our past. But the rich, diverse roles of South African women in making communities and a nation are not restricted to the past: their actions continue to influence our present and shape our collective future.
We are each required to walk our own road…and then stop, assess what we have learned and share it with others,” …”It is only in this way that the next generation can learn from those who have walked before them, so that they can take the journey forwards after we can no longer continue. We can do no more that tell them our story – it is then up to them to make of it what they will. (Albertina Sisulu)