Voices of African Women (VOWA), an independent women’s movement in Grahamstown, is celebrating its first anniversary and hoping to grow their contribution to the fight against xenophobia, gender-based violence and poor provision of public services. By WAIRIM? M?R?ITHI. All photos by Kate Janse van Rensburg.
On a warm Wednesday night in November 2015, a large group of women, children and men have gathered outside Grahamstown’s City Hall. Many people have on jackets or blankets, some children are wearing pyjamas, and bread and soup in paper cups are being passed around. Other paper cups shelter candles, some lit, others not. Some women have sat in a line across the street. Several police cars are parked a few metres away from their barricade.
The women are refusing to move until they are taken seriously. During one of many altercations, a policeman gets into his car and drives fast towards them. Frightened, the women move and thankfully nobody is hurt, but only just. A child is yanked out of harm’s way just in time. Nearly a year has passed since this all-night protest vigil organised by the Voices of the Foreigner’s Wives which soon afterwards mobilised into Voices of Women of Africa.
On October 21, 2015, while Grahamstown SAPS were largely preoccupied with student protest on one side of town, a looting spree swept across the other. For weeks, rumours had been circulating that a foreign national – perhaps from Pakistan or Bangladesh – was responsible for the latest string of murders that had plagued the township, so shops owned by foreign nationals were targeted. At least 500 people were displaced and many shop owners had to leave their homes, families and businesses for a safe house outside town.
For weeks after that first Wednesday, these families lived under precarious conditions. The men depended on private donations for their sustenance, but while back home, their families lived in fear of another two attacks the rumour mills had promised. For fear of safety or lack of merchandise, they could not re-open their shops, which meant they had no work or money to replace what they had lost during the meeting. They were shunned or violently rejected from public spaces.
“My son was violated at school because of his race, because he is Pakistani. Before the looting, he was always bullied for his hair and skin colour; when the looting started, our people chased the Pakistani children and I personally had to run home with my son because they wanted to hurt him.” says Nicki Basson, mother of two.
Concerned, two women, Patricia May and Sandiswa Mini, put out a public call: “We started looking for some women to help us out with this thing. We said, ‘If you are from Africa and your husband is a foreign national, can you please stand up with us to voice out for our husbands, brothers and in-laws?’”
Babalwa Nizam, recalling the daily violence her choice in husband attracts, thought to herself, “I don’t have a choice; I have kids. I have to fight for my kids.”
About six or seven women came together to form the Voices of the Foreigners’ Wives. With support from the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), some students and Masifunde, a local NGO, these women mobilised their community in protest against the violence perpetrated by their neighbours, and against the local authorities’ inactivity or, alternatively, their complicity with the ongoing looting. These were their demands:
“The Mayor didn’t help with anything,” May recalls. Another public call saw people from all over town attend a protest at City Hall on the October 30, wearing all black and heads covered with scarves, as the Foreigners’ Wives read out their demands to the face of a building because the mayor would not come out to be challenged. And then it was the night of November 18, the protesters were demanding decent food parcels for their dispossessed families, and the police were issuing dispersal orders.
Like any other moment of crisis, this one has settled into the town’s history. The displaced shopkeepers came back home, shops gradually re-opened and their children went back to school. The VFW, however, did not dissolve. While their original demands reflected the urgency of the looting crisis, they also very clearly pointed to other forms of violence they have grown to know only too well. Many of the women know intimately the ways in which xenophobic violence filters into everyday public and private spaces. “What I noticed when we had our meetings as women, is that we were talking about the looting, but we were also talking about the other things that were hurting us a lot,” says Nizam.
Some recall the verbal abuse they would encounter when they wore hijab and burqas in the streets, so distressing that they do not wear them any more for their protection and peace of mind. As such, the group sought to grow in size and in scope, especially taking into consideration their second demand.
“In December, we thought, we need a lot of people involved, not just African women married to foreign nationals. We’re not only going to fight xenophobia; we’re also going to fight women and child abuse. That’s why we changed our names to Voices of Women of Africa (VOWA),” May expounds.
VOWA describes itself as “an independent women’s movement geared at organising, mobilising and conscientising unemployed and poor women to articulate women’s struggles and issues for the advancement of their interests for social, economic and political justice.” This days, the women are involved in projects Masifunde runs and in debates hosted by the UPM.
“Recently we held a drug and alcohol abuse debate with the community, with some really fascinating input and support for our current and future projects. We also have debates and campaigns about HIV awareness because many young people are getting infected. We go to schools to give motivational talks to students. We teach them that it is their right to say no to alcohol and substance abuse, and to unsafe sex with multiple partners,” Basson explains.
Important is that they are learning from their work as much as they are teaching others. “I have learnt so much more than I knew about what’s happening to women and children in South Africa. The day I had to flee with my son, that’s when I realised I had to have a voice, not just for myself but for the children in South Africa who don’t yet,” Basson continues.
One of the challenges VOWA faces is how the everyday interventions of making a livelihood affect member participation. The organisation’s membership stands at about 30 women, but because many have to work in their family shops, they cannot regularly attend meetings, which means only nine or 10 people show up. Another big problem is the lack of access to professional counselling to help them heal from the violence and trauma that motivated the formation of the group.
“Some of us, we are strong. But we are not that strong,” May points out.
VOWA is now celebrating its first anniversary, and is hoping to grow their contribution to the fight against xenophobia, gender-based violence and poor provision of public services. Its members strongly believe accessible and intersectional education and government accountability are necessary in order to eradicate gender-based and xenophobic violence. “We have learnt and continue learning so much from each other,” Sandiswa says. “And we want healthy women, so our children can grow up happy,” May concludes. DM
All photos by Kate Janse van Rensburg
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