Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 29 August 2014

Walking towards freedom: Thuli’s journey

This week the Public Protector had to remind the ruling party that she took up arms when others did not. It was pointed, painful and spot on. The howlers, she was suggesting, needed to be quiet, lest they wish to get into a real pissing match – a match Madonsela would undoubtedly win.

Your fears of being unlovable were unfounded. You have been loved and supported beyond measure throughout your life.” – Thuli Madonsela (in a letter to her 16-year old self)

“We don’t want to remove the Public Protector, we want the Public Protector to do her work correctly and behave correctly.” – Gwede Mantashe

“Each leak is glibly explained away. Who is that senior official who leaked the letter? There is nothing unfortunate about the leaks, they are timed and deliberate,” – Jesse Duarte

“We want to have a female president in the near future. We are just not prepared for it now. We do not have capable leaders.” Clara Ndlovu

“Freedom does not come walking towards you – it must be won. As women we must go on playing our part.” – Lilian Ngoyi

Madonsela’s week in the spotlight creates an important opportunity for South Africans to talk about the role and impact of ‘difficult women’ in public life.

Because of the extent to which Madonsela’s own proud record as a freedom fighter has been diminished by the ANC’s attacks on her person in the last few years, and because of the extent to which she has been embraced as a hero by others, I want to remind South Africans, and the ANC in particular, that her courage – while extraordinary – is not exceptional.

There can be no more important exercise at the moment than contextualizing Madonsela, precisely because the ANC’s campaign to discredit her relies on disowning her and making her values and ethics seem not only suspect, but also distinctly unAfrican. The ANC is trying to pretend that Thuli Madonsela has no historical antecedents. The fact is, her fight for recognition and respect is located in an important tradition of women in the party, speaking truth to power and being denied space and influence as a consequence.

Gwede Mantashe’s exhortation for the public protector to ‘behave,’ is also part of the fine tradition of sexism in the ANC. Women’s voices and histories in the party have always been contested and undermined. The fact that so many women’s names and stories are part of the party’s identity is a function not of the ANC’s grace, but of women in the ANC’s insistence on not being erased.

In trying to make sense of the week’s events by figuring out who Madonsela’s primary political forbear might have been, I found Lilian Ngoyi.

Ngoyi is everywhere in the ANC’s stories about itself in August. She is brandished like a lucky charm – the first woman member of the ANC NEC, a founding member of the women’s federation, a bold stow-away and treason trialist. Despite this prominence, it is very difficult to find her actual words. The speeches she made and direct quotes from her own mouth – these are not easy to come by. I found them of course, but they required multiple searches and I had to trawl through master’s theses and academic texts to get the best ones. Once I found them, I marveled at how little I knew of her, and at how strong and clear her intellect and integrity were.

The men who lead South Africa’s liberation struggles in the 1950s suffer no such deficits in coverage. These men documented themselves and their peers well. They quoted one another in the independent black press that was thriving at the time. They preserved photos of one another and made minutes of all their meetings with one other. Even those who were not imprisoned and banned and repeatedly thrown in solitary confinement, as Ngoyi was, come up easily in searches. Their words are everywhere – dominant and charged and thrilling.

And yet, there stands Lilian Ngoyi, her passion and strength and intellect sparkling like jewels in spite of her relative neglect. Yes there are streets and community halls named after her. But there isn’t a rich and layered understanding of who she was. Yet it is clear that like Thuli Madonsela today, Ngoyi was revered in her time.

She was fearless and to-the-point and deeply invested in women’s leadership as a vehicle for the progress of the nation. Like Madonsela, she changed the face of politics in South Africa. Ngoyi energized the Defiance Campaign and introduced tactics that had not been used before just as Madonsela has galvanized the anti-corruption and accountability movement.

Ngoyi was a member of the African National Congress when that meant something meaningful and important. She was arrested in 1956 for high treason and until 1961 was involved in a grueling treason trial. Between 1956 and her death in 1980, she was in and out of jail. She was constantly monitored by the police, kept from working, subjected to humiliation and degradation and spent months at a time in solitary confinement. While Madonsela has not been thrown in jail, the attacks on her are a sort of isolation, an emotional banning that must be harrowing in its own ways.

Despite the half-century that separates them, the similarities are stark. Ngoyi was forty-five when she shot to prominence as the key leader in the women’s march on Pretoria. Madonsela was forty-seven when she was appointed Pubic Protector, also shooting to prominence and making her mark on an office that might otherwise have been fairly staid and bureaucratic.

Ngoyi’s leadership has been described by one academic as a “mid-life sprint to the national stage.” The same could be said for Madonsela.

Ngoyi was both fearless and deeply protective of African people. She both broke with tradition and defended it. She once said that the difference between her mother and herself was that “My mother firmly believed our tears shall be wiped away in the next world. I believed we should start enjoying life here.”

Madonsela is similar. This week she broke the mold of what a public woman should do and say. She refused to be bullied by the ANC of today, reminding her detractors – in that whisper-soft voice – that she had once carried a gun to liberate them. In the next breath, she elegantly invoked the image of the Makhadzi; the aunt and advisor who is a uniquely female and African figure.

As women’s month draws to a close, Madonsela’s performance on Thursday reminded us why she stands head and shoulders above South Africa’s current crop of leaders – both male and female. The ANC leadership has spent the last few weeks exalting Ngoyi’s name at various Women’s Day feed-a-thons. And yet those who claim to be keepers of Ngoyi’s legacy – Jesse Duarte, Baleka Mbete, Angie Mosheka, and others, have spent the whole month making their disdain for Madonsela clear.

They should be ashamed of themselves. The Public Protector – staunchly non-partisan – has shown us that you don’t need to wear black and green to walk in the footsteps of Lilian Ngoyi. You just need to do your job. DM


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