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Women and invisibility in the canon of struggle literature


Khadija Magardie is Head of Speechwriting in the Presidency.

Book store shelves are stacked with dense and gloomy tomes by male activists on their life during the liberation struggle, but hardly any are written by or about the women.

An icon of the struggle for our country’s liberation passed away last week. Bomo Edna Molewa was an environmentalist and leader in conservation on the continent and globally; a respected and principled political leader, a political activist; a feminist; and a recipient of the highest French national order, the Légion d’Honneur.

Molewa’s life began on a farm in Bela Bela 61 years ago; one of six siblings; who had to bicycle 20km every day just to get to school. Despite her humble beginnings, she rose to become a leader in the trade union movement and the underground structures of the ANC during apartheid; and a senior figure in government and in the ANC after democracy.

Amid all the regret of having lost a hero of the liberation struggle and a leader of South Africa at such a time, is the regret that her memories may tragically have died with her.

The story of Edna Molewa’s life, of the people and forces that shaped and moulded her; of her sources of motivation and inspiration; of her participation in the struggle as an activist and MK operative, all the while being a wife and mother – has not been told.

Nor have the stories of Ruth Mompati and Albertina Sisulu and Lilian Ngoyi been told; or the stories of Cheryl Carolus, of Jessie Duarte, of Lindiwe Zulu, of Thandi Modise, of Brigitte Mabandla, of Ayanda Dlodlo and many other women, prominent or otherwise, who played such a formative role in our country’s history.

They are the stories of women who were wives and mothers by day, but shop-stewards and organisers by night, living lives constantly on the run from the police. They are stories of women who lived, worked and trained as fighters in ANC camps around the continent, and in the Soviet Union. They are stories of women who were detained, beaten, confined, and torn away from their children. They are stories of women who worked as teachers and nurses in exile, left to raise children on their own, or pining for their children thousands of miles away.

Many of the women who were the midwives of freedom joined the liberation struggle at a young age; in the process losing their youth and innocence. There were tales of daring and courage, but also of broken relationships, and of strained and severed family bonds. Theirs are memories looked back on with pride, but a pride tinged with regret. Of having given one’s all to one’s country, but at a cost. To a marriage, to a stable family life, to a promise made to a parent… and many, many promises made, and broken, to a child.

Women have been present at every turning point in this country’s history – but their life stories have not been heard, or documented at a substantive level beyond their inclusion in “series” books, compendiums and academic studies, and on local history websites.

Type the words ‘book about’ and the name of a range of prominent women anti-apartheid activists into any search engine, and a 404 error message will appear.

Whilst women’s experiences under apartheid have been solidly documented by historians and anthropologists like Jacklyn Cock, Lulu Callinicos and Sheila Meintjes, as well as recently by the former activist and writer Gertrude Fester – full biographies written about women struggle activists are sparse and far between.

Notable exceptions are Fatima Meer’s Higher than Hope about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela; Zubeida Jaffer’s Beauty of the Heart – the Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke. Another recent biography, of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, would arguably not have seen the light of day had she not been in the running for the presidency.

The same certainly isn’t true for the men, if one considers the emergence over the past two decades of what one may term ‘The Island Tome’.

This genre has seen not one, or two, but sometimes three or four prison diaries by prominent male activists and political prisoners being published nearly each year – sometimes by the same author.

The formula is as predictable as it is bordering on tedium. It goes roughly along the lines of a day (and many more) in the life a man; staring out at the gloomy sea beyond the prison bars, Hegel in one hand, a quill poised in the other, and the Freedom Charter on the brain. Either that, or it’s the day in the life of another man in another prison, with the mood a similar eclectic mix of Gloom in the Room contrasted by Fire in the Breast.

Though doubtlessly of historical significance, one wonders if as great an appetite exists amongst the reading public for the Island Tome/memoir as we are led to believe. The local publishing industry regularly reminds us of local predilection for non-fiction over works of fiction, so it certainly makes business sense to keep churning them out.

One wonders, though, if there is no middle ground and variety somewhere between the gloomy prison “men-moir” and the fire and brimstone broadside (also mainly by men) that is so popular nowadays, so long as it has the words “ANC” and “decline” somewhere in the title.

So, while women’s full, varied and multi-dimensional experiences as activists under apartheid are accorded a potted history at best, the local publishing industry seems to style virtually every man who was locked up under apartheid (and kept a diary) as a Philosopher King worthy of being published.

These screeds are seized upon as meaty and philosophically-rich content by publishers; their authors feted– even if they are dead – and launched in all their glossy glory to critical acclaim at fancy gatherings in shopping malls or with cheese and wine at historical sites.

It is torturous to imagine having to pick up yet another plodding narrative – of dubious literary value, by yet another male ex-Islander or generic male prisoner, infused with his Thought; his praxis on political economy and constitutionalism; and his “message”, often couched in ominous terms, for the nation and particularly for the current crop of political leadership.

It could be that this genre continues to chalk up award after award on the grounds of solid writing and poignancy– but the great question persists: how many prison diaries can one man write?

Surely it’s also time to hear about the liberation struggle and its aftermath through the eyes of a woman? This is by no means to suggest that female anti-apartheid heroics were somehow exceptional; but their lived experiences, their struggles with activism, with motherhood, and with womanhood – are different.

Edna Molewa’s story is just one of many that can be mined for material for a biography.

There are her formative years growing up on a farm, and of her brother being admonished by her father every time she wanted to stray near the premises of the “traditional” school near their home, for fear she would be abducted and forced to attend the traditional school in the area whose bleak prospects offered nothing more than the life the Nationalist Party envisioned for the black child: that of hewer of wood and drawer of water.

There is her political history – a life marked by “firsts”; the first woman to be elected Deputy President of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu); one of the first group of new MP’s of democratic South Africa; the first woman Premier of North West province; and the first (and to date the only) woman to lead the ANC in a province as Provincial Chairperson of North West.

There is her membership of one of the many underground structures of the ANC’s liberation army Umkhonto we Sizwe; the Peter Nchabeleng unit, active in the then Northern Transvaal, and how she was arrested in the 1980’s after being found with an arms cache.

There are her memories of heavy boot steps of the security police at a window. Of nights of clandestine logistical planning – most times committed to memory – for shelter for newly arrived operatives.

There are those memories that would cause her to fall silent, and stare vacantly ahead – of her nursing infant snatched off her breast and dumped screaming in a corner of a cold floor as she was taken away. Of long months spent in solitary confinement, constantly taunted by the police who would bring false stories of a sick child, of a dying parent, or of an unfaithful partner, all in a bid to break her.

There is of course the question as to why women aren’t writing their own stories; as few first-hand accounts exist authored by women who joined the liberation struggle, with the notable exception of Ruth First’s memoir, 117 Days, and Hilda Bernstein’s prison letters.

To this there is no easy answer. It could be that they minimise their actual contribution in relation to that of their male counterparts. It could be that the enterprising spirit of “just write it and they will read” doesn’t exist among women authors.

It could be because nobody has told them they have a story worth telling.

If there were a defining genre under which the few published books about women anti-apartheid activists would fall – it could be termed the Penelope Genre: named for the good wife of Odysseus; known best for her fidelity and for keeping the home fires burning while her husband was away at war.

Though there is the constant disclaimer about women like Albertina Sisulu and even Winnie Madikizela-Mandela being “activists in their own right”, these lives of these women are more often than not documented in relation to the men they were married to, and waited for.

It is the interests of the country, and in the interests of preserving our history, that there be a concerted effort by publishers to look beyond what sells, to what matters. In a sea of stories about the heroics of men, the stories of the women of this country tread water desperately, gasping for air, and grasping for the life raft that nobody has thrown.

We live in a time when historical contestations – namely the “where were you when” factor; has become a matter of increasing interest to the voting public who are in the main young.

Representation matters, it matters a great deal. It could be argued that the cynicism that prevails about politicians today, especially in the ANC, is fuelled by notions that the men and women who lead our country today are johnny come latelys with either no historical commitment to the country’s future, or who lack bona fides. Their contribution to this country is either downplayed or ridiculed.

At the same time, the women who are still with us today who taught, fought and organised in the streets, in the underground and in the corridors of power after 1994- to tell their own stories. They owe it to the historical record that they write them down for us, for our children and for their children. It is the only way their legacy can be preserved.

Edna Molewa’s legacy will undoubtedly be preserved through the work she did to advance conservation in South Africa, and on the continent. We got to know her as a politician, and as a Cabinet Minister.

But we never got to know Edna Molewa the woman, the mother, and the daughter. We never got to know her sources of inspiration, her motivation for becoming involved in politics, or what lessons she could impart to a young woman in South Africa considering a life in politics.

They were questions I often asked of her, to which she expressed surprise. “Nobody’s ever asked me that,” she said. DM

Khadija Magardie is a journalist and writer and was Edna Molewa’s special adviser


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