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Made in South Africa: Dr Phyllis Ntantala-Jordan and disrupting the order of power

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Lwando Xaso is an attorney, writer and speaker . She is the founder of Including Society. She is also the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’. Follow her at @includingsociety.

We have all benefitted from the great women of South Africa, Phyllis Ntantala-Jordan is one of them.

First published by DM168

A journalist called a couple of weeks ago asking if I could interview any woman who I found fascinating, who would it be. Without hesitation, I said Dr Phyllis Ntantala-Jordan. Dr Ntantala-Jordan keeps coming up in the most unexpected places, such as a recommended article online on her life or through conversations with others who find her just as fascinating as I do.

I first knew of her husband, Dr AC Mzolisa Jordan, who is described as a torchbearer and freedom fighter. He is a true legend, especially in my community. I knew of him primarily as the author of the seminal novel Ingqumbo Yeminyanya, which is often described as a landmark in Xhosa literature but which should be regarded as a landmark in literature, period. Being Xhosa this book is highly personal to my family and community, especially since the story centres on the Amapondomise, a clan I belong to and from which my middle name, Nomajola, is derived.

I was familiar with the brilliance of Dr Jordan and that of his son, Pallo Jordan, also a prominent intellectual and politician. However, I had never heard of Dr Ntantala-Jordan until around 2013, when I stumbled across a mention of her book, A Life’s Mosaic. I was relieved to learn that the translation of Ingqumbo Yeminyanya into its English version, The Wrath of the Ancestors, was not by some far removed stranger but someone intimately linked to the novel.

Shortly before her death she had completed a translation of renowned Xhosa poet Samuel Mqhayi’s anthology, Inzuzo – which she translated as The Harvest. Her work ensured that great African literature was accessible to many and for that we have to thank her, and thank her for so much more. The more I asked and read about her the more I realised that she was everything I aspired to be in my lifetime, a thoughtful, revolutionary and courageous writer and thinker who defines herself for herself.

There are many great women in our history but something about Dr Ntantala-Jordan especially resonates with me in the same way a lot of my peers find deep resonance in Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – not that we cannot be inspired by both women. Maybe it’s her prolific writings as a black African feminist who was unequivocal about her beliefs that draw me to her. She is someone I would have loved to be mentored by. She was incredibly progressive in her feminist beliefs, which still come with a lot of alienation even today. She wrote in her article, “Black Womanhood and National Liberation”, published in Sechaba, the official organ of the ANC, in December 1984: 

“It is one of the ironies of history that the most pervasive and total oppression, the oppression of women, has been to a large extent neglected by scholars within the ranks of the movement. This can be explained, in part, by the male chauvinism, which has been the bane of colonial liberation movements… Women, specifically Black women, will and must form a central pillar of such a front. We submit, Black women have no cause to commit themselves totally to the liberation struggle, unless the freedom to be achieved will in turn grant them equality and human dignity.”

Calling out the chauvinism of the liberation movement, I speculate, must have been deemed a distraction from the larger cause of racial liberation. Dr Ntantala-Jordan was going against the status quo and accepted order of power – she was her own woman. I am pretty sure there were consequences for her stance, just as there are today. There are those of us today who want to pretend that black men and women are aligned when we are in reality unaligned. So many inequities persist between us. Building community and a united force against the structural racism that affects us all, is hampered by the fact that so many of the life-threatening issues black women face have also been at the hands of black men. That is not a popular thing to say but Dr Ntantala-Jordan said it so many years ago.

Remembering the events of 9 August 1956 as Women’s Day leads many to believe that all they have to do is give flowers and spa vouchers to women. If I had my way, we would call this day Gender Equality Day, putting the focus back on what Dr Ntantala-Jordan and the women of 1956 fought for – the attainment of racial and gender equality and championing a more expansive understanding of gender, which would include the urgent issues faced by transgender women. I hope we continue disturbing the order of power. Whether we know their names or not, we have all benefitted from the disruptive lives of great women made in South Africa. DM

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