Year of women of South Africa by E.S. Reddy

We have discrimination against women, and even oppression of women, in many societies, but there is nothing like the inhumanity in South Africa.

Women have played a heroic role in the struggle against injustice in many countries there have been great heroines in the struggles for liberation in colonial countries, and in the struggle against slavery and racial discrimination in this country from the days of Sojourner Truth but rarely have women played such a crucial role as in the liberation struggle of South Africa. The "Year of Women of South Africa" should certainly highlight the humiliation of black women in South Africa which is a crime and an outrage but it is not an occasion for pity, but a time to pay tribute to them and do our duty to them. The economy in South Africa is based on the so-called migrant labour system. African men are recruited from the reserves to work in the mines and factories. But their wives and families are not allowed to go with them. If the women want to visit their husbands, they have to go to an official and apply, for instance, that they need permission to "conceive". There is no place in the world that I know where women are so humiliated. Every year, tens of thousands of African men and women are being deported from cities; shacks built by Africans to have some family life are being bulldozed by the police and the army; and women are being deported to starvation in reserves sometimes men and women to different regions because they come from different ethnic backgrounds. I cannot think of such inhumanity anywhere and at any time except during the shameful period of slavery.

Tribute to Women

But I want to speak not of oppression but of resistance. I might recall that the African women were the first to carry on large-scale, organised resistance against the obnoxious pass laws, way back in 1913 and that was the first glorious episode in the modern national movement in South Africa. In the 1920s and 1930s, for various reasons, the African women were the most militant leaders in the trade union movement which organised a million workers in struggle. On August 9, 1956, the women organised a national, multiracial demonstration in Pretoria against pass laws a historic demonstration which required tremendous organisational capacity. That was one of the greatest demonstrations under very difficult conditions in South African history. I remember also a demonstration of Indian women on United Nations Human Rights Day in 1962. Police sent their dogs to attack and pull their saris, but they stood firm. You know of the great demonstration of African school children in Soweto on June 16, 1976. The children decided to defy the police batons and guns, and many hundreds were killed and wounded. I can think of nothing like that massacre of children in history.

But what did their mothers do? Did they stop and scold their children for getting into trouble with the police? No, they stood by their children, in spite of all the pain and anguish, and brought out the adults in support. All of us, all over the world, should bow our heads before them. You have heard of young freedom fighters Solomon Mahlangu and three others who were executed in South Africa. They are heroes. But equally heroic are their mothers who stood by them. They did not tell their children to confess or beg for mercy to save their lives. They declared that they are proud of their children and will carry on the struggle until they meet their children in heaven. They too deserve our humble tribute.

Some Heroines

A few months ago, this City College bestowed an honorary degree on Nelson Mandela, who has spent more than 21 years in prison for leading the liberation struggle and whose stature in South Africa and the world grows with every passing day. The United Nations has described him as a "prince among political prisoners" and he has, I believe, received more honours than any living person. But we cannot think of him without thinking of his wife, Winnie Mandela. They were married in 1958 and they have had hardly three years of normal married life. Winnie Mandela has been restricted almost continuously since 1962, except for a brief spell in 1975. She has been constantly harassed and jailed. In 1970-71, she was detained for more than a year and kept under solitary confinement for many months, although she had a heart condition, and cruelly interrogated. At the time of the Soweto uprising, the African children looked up to her when she organised a committee of parents. The Government then banished her to a remote and small town. Until last year she was not allowed to see more than one person at a time. Three white women were even jailed for visiting her. Her bedcovers were confiscated as they had ANC colours. But she has remained steadfast as a magnificent symbol of the spirit of liberation, and of African womanhood. She deserves honour, but I am sure that she would be the first to say that there are others who deserve it equally, if not more. I think of Mrs. Albertina Sisulu wife of Walter Sisulu, who is in prison with Nelson Mandela. When the Sisulus were married, Anton Lembede, a leader of the movement, warned the bride:

"You are marrying a man who is already married to the nation." But Mrs. Sisulu has been married to the nation as much as her husband. She became a women's leader and founder of the Federation of South African Women. She was arrested many times and has been under restriction from 1964 to 1981. Her daughter, Lindiwe, was tortured in prison and escaped from South Africa.

But after the restrictions were lifted, Mrs. Sisulu has been travelling the nation organising all the people against apartheid . This grandmother of 66 is now charged with furthering the aims of the ANC, and faces imprisonment. That is the spirit of defiance of this great woman.

I think of Rita Ndzanga, a trade union leader, and wife of another trade union leader, Lawrence. They were both detained for over a year in 1970-71 with Winnie Mandela, and tortured. They were again detained a few years later. Her husband died in prison, presumably of torture. But as soon as she came out of jail, Rita went back to organise the new trade unions. I met her a few years ago and if I did not know, I could not have imagined what she had gone through. I think of Emma Mashinini, a trade union leader, she was detained in solitary confinement for several months a couple of years ago. She had to be sent from prison to the psychiatric ward of the hospital. After her release, she was still very sick and fortunately the trade unions in Denmark arranged for medical treatment in Copenhagen. She went back to plunge herself in the trade union movement. When I saw her a few days ago, she was full of spirit, as if nothing had happened or nothing could ever move her from her struggle. I think of Shanti Naidoo, an Indian woman detained with Winnie Mandela in 1970. She was kept in solitary confinement for five months, and deprived of sleep for several days, to force her to testify against Mrs. Mandela. She refused and was sentenced to prison.

Her father was the adopted son of Mahatma Gandhi. For three generations, every member of her family has been in jail for opposition to apartheid some of them are now freedom fighters.

She is in London now and she never asks for sympathy for herself or her family, but only solidarity for the struggle. I think of Ruth First, a journalist. Her 117 days in solitary detention in 1963 were recorded in a book and in a BBC documentary. After leaving South Africa, she was a tireless and effective campaigner for liberation. She wrote many books and became a professor in England and then in Mozambique. She was killed by a parcel bomb a couple of years ago. I think of Mamphela Ramphele, a young doctor who set up a self-help clinic for black people in King William's Town in the 1970s. She was banished in 1977 to a remote area, some thousand miles from her town and dumped there. A few weeks later, she learned that the father of her unborn child, Steve Biko, the black consciousness leader, had been brutally tortured to death. But she recovered from the tragedy and set up in the impoverished land a day care centre, a clinic, a feeding scheme, a library, a bursary fund, a literacy programme, a crache, and a co-operative to serve the 50,000 people. She was named the woman of 1983, by the Star, the major white newspaper of Johannesburg. I think of many, many others: Helen Joseph, Mary Moodley, Florence Matomela, Dora Tamana, Frances Baard and so on.

We Must Act

If they were not black women of South Africa, there would be an outrage in the world. The major Western Governments would be denouncing apartheid and imposing sanctions. But in this case, we have occasional condemnations but little action. I have often wondered, have we, who belong to the third world or to the oppressed peoples, done enough? One hears of border problems and other conflicts in Africa, but do they matter at all when the dignity and honour of the African man or woman are at stake? When Winnie Mandela and others were being tortured, did any government warn the South African police against touching a black woman? We can retaliate if we are determined.

If only the black people of this country are angry enough and committed enough not to tolerate the crimes against the black women of South Africa, we will very soon see the end of apartheid. We should observe the Year of Women of South Africa by letting all the people know the atrocities in South Africa so that they will act. We should pay homage to the heroic women of South Africa. But, above all, we should get angry and demand that all governments, all organisations, all institutions break with the regime in South Africa and unequivocally support the struggle for freedom.

Support South African History Online

Dear friends of SAHO

South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.

SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.

Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.



Make a donation here and send us a message of support.