Ellen Kate was the name given to her by her biological mother and father. While important people in her life, they separated while she was still young, and so their influences crossed her life at different points. Her mother was crucial in the early years up until she passed away while Kuzwayo was still in high school, aged 16 (Kuzwayo 1985, 84). The name Cholofelo was given to her by her birth mother, which means Hope. It was her mother’s favourite name, and one that was regularly used in the early days of her childhood. Nnoseng was given later in life, when she met her father and his family meaning “Give me water.” This was the same name as her father’s paternal aunt’s name. This name arose largely due to family association, but also because she was heavily involved in helping her step-mother in the running of the house without getting in the way and dominating the scene. One of her chores was to provide water for the family, and so the name not only fit, but stuck. Finally, Motlalepule arose among her mother’s people meaning “the one who arrives on a rainy day.” (Kuzwayo 1985, 55).
Ellen Kuzwayo was raised by her mother after her parents divorced. Her father was absent from much of her youth, and only really came into her life later on when she was banished from her aunt’s household. She spent much of her early childhood up until she was 10 on her grandparents’ property, which was large and fertile. She was one of 4 grandchildren, and lived a happy childhood. She references the relationships that existed at this point in her life, and talks fondly of her extended family. The agricultural community that she lived in was characterised by a broad sense of equality, where women shared the workload and fulfilled many roles, which made them valuable and gave them influence within their lives. (Kuzwayo 1985, 56-57).
She was shaped by experiences her whole life, one of which was when her Aunt Blanche, who had inherited the grandparents’ farm, rejected her from the family. The conversation was minimalist and lacked much explanation, but contained the meaning of “There is no home for you here anymore. You should go and look for your father and your people in Johannesburg. You must go now or as soon as possible. I don’t want to see the sight of you any more here.” (Kuzwayo 1985, 105). Her relationship with her aunt had been positive up until this moment, and the shock of the event was large enough that Kuzwayo was emotionally scarred from it for a considerable period afterwards. When everyone within that family rejected her, she sought out her biological father, whom she had not met more than a handful of times, and moved in with him and his new family. Thankfully, they accepted her, and she became a part of their family for a time. She later moved out to be with a maternal aunt and her husband, the Tlhapane’s. This turn of events ended up being a very positive feature for Kuzwayo, as it pushed her into a new field of life and gave her the opportunity to begin teaching once again. Mr Tlhapane was a well-respected teacher in the community of Heilbron, and Kuzwayo’s smooth transition from the rejection of her aunt into the next chapter can be largely attributed to the love and kindness of the Tlhapane’s. (Kuzwayo 1985, 115).
This paper will be following the chronological life events of Ellen Kuzwayo, and tracing the actions and decisions throughout her life, while evaluating them in relation to Apartheid and the oppressive government under which Kuzwayo lived. It will begin with explaining her influence on the community around her, and her value as seen through the lens of an educator and role model for the youth under her care. It will then flow on into her role in challenging Apartheid, and why she became involved in it. Her separation from her children will be assessed in relation to how she was shaped by this experience and why it empowered her to aid so many other women. Her leadership roles and various educational and political activities will be mentioned and explored through the lens of oppression and their importance in freeing the people of South Africa. Finally, this paper will conclude by evaluating her achievements and explainingo why she is such an important figure in opposing Apartheid.
Ellen Kuzwayo was a source of inspiration and motivation for countless pupils under her guidance in the early days of her work. Her teaching experience was one of the easiest lens’ to witness her fight against apartheid through, as her struggle to uplift the children under her care and push them to be better was a major component. By the time she was 26, she had accepted a position in the small community of Phokeng, and worked with 2 male teachers to create the first high school in Phokeng. One of the most notable features of this high school was that the ratio of girls to boys in the school was something that Kuzwayo was proud of, which is a fascinating starting point to consider the rest of her life’s work. Something that Kuzwayo brings to light in her interview with Cherry Clayton is the disparity between male and female education and opportunity in South Africa even during Apartheid. “The fact that black men first had an opportunity to first go to school and get into industry” (Mackenzie and Clayton 1989, 63) exacerbated the poor male - female power balance. An avid feminist, Kuzwayo fought her whole life for women and advocated women’s programs, starting with young girls in schools and encouraging them to complete their education and create a career for themselves before marrying and raising a family. According to a feminist reading of Kuzwayo’s achievements by Carmela J. Garritano, “her tribute to the accomplished women of South Africa and her own story of personal triumph are designed to inspire and motivate her black female audience.” (Garritano 1997, 57-65). Kuzwayo’s underlying life purpose of inspiring those around her is unanimously found in every source and piece written in her memory. Following teaching, she became heavily involved in empowering women and ensuring that their concerns were heard and addressed, largely through her participation in a variety of political organisations.
She became aware of and joined the Southern African Association of Youth Clubs, and started to participate in leadership training courses. By 1956, she had been recognised by the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work and worked as the organiser of youth work with the Southern African Association Youth Clubs in Vaal and Johannesburg. Throughout this time, Kuzwayo was still teaching, and used the club as a creative outlet for her more musical and theatrical side. She soon became known in the region for her ability to produce impressive classical performances, and was able to influence the girls that she helped due to their respect for her. (Kuzwayo 1985, 148). A feature that Kuzwayo recognised early in life was the “importance of the values, standards and practices of her own people.” (Kuzwayo 1990, 115). She adopted the truth of her South African heritage and upbringing, and focused on sharing it with “pride and confidence,” (Kuzwayo 1990, 115) instilling these same feelings in the girls that she created theatrical pieces with.
Another instance where her compassion and humility toward mankind shone was the teaching assignment she took on at Law Palmer High School, where she was working with young boys. A portion of this school included boys who had been in the reformatory and were attending school as a portion of their rehabilitation following punishment. Within the school, they were expected to be treated differently, and “accepted whatever reprimand, cautioning or punishment” (Kuzwayo 1985, 156) they received. For Kuzwayo however, these boys were just as capable of completing their studies and participating in the curriculum as any other member of the class, and she treated them accordingly. This drew attention to her from the headmaster and other teaching staff, and she was eventually told under no uncertain terms to treat these reformed boys in a different manner and not make them feel as though they fit in. Amazingly, even the black men around her in positions of power were determined to keep these boys down and repress their movement back into society. These young boys were immensely aware of Kuzwayo’s position toward them, and recognised her stance as one of respect and firmness. Subsequently, they accepted her punishment when needed and continued to grow under her guidance. In contrast, the headmaster of the school had a progressively deteriorating relationship with these boys, as they recognised his desire to continue to view and treat them as “criminals,” and not “pupils.” (Kuzwayo 1985, 156-157). This came to head when one of the students attacked the headmaster in a low-risk environment, and Kuzwayo was called into the office to resolve the attack. Her ability to see these young boys as worthwhile humans was one of the biggest healing aspects of the situation, and her influence stretched as far as changing the headmaster’s behaviour toward the boys. (Kuzwayo 1985, 156).
With the admission of women as full members into the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943, Kuzwayo’s beginning in political movements was cemented. Four years after the admission of women followed by the birth of the Women’s League and the Youth ANC in 1944, she returned to Johannesburg and joined the party, describing it as a vision of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo to create “an organisation of the black elite.” (Kuzwayo 1985, 139). Kuzwayo worked closely with these three main leaders, as well as other prominent figures in the anti-apartheid struggle, which greatly shaped her decisions and actions in life, and to some degree, influenced how the South African government assessed her as a threat much later on. Kuzwayo states that she did not recall there being many women in the higher ranks of the ANC during that period, but this did change as the movement evolved over time.
Kuzwayo’s political involvement throughout her life was one of extensive effort, as she moved through a vast number of groups. She became the General Secretary of the Young Women’s Christian Association from 1964 - 1976, and flowed from that role into being one of the ten members and only female member of the Committee of Ten from 1976 - 1982. In 1978 she joined the Zamani Soweto Sisters Council as a Consultant, in 1979 she became the Chairwoman for the Maggie Magaba Trust, and she served as a founding board member for the Urban Foundation in Transvaal. She was also the Black Consumer Union’s first president. (Laber 1999, 32-33).
Her son Bakone rapidly became involved in anti-apartheid action as he grew up, and in September 1971, he was imprisoned by the white government for his opposition against the Apartheid state. When he was arrested, he was allowed one final visit to Kuzwayo, where he appeared without warning in her office. She spoke with him for a brief moment, during which her true nature arose. Her feelings of defiance against the government sparked when she says, “This says to me, in this country if you are black, and you embark on a most respectable worthwhile project for your community, you become a real threat to the rulers of this country. Remember nobody ever kicks a dead dog. This action by the state should never dampen your spirit.
On the contrary, let it inspire you, reinforce you with new zeal to do better, when you get your next chance.” (Kuzwayo 1985, 188). This moment perhaps best defines Kuzwayo in her complete form - a woman who fought not only for herself, her family, and her community, but also for her country and for her people, for those who could not fight for themselves. She embraced the change and the danger that this required and did so in a manner that made her struggle dignified and worthy.
In 1976, the Committee of Ten was formed in response to the Soweto Uprising of June 16th and the ongoing unrest in Soweto that continued throughout 1976. This unrest had included the likes of destroying property and lighting fires at the hands of frustrated black African youths – and resulted in some 400 casualties during 1976 (sahistory.org). The region of Soweto was ruled by the Urban Bantu Council (UBC), who supposedly represented the black population of the area, but had evidently failed to do so. The Council of Ten were to create a report on the UBC, analysing its function and duties, and report its findings back to the community of Soweto. (Kuzwayo 1985, 199-200). This council however was not supported by the authorities in the area, and the first and second meetings were cancelled, with the results that the discussions and decisions of the Council of Ten regarding the UBC never were made public. On October 19th, 1977, all 10 committee members were arrested and placed in Johannesburg Fort. (Kuzwayo 1985, 200). Among those arrested was Kuzwayo, who was targeted for her political and social involvement and imprisoned for 10 months total - five months assigned for her involvement opposing the white system, and an additional five added just one week from her release date for refusing to cooperate with the Minister of Justice in “reconstructing the schools programme… in Cape Town.” (Kuzwayo 1985, 213). Her fight against Apartheid was a continual struggle in her life, not merely something that existed for a period while she was youthful and felt ready. Kuzwayo was 63 when she was placed Johannesburg Fort, and yet her spirit did not waver throughout the detention. She emerged from prison as a woman who had “survived,” (Kuzwayo 1985, 215). and was subsequently highly regarded by her community. She speaks very positively about the support and acceptance shown toward her upon release, and attributes much of her strength over the next months to that.
Throughout her life, Ellen Kuzwayo proved herself to be one of South Africa’s most humble, determined and capable women of the 20th century. Born in 1914, she entered an era of great global turmoil, and grew up to live through the most challenging period of systemised racism in the history of South Africa. Given the implementation of Apartheid in 1948, Kuzwayo was 34 when the full impact of the racist systematic control peaked. Her life story is largely shaped by her desire to empower the youth and women, including toward the end by her determination to challenge the system of oppression that had dominated her adult experience and to evoke freedom for the youth who had come to the fore in struggle for freedom.
This article forms part of the South African History Online and Principia College Partnership Project
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