Nandisile Thoko Mpumlwana (nèe Mbanjwa) was born in Melmoth, Zululand, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). A co-founding member of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) alongside Steve Biko, she was involved in political activism and promotion of the BCM during the 1970s.
Raised by an activist mother and educated at the girls-only Inanda Seminary School outside of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, where she was encouraged to think critically, meant that gender equality was a factor present in Mpumlwana’s life from a young age. However, it was only at university (University of Fort Hare) and through student politics (as a member of the South African Student Organisation – SASO) that she began to actively confront inequality. While she did not study feminism, her experiences and that of her fellow women activists conscientised her to the double oppression that was faced by Black women, i.e. racial and gender injustice. Mpumlwana became consumed with the fight against apartheid and gender inequality, which would result in her expulsion in 1974 from Fort Hare.
She managed to complete her education through the University of South Africa (UNISA). Shortly afterwards, she was recruited by the Black Community Programmes (BCP) to work at its offices in King William’s Town, Transkei (now Eastern Cape Province) as a researcher. This experience further heightened her political awareness and she quickly became involved in the Black Review – an annual publication which chronicled events in the Black community in the mid-1970s. The detention of BCP staff by the apartheid government fast-tracked this process, eventually resulting in her taking over as editor in 1974/75. However, when she was banned in March 1977 for five years, the BCP recruited Asha Moodley to become the new editor of the publication.
Prior to her being banned, she had been detained in 1976 along with four other women, including Mamphela Ramphele, for a few months. During her time in detention, she was beaten up by the security police and spent three weeks in solitary confinement. Upon her release, she married her husband, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, who had also been imprisoned.
After Biko’s death in 1977 and the banning of several Black Consciousness organisations, many of the BCM members dispersed so as to avoid further banishment or imprisonment. However, like Mpumlwana, this did not stop them from continuing with the movement’s fight. Mpumlwana, together with her husband, stayed in King William’s Town to expand the Ginsberg Educational Trust (which later became the Zingisa Educational Project) which offered education bursaries to underprivileged children.
Her student activities in the 1970s were succeeded by her involvement in the church (which exposed her to further deep-rooted issues of gender inequality) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the 1980s, with her primary focus being on issues that affected Black communities and women in particular. From 1983 to 1994, she worked as a teacher.
In addition to her degree from UNISA, Mpumlwana holds a degree from the University of Natal (now known as the University of KwaZulu-Natal – UKZN) in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. She also received a master’s degree in Curriculum Development and Teacher Education from Michigan State University, United States of America (USA). Although her career has largely focused on teaching and related areas, her commitment to justice has also played a significant role in her life as well as those whom she fights for.
In post-apartheid South Africa, her activism continues to centre mainly on human rights, political justice, and the rights of women and children. She places a lot of emphasis on encouraging the youth to become more politically active and to use their voices to vote so that the country’s young democracy can grow through youth involvement. Consequently, her activism has seen her serve on several boards, such as the Independent Development Trust (IDT), the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR), the Women’s Development Foundation (WDF), the South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID), the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), the Film and Publication Board (FPB), and the Council of the University of Pretoria (UP). She has also chaired the South African Council of Churches (SACC) Women’s Working Group and was one of the original commissioners of the Electoral Commission (IEC) established in 1997. She is the Director at Gender Links and was involved at the Centre for Scientific Development at the Human Sciences Research Council where she concentrated on research into women’s involvement in higher education and gender equity. Furthermore, she is a published author.
In 2002, Mpumlwana and her husband wrote the introduction of that year’s edition of I Write What I Like. She continues to be a powerful voice fighting for the empowerment of women, children, and Black South Africans.