The first time I learned about the resistance of women in history

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The ironies of being educated at a girls’ school for 12 years means that one has the ability of emerging from an empowering education where the world is mine for the taking but on the other hand, feeling the tension of being framed as “a young lady”. This is the phrase that was bandied about in my school when teachers wanted to get our attention, there were few teachers who never used this word and simply said “People, I’m talking!”. The power of the discourse in my school always left me in a space wondering what it is to be a lady especially coming from a home where being “intombi” (a girl) was foregrounded to maintain control.

Coming into first year, I arrived as a young lady, intombi, who had not questioned the full implications of these labels on my life. Even though women’s day has always been an event I am aware of, I was never moved by the stories of women who resisted apartheid. Somehow, these were always just stories used to make women feel good about themselves regardless of living in a world that is at odds with the reality of what it means to empower a woman.

The shift began in my third year. It was the first time I was taking isiXhosa as an academic course and we were learning about literature. I discovered a history of writers from the 19th Century, “African Intellectuals”, but they were all men. I was angry. There was something missing in the story, women’s voices were missing. Driven by anger I made a concerted effort to find out more about this time in history and slowly began to realise the force that has been conveniently silenced when people tell stories about the resistance movement in South Africa. I stumbled across Ellen Khuzwayo’s autobiography, Call me Woman, where I learned that once upon a time woman were classified as minors and could not even inherit property, let alone be deemed worthy of an education.  My education was expanded when I read of Nontsizi Mgqwetho who wrote provocative poetry and commentary in newspapers in Johannesburg in the 1920s. Her poetry was so powerful and her voice resonates with the living conditions we see today in South Africa. She dared to question established institutions such as patriarchy and religion that entrenched patriarchy and the words from one of her poems ring clear with me everyday, “asina’kuthula umhlaba ubolile” (we cannot keep quiet when the world is in shambles). Charlotte Maxeke was the first black female graduate in South Africa in 1901, a powerful force behind the women’s movement  Bantu Women’s League of the South African Native National Congress in 1918. I also discovered Lillian Ngoyi and her resolve that prayer was not enough to change the reality of apartheid South Africa. The stories of rural women in the Eastern cape, Herschel, moved me as I learned that it was rural women who were the stepping stone to much of the resistance that took place in South Africa in the 1920s, but this fact is conveniently silenced.

This had me thinking about the stories my mother told me about the history of the church women, Umanyano and how women would gather together in private places to pray for the return of their husbands and sons from the mines in Johannesburg and the movement still continues today in many churches, albeit it is fraught with many tensions about the sisterhood of women in these spaces.

It is significant that I only mention black women in my re-education on the role of women in the struggle. I am aware that the march in 1956 was a multiracial gathering, but this was always overshadowed by the education I received about the Suffragettes in England, Emily Pankhurst et al. By re-learning that black women in South Africa have never been silent has made me realise that those of us who are fighting for the empowerment of woman across the world, but specifically in South Africa, we are not starting on a clean slate but standing on the shoulders of giants. But the sad reality is that until one does the research on an individual capacity, this is not common knowledge in our classrooms and lectures and this is a problem. But I’m more convinced than ever that “Wathinta umfazi wathinta imbokodo”.

3 thoughts on “The first time I learned about the resistance of women in history

  1. That was so powerful. It gave me goosebumps and I am going to make sure that all my friends read this. I am also going to start researching the power of women in South Africa. I too went to an all girls school and I never questioned that I was a lady, I don’t think that it is a disempowering discourse, but I do believe that it can be limiting. However we all have the capacity to broaden the deffinitions that have been placed on us.


  2. I recommend Julia Wells’ WE NOW DEMAND!

    It details the precedents to the great 1956 march.

    Basically, this is a book about the struggles of Black and Coloured women against passes, poverty, and the restriction of Black women in South Africa.

    These women were having full on violent confrontations with the police, being arrested, beaten. I’m talking here around 1913, with a build up in the preceding years.

    Here is what my school textbook told me about that period:
    Union, The National Party is formed, The SANNC is formed, some boer general called Koos De La Rey does something rebellious against other white men, world war I begins

    Yet no one teaches us that around the same time Black women were angry and violently demading political and social change saying – i paraphrase- ‘we are tired of asking nicely, WE NOW DEMAND!’

    These women were inspired by the struggles of other women, such as the suffragettes and demanded the vote way way way before the male-Dominated ANC could even muster its so-called ‘radicalism’ of the 1950s.

    What bothered me about this history was that – I DIDN’T KNOW IT!

    thank god for books!

    And this is why we must do everything in our power to take back the public space and memory from the ultra masculinist and chauvinist African Nationalist paradigm that frames and suffuses all post-colonial politics.

    An excerpt from SA History.Org:

    “The first, in 1913, was in Bloemfontein and stands out not only because it was such an early outbreak of women’s resistance, but also because of what Julia Wells calls its ‘strength and militancy’ and because it was so ‘costly to the personal lives of participants’ (Wells 1993:3). It also set the tone for later anti-pass action by militant African women. The second episode, which will be mentioned later (because the material is presented chronologically) was in 1930 in Potchefstroom, a small white-dominated town where officials tried to bully the women to comply with the particular labour needs of the town.”


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