Stirring the pot on gender inequalities and outdated attitudes observed in the post-Sharpeville 1960 era, Lauretta Ngcobo’s eulogy at the late Joe Mkhwanazi’s funeral in January this year highlighted the role of women, their emancipation through the crucible of struggle and their potential to make positive contributions in the leadership of the African revolution. She said to complete the story, to connect the dots, the voice of the African woman needed to be heard.
She probably ruffled feathers, but she was correct. In the first stage of the Positive Action campaign, the PAC leadership asked women and children to stay at home as men left behind their passbooks and marched on police stations to be arrested for violating the apartheid and settler colonial laws. In the unfolding programme of mass action, there would be a role for women and children and for every sector of society – but these roles were not stated outright at the time. Some among us in the Pan Africanist school of thought assume this mishap to have been an endorsement of male chauvinism. Far from it, African women have inspired and pushed the struggle to greater heights. We are four square behind non-sexism.
African women are still placed at the bottom of the pile, assumed to be very inferior intellectually, treated as beasts of burden and fair game to be abused in unimaginable ways by reactionary traditionalists and damaged men. This syndrome has inverted itself such that women have internalised oppressive conditions and have taken to running households, raising children and looking after their men as their primary station in life. Modern African women are vain in their exaggerated desire to be pleasing and lookable, and they are ignorant of the workings of the beauty industry when they want to make themselves up in the image of white women.
Women, as the saying goes, can lift up half the sky. When they consciously participate in the mainstream of society, they grow to become the avatar of socialist democracy. Their freedom and expansion into greater social and economic roles holds immense potential to uplift communities, and build a formidable nation.
African womanhood is treated as a cornerstone of the liberation of the African nation. The authors of the Africanist manifesto make this point very clear. The Osagyefo, Kwame Nkrumah, said in order to ascertain the status of development of a nation one must assess the development/progress of women in that nation. Mangaliso Sobukwe refused to join the fray that treated wives in particular and women generally in contemptuous terms such as the ‘petticoat government’, and he is on record as having advised Steve Biko and his colleagues to refrain from taking liberties with women.
Talking of Lauretta Ngcobo, she is herself a formidable intellectual and a versatile author of works of fiction with novels and children’s stories like Cross of Gold (1981), And They Didn’t Die (1990) and a collection of interviews with South African women in exile, entitled Prodigal Daughters (2012). She went to Inanda Seminary – the girl’s high school – and Fort Hare University where she increasingly became a political activist and went on to form PAC underground cells in the rural areas of Kwa Zulu Natal before going into exile in 1962.
In her fiction, Miriam Tlali, author of Muriel at Metropolitan (1975) and Amandla (1981), has used her sister’s experience to depict the challenges of love and commitment and young people responding to the national call up to the serve the African people. Her sister was married to Peter Molotsi at a crucial time of the struggle, when Molotsi was personally assigned international duty to go abroad and mobilise support for the PAC ahead of the Positive Action campaign.
There are many other feminist patriots whose roles are less known but have equally made outstanding contributions in the national liberation struggle. Christine Qunta’s Women in Southern Africa (1986) is an Africanist version of women heroes from Manthatise of Batlokwa to Nzinga of Angola, in which she also profiles the role of Nomvo Booi in the Poqo Insurrection. There are many others like Maphiri Masekela and Boniswa Ngcukana, of a younger generation, whose tales are yet to be recorded and appreciated.
We should take a leaf from Joyce Nhongo (Mujuru), a battle-hardened guerrilla with ZANLA forces, who was in action on the ground, highly pregnant, fighting alongside her comrades, survived and lived to tell the tale. She is currently the deputy president of Zimbabwe. The popular media turns such heroes of the African liberation struggle into villains and power mongers, making monsters out of them. That Joyce Mujuru appears as a reticent and media-shy political leader is as a result of a bias against Robert Mugabe’s comrades and prejudice against African women heroes.
As we should all know by now, it is a milestone by itself if the tale of making history is told by the history makers themselves. It will be far much better if the story of women’s emancipation is told by African women themselves. In today’s terms, where are they?
By Jaki Seroke