Writing as Activism: A History of Black South African Women’s Writing
Black South African women’s literary production should be understood within the wider political context which, in the period reviewed in this articleThis article was first published as Chapter 1 of Barbara Boswell’s book And Wrote My Story Anyway Black South African Women’s Novels as Feminism (WUP, 2020). It is published in herri with kind permission of the author and the publisher, Corina van der Spoel at Wits University Press. , was dominated by apartheid. Though colonial South Africa was always racially segregated and marked, as with other colonial societies, by the exploitation of colonised bodies and the decimation of indigenous cultures and history, apartheid ideology became legally entrenched when the white Afrikaner National Party ascended to power in 1948. This article surveys South Africa’s history during the twentieth century in relation to black women’s literary production, focusing on the ways in which the apartheid doctrine and its policy of racial segregation affected black women’s lives, both politically and as producers of writing. This history is structured in three broad sections: the segregation era, before formal apartheid (1910–1948); the apartheid era (1948–1990); and the post-apartheid era. For each historical period, I survey the laws and conditions that structured black South Africans’ lives; document women’s resistance to forms of injustice and oppression; and survey the types of literatures black women produced as a result of, and in reaction to, the prevailing political conditions.
While male critics and writers such as James Matthews, Njabulo Ndebele, Michael Chapman and Richard Rive, among others, have created taxonomies of black literary output during apartheid – the Drum School of writing of the 1950s, the protest literature of the late 1950s and 1960s, and Black Consciousness writing of the 1970s and 1980s, others have taken issue with the reductive nature of the concept of ‘protest literature’. Writing in 1991, at the beginning of the transition to democracy, Mbulelo Mzamane asserted the following:
Now more than ever, it has become reductionist to categorise all African literature as protest. Protest literature is writing by the racially oppressed addressed to readers of the ruling class in an attempt to solicit their sympathy and support against discrim- inatory laws and practices … Protest springs from a feeling of being a ward: it is the activity of apprentices, and it is the action of subordinates who see themselves as such. It is both solicitous and moderate. (In Narismulu 1998, 197)
I follow Mzamane by refusing to neatly situate early black women’s writing within the ‘protest’ category, since the multivalence of their work addresses multiple aspects of black life. In any case, black women writers defy easy categorisation within these androcentric schemas.
Women were largely excluded from publishing in Drum magazine, one of the primary publication vehicles for black journalists and creative writers during the 1950s. Furthermore, black women’s writing straddles the classificatory divide between protest literature – critiqued by Ndebele (1986) as overdetermined by the spectacle of apartheid – and the more nuanced interpretations of black life and interiority characteristic of Black Consciousness writing. Consequently, this article declines to rigidly compartmentalise black women’s writing within certain literary and political periods. Instead, I aim to offer a chronological account of black women’s literary output as informed and shaped by the broad political events of their times.
Black women’s writing during the segregation era: 1910–1948
Although legally implemented during the 1940s and the 1950s, apartheid’s genesis was a series of segregationist laws enacted earlier under British colonial rule. These laws include the South Africa Act passed by the British House of Commons in 1909, which in 1910 established the Union of South Africa. This Union was predicated upon the exclusion of black South Africans from citizenship, as the law which established it removed the limited parliamentary rights that a small section of the black population had held prior to its enactment. White political power was further buttressed by the Natives Land Act of 1913, which made it illegal for Africans to buy or lease land anywhere in South Africa, or live anywhere outside of specially designated reserves. The Act effectively secured over 80 percent of South African land for whites, who made up less than 20 percent of the population.
The African National Congress (ANC) became the primary extra-parliamentary opposition to these segregationist policies. Formed as an anti-colonial organisation in 1912 (then known as the African Native National Congress) in direct reaction to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the ANC was aimed chiefly at securing political and land rights for Africans who were disenfranchised, and would soon be systematically removed from their land.
During this period a number of male African intellectuals rose to prominence as writers. Sol T Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa, published in 1916, illuminated the devastation wrought by the Natives Land Act. Plaatje later published Mhudi (1930), an epic love story set against the historical backdrop of the war between the Ndebele and Baralong in the early nineteenth century. Written between 1917 and 1920 according to Laura Chrisman (1997), Mhudi was the first novel to be published by a black South African in English, though this would only occur in 1930. A year later, Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka, a translation of the original Sesotho version of 1909, was published. Other prominent black male writers during the earlier half of the twentieth century include SEK Mqayi, JJR Jolobe, HIE Dhlomo, RRR Dhlomo, BW Vilakazi and AC Jordan, who formed part of an educated literary elite closely aligned with the then African Native National Congress (Chapman 1996). These writers were important precursors of, and influences upon, black women writers during the latter half of the century.
Though there was a dearth of published writing by black women during the pre-apartheid era, a number of black women’s works written during this time have been excavated and re-recorded for posterity, thanks to the publication of the anthology Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region (Daymond et al. 2003). In an attempt to retrieve the often subsumed voices of South African women writers, the editors of the anthology gathered various oral and written forms of expression, such as political speeches, petitions, essays, court depositions, as well as oral and published poetry and storytelling. The editors point out that black women who expressed themselves in the public domain, whether in writing or speech, were generally able to do so through their membership of a relatively elite group who had gained literacy through colonial education.
The history of black South African women’s literacy and education is not only complex but also contested. Christian missionaries were the first to offer black women limited access to formal education, steeping them in ideologies of domesticity and femininity, models of womanhood that were often unattainable to these women because of their race (Daymond et al. 2003, 25). Megan Healy-Clancy (2014), in her history of Inanda Seminary, a mission school for African girls, shows how the school was founded by missionaries to provide suitable wives for mission-educated African men – wives who would be good domestic companions as well as mothers. Employment opportunities for these women were, in the late 1800s, confined to teaching or domestic work. An example of the gendered ideologies produced by mission schools is provided in Phyllis Ntantala’s autobiography, A Life’s Mosaic (1993): having grown up to be an intellectual, Ntantala (1993, 30) describes the colonial education she received as a young girl in the 1920s at a school at Colosa in the Eastern Cape as ‘brainwashing’.
Mission education accounts, in part, for what is considered the first publication of a black woman’s writing in South Africa: Adelaide Dube’s poem, ‘Africa My Native Land’, in the Zulu language newspaper, Ilanga Lase Natal (Daymond et al. 2003, 161). Published in 1913, the year of the Natives Land Act, the poem laments Africans’ loss of access to their ancestral land.
In print, the earliest body of poetry by a black woman is the work of Nontsizi Mgqwetho, a migrant from the Eastern Cape to Johannesburg, who, from 1920 to 1929, produced a substantial corpus of poetry in isiXhosa in the Johannesburg-based newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu. Her poems were overtly political, commenting on politics within the African Native National Congress, and containing appeals for black solidarity in the face of white oppression (Daymond et al. 2003, 176). Translations of her Umteteli poems, collected by Jeff Opland and published in 2007 as The Nation’s Bounty: The Xhosa Poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho, marked a radical departure from the oral modes of black women’s composition and expression of poetry.
Black women also published novels and novellas in isiXhosa during the early twentieth century. The earliest of these were Lillith Kakaza’s Intyantyambo Yomzi (1913) and UThandiwe wakwaGcaleka (1914); the latter is the first known novel written by a woman in isiXhosa. Another such work is Victoria Swartbooi’s novella, UMandisa, published in 1934, which emphasises the importance of ubuntu through the coming-of-age story of Mandisa, the protagonist (Daymond et al. 2003, 206). UMandisa has been hailed as a proto-feminist novel: Hoza (2012, 63), for example, reads it as a ‘self-consciously crafted feminist-oriented novel’, while for Daymond et al., it offers an alternative vision of Xhosa femininity – one that prizes education for women over marriage and immersion into patriarchal culture.
Black women’s political resistance during apartheid: 1948–1990
The introduction of formal, legislated apartheid by the National Party in 1948 significantly thwarted the development of a black literary tradition. After coming to power, the National Party government instituted a number of laws that entrenched white economic and political hegemony, disenfranchised all black South Africans, and legitimated the continued exploitation of black South African labour. White economic privilege and political power were entrenched through a series of segregationist laws enacted between 1948 and the early 1950s. The notion of white superiority was central to the ideology and workings of apartheid. The Bantu Education Act of 1953, for example, aimed, in tthe words of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, to
reform [education] so that Natives will be taught from childhood that equality with Europeans is not for them … Racial relations cannot improve if the wrong type of education is given to Natives. They cannot improve if the result of Native Education is the result of frustrated people who have expectations in life which circumstances in South Africa do not allow to be fulfilled.
In Wheeler 1961, 250
Other primary laws buttressing apartheid included the Population Registration Act of 1950, which required all South Africans to be classified into four broad racial groups: ‘Europeans, Asiatics, persons of mixed race or coloureds, and “natives” or “pure-blooded individuals of the Bantu race”’ (Bowker and Star 1999, 197). The Group Areas Act of 1950 determined where people were allowed to work and live, based on their racial classification. Another key law upholding apartheid was the 1951 Bantu Authorities Act, which created separate homelands or reserves where Africans were forced to live, and dispossessed them of land outside these areas. The 1950 Suppression of Communism Act outlawed the Communist Party of South Africa and gave the government the authority to ban publications supportive of communism. This law became one of the key mechanisms for suppressing information and banning literary and other writing opposed to apartheid, which was automatically classified as supportive of communism.
Black women felt apartheid’s devastation in uniquely gendered ways. In 1952, the government passed what were arguably the two most detrimental pieces of legislation to African women. Commonly known as the ‘pass laws’, the first was the Native Laws Amendment Act, which made it illegal for any African person to be in an urban area for more than 72 hours (‘Effects of Apartheid’, 1980) unless they had legal permission, had previously lived there continuously for more than fifteen years, and had worked for one employer for more than ten years. This law was specifically aimed at bolstering the existing ‘influx control’ policy, which set out to halt the urbanisation of African women by confining them to the rural reserves.
The second such law was the 1952 Natives Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act (The Role of Women in the Struggle, 1980). Until this point, South African law required all African men over the age of 16 to carry passes, which legally enabled them to work and move around in urban areas. Contrary to what its name – Abolition of Passes – suggests, the law’s intention was to extend control by issuing reference books containing personal details. It eventually extended the compulsory carrying of passes to African women in 1956. Until this law was passed, African women had been exempt from carrying passes in urban areas. The Union government had once before, in 1913 in the Orange Free State province, tried to impose passes on women, but was met with fierce resistance and was forced to shelve the plan.
The extension of these pass laws to women meant the destruction of African family life, since African men who were needed as cheap labour in the cities now had to leave their families behind in the reserves. The 1952 Act meant that African women could not join or live with their husbands in urban areas. Women were confined to the rural reserves designated ‘homelands’ by the government. There, the apartheid state expected them to survive aas subsistence farmers, care for the elderly and their children, and produce future labourers.
The African National Congress and aligned organisations vehemently resisted all such legislated segregation. In 1952, the ANC and the South African Indian Council initiated the Defiance Campaign in reaction to the amended pass laws and other discriminatory legislation. Politically active black women responded in a gendered way to these apartheid mechanisms and the oppressive structures they produced. Politicised by the two pass law amendments and their implications, black women became increasingly involved in the ANC Women’s League formed in 1943 to involve women more formally in Congress activities. In response to the threat of the extension of the pass laws to African women, women of all races came together in 1954 and founded the Federation of South African Women (FSAW), South Africa’s first autonomous national women’s organisation.
Chaired at its inception by Ida Mntwana, the federation authored the Women’s Charter, whose stated aim was ‘striving for the removal of all laws, regulations conventions and customs that discriminate against us as women, and that deprive us in any way of our inherent right to the advantages, responsibilities and opportunities that society offers to any one section of the population’ (FSAW 1954). In 1956, FSAW initiated the largest women’s protest against the extension of the pass laws to African women. On 9 August 1956, 20 000 women of all races from around the country marched to the apartheid government’s seat of power, the Union Buildings in the capital city, Pretoria. The women’s petition not only opposed the extension of passes to women, but demanded the repeal of all pass laws, including those circumscribing the movements of African men.
In addition to this massive protest, FSAW also initiated key campaigns such as the sustained protest against compulsory passes for African women; bus boycotts, which were successful in lowering transportation costs for workers; and protests against sub-standard housing for black South Africans. With a membership of approximately 230 000, FSAW mobilised women nation ally for key demonstrations and campaigns, and placed women’s demands for adequate housing, just labour laws, access to education, and the abolition of the pass system within the framework of the struggle for black political rights. Despite FSAW’s resistance and political action, the South African government continued tto issue passes to African women. Given the dire consequences for women if they were found without passes – imprisonment and deportation back to their designated homelands – many had no choice but to acquiesce to the pass laws. However, despite wide- spread resistance, 75 per cent of all adult African women had, by 1960, been forced to carry passes.Schmidt 1983
The year 1960 signalled a radical change in the way apartheid was administered, and how anti-apartheid activists responded to the state. While the government regularly imprisoned or banned its most vocal critics, until that year, organisations such as the ANC, FSAW and the ANC Women’s League had been tolerated and allowed to operate as civil society organisations. But on 21 March 1960, apartheid police opened fire on a group of township activists peace fully protesting the pass laws in Sharpeville, killing 69 protestors, including 40 women and 8 children. About 80 per cent of those killed or injured were shot in the back (‘Effects of Apartheid’ 1980). Sharpeville marked a change in the nature of the government’s response to anti-apartheid protesters. The ANC, the main liberation movement, was banned, and many of its leaders arrested under the first State of Emergency declared by the government Most of the leaders of FSAW, who were members of the ANC, were also banned, prohibiting them from appearing in public places, addressing groups of people or organising any political activities. Though FSAW itself was never banned, the imprisonment and banning of key leaders meant it could no longer function effectively. The only autonomous national movement for women thus stopped all political activity.
With no political base from which to organise, activist women continued to work within the ANC for social and political change. Given that the ANC had been driven underground, most women within the movement worked covertly, or joined the ANC outside the country during the 1960s and 1970s. While in exile, the ANC Women’s League disbanded, and was replaced by the ANC’s Women’s Section, which had its headquarters in Lusaka and was politically headed by the Women’s Secretariat (Hassim 2004). The role of the Women’s Section in exile during this period was deemed mostly supportive, and ‘functioned as a network of solidarity rather than as a mobilising agency’.Hassim 2004, 435
From these precarious positions, activist women continued to demand a more just and inclusive society for South African women and men, even though these demands could not legally be voiced as public protest within South Africa. As apartheid became increasingly repressive during the 1960s and 1970s, conditions worsened, particularly for black women, who strategically adapted their resistance. On 16 June 1976, apartheid police again lashed out, this time at children protesting the introduction of Afrikaans as the compulsory language of instruction in schools. At least four children, including thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson, were killed by police bullets, unleashing student riots across the country. In the ensuing violence, police killed over 1 000 black people – many of them children of school-going age. In the aftermath of the uprising, the South African police stepped up efforts to repress children’s activism, since the youth were becoming increasingly militant in their demands for a free South Africa.
Apartheid’s blatant brutality against children led a number of young black South African women to leave the country and join Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s military wing, which was engaged in guerrilla warfare against the state. Young women who had witnessed the events of the 1976 uprising, or who were sub-sequently detained and tortured by police, led the influx into the armed wing of the ANC. Makhosazana Njobe reported to exiled ANC women that the 1976 massacres had led to a reinvigoration of the struggle against apartheid, and that young women especially were eager to participate as soldiers in the fight against apartheid. Njobe (1978) warned the apartheid government that ‘the 1956 babies [present at the pass law protest] are now 22 years and older. When next the women come to the Union Buildings, [it] shall not witness music by our women but sounds from the barrel of a gun’. Despite the militant rhetoric circulating among exiles, inside South Africa activists were severely curtailed in their responses to the 1976 violence. Another round of arrests and bannings followed the uprising, and among those arrested and detained in the after math of the 1976 killings were ANC leader Winnie Mandela; sociologist and anti-apartheid activist Fatima Meer; Joyce Seroke of the South African Young Women’s Christian Association; Sally Motlana, vice-president of the South African Council of Churches; and Mamphela Ramphele, a medical doctor working with rural women. Many of these women were also banned upon their release from prison.Njobe 1978
The 1976 violence increased black women’s militancy and resolve to end apartheid. But with virtually all political organisations banned, and with many prominent leaders of the women’s movement either in prison or banned, most black women found it difficult to organise themselves and work collectively against apartheid. The methods employed by the apartheid state during the 1970s and 1980s determined to a large extent the type of resistance women could offer. During the latter part of the 1970s and the early half of the 1980s, increased apartheid repression meant that large, mass-based protests such as those organised by FSAW in the 1950s were rarely seen.
Black women’s literary output during apartheid
The implementation of formal apartheid, including the oppression and brutalisation of black citizens, severely curtailed the development of a black literary tradition. As playwright, novelist and critic Richard Rive observed (1982, 14), the Suppression of Communism Act rendered South African writing in English ‘virtually … White by law’. As many as 146 black writers living abroad were banned in 1966 under the Suppression of Communism Act.Chapman 1996, 243
Coupled with the Suppression of Communism Act and the 1953 Bantu Education Act, a third law curtailed the intellectual development of black South Africans: the Extension of University Education Act of 1959. This law prohibited black people from attending universities designated white, making it illegal for them to register at a previously open institution without the permission of the Minister of Internal Affairs. It proposed and eventually inaugurated separate tertiary institutions for different ethnic groups, effectively excluding the majority of the populace from tertiary education. The Act effectively excluded all but the elite from tertiary education, as educationist John Wheeler (1961, 248) graphically demonstrates:
At the end of 1960, approximately 30 000 European students were attending the Universities of Stellenbosch, Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Rhodes, Natal, Potchefstroom, Orange Free State, Pretoria, and South Africa. In contrast, approximately 600 African, Coloured, and Indian students were attending Fort Hare University College … At least 100 Africans, Coloureds, and Indians are permitted to take correspondence courses from the University of South Africa.
With the majority of black South Africans excluded from tertiary education and, consequently, the opportunity to publish, literary production was, for the majority, a domain almost impossible to access. Collectively, the Bantu Education Act, the Suppression of Communism Act, and the Extension of University Education Act account for the fact that, by the end of the 1980s, only six novels had been published by black South African women.
The 1960s and 1970s
Despite these extreme restrictions, black women wrote their stories anyway, choosing writing as one form of resistance to apartheid. Autobiography predates full-length works of fiction published in English. Noni Jabavu, born in 1919, became the first black South African woman to publish book-length works in English in London. Drawn in Colour: African Contrasts (1960), an autobiography, was reprinted five times within its first year of publication, and was republished in the USA in 1961, as well as being translated into Italian (Xaba 2009). A follow-up autobiography, The Ochre People: Scenes from a South African Life, was published in 1963, the success of which ‘put Noni way ahead of other women in the country of her birth’.Xaba 2009, 218
For feminist critic Athambile Masola, Jabavu’s work remains relevant to contemporary South Africa, especially to the lived experience and representation of black women. Masola (2017) argues that Jabavu is an important literary figure not merely because she was the ‘first’: ‘her work is relevant because it continues to ask difficult questions about what it means to be human beyond the limitations and impositions of identity’.
In the realm of imaginative writing, ‘Black women … [were] latecomers relative to black men as well as white writers’ (Hunter 1994, 113). Bessie Head was the first black South African woman to publish a full-length novel in English, but significantly did so as an exile in Botswana. When Rain Clouds Gather appeared in 1968, followed by Maru in 1971, and A Question of Power in 1973. Head’s subsequent works, which are all collections of short stories and essays, include The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977); Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981); A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (1984); and The Cardinals, With Meditations and Short Stories (1993). Tellingly, Head was able to produce these novels only once she had left South Africa in 1964 on an exit permit which would permanently prohibit her return to the country of her birth. Head (1990, 61–62) described the effect of apartheid on her creativity as stultifying:
Twenty-seven years of my life was lived in South Africa but I have been unable to record this experience in any direct way, as a writer. A very disturbing problem is that we find ourselves born into a situation where people are separated into sharp racial groups. All the people tend to think only in the groups in which they are and one is irked by the artificial barriers. It is as though with all those divisions and signs, you end up with no people at all. The environment completely defeated me as a writer.
Head’s description of her psychic space elucidates the extent to which black subjects, and black women in particular, were excluded not only from the spheres of citizenship and education, but also from the arena of literary creativity.
Head’s work defies classification within black South African literary taxonomies. Richard Rive (1982) has delineated three major trends in black South African writing: 1) Early literature, produced between 1928 and 1942; 2) Protest literature, 1942 to 1970; and 3) Black Consciousness writing, 1976 to 1982. Early literature, produced by authors like Sol Plaatje and RRR Dhlomo, was produced during and before World War II, and consisted of writing that Rive (1982, 12) characterises as ‘imitative of writing by Whites and tend[ing] to be stilted and banal. The chief motive behind its creation seemed to have been to impress on a patronising White readership the measure of sophistication achieved by the Black author.’ The genre of choice for this period was the novel, with no short stories and very few critical essays produced. Literary production by black South Africans during this period was exclusively the province of men.
Protest literature, according to Rive, can be divided into two schools: the Drum School, which features black writing produced between 1942 and 1970, and the Soweto School of writing produced between 1971 and 1976. Writers from the Drum School were strongly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, especially by writers such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Rive (1982, 12) contended that the Drum School was ‘defined loosely as writing by blacks describing their situation to Whites whom they felt had the power to effect change. Such an approach was essentially a negative one, a literature about victimization, but, unlike Liberal literature, written by the victim himself.’
Though Head was a contemporary of many of the Drum writers, and wrote for its subsidiary, The Golden City Post (MacKenzie 1990), she cannot be categorised as part of the Drum School of protest writing. In her earlier writing, Head differed in her choice of genre, the novel – a sign of the relative security and creative freedom she enjoyed outside of the borders of the apartheid state. In contrast, the genre of choice for most of the Drum School was the short story, which, says Rive (1982, 12), was easier to write ‘by comparison with the novel which requires a much longer period and a more temperate political climate’. Protest writing was aimed at expounding the conditions of black life under apartheid and drawing attention to the indignities and hardship suffered by the oppressed majority. Head’s work, by comparison, seems almost apolitical and was labelled as such by her contemporaries writing from within South Africa during this period of increased state repression. Her literary output, as characterised by her three novels, When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru and A Question of Power, paradoxically places the ‘ordinary’ – friendships, love triangles, communal cooperation, people’s relationships with their neighbours and to the land – in the service of larger, universal themes; among these are the irrationality of racism, the dichotomy between good and evil, and the human being’s relation to God, themes that transcend the narrow focus characteristic of South African protest writing.
Head’s writing also broke with the masculinist ‘Jim-comes- to-Jo’burg’ tradition which was a feature of earlier black novels (Rive 1982, 13). This tradition, popularised by novelists like Peter Abrahams and AS Mopeli-Paulus, may be described as the black bildungsroman, where a boy from the country moves to a city (usually Johannesburg) and becomes a man, within the constraints of apartheid segregation. Head’s writing transcends both the gendered and urban biases that had previously defined much black South African writing. Her novels unselfconsciously draw the focus away from the southern African city, which is spatially gendered male in black protest writing. All of her novels are set in small rural villages in Botswana, and emphasise the land, people’s dependence on it and their relations to it. While Head’s earlier novels – When Rain Clouds Gather and Maru – seem to privilege male experience, her female characters Margaret and Dikeledi in Maru, and especially Elizabeth in A Question of Power, carve out a discursive space for black southern African women where none had previously existed.
Women writers’ narrativisation of black dispossession within South Africa continued with Miriam Tlali’s publication of Muriel at Metropolitan in 1975. This was the first novel published in English by a black woman within the borders of the country and was quickly banned ‘on the grounds of language derogatory to Afrikaners’ (Between Two Worlds 2004, dust jacket). The novel is aimed largely at elucidating the labour conditions of black South Africans and crystallises the racist attitudes, demonstrated as the norm for this period, apparent in most white South Africans. In both tone and content – the detailed dissection of apartheid – the novel seems aimed at a white South African and international audience, though Tlali later noted that her ‘prime responsibility’ was ‘the raising of the level of consciousness of blacks … I must go deeper into them, their feelings, try to make them understand their hopes, desires and aspirations as a people’ (Rolfes 1981, 63). The novel is path-breaking not only because it was the first to be published by a black woman in South Africa – it was also the first South African novel to locate its point of view from within the subjectivity of a black woman.
Black poet Gladys Thomas is another writer who gained prominence during the 1970s. One of her most significant works is the collection of poetry, Cry Rage!, which was jointly published with James Matthews in 1972. Thomas’s poem, ‘Fall Tomorrow’, condemns the apartheid government’s Group Areas Act of 1950, legislation that resulted in the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of ‘non-white’ South Africans from suburbs that were now reserved as white residential areas. Focusing on the ensuing chaos wrought upon family structures and the destruction of communities, Thomas notes the dehumanisation implicit in such apartheid laws:
Let our sons dazed in eye rape and stealIn Daymond et al. 2003, 335
for they are not allowed to feel. Let
our men drink,
let them fight,
let what is said about them then be right,
for they are not allowed to think.
The poem, which predicts the fall of apartheid, is one of Thomas’ best-known works: ‘You that remade us/ your mould will break/ and tomorrow you are going to fall!’ (in Daymond et al. 2003, 335) It also poignantly foreshadows the criminality and, particularly, the sexual violence that would become part of the post-apartheid social fabric, and that can be attributed to the brutalising and dehumanising effect on black subjects of the apartheid policy. Cry Rage! was immediately banned upon publication, thus becoming the first anthology of poetry to be censored. Thomas would go on to become a significant voice against the apartheid regime, with her 1987 play Avalon Court: Vignettes in the Life of the ‘Coloured’ People on the Cape Flats of Cape Town becoming a major indictment of the Group Areas Act.
Black protest theatre became another avenue where black women could present their writing to a larger audience during the 1970s and 1980s. Fatima Dike wrote and staged two plays during the late 1970s: The Sacrifice of Kreli, performed at the Space Theatre in Cape Town in 1976, and The First South African, staged at the Space Theatre in 1977 and published by Ravan Press in 1979. Dike started writing plays after witnessing the aftermath of a particularly brutal child rape and murder in Guguletu in 1975; as she recalls: ‘I had something to say to my people for that’ (Gray 1980, 157). After working at the Space Theatre as a stage manager for a year, Dike started writing plays in 1976, and soon thereafter produced The Sacrifice of Kreli. Based on events surrounding the ninth frontier war between the British and the Gcaleka people in the eastern Cape towards the end of the nineteenth century, The Sacrifice of Kreli centres on the political drama surrounding the exiled king of the Gcaleka, Kreli, who died in 1902. Dike was motivated to write the play in order to restore a sense of pride in black history:
[W]hat made me write this play is that one day I woke up and realised that there were eighteen million black people in this country who had no past, because whatever past we had as a nation was oral history – it was not written down; and it was wiped out by the written history which the white people in South Africa had written against what we had to say. And when I discovered this I realized that here was a part of my history, my past. From then onwards I felt if I had a past, a present, I could also have a future. (In Gray 1980, 159)
Dike was able to stage the elaborate play with the help of a patron who spent around R15 000 (a substantial sum at the time) on the production. From there, she soon went on to write and stage The First South African at the Space Theatre. Pointing to the absurdity of apartheid race classification, the play dramatised the true story of a man born to a black mother and a white father, who looked like a white man, but lived in a township, Langa, and spoke isiXhosa. In an interview, Dike indicated that, although she had experienced many hardships as a black woman, she would never exchange the hardships of her life for the luxury and finery to which whites had access. She went on to conceptualise the liberatory nature of a black South African woman who dares to create through writing, even under the most oppressive of conditions: ‘I do not feel in any way that I am deprived of anything, because I’ve freed myself from that. Because, you know, I have my writing – I can do anything with my writing. Nobody can ever take my writing away from me; I’ve got that’ (in Gray 1980, 163).
The 1970s also saw the publication of one of the first autobiographies by a black woman in English, Joyce Sikakane’s A Window on Soweto (1977), published by the International Defence and Aid Fund in London. The narrative describes life in Soweto from a detached point of view, without immediately using the first-person ‘I’ to enrich description. Sikakane describes a general day-in-the-life of a Soweto resident, and only later touches on her own family history and her exile. Carole Boyce Davies, writing on black women’s autobiography transnationally, reads this mode of narration as constructing a ‘self synonymous with political struggle’ (Davies 1991, 279), thereby decentering the individuality of the woman telling the story and focusing on larger political explication.
This decade saw the publication of six book-length works of fiction by black women writers: Miriam Tlali’s Amandla (1980); Lauretta Ngcobo’s Cross of Gold (1981); Farida Karodia’s Daughters of the Twilight (1986) and Coming Home and Other Stories (1988); Zoë Wicomb’s short story collection, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town (1987); and Agnes Sam’s Jesus is Indian and Other Stories (1989). Diane Case’s young adult novel, Love, David (1986), also appeared. This paucity of writing caused Ngcobo (1989, ix) to note in her introduction to Tlali’s Soweto Stories: ‘A South African woman writer in the 1980s is a rare find.’ Ngcobo (1989, xv) saw Tlali as ‘part of an important band of [black] women’ brave enough to hold and express an opinion: ‘She dared not only to speak out against the South African system, but also against the dominance of male writing, which had attended black literature from the very beginning. She struck out bold and fearless.’
Tlali’s second novel, Amandla (1980), a graphic depiction of the Soweto uprising of 1976, was also banned. Amandla differed significantly from Tlali’s first novel in style, tone and pace. Where Muriel at Metropolitan tightly narrates the constricted, claustrophobic space of an apartheid furniture store to demonstrate the day-to-day workings and humiliations of apartheid, Amandla is at once an intimate, expansive and polyvocal rendering of the 1976 student uprising. Steeped in Black Consciousness ideology, Amandla follows the student leader, Pholoso, as he survives the police shootings of 16 June, goes underground to conscientise young people about disciplined militant opposition to apartheid, is arrested and tortured in prison, and eventually flees South Africa for Swaziland.
Much more militant in tone than her previous novel, Amandla employs a radically different style. Through the figure of Pholoso, Tlali shows how ‘the revolution is spearheaded by … the youth’ (134), and likens the struggle against apartheid to the biblical narrative of the Israelites’ persecution while enslaved in Egypt. Despite the centrality of Pholoso as heroic freedom fighter and saviour of the nation, the voices and experiences of other characters are clearly heard as they narrate the uprising and its aftermath. The most significant of these are women like Felleng, Pholoso’s girlfriend; his grandmother, Mumsy; and Nana, a beloved aunt. These women and their musings are often vehicles for illustrating the precariousness of black womanhood within the liberation struggle and Black Consciousness discourse, with Tlali demonstrating the difficulties black women encountered in negotiating the unique forms of racism and sexism generated by apartheid during the volatile 1970s.
In assessing Black Consciousness as an ideology and a movement that fostered black writing, Pumla Gqola (2001) has argued that, although BC was liberatory in intent, it problematically flattened out differences such as gender, class and sexual orientation within black subjectivity by asserting that racial oppression was the primary, if not only, form of oppression facing black South Africans. In Amandla, Tlali ably negotiates Black Consciousness ideology by producing a stringent critique of apartheid rooted in Black Consciousness, while simultaneously problematising the discourse by revealing the multivarious, gendered experiences of black women’s subjectivities during the 1976 uprising. That she bears testimony in this novel to domestic violence experienced by a black woman at the hands of her black husband within a community that remains very much united against the common enemy of apartheid, shows her commitment to refusing to allow women’s stories and experiences to be relegated to secondary status.
On account of the censorship, these two novels were more widely read abroad than in South Africa. Locally, both were unenthusiastically received by critics, with Nadine Gordimer decrying Tlali’s ‘analytical naivety’ (Lockett 1989, 277). Both black and white critics took issue with Tlali’s literary output: ‘Lionel Abrahams, for example, calls Muriel at Metropolitan “modest” and Peggy Crane speaks of “the simplicity of the telling”, while Marie Dyer complains of the “unpatterned” and “formless” quality of the novel’ (Lockett 1989, 278). Tlali’s response to these criticisms of especially Amandla is, however, unapologetic:
It is said that Amandla is not a novel but a statement. I wonder what a novel is. In my writings, I never try to copy somebody or adopt principles set down by scholars. I have read quite a lot of literature. I have always remarked that I’d like to present my stories with the Black audience in mind and I have never really intended to write for a white audience. I don’t think it’s important at this point. (In Seroke 1988, 307)
One year after the publication of Tlali’s Amandla, Lauretta Ngcobo published her first novel, Cross of Gold, in 1981. Like Head, Ngcobo was able to write and publish this novel and her next, And They Didn’t Die (1990), only once she had left South Africa. Her husband’s arrest and imprisonment for his political involvement led her into exile in Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia in the 1960s. She eventually settled in England, where both her novels were written. Ngcobo (1987, 134) had found herself creatively stifled and unable to produce literary work in a country which was ‘muzzled breathless’:
There was a relentless persecution of those writers and journalists who dared speak the truth. In their reports of the self-mutilating ghettoes, they exposed what the system was doing to destroy the lives of men and women. The government launched a witch- hunt against all so-called agitators – and there are no better agitators than those who wield the pen. Most of those writers and journalists were finally forced to leave the country and face exile. So was I.
Also published during the second half of the 1980s was Zoë Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town (1987). A collection of interrelated short stories that also functions as a kunstlerroman, it deals extensively with coloured identity under apartheid, interrogating issues such as class divisions between coloureds as well as gender relations and the differences generated by urban versus rural life experiences. The collection follows Frieda Shenton from girlhood through young adulthood, while tracing the development of her growing artistic and political consciousness. Where Frieda starts off politically naïve about the ways in which her life is circumscribed by apartheid, the collection ends with her as a politically conscientised young woman who becomes a writer, living in self-imposed exile from South Africa. Farida Karodia’s Daughters of the Twilight (1986), a coming-of-age novel, follows two Indian sisters, Meena and Yasmin, at the height of apartheid as they negotiate the system in their small rural town. Narrated by young Meena, the novel shows the inhumanity of apartheid laws, including the Group Areas Act, which sees the girls’ family forcibly evicted from their home and compelled to start over in a tiny settlement. The family has to negotiate South Africa’s racial classification system in order to secure Meena’s education by reclassifying her as coloured instead of Indian, as well as having to deal with the aftermath of Yasmin’s rape and impregnation by a wealthy white farmer’s son. This confluence of events – the family’s eviction and forced removal, the rape and the ensuing pregnancy – results in the disintegration of Meena’s family. Additionally, the novel deals with Indian and Muslim identity in South Africa, pointing to an often forgotten aspect of the country’s history: the indentured labour of Indians who relocated to South Africa to work, only to suffer appalling economic exploitation in the pre-apartheid, colonial capitalist system.
A second collection, Angus Sam’s Jesus is Indian and Other Stories, published in 1989, elucidates similar themes. In the title story, ‘Jesus is Indian’, Sam uses a similar first-person narrator, the sassy Angelina, who humorously and poignantly relates how she negotiates (South African) Indian culture while being pressured to assimilate into her Catholic School, run by foreign nuns where she is often punished for speaking and writing ‘Indian words’ (30). Sam’s introduction to the collection details the suppressed history of Indians in South Africa, one which Sam herself was relatively unaware of until the death of her grandfather. That event and the subsequent unearthing of a number of documents about indentured labour in South Africa spurred Sam to research her family’s history in South Africa, which she traced to the arrival of her great-grandfather in Durban in 1860, along with the first wave of migrants from India. Sam historicises indenture as part of the continuum of slavery, since this system of trading in human lives replaced the outlawed slave trade throughout the British empire.
Another important literary contribution by a black woman during the 1980s was Ellen Kuzwayo’s autobiography, Call Me Woman (1985), published to great acclaim, and awarded the CNA Literary Prize. Focusing on her experiences as a teacher, social worker, and anti-apartheid activist, Call Me Woman constitutes a major contribution to the struggle against apartheid, one that Kuzwayo (2001, 49) herself believed ‘intensified the awareness and immediate need for change in South Africa’. The autobiography also documents her struggles with an abusive husband, the eventual breakdown of her marriage, and the way in which apartheid warped her experience of motherhood. She explains that her youngest son was not allowed to live with her in Soweto because of apartheid’s influx control policy:
Think of it. A young child denied by the state his right to receive his mother’s tender loving care – care which would help him grow and mature into a worthy citizen of the community. Very many mothers and children in Soweto, for a variety of reasons and under different circumstances, have at one time or another come face to face with this problem. In trying to solve it, some of them have met with some success; but the majority have knocked their heads against a hard granite wall. (18–19)
In this autobiography Kuzwayo demonstrates the way in which African identity is conceptualised as communal by elucidating the conditions of black women as a group under apartheid. She achieves this by relating, in Part One of the book, the stories of women she has encountered as a social worker. Only in Part Two of the volume does she relate her personal story, thus grounding her individual experience of apartheid within the collective experiences of oppressed women.
Emma Mashinini’s Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life, published in 1989 by the Women’s Press in London, is another important contribution to the canon of black women’s writing. Like Kuzwayo’s, Mashinini’s autobiography offers a gendered labour perspective on African women’s lived experience in South Africa under apartheid. Winnie Mandela’s Part of My Soul Went With Him (1984) was also published during the turbulent 1980s. It is not, however, an autobiography in the conventional sense, as Mandela’s experience is mediated by editor Anne Benjamin, who records her story and also interprets it. Benjamin (Mandela 1984, 7) describes this process as follows:
The restrictions placed on her activities by the government and her daily involvement in the liberation movement make it difficult for Winnie Mandela to sit down and write a book … Winnie Mandela granted me the privilege of conducting lengthy tape-recorded interviews with her over a considerable period of time. She also entrusted me with letters from her husband in jail and other documents for selection, editing and publication.
Davies (1991, 274) theorises Mandela’s mode of narrativisation as paradigmatic of African women’s (early) autobiography: what is related is ‘a self linked to an identification with another; the self- and-husband paradigm. It is also linked to the community and – a third linkage – to revolutionary struggle’. For Davies, Sikakane’s 1977 text, as well as those of Winnie Mandela and Ellen Kuzwayo in the 1980s, represent a mode of narration where ‘the female self represents, in terms of narrative/textual space and time, only a small fraction of the entire text’ (Davies 1991, 279). It would take some thirty years for black South African women to start writing autobiography on a more prolific scale – works that more strongly centre their own subjectivities, though their lives remain linked to struggle and the political experience of, for example, exile.
Gcina Mhlophe is another powerful black woman’s voice that entered the literary scene during the 1980s. Today a world-renowned poet, playwright, director, actor and storyteller, Mhlophe took her first tentative steps as a writer at the age of 17 after hearing an imbongi for the first time. In Love Child (2002), a collection of her earlier writings, Mhlophe describes how the moment completely transformed her: she decided immediately to become a praise poet, even though she knew of no women imbongi on which to model herself. After writing her first poem, she read it out aloud to her self and decided: ‘I liked the sound of my own voice, and I liked hearing the poem’ (8). Whereas she had thought herself physically ugly and unlovable before, writing a poem and then hearing her own voice recite the words powerfully transformed her relationship with herself: ‘For the first time, I liked the texture of my hard curly hair and my face didn’t feel so ugly … My voice sounded like it was a special voice, made specially to recite poems with dignity
… That’s the day I fell in love with myself; every thing about me was just perfect’ (8). Here, Mhlophe attests to the liberatory and healing power of writing; how the practice of creativity and writing enabled her transformation from an ‘ugly’ woman condemned by apartheid to the lowest rung of humanity, to a self-loving subject producing works of beauty and dignity, uplifting both to herself and to those who would eventually hear them.
Mhlophe’s public debut took the form of a play, Have You Seen Zandile?, which was co-authored by Maralyn van Reenen and Thembi Mtshali, and performed at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1986. Written in English and isiXhosa, the play draws heavily on matrilineal oral traditions with its focus on the importance of story telling not only in creating intergenerational relationships, but also in constructing the self. Have You Seen Zandile? tells the story of a young girl’s relationship with a beloved paternal grandmother, and her kidnapping at the age of eight by her own mother. It draws on the life experience of Mhlophe, who herself was forcibly taken and separated from a beloved aunt during her childhood years. Both Dorothy Driver (1996) and Devarakshanam Govinden (2006) argue that, in focusing on the personal, everyday experiences of a child, Mhlophe’s play maps out a psychic space for creative imagining and dreaming, a realm altogether different from that of protest literature and its demands in the 1980s. Have You Seen Zandile? was, consequently, panned by critics who found it too ‘apolitical’ (Govinden 2006). Mhlophe weathers such criticism by countering: ‘If I can write about the masses, I can write about me. I’m one of the masses’ (Perkins 1998, 81), thereby insisting upon opening up the space to chart the subjectivity of black women outside of the political discourses of Black Consciousness and black nationalism.
It is telling that the central character, Zandile, writes letters in the sand for the birds to read to her grandmother. When her mother discovers the letters in the sand, she berates Zandile for being ‘full of dreams’ (Perkins 1998, 91), before promptly erasing them with her feet and urging Zandile to get on with the physically gruelling task of cutting grass. Yet Zandile insists on being a dreamer and writer, and like her creator, grows up to be an imbongi. Mhlophe has also published several short stories, including ‘My Dear Madam’ (Mutloase 1981), ‘Nokulunga’s Wedding’ (Brown et al. 1987), and ‘The Toilet’. The latter gestures painfully to the material conditions of black women’s literary production during the 1970s and 1980s and is perhaps the best-known of Mhlophe’s stories.
‘The Toilet’ was anthologised in Sometimes When it Rains: Writings by South African Women (1987), and published in London by Pandora. This volume was one of two published during the 1980s that highlighted the poetry and short fiction of black South African women. Even though Sometimes When it Rains contains work by white women writers such as Nadine Gordimer and Elsa Joubert, the volume showcases a number of creative works by – at the time – relatively unknown black writers such as Maud Motanyane, Gladys Thomas, Lizeka Mda and Fatima Meer. Also included in this collection is Miriam Tlali, who contributed a short story and an interview with Albertina Sisulu.
A second anthology devoted entirely to black women’s short stories appeared in 1989. One Never Knows: An Anthology of Black South African Women Writers in Exile (Mabuza 1989) features the work of Baleka Kgositsile, Ponkie Khazamula, Rebecca Matlou, Mavis Nhlapho, Susan Lamu, and, significantly, two short stories by Dulcie September, the ANC representative who was murdered in Paris in 1988. Both volumes were important avenues of publication in a climate of severe censorship that also targeted black women’s creative writing.
Literary organisations and black writing during apartheid
Writers’ organisations were critical in the production and publication of black literature during the 1970s and 1980s. Ndebele (1989) documents the proliferation of literary organisations – both multiracial and black – during this period, the most influential and longstanding being the Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw). Established in 1987 from the remnants of the Writers’ Forum founded two years earlier, Cosaw sought to ‘protect the interests of writers and artists against the interference of the State or censorship’ (Ndebele 1989, 413); though non-racial in membership, Cosaw was deeply grounded in the ideology of the Black Consciousness Movement. The organisation aligned itself with the goals of the United Democratic Front and the Congress of South African Trade Unions and pledged its ‘total creative resources to advance the struggle for the creation of a non-racial, united and democratic South Africa’ (Ndebele 1989, 416). An important vehicle for black writing as resistance to apartheid was the literary journal, Staffrider.
Founded by Cosaw in 1978, with Miriam Tlali one of its founder members, the journal aimed to ‘provide a forum for the literary and artistic work from the oppressed communities in South Africa’ (Oliphant and Vladislavic 1988, 1). Deeply invested in Black Consciousness ideology, the journal aimed to disseminate BC ideals through literature, and was named for black Johannesburg commuters who ‘rode staff’ illegally on overcrowded trains travelling from Soweto to downtown Johannesburg (Gqola 2001). However, (Gqola 2001, 146) contends that the literature published in Staffrider reproduced some of the sexism of Black Consciousness ideology: ‘Two tropes operate in the representation of women in Staffrider: supportive mothers … and sexually transgressive women who are inscribed consequently with the trope of rape by Staffrider narrators and writers’. Nevertheless, Staffrider published creative and journalistic writing by a number of black women, including Carol Mathiane, Alice Ntsongo, Dudezile Ndelu, Jumaimah Motuang and Susan Lamu. Miriam Tlali wrote a regular column, ‘Soweto Speaking’, and in 1979 the magazine introduced ‘Women Writers Speak’, a column providing contributors with a platform for articulating their commitment as black women writers (Gqola 2001). Yet these gestures were not enough to redress the journal’s male bias in terms of content matter and contributors. The 1989 ten-year anniversary edition containing the ‘finest’ work of Staffrider included no contributions by women, resulting in regular contributor Boitumelo Mofokeng’s (1989, 41) lament:
[I]t is a sad history, at least for me, because it suggests that women’s contribution in that period was a very small, almost non-existent one. But the truth is that women did write for Staffrider and almost all of them have been excluded from this anthology … The international world has been denied the opportunity of knowing and understanding the role of women writers, especially Black women writers, in South Africa.
Staffrider’s omission of women from its commemorative issue is representative of the larger exclusion of black women from the South African literary canon during the apartheid period. As Davies (1986, 31) has noted:
The writings of South African women writers have so far been relegated to the literary [critical] bushes. White male and female writers have for years maintained privilege in literature as they do in life: the literary establishment knows Athol Fugard and Alan Paton, for example, and has some degree of familiarity with Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing. Within the African literary tradition, South African male writers like Es’kia Mphahlele, Alex la Guma, Peter Abrahams and Dennis Brutus have visibility. Few have ever heard of Noni Jabavu, Lauretta Ngcobo or Miriam Tlali.
As with their exclusion from political life and citizenship rights, black women’s creative expression was severely restricted during the years of apartheid. Where black women did write and publish, their works remained unexamined, generally considered without artistic merit and unworthy of analysis, as the literary criticism of both white and black male critics demonstrates.
The end of legislated apartheid: 1990 and beyond
By the late 1980s, it had become apparent that the apartheid regime would no longer be able to cling to white minority governance and would have to capitulate to international and internal pressure to transfer political power to the majority. Spurred on by examples of other African postcolonial nations where women had been deployed in liberation struggles only to have their demands for gender equality deferred post-liberation, women aligned with the anti-apartheid struggle, had, by the early 1980s, started to strategically insert demands for gender equality within the ANC. Hassim (2004) has documented a number of interventions, staged by women activists in exile throughout the 1980s, placing gender equality firmly on the liberation movement’s agenda; this was in anticipation of a democratic South Africa, with the result that ‘[b]y the end of the decade, the ANC had come to accept that not only could the liberation of women not be separated from national liberation, but that it was an integral part of how liberation itself was defined’ (Hassim 2004, 433). This push to include women’s concerns for gender equality in the movement’s vision for a democratic South Africa culminated in the Malibongwe Conference, held in the Netherlands in 1990, as a means of placing gender concerns and the position of women on the agenda. Themed ‘Women United for a Unitary, Non-racial, Democratic South Africa’, the Malibongwe Conference for the first time brought together activist women within South Africa and those exiled by the apartheid regime. The aim of the gathering was overtly political: it sought to outline a position on women’s emancipation, so that women’s demands would not be forgotten once national liberation had been achieved.
At the conference, Frene Ginwala called for the inclusion of a gender equality clause in a new, post-apartheid constitution. In addition, she demanded that such a constitution should protect women from discriminatory customary law, and protect their reproductive rights (Hassim 2002). With prescience, the conference resolved, inter alia, to ‘ensure that the issue of women’s liberation receives priority on the agendas of the ANC and all progressive organisations and that there is an ongoing discussion about the relationship between national liberation, women’s liberation and working class victory in these formations’. The conference also noted that ‘there is an urgent need for united action towards the formation of a national women’s structure’, the creation of which would enable the women ‘to place firmly on the agenda of the National Liberation Movement, the Mass Democratic Movement and all our organisations, the process of integrating women’s emancipation into the national liberation struggle’ (Malibongwe Conference Programme of Action 1990).
Thus, if national liberation was a prerequisite for women’s emancipation, the women’s movement would make sure that the corollary would also hold true: that national liberation would not take place without the emancipation of women. The Malibongwe Conference paved the way, too, for the formation of the Women’s National Coalition in 1992.
Mere weeks after the conference, the National Party government unbanned the ANC and other prohibited political parties, released from prison key anti-apartheid activists, the most prominent being Nelson Mandela, and began the process of negotiating a peaceful transfer of power from the white minority to the majority of South Africans. South Africa, in 1990, was in a unique position: an oppressive political regime was being dismantled through a gradual process of negotiated settlement, and the liberation movement, branded ‘terrorists’ by the apartheid regime, became a legitimate political party, charged with negotiating the transition to democracy on behalf of the majority of disenfranchised black South Africans. The women’s movement had, by then, been decimated by the continued bannings and detentions of the 1980s. And, as Hassim (2002) has demonstrated, the unbanning of the ANC saw a variety of women’s organisations subsumed by the ANC Women’s League, which weakened the power of autono mous women’s organisations to insert their demands into the national discourse of transformation. Political parties, including the ANC, came to the negotiating table in 1992 at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) with not a single woman delegate present – provoking the outrage of women’s movements across the political spectrum, and causing the ANC Women’s League to threaten to mobilise women for a mass boycott of the first democratic election.
The political parties’ exclusion of women from the Codesa negotiating forum, as well as the resolution at the Malibongwe Conference to work towards a national women’s organisation that would foreground women’s emancipation, led women from all political parties to form the Women’s National Coalition (WNC) in 1992. The coalition resulted from a 1991 meeting of women across the political spectrum. The WNC was a pioneer: for the first time, women were not seeking to build an organisation affiliated with the anti-apartheid movement, but were organising explicitly around their gender, across political divides.
The coalition marked a key moment in the liberation movement’s history: black women within the movement, for the first time, broke ranks with African nationalist and aligned movements to form an alliance, based on gender, with women political opponents in parties such as the National Party. The WNC, strongly driven by the ANC Women’s League, was a direct signal to the liberation movement (and the incumbent government) that the issues of women’s emancipation and gender equality would not be ignored. With ‘the single purpose of drafting a Women’s Charter of Equality, which would gather the demands of individual women as well as women’s organizations’ (Hassim 2002, 700), the message from the women’s movement was unequivocal: women’s emancipation would no longer be pushed onto the back burner in the interests of national liberation.
The WNC, at its inception, gave itself a life span of one year, from April 1992 to April 1993. Its strategy, according to Hassim (2005), was to seize the opportunities for inclusivity made available by the national negotiation process – a strategy which proved highly successful once the WNC was allowed to participate in the Codesa negotiations. Having secured many political and legal gains for women during South Africa’s transition to democracy, the WNC seized the opportunity, insisting that gender equality and women’s issues be inserted into the discourse of inclusivity arising from the transfer of political power. These gains include the entrenchment of the right to sexual equality within the Bill of Rights enshrined in South Africa’s new constitution. Another important political gain was the institutionalisation of a quota system, whereby political parties would only be allowed to contest an election if at least 30 per cent of their candidates were women. The WNC did not survive as a political force after the first democratic election in 1994. Racial and ideological tensions within the coalition were difficult to quell. The ANC Women’s League withdrew from the coalition almost immediately after the ANC was elected to govern, leaving the coalition without a sizeable, mass-based constituency. Key women leaders, having abandoned the WNC, fell back into the fold of the ANC, and were given leadership positions in the legislature, the cabinet, and the new state bureaucracy, leaving a vacuum of leadership within the already weakened women’s movements (Hassim 2005).
Another important gain of the WNC was, nevertheless, the creation of gender machinery within government. In 1993, the year before the general election, the WNC organised an international conference to strategise around mechanisms that would guarantee post-liberation equality for women. The result was an impressive gender machinery consisting of a number of institutions, implemented after 1994, and aimed at achieving gender equality within society. Chief among these were the Commission on Gender Equality; the Office on the Status of Women, located within the office of the South African president; the parliamentary Joint Monitoring Committee on the Improvement of Quality of Life and Status of Women; and the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus. These structures, however, became a double-edged sword, with women’s emancipation becoming part of ‘official’ government discourse, and the government claiming to be the only real authority when it came to effecting change in women’s lives (Goetz and Hassim 2003).
Gender analysts such as Gwendolyn Mikell (1995), Florence Wakoko and Linda Lobao (1996), Hassim (2002), and Goetz and Hassim (2003) suggest that periods of political flux and uncertainty, such as the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa, open up strategic space for women to insert gender-specific demands within the national framework. The examples of the Malibongwe Conference and the Women’s National Coalition bear out this assertion. The transition to democracy also opened up a new, strategic discursive space for black women and their writing. Whereas black women’s writing under apartheid focused largely on the injustices of apartheid and the political disavowal of black people, the end of apartheid signified the potential exploration of new literary terrain in which to grapple with topics not directly related to apartheid. And while the dominant national narrative prior to 1994 was the ideology of apartheid, a post-apartheid narrative arose of a unitary African nationalism, which was deployed to foster a united new South Africa and inaugurate the project of nation building. The ways in which black South African women writers fracture this dominant narrative, with many choosing to explore heretofore unexplored issues of minority ethnicity as well as black women’s subjectivity and sexuality, are explored in Chapters 4, 5 and 6 of And Wrote My Story Anyway.
|1.||↑||This article was first published as Chapter 1 of Barbara Boswell’s book And Wrote My Story Anyway Black South African Women’s Novels as Feminism (WUP, 2020). It is published in herri with kind permission of the author and the publisher, Corina van der Spoel at Wits University Press.|