women’s prominent role during the struggle against apartheid

Women – an often under-credited intrepid force. What was their role during apartheid? Only a few know, recognise and honour their role. The history of South Africa seems to be in imminent danger of major distortion if the women’s roles are not soon recognised, honoured and appreciated. People brazenly sharing how great a role men played during the struggle against unjust laws. Where were women in all of this?
It still proves maddeningly difficult to expose how significant their role was without being referred to as a “feminist”. With this growing emphasis on only a certain group of people, the country’s heritage will never be fully recognised. One must keep in mind that without the stories of the women, our history is incomplete. It should be emphasised that during apartheid, women filled a variety of roles and suffered the full range of human rights violations. The fact that women were a support system for their men and families meant that they also played a significant role in the struggle. A clear definition of what a woman was at that time needs to be given; emphasising that even raising children in the absence of a father, is in itself a contribution towards the struggle against unjust laws, because the men trusted women to handle the household while they were away. One should also note that the suffering of a woman has a ripple effect on whole families, and would subsequently spill over into whole communities.
Women are “celebrated” every August in South Africa, with the 9th of August being a National Women’s Day; however, only a few South Africans are aware of the reasons behind the celebration of that day. To most, it is another one of the many public holidays South Africa has. Take heed, when about 20 000 women (from the reserves, cities, towns, villages; women of different races; some with a baby on their backs) marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 to protest against the extension of pass laws to black women; it was not the first demonstration by women. In 1918 the Bantu Women’s League was formed as an outgrowth of the women’s anti-pass protests that began in the Free State in 1913. This organisation was led by Charlotte Maxeke, the first South African woman to receive a B.A. Degree. This proves that women had been politically active for many decades; even though they were only allowed membership into the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943.
For many years, black women were not allowed to own property in cities or town. This exacerbated poverty and pressured women to assume the role of the breadwinner, mother, father and a support system. Women in turn had to bear the brunt of taking responsibility for running the home and bringing up the children. While it is true that men experienced hardship under apartheid, women in addition, carried the economic burden that accompanied it.
With the increasing political awareness amongst black people during apartheid, women too became politically aware, active and vocal about the violations of their human rights. This in part meant that they were in conflict with the law and had to suffer the consequences. Women were then subject to physical abuses by police, opposition parties, in liberation camps during exile, etc. These physical abuses included among others, being hung through a window and threatened to be dropped, being strangled, being deprived off sleep and being bashed against the wall. Physical forms of torture were not the only forms of torture experienced by women; they would also suffer psychological forms of
torture, for example being told that a family member had died, being told that she wasn’t woman enough because instead of taking care of her family she was involved in politics. It is however not easy to distinguish between physical and psychological abuses; because the suffering of a child cannot be separated from a mother, so too is the mother’s suffering to the child.
A female on death-row was unheard of. Miss Theresa Ramashamola however related her story about being on death row. She was the only female amongst five men; they were known as the ‘Sharpeville six’. She related how hurt and humiliated she was to find herself in that position because she was constantly reminded that she was the only woman amongst men – “what kind of woman was I who was this unfortunate to be on death-row” she said.
Another aspect of abuse suffered by women was sexual assault. Women’s sexuality was used to undermine their identity and integrity. Women were raped, had foreign objects put in their vaginas and asked to strip naked, etc.
So many stories of women are left untold simply because these women feel their stories do not matter enough, or probably because they feel they had to go through that process in order for this country to be liberated. They need to know that their contributions are highly appreciated; that even though this was done in the name of the struggle, no human being should be raped in order for the country to be liberated. These women need to know that as much as there were a few of them in liberation camps in exile, this still left no justification for them being raped. These women need to know that these stories need to be told; people need to know what they went through; protecting their organisation from being discredited still says ”you deserved to be raped”.
South Africa is a wounded country and if the stories of the atrocities suffered during apartheid are not told, then this country will never have the slightest idea of how people suffered during the apartheid regime and at the hands of some members of the liberation movements, as well as the violence that occurred generally due to apartheid – a crime against humanity.
Mr Alan Lax – member of the Human Rights Violations Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa- said the following: “It’s become clearer by the day that our freedom was solely or fully dependent upon the women of this country and we wouldn’t have been here had you not gone through the hardships that you did. You have endured so much, and we would like to tell you that you have got courage and strength … probably we wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t done what you did”.
Young people are mostly not interested in the history of the country. “Leave history in the past, let’s move on” they say. The young population unaware of the sweat, the tears and the blood that had to be spilled in order for them to be able to attend any school of their choice, the ability to express themselves any way they want, freedom of speech, the privilege to live wherever they want, with no boundaries. Part of knowing our history ensures that we do not make the same mistakes twice. An emphasis of women’s role during apartheid to some may deem me a feminist; all is well, as long as credit is given where it is due, I’m a very happy feminist.
[Published on a Free State newspaper in August 2012]

Ntando PZ Mbatha


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