Charity? Is it really?

Image

It’s once or twice a year that you decide to look through your cupboard to take out those clothes you do not wear anymore. You give them to whoever is collecting them, and you are done – that’s your deed for charity. Do we even know whom they are for? What’s their story? Doesn’t donating money and sometimes just giving away clothes for “charity” to a nameless person; not take away our duty to humanity? If there was a better way known to me to phrase this sentence; I would have done so. Let me tell you about this family I visited today…

 

Here’s this grandmother; let’s call her Nkgono. She was born and bred in South Africa and then later married a man from Lesotho. She then moved there, but when he passed away, she moved back home in 2009. However, she could not move back to SA alone as she had grandchildren. Problem is, due to her poverty-stricken life; it proved difficult to bring her grandchildren to SA. One speaks of the grandchildren, you are probably wondering where their parents are; sadly they have all passed on leaving her with 11 grandchildren. She calls a 7-year-old boy and tells us that his mother passed away when he was only six months old. Because she is the only one with a South African ID, she cannot get the children registered for grants. When asked about passports, she mentioned how expensive they are; besides, not all the children have birth certificates. Without birth certificates, this means the children aren’t in school.

This brings me to the 18 years old girl who kept to herself the entire time we were there. Asked her if she finished school, she says shyly “No, I was last in Form C”. She doesn’t even look me in the eye. In my broken Sesotho I utter “In SA Form C is probably grade 10”. She is standing by the bed (the only one in the house), with her pregnant friend lying on it, answering all the questions like a family spokesperson. The bed, although with this heavily pregnant lady lying on it, is neatly made. Clothes are nicely packed in the wardrobe. The washing basin (Waskom) is put against the wall, everything seems in place in their two-roomed shack. Your eye quickly jumps back to the kitchen/sitting room with a very old sofa. When we entered, Nkgono pointed us to the sofa as she set on the floor. You notice a vegetable rack with dishes in it; a two plate stove on top of what seems like crates covered in a very clean cloth. Close to the door are 25 litre bottles that they use for water whenever the municipality decides to bring them water. There are no traces of food; the two small pots on the stove seem empty. I wonder whether they’ve had anything to eat today.

With tears welling up in her eyes, she keeps saying “ke a sokola. I’m all these children have and still need to fetch the five that are left in Lesotho. My health is also not good because I’m diabetic. Yesterday the 14-year-old who recently had a child called me crying because she couldn’t put the baby to sleep. She needs me to help her; but the children here also need me”. She says she would have left at the beginning of the week but because she heard that we were coming, she had to wait for us. I shamefully look away. She says in the end, she wants all her family here; they will have to live in this small shack but at least they will all be under her care and she wouldn’t have to frequent Lesotho like this. Such proves strenuous to her already small pocket. She also needs to always travel with the three-year old because she is the youngest and most vulnerable. Recently, two young twins have been raped in the area, she is very scared that while she is away, something terrible might happen to her grandchildren. She is in constant worry because she doesn’t know what will happen next.

The ladies I’m with keep assuring her that they will assist her. Thank God for them because with my broken Sesotho and what I witnessed, my tongue-tied. The ladies take her details, ID number, address, and contact details because one of their church would like to open a funeral policy for the family. However, this might prove difficult because of the lack of documentation on the part of the children; she promises to work around it.

Before we leave, I ask that we pray. We hold hands, the pregnant lady decides to remain on the bed; the 18-year-old comes closer and she holds my hand. I hold her trembling hand; we start praying. I notice that she wants to let go; this is probably becoming too emotional for her; I hold her tightly so that her hand doesn’t slip away – sort of assuring her that it will all be alright. I wanted to hug her when we were done but she quickly walked off to that spot next to the bed. I keep looking at the pictures we took, at least she’s smiling in one of them. We need to get this girl some help.

You do not know how much poverty people live in until you really go and see for yourself. I could swear that photographs we see in newspapers somehow tell a lie. I think even this post does not give enough justice to what I saw today. I know for certain that there are families like Nkgono’s out there, probably with even far worse circumstances and there is no way that a group of five women could make it all go away. But then we start somewhere.

As we drove off, there was a sombre mood in the car; everyone quiet, lost in their thoughts. I guess we were all just trying to process what we had just witnessed. I believe if you cannot express it with your mouth, put pen to paper. Drove off in our comfortable car; we will be going back to our comfortable homes to sleep in cosy beds; however, at least I know that today unlike yesterday, they will sleep with their stomachs full and with electricity to prepare that food. 

If you are reading this and can assist us or know of anyone who can; with anything; please let us know. These people need a home, the children need to go to school and Nkgono needs medical attention. Please help us help them.

Image

What women went through – DETENTION

Thenjiwe Mtintso once said: “I think overall, many a time when stories of the struggle against apartheid are being told, the stories of women’s struggle are forgotten. They are hidden. Even when they are told, they’re told as a postscript; incidentally there were women. But the essence of this history is a history of men. It is not her story, as other people would say; it is the story of the man.”

It is important to highlight that the struggle against apartheid and the country’s victory to finally overcome unjust laws was not through men or a particular organisation only; that is a pure distortion of history and it should be corrected sooner than later. Quite frankly, I would hate that my children grow up knowing that only one organisation fought against these discriminatory laws or with the misconception that women hold a secondary citizen status.

Mr. Alan Lax once said “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.”

Just as men, women were jailed, they were tortured, they were killed; they were held under solitary confinement, under house arrest, moreover, these women were sexually assaulted – to undermine their  identity and integrity.

Winnie Mandela in her book Part of my soul went with him described detention as  “midnight knock when all about you is quiet. It means those blinding torches shone simultaneously through every window of your house before the door is kicked open. It means the exclusive right the Security Branch have to read each and every letter in the house. It means paging through each and every book on your shelves, lifting carpets, looking under beds, lifting sleeping children from mattresses and looking under the sheets. It means tasting your sugar, your mealie-meal and every spice on your kitchen shelf, unpacking all your clothing and going through each pocket. Ultimately, it means your seizure at dawn, dragged away from little children screaming and clinging to your skirt, imploring the white man dragging Mummy away to leave her alone”.

Solitary confinement on the other hand was aimed at manipulating the detainees’ psyche, since they were locked up alone in a dark cell for weeks and at times, for months on end. The authorities knew that it is hard for a human being to survive on his or her own. Thus, this form of torture was aimed at tormenting the detainees mentally.

Ruth First, who was also detained without trial and held in solitary confinement said: “For the first 56 days of my detention in solitary I changed from a mainly vertical to a mainly horizontal creature. A black iron bedstead became my world. It was too cold to sit, so I lay extended on the bed, trying to measure the hours, the days and the weeks, yet pretending to myself that I was not”.  Albertina Sisulu on the other hand explained her experience in solitary confinement saying that “in solitary confinement you are there sitting on the mat, with lice in the blankets, running up and down. There for months on end, with nobody to talk to, taken out for exercise for 30 minutes. The food that was there, my dear, you wouldn’t eat it”.

Winnie Mandela, who was herself detained for 491 days, recalls how women used to be humiliated by the police in an attempt to break them. She said that they had inspections everyday in prison; a practice deemed unnecessary since they were kept under strict watch. She recalls “two wardresses walk in, they order you to stand up, they take off your clothes. They start by inspecting your shoes as you stand there stark naked. They go through your panties, your bra; they go through every seam of every garment. Then they go through your hair and – of course they never succeeded with me, but with female prisoners it was common practise – they inspect your vagina. Nothing is more humiliating and you are all alone in that cell”.

When a man did not break under the torture of the police, he was considered a man and given much respect. This was however, not the case regarding women. In circumstances where a woman would refuse to succumb to the brutal torture by the authorities, this would infuriate the authorities even more and thus, she would experience even harsher forms of torture. Being challenged by a woman seemed more like an offence to the authorities as they felt women, especially black women, had no strength to tolerate such torture.

In the 1960s forms of torture were characterised by solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, standing for long periods and repeated assaults. For example Lilian Ngoyi, who was President of the ANC Women’s League and President of the Federation of South African Women (FedSAW), was banned in 1960 and confined to her home in Orlando West, Soweto. Her banning order lasted for five years and was renewed again in 1967 for a further five years. She lived under house arrest until 1980.

Torture in the 1970s took a more violent turn and women began to experience similar assaults to men. Other forms of torture were the ‘horse’ where an individual would be handcuffed to a pole and swung round and round until the victim lost consciousness. Electric shocks were also used to shock women’s breasts. Joyce Dipale, a leader in the Black Consciousness Movement was kept in solitary confinement during 1976 and 1977 for 500 days. She said that she became used to these forms of torture, but never the humiliation that came with them and explained that she lost touch with time. Deprivation of food and water, as well as sleep and being kept in dark rooms were other forms of torture, which were used during the 1970s.

In the 1980s, forms of torture became even more gruesome. Women received no mercy from their tortures; with occasional threats of rape. In the 1980s, women became even more active in the struggle against apartheid. To torture these women, the security forces started to use women’s sexuality to undermine their identity and integrity during interrogations. Elaine Mohamed, who was a university student, was detained for organising a meeting to commemorate the founding of the South African Communist Party (SACP). She explained how vulnerable she felt after she had started her menstrual cycle in detention. A policeman told her she was not allowed tampons and had to use pads “and he shook the pad and hit it against the wall saying: ‘Put it on!’ I found this incredibly threatening. It’s those kinds of experiences that I couldn’t talk about for a long time. Some of them I still can’t talk about”.

It should be stressed that women did not have just one role, they were expected to be mothers, fathers and bread-winners in the absence of their partners. These women were also expected to be a source of support for their children, partners and the rest of their family. How much more should their roles be stressed? A much broader description of what being a woman at the time needs to be highlighted, also keeping in mind their contribution towards the struggle. 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, that 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”.

The history of South Africa is not complete unless the stories of women are mentioned. It will replace the misconception that men alone played an important role in liberating the country. This post is aimed at highlighting the role which women played and the violations they experienced in their struggle to liberate all South Africans. These stories of women can add to a growing body of knowledge of apartheid policy and may also assist in understanding the pain and suffering experienced by many women, mostly of colour, under apartheid.