Memory Recall Of Anti-Apartheid Women Activists Is Priceless By Cheryl Roberts

4 Oct

South Africa’s women in struggle and women’s struggles, much of it undocumented and most of it archived personally in women’s memory, has a pivotal contribution to memory and creating a South African society built on humanity and justice for all people.

When it comes to popularization, writing, honour, recognition and representation, women have sadly been neglected in recall of women’s activism and struggle. This isn’t to say that women’s fights, battles and struggles have not been documented or celebrated and noted; it’s to recognize the many, many gaps which preclude knowledge of the extraordinary, fearless and fierce and often brave roads traveled by women, especially, black, oppressed, working class and rural women in South Africa.

The memory deposits of veteran and legendary women who gave their lives for freedom are overflowing. Sometimes, but not enough, there are opportune moments when we are able to interact with veteran anti-apartheid women and hear them recall the days when they took up the spear and fought for that humane society so that future generations could live in a just South Africa.

Recently, this moment arrived in Cape Town when a book launch event brought fierce and brave women together. The memory and recall was sharp, factual, authentic and honest. Legendary human rights activists Blanche la Guma and Mrs Ragmat Jaffer took time out during the week leading up to the event’s gathering and hand wrote their account of how women challenged oppression and oppressive laws.women's struggle

Recalling the formation of FEDSAW, the Federation of South Africa Women, Blanche La Guma emphasised that ‘the events of the 1980’s was carried on the pillars of the 1950’s. And our very brave women in the 1980’s, with vigour and determination with suffering to themselves and their families, gave that final hard, necessary push, in defeating apartheid’.

Throughout the recall of women’s resistance to oppression, is the brave attitude to resist injustices and oppressive legislation. Blanche La Guma explained how women were catapulted into battle to resist all that threatened to deny women living rights.

‘The then President of South Africa – Johannes, Gehardus Strydom, a National party fascist, who supported the NAZIS in the 2nd world war, wanted to extend theses vicious “PASS LAW” to Black women.

‘At a big meeting of revolt held in Johannesburg in 1953, led by powerful, valiant Lilian Ngoyi and assisted by Helen Joseph, a committee was formed. Members of the committee wet to the Provinces of Natal, Orange Free State and the Cape Province to inform the women, what it would mean if they carried “PASSES”. Fedsaw organizer, Mary Moodley was assigned to the Cape Province and I hosted her at my home during this campaign.

‘On their return to Jo’burg, the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) was born on 4 April 1954. Powerful, determined Lilian Ngoyi was chosen to lead the FEDSAW, with Helen Joseph to assist her with the programme of activism and organising.

Intense campaigning for 2yrs ended in the Great Historical March to the Union Building on 9th August 1956. Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Sophie De Bruyn and Amina Cachalia, led the dignified march carrying the Banner of Protest against the Pass laws. More than 20 000 followed carrying petitions to be handed in at the Union Building and singing freedom songs. The women were fighting for their future to live as decent, civilized human beings in their country – South Africa.

An unsuspecting clerk, took the petitions from them. There was not one official to be seen. They feared these women. The women then, with the same dignity, returned to Jo’burg’.

Women have always been resisting, challenging injustices and fighting for the society they demand. Representation and memory has always favoured the male and men’s contribution to resistance against apartheid, with women mentioned and remembered in less detail and honour.

Veteran struggle stalwart, Mrs Jaffer recalls with admiration ‘the collective role of the valiant women of the eighties who left their comfort corners to protest, at great risk, against the injustices perpetrated against us, the then disenfranchised, by the minority ruling party.’

Women involved in struggle and resistance in Cape Town have the ‘honour’ of making the first night court appearance happen in Cape Town. This occurred in 1990 when women staged a protest march against unlawful detentions of learners.

‘In Wynberg, Cape Town where I lived at the time, women readily joined the United Women’s Congress. The whippings and detentions of their school going children triggered their anger. The mothers were determined to do battle, to fight the fight, although dogged by fear of all powerful security police.

‘The United Women went into action. We visited detainees in prison, attended court appearances of detainees, managed with the co-operation of our Imam to send food to Robben Island on Eid and send food to Robben Island on other religious holidays, gave support to families of detainees, went on marches, man marches facing dogs.

‘One march comes to mind. In 1990, 175 women embarked on a march for the release of some comrades. A large contingent of police arrived, pushed 175 women and strangely one male who had been an interested onlooker, into vans driving at breakneck speed from Loop Street to Caledon Square, elderly women falling about and knocking themselves against the vans.

‘We were fingerprinted, mugshots holding a number, were taken of us. It was a long day. It was past midnight when we came up from the cells, were given dates for appearances and sent home. We were met outside by a cheering crowd. We heard afterwards that we, the women of the eighties set a precedent. It was the first night court to take place.’

Today, the women are ageing, being assisted in walk with walking aids and humans. Their lives of brave and fearless resistance to injustices are still fresh and alive in their hearts and memory. Opportunities to listen to these women are both invaluable and priceless. We can never hear enough of the women who placed their lives on the battle fronts against oppression.

Our ongoing journey for a society existing for ‘the people by the people’ has its roots in the struggles engaged a long, long time ago and which continue to inspire and refuel resistance campaigns today.

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