Book By Black Conscious Women Activists Recalls Their Anti-Apartheid Struggle By Cheryl Roberts

27 Jan



‘The BCM legacy needs to be acknowledged and embraced so we heal ourselves from inferiority and superior complexes that continue to bedevil our social relationship’, writes 1960’s black consciousness movement activist, Mamphele Ramphele in a recently published seminal publication beaming the voices of black women involved in South Africa’s significant and challenging black consciousness movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

It was long overdue. It had to be forthcoming because we had to know, remember and never forget the involvement of young black women in the anti-apartheid struggle propelled by the black conscious movement.

And now the written book has been published. Titled ‘Time to Remember: Reflections Of women from the Black Consciousness Movement’, and about “Narratives that bear testimony to the human spirit”, several black women give their personal accounts of what it meant in their young lives to be black conscious, active in black communities and against the horrendous apartheid regime and its horrific apartheid system.

The narratives, personal stories and accounts are pivotal to our understanding and remembrance of a very relevant and challenging resistance era against apartheid, which is not about the dominant liberation movement, the African National Congress. Its also incredibly authentic and fulfilling in portraying black women in the black conscious movement, without the pivotal focus being Steve Biko, who we all know stands out as the leader of South Africa’s black conscious era, movement and resistance.

Reading the narratives, one is enthralled by the brave, strong, fearless, young women who participated in activities condemning the apartheid system, who had to confront their ‘frightened’ parents afraid of their political/resistance involvement and who faced the violence of apartheid’s security apparatus.

Throughout most of the narratives, we connect the dots and see them in black consciousness movement structures that not only worked tirelessly and fearlessly but hungered for a just society to live in.

Featured in the book are the narratives of Oshadi Mangena, Sibongile Mhabela, Shahida Issel, Ulli Unjinee Poonan, Juby Mayet, Nobandile Biko, Thembi Ramokgopa, Kogila Cooper, Pomla Gwen Mokoape, Nosipho Matshoba, Mmagauta Molefe, Sam Moodley, Ilva Mackay Langa, Latha Ravjee, Refilwe Moloto, Perez Sisters, Zola Ayanda Kuzwayo, Shamim Meer, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Ntomb’fikile Mazibuko, Sisana Duma – Machi, Mamphela Ramphele, Daphne Koza, Hester Joseph Rowayda Halim, Arun Naicker, Zeni Thumbadoo who share their stories, holding nothing back, including the confrontations with their parents who feared for their children’s lives when they challenged the brutal apartheid regime.


‘The special branch made it their business to make our lives a living hell. As part of their on-going psychological warfare, they would harass me both at work and at home. They would arrive unannounced and search our home at all hours of the night. Worst of all they would threaten and humiliate our children at school,’ writes Pomla Gwen Mokoape, herself a black conscious movement activist whose doctor husband Aubrey got sentenced to Robben Island.

Iconic schools and addresses like Inanda Seminary, University of Natal black section, Ngoya university, 86 Beatrice Street in Durban, headquarters of the black consciousness movement in South Africa and King Williamstown where Steve Biko organised, are all remembered in their young lives.

Most of the women were tertiary students, becoming doctors, social workers, architects, lawyers. The women loved, faced patriarchal challenges in families, became young mothers, were detained and harassed in detention, were banned, worked long hours at the office and organising.

Most importantly, they were not just talking activists but activists who organised community clinics, literacy classes, after school lessons, theatre productions, reading groups, public and mass meetings and supported the comrades.

‘I became responsible for the BCM’s grassroots community health and development programs’, writes Mamphela Ramphele. We continued to manifest the spirit of self-reliance, black solidarity and promotion of human dignity. The BCM practiced what it preached in the beacons of hope we established wherever we worked. Banishment and restriction of movement could not stop us.’

Sam Moodley worked in the BPC offices, especially on the seminal publication Black Review and in theatrical productions that particularly highlighted injustices and oppression. ‘With the onslaught against the black consciousness movement we were restricted in our movement, we lost our jobs, and were unable to continue with our theatrical activities. Our voices as poets, playwrights, actors were silenced’.

The young women also faced parental and family fears, sometimes resistance to their personal resistance to apartheid, largely because of family fear what could be done to their children by apartheid’s security apparatus. ‘I joined in a placard demonstration outside the city hall in central Durban’, recalls Shamim Meer. ‘A picture of the protest, me somewhat visible, appeared in the daily newspaper. As my father read the paper that evening, he told me to be careful, that I could get into trouble,’ recalls Shamim Meer.  

Shahida Issel, takes us through her black conciousness movement narrative writing a letter to her grandchildren, telling them about the ruthless actions of apartheid’s security apparatus. ‘They (the security police) came to my mother’s house in Heideveld where we lived. They came with a whole entire army, kicked down my mother’s door, grabbed the baby and there was my mother pulling the child and they pulling Leila and I’m neuking them (hitting them). Eventually they pushed my mother so hard she landed in the hospital. The people all came out to see what was happening and we eventually got the baby’.

Despite the harsh authorisation of apartheid on black people’s lives, anti-apartheid activists also had to resist and challenge black people, although themselves oppressed, who were accepting of apartheid’s Bantustan policy like Chief Gatsha Buthelezi’s IFP.


Nozizwe Madlala – Routledge recalls how ‘one chilly evening in May 1980, I was one of a group of about twenty young people rounded up by men wearing balaclavas. At the crack of dawn the men forced us into two kombi’s and drove us to Ulundi. We were brought before Buthelezi and members of the then (Bantustan ) KZN legislative Assembly and introduced as troublemakers. When he addressed us, Buthelezi made it clear that if we did not stop what we were doing we would be in great trouble. We were then driven back to KwaMashu into a tense IFP gathering where we were presented to the community as rogues.’

About her personal political awareness and growth, professor Ntomb’fikile Mazibuko says: ‘The early 1970’s were years of self-discovery, for me. One felt that there was a conscious and deliberate effort by the youth and students of the time to navigate the political lull that could easily have disconnected us from the realities of the day. As the youth of the 1970’s we discovered our identity, felt an obligation to social justice and had the confidence to address apartheid in higher education and within communities where the ethnic-tribal universities had been established.’

The administration and organizational strength of the young women were enormous. ‘The 1970’s was a time of great political activity. With the ANC being banned, organisaions connected to the Black Conscious Movement came to the forefront of the struggle. One of the important aims was to disseminate information about the happenings within black communities across to the widest possible audience. Thus one of BCP’s most important projects was the production of Black journals and community newspapers,’ recalls June Joseph. ‘In the 1970’s the IBM golfball typewriters were considered “high tech” and I typed all the scripts for the journals on this typewriter. Steve Biko was a hard taskmaster when it came to meeting deadlines. He would lock the doors and say “no one is going home until this work is completed!” So half in tears I would type until the early hours of the morning and when the task was finally published, he would send me home in a taxi to face the wrath of my worried mother. Two of the important publications that I worked on were the Black Review, which was published from 1972-1976 and also Black Viewpoint which was edited by Bennie Khoapa.’

I came into black consciousness at 18 years old when I fortunately came into contact with Steve Biko’s seminal book ‘I Write What I Like’, during my first year of studies at the then University of Natal. I was aware of the iconic school, Inanda Seminary and the University of Natal black section residence was in the same hood I lived in Durban. I know about the clinic services that were offered at the University of Natal black section residence because I often heard of residents visiting the clinic to get medical help. I’m sure the young women medical students passed on the road I crossed as I journeyed to primary school in the hood. I know the old church building (its demolished now) that housed SASO and BPC in Durban because I played indoor sport at the YMCA in Beatrice Street and I saw many, many young black people walk in and out of the building in Beatrice Street. To read about the young black conscious women and their fearless participation in the anti-apartheid struggle in a book is something I’ve been waiting for a long, long time. Its allowed me to connect the dots of growing up black in anti-apartheid struggle days, coming into black consciousness and knowing so much more of what I didn’t know anything about when I was a girl, growing up and schooling in the hood in Durban.

‘Reflections Of Women From The Black Consciousness Movement’ is a must read. It’s a book that should be prescribed by university departments such as gender and women studies, political science, African studies, sociology, Hi(her)story and should be read by academics across all departments. The book is written by black South African women and published by black South African women. It’s the struggle and community involvement narratives of young black women, now much older, who also fought for your and my freedom from apartheid.

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