Our History

Time to Honor Heroism of South African Women

Friday, March 8, 2013

Charlotte Maxeke, Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph are some of the leaders extolled in a small exhibit at the Apartheid Museum that pays rare tribute to those who fought pass cards. Current-day leaders, meanwhile, are battling HIV, violence and fear.




South African woman

Credit: Steve Evans/babastev on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

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SOWETO, South Africa (WOMENSENEWS)--Our guide's eyes here were damp as she placed her hand on her belly. Her voice betrayed the struggle she was having controlling her emotions as our group of 14 women from the United States fell quiet.

We stood together in the warm South African sun, in the open plaza commemorating the events of June 16, 1976, when the Afrikaaner police opened fire on protesting high school students.

With the murmur of the fountain adding to the sense of peace and sorrow, Refilwe Mathe explained the route the protestors took and the words on the signs they carried, demanding they not be forced to study in Afrikaan, the language of the authors of the apartheid.

While her voice became even sadder, together we stared at the iconic photo of Hector Pieterson's dead body, 13 years old, being carried toward a rescuer by 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo as Pieterson's sister, Antoinette Sithole, 17, ran alongside. The teen was one of about 200 who died during the 1976 student uprising, including Mathe's own aunt and three uncles, she explained.

The pain and hope for change from the years of apartheid rule felt ever-present to me as I recently visited the country for the first time to meet female activists and learn more about how the nation's constitution came to specifically include women's rights.

As I stared at the image of Sithole, touched by her obvious pain, I began to wonder if there were similar tributes to the women of South Africa. During my 10-day stay, I heard of none.

The roar of the continuing violence, with its enormous toll on the lives of women and girls, was overpowering, though. Model Reeva Steenkamp was murdered by Olympic star Oscar Pistorius and he was released on bail. Three men were arrested for taking part in the gang rape and disembowelment of a 17-year-old, a murder so brutal that President Jacob Zuma, once a rape suspect himself involving a teen, issued a statement describing the crime as "shocking," "cruel" and "inhumane." Zuma also called for a "concerted campaign to end this scourge in our society."

Frighteningly High Violence

On the day our group left, we were confronted with the reality that many African men, particularly immigrant men, also continue to live with a frightening level of violence. The front pages of the newspapers were filled with images of the murder of a Mozambique taxi driver who was killed by police dragging him behind a moving vehicle.

"The level of anger, the level of aggression, the level of violence in which we relate to one another," Graca Machel, Nelson Mandela's wife, was quoted as saying. "I think it expresses a much deeper trouble we have to deal with our past."

But the country is also full of a national pride and hope inspired by its peaceful transition to democracy 19 years ago, the fruit of more than 80 years of resistance of British racial separation policies and later the Afrikaaners' imposition of an even harsher apartheid.

Both regimes maintained racial separation through autocratic laws, mass arrests, constant harassment and a brutal police force.

Although women's roles in the resistance are rarely singled out, you can get a glimpse at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. There, a booklet based on a relatively modest 2006 exhibit, "Our Triumphs and Our Tears," is available for purchase, as are three slender biographies of women active in the anti-apartheid movement.

As the exhibit explained, Charlotte Maxeke, an African, was a key organizer in the successful 1913 march against British authorities' efforts to impose laws requiring black women to purchases "passes" and carry them at all times or risk arrest.

Prior to British rule, African women could own property and had legal rights. In 1927, British law declared them legal minors, dependent on their spouses.

In 1943, The was formed. The booklet doesn't mention it, but Maxeke was president of its predecessor and Lilian Ngoyi became its first president.

Afrikaaners' New Rules

Nine years later, the Afrikaaners, descendants of French, German and Dutch settlers, taking note of a large presence of black women in the urban areas, imposed pass laws on all black women and built male-only housing for black urban residents. Afrikaaners also took over the brewing and selling of beer, an industry that up until then had been a source of significant revenue for urban black women, according to the exhibit's booklet.

With the family structure destroyed by the pass laws and few economic opportunities left to them, black women began to protest, and were joined by several white female anti-apartheid activists.

In 1956, Ngoyi led 20,000 women protesting the pass laws, a march so significant that its anniversary of Aug. 9 each year is celebrated as National Women's Day.

Ngoyi was also one of the founders of the union of garment workers and spent her life resisting apartheid, even as she continued to sew clothes to support her two children and mother. Ngoyi was also central to the leadership of another powerful organization, the Federation of South African Women.

She had a close friend and ally in Helen Joseph, a white woman born in England who is shown arm-in-arm with other leaders of the march. Ngoyi and Joseph were frequently imprisoned for their relentless support of women's rights and the anti-apartheid movement. Both were accused of treason and endured trials lasting four year, according to their biographies.

Our group stayed in the Soweto Hotel, overlooking Freedom Square and the memorial to the 1955 Freedom Charter that laid out the goals of the anti-apartheid movement. The charter explicitly includes women's rights and is the basis for much of the nation's constitution adopted nearly 40 years later, which also explicitly includes women's rights. Ngoyi was one of the drafters of the Freedom Charter.

Helen Suzman was the sole member of the Progressive Party in parliament for 15 years and served a total of 36 years. She exploited her position by traveling the nation, witnessing the effects of apartheid. She spoke on the floor of the parliament, detailing the consequences of its racial laws, making it possible for news media to report what they were otherwise legally barred from publishing. Suzman's father fled Czarist Russia to avoid growing anti-Semitism, and she made the connection between the persecution of Jews in Europe and apartheid in her homeland.

These and other women such as Annie Silinga, Ray Alexander and Josie Palme all contributed enormously to the transition to constitutional democracy that includes women and men.

A Horrific Legacy

Women and girls, meanwhile, bear the brunt of the most horrific legacies of the British and Afrikaaner eras.

Data indicate a woman is raped every four minutes in South Africa. The larger the age gap between the young women and her male partner the more likely she is to be HIV infected, according to Dr. Helen Rees, head of the WITS Reproductive Health and HIV Institute in Johannesburg. The rates of HIV infection increase from about 3 percent at 15 years to around 30 percent by the time women are in their mid-20s, most infected by an encounter with one man. In some communities, 50 percent of the young women are HIV positive.

Overall, 5 million people are HIV positive, 10 percent of the population, and about 40 percent of those are receiving drugs that can control it.

South African police tallies of the toll of domestic violence include 15,609 murders and 64,500 reported rapes in 2011-12.

The nation's Medical Research Council found that, while a quarter of women had been raped, just 2 percent of those raped by a partner reported the incident to police.

Prudence Mabele, executive director of the Positive Women's Network, makes the argument to national leaders that in order for her organization to truly serve women with HIV or AIDS, the nation's health care system must address the level of violence against women. And when Rees was asked if any public health campaigns have been targeted toward the older men who are infecting the nation's female teens, she shook her head no, with an air of sadness.

Perhaps it is time for this nation to build one more memorial, one honoring the work of women such as Maxeke, Ngoyi, Joseph, Suzman, Mabele and Rees.


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