The exile experience of women in the liberation movements — a largely neglected aspect of recent South African history — will feature this year at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in a discussion involving the octogenarian feminist writer, Lauretta Ngcobo. She and four of the 17 contributors to Prodigal Daughters, a book edited by Ngcobo, will feature in a public discussion on May 18 facilitated by journalist and Business Day columnist, Palesa Morudu.
The women whose stories feature in the book, produced by the University of KZN Press, come from various social and political backgrounds. They range from octogenarians such as Ngcobo and AnnMarie Wolpe to much more youthful “born-in-exiles” such as Liepollo Pheko. The commitment to collect these “stories of women in exile” came at the funeral in 2009 of returnee Thokozile MaZulu Chaane. It was she who, in her final hours, inspired the project by warning: “If you do not write your history, history will write you off.”
Some of that history has now been written — and published. And it comes at a time when there are ongoing — and repetitive — campaigns about violence against women; when there is a widespread perception that something, somewhere has gone wrong in recent years. But, as Ngcobo points out, this is far from being the case; that even within liberation movements committed to a non-racist, non-sexist and egalitarian future, many of the same distortions that continue today, were clearly evident.
As she notes in her introduction to Prodigal Daughters: “…there is evidence of the abuse of power by the leadership over those under their control, especially of young women who suffered sexual abuses despite belonging to the same struggle”. But this, often glossed over aspect of exile life for women, is precisely that: one aspect among many that affected them, whatever their backgrounds or classification under apartheid.
And Ngcobo notes that the roots of the specific oppression of South African women lie in our history. Speaking in her neat, groundfloor flat in Durban, she acknowledges that so much has changed — and yet, so little. Especially for those who still toil and survive in the far-flung rural areas of the country.
Exactly 100 years after the passing of the 1913 Natives Land Act, these women remain at the bottom of society’s pecking order. And the fact that the now withdrawn Traditional Courts Bill could even have been contemplated by a 21st Century South African parliament has caused widespread worry. This piece of legislation, withdrawn only after massive protest, would have ensured that black women in the rural areas would find themselves in a similar situation of abject serfdom as did their mothers and grandmothers before them.
Under the traditional courts law — it amounted to a move back to the future — rural women would have become perpetual minors and chattels, a role assigned to them under the Native Administration Act of 1927. This is not to glorify the traditional customs in many of the societies that existed before European conquest and the laws that followed. But the destruction of traditional rural society by the colonial and, later, the apartheid regime, ensured that women were the prime sufferers.
Amid the humiliation and destruction, many of the attitudes of the rulers passed quite seamlessly to the ruled, social relations becoming horribly distorted. It also bred resistance, often heroic in its ultimate futility, but which laid the basis for opposition to come. This very South African story played itself out in designated “tribal homelands” throughout the country where women scratched out a living of sorts while waiting hopefully for the annual return of their migrant labourer husbands.
As the bloody tragedy at Marikana revealed last year, the same pattern of migrant labour has persisted to the present day. Land restitution has lagged and, in many areas of the country, the rural landscape and the people within it are little changed from what existed in the apartheid years and earlier.
In her rightly hailed 1990 novel, And They Didn’t Die, Ngcobo gives a telling account of the oppression of rural women, both by apartheid and Zulu tradition. This was based on her own experiences and observations, but it was a theme she only turned to after nearly 30 years in exile, first in Swaziland and then, for 25 years, as a teacher and writer in Britain.
This too is a largely neglected aspect of South African history that fills in more of the brutal background that has contributed much to the violent nature of modern South Africa. Ngcobo’s book also provides insights into the origins of the racism, casual violence and alienation that were so much a part of that system.
A Fort Hare graduate, activist and one of the participants in the historic anti-pass march by women in 1956, Lauretta Ngcobo dealt with her early activist years and the flight into exile with husband and children in her first book, Cross of Gold. “It was a cathartic exercise and I didn’t start writing it for publication,” she says. The manuscript was read by friend and fellow exile, the late Margaret Legum, who passed it on to Longmans and the book appeared in 1981.
And They Didn’t Die was a step back into her own history and now, inspired by Thokozile Chaane, she has closed the circle with Prodigal Daughters. She admits ruefully that some of the women approached backed out of the project, still unprepared to deal with their exile experiences. Others felt a need, for one reason or other, to be more circumspect in the telling of their stories.
But the overall effect is to open up debate about the realities and the attitudes that existed in the exile environment. As the current chair of the governing ANC, Baleka Mbete, notes in her contribution to Prodigal Daughters: “That journey across the desert of exile has helped this society to be what it is now; has helped to formulate the space that can truly be called home.”