Forgotten heroes of Women’s Day

Posted on August 16, 2021


To promote their own narrow interests, political and commercial organisations frequently hijack national and international high days and holidays, in the process creating myths and distorting history. Women’s Day, both national and international, are classic examples.


March 8 — International Women’s Day (IWD) — came and went, with the history and purpose of the celebration obscured by slick advertising sponsored by international corporations. August 9 was South African Women’s Day (SAWD) where the only difference was the addition of a narrow parochial political focus.

In both cases, the overall thrust is that women can, must — and will — succeed in what is still largely — and correctly — labelled a “man’s world”. In other words, end the patriarchy, not the oppression and exploitation of the majority of humanity.

As with IWD, the local variant has not — andAugust 9, 2021 did not — feature dissident women’s voices from the past that criticised the policies and trajectory of the current governing party. These were women who agreed with the originators of IWD that the object was an end to all exploitation and oppression.

In 1910 the IWD founders realised that, because the female half of humanity was the most oppressed sector, irrespective of ethnicity, language or religion , there was a primary demand for equal pay for equal work. But they saw this as a necessary step toward unity of all workers, irrespective of gender. And the campaign took many forms, depending on the local nature of exploitation.

In South Africa, one of the most dramatic was the March 8, 1956 march by more 20,000 women protesting at the extension to black women of the oppressive pass laws. This event today marks is SAWD.

But there were women who felt it wrong to petition a racist government on the question of extending repression or to ask for inclusion in a social system based on exploitation. They argued that this course was destined to fail to improve the lot of the poor and marginalised black majority.

In this regard, two names that are seldom heard and largely forgotten stand out: Phyllis Ntantala and Dora Taylor. They will not be found in the current panoply of SAWD heroes, yet that is where they belong, whether one agrees with their analyses and criticisms or with the policies they put forward.

However, at this time of global economic crisis and political and social flux it might be well to look honestly and openly at the past to learn of mistakes and perhaps perceive alternative — and better — ways forward. Although Dora Taylor died in 1976 and Phyllis Ntantala 30 years later, both left substantial. legacies of written material which very much have a bearing on the situation today.

They were revolutionary socialists and internationalists who maintained that the ANC, supported first by the Communist Party of SA and later by the SACP, would be unable to bring about real change. As Phyllis Ntantala wrote in 1994, their approach would result in “merely the replacement of one administration by another….albeit that one administration was white and the next will be black”.

The future ANC government, she wrote, was the result of “common ground” being found between an ANC that “could not overthrow the government by force [and] the government [that] could not hope to quell the black struggle for equality”. As a result, nothing much would be gained and 1994 signalled that “the struggle for total liberation has only just begun”.

Dora Taylor also made the point that nothing much would be gained from a future ANC government when she wrote in 1969: “[It] would lead to a neo-colonialist regime, and this simply means the entrenchment of imperialism in South Africa. It does not mean the liberation of the oppressed workers and peasants.”

As a Scottish immigrant, who enjoyed white privilege in South Africa, she saw her role, both as a member of the underground and anti-Stalinist Workers Party and then as a founder member of the Non European Unity Movement (NEUM) as one of background support. A literary critic, historian, journalist, editor and playwright in her own name, most of her political writing was under various pseudonyms.

Under the name of Nosipho Majeke, she produced, in 1952, the first radical — and scathing — historical reassessment of missionary activity in South Africa, The Role of the Missionaries in Conquest. The pseudonym — meaning gift of Jack in Xhosa — was apparently decided on by the “NEUM trio” who worked closely together: Isaac Bangani (“IB”) Tabata, his partner, Jane Gool and Dora Taylor.

At the same time as her missionary history, Dora Taylor completed her first novel, Kathie, which circulated among Unity movement members in manuscript form. It, along with her last novel, Rage of Life and a collection of short stories, Don’t Tread on my Dreams were edited by her daughter, Sheila Belshaw, and published in 2008. She was awarded the South African Posthumous Literary Award for that year.

Like Dora Taylor, Phyllis Ntantala always longed for “home”: in South Africa. She was fond of saying when meeting isiXhosa spesking South Africans: “Ndive. eGqubeni, nindibona nje.” (You see me here! I come from Gqubeni). And it is her 1958 essay, The Widows of the Reserves that is today seen as a classic penned by perhaps the foremost South African feminist of her time.

A professor of literature, she is best known for her autobiography, A Life’s Mosaic, written and published in the US in1992, where her An African tragedy: The black woman under apartheid, produced in 1976, is still often quoted.

Finally, at 86 and in quite frail health, Phyllis Ntantala returned home — and faced, in her own words, “horror”. She fell ill and was hospitalised in the Eastern Cape where she lay, naked, for two days under dirty sheets. As soon as she was able, she conducted a survey of hospital conditions and those at another institution — and promptly wrote two scathing articles about what she had discovered.

It was evidence to her that, more than a decade after the end of apartheid, the difference between private and public health care remained unchanged. “A luta continua,” she noted before returning to the US where she is fondly — and certainly more widely — remembered and honoured than in South Africa.

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