History writing about women in the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa

by Gabriele Mohale – ICA-SUV Executive Bureau Member; Acting Head & Archivist, Historical Papers Research Archive & Wits Digitisation Centre, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

The month of August is Women’s month in South Africa. It originates from the historic march of South African women of all races to the Union Buildings, South Africa’s seat of Government, on the 9 August 1956.

This article seeks to talk about history writing about women in South Africa’s struggle against racial oppression, with archives becoming a source for a new class of researchers, being young black women, instead of seasoned historians. Relating to that, it will demonstrate the place of women in South Africa’s ‘struggle history’ through the case of particularly two relatively little known African women and wives, who followed their husbands into banishment.

But firstly, let us attend to the birth of South Africa’s National Women’s Day, which is so important in the history of this country, and where women made their mark, and which would be characterised by the slogan “Strijdom…You have struck a rock”.

The image above by the artist and cultural worker Judy Seidman, a member of the former “Medu Art Ensemble”, which was based in Botswana, would symbolise the power of women in the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa, and would appear in many Anti-Apartheid publications worldwide.

The principle of the pass system became legislated throughout South Africa in 1909, with an “Act to Provide for the Issue of Passes to Natives within Urban Areas”. It would be followed by the 1911 “Native Labour Regulations Act”; the 1923 “Native (Urban Areas) Act for the Administration of Urban Spaces and Influx Control for Africans”; and the all-encompassing “Group Areas Act” of 1950, assigning racialized residential and business sections in urban areas.

In 1955, under Prime Minister Johannes Strijdom, the then Minister of Native Affairs announced that from 1956 African women would also be required to carry passes, which lead to the powerful women’s march on the 6 August 1956.

Fast forward into the new century, the archives in South Africa, particularly speaking for the Historical Papers Research Archive at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, have observed the history of women in the struggle against racial oppression being re- visited by young black women from a very different angle. They argue that the role of women, particularly from the more radical African nationalist movements, such as the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), as well as their youth and student wings, such as the South African Students Organisation (SASO), is literally absent. They also found that the general anti-Apartheid struggle grand narrative has elevated its male leaders to the point of hero-worship, but has neglected many of the mothers, wives, sisters and any related female figure, which would have shaped, supported, carried and suffered alongside their path.

This new generation of black women, many of them young, urban, educated and emancipated, question this persistent narrative not only from a historical point of view, but also from their own position in the present, and in a society that is still traditional, patriarchal, and unequal as far as the status of women is concerned. And through their engagement in research of this nature, they hope to do justice to those historical women figures retrospectively.

Perhaps to demonstrate the points made above, let us look at the examples of two women, who are little known, but who were the wives of struggle heroes whose names many associate easily with the struggle history in South Africa. Both women were banished alongside their husbands. Their names are:

Treaty Mahlouoe Mopeli, wife of Chief Paulus Howell Mopeli; and

Photograph: Ernest Cole, with permission from The Ernest Cole Family Trust

Veronica Zodwa Sobukwe, wife of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.

Banishment was one of Apartheid South Africa’s most cruel way of condemning political opponents without trial to a life in distant and often arid and desolate places for unlimited periods, as explained by Saleem Badat in his book “The forgotten people: Political banishment under Apartheid”. Between 1948 and 1986 160 people, amongst them women were banished. Little was known of their lives, so that they must not be remembered, that was the aim: to banish them far from their lives, their families and communities.

Treaty Mopeli was banished in 1954 to Frenchdale (Mafeking District) for being one of the leaders in the Witzieshoek Uprising, joining her husband Paulus Mopeli, who had been sent into banishment already in 1951, and where he died in 1971. Treaty’s banishment orders were only lifted after his death in 1972. There are hardly any sources about her life and of what happened to her after her banishment.

Veronica Sobukwe joined her husband Robert Sobukwe in his banishment to Galeshewe (Kimberley), were he served a five-year order after his release from Robben Island in 1969. After his death in 1978, Veronica and her family were kicked out of the house, and she eventually settled in uMasizakhe, a township on the edge of Graaff Reinet, and the birthplace of her husband. She died in 2018, having just received the ‘Order of Luthuli in Silver’ conferred by the South African Government, nominated by young activists.

Both women endured, for their own political activities and that of their husbands and their communities. They symbolise the sacrifices that many women have made, but for which few, very few were known by name and by their own account. It is hoped that the new generation of women will pick up their stories, and unearth from the archives and from their families the untold lives of those women heroes in their own right.

Photograph: Ernest Cole, permission from The Ernest Cole Family Trust

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