09December

Politics of memory and honouring women’s history

Remembering the prominent role played by ground-breaking women, and calling for renewed activism and solidarity, were recurring themes at a breakfast discussion on Friday 25 November at Inyathelo: the South African Institute for Advancement.

Nomboniso Gasa, Zubeida Jaffer, Simamkele Dlakavu, Nomfundo Walaza

This dialogue marked the United Nations' International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the 60th anniversary of the women’s march to the Union Buildings. It was also an opportunity to remember Fezekile Kuzwayo (‘Khwezi’), President Jacob Zuma’s rape accuser.

The discussion was led by Zubeida Jaffer, an award-winning journalist and author, and Nomboniso Gasa, a researcher, analyst and writer on gender, political and cultural issues. Simamkele Dlakavu, a Fallist, Masters student in African Literature at Wits and member of black feminist collective Manyano, responded to their comments. Nomfundo Walaza, the acting executive director of Inyathelo, chaired the discussion.

Gasa reminded the audience that on 25 November 1960, three sisters, Patria Mercedes Mirabal, María Argentina Minerva Mirabal and Antonia María Teresa Mirabal, were assassinated in the Dominican Republic. This was on the orders of the Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo, whose dictatorship they had fought against. Women’s rights activists have since 1981 observed a day against violence on the anniversary of their deaths.

Referring to her book on Charlotte Maxeke, who graduated in 1901 on a US church scholarship, Jaffer noted the many achievements of women over the past century. Recalling Maxeke’s words, however, she said South Africa now needs men who want to protect women, not those who endanger women when they become aware of their rights.

What is missing, she said, is a large independent women’s organisation operating broadly at grassroots level. Currently individuals operate within different political organisations, which can prevent them from taking appropriate action. “We need people who are visible in communities and who speak out when necessary to ensure that women are protected.

She also proposed a campaign on education and appropriate empowerment of boys regarding women, saying that men had lost their traditional roles, and violence and rape were about power and wanting control. “We are seeing violence and anger because we have neglected the boy child. We need women to keep their rights, but also to focus on educating men.”

Jaffer concluded: “I remain proud of our country where so many people speak out. I am concerned, but have a lot of hope as I work with students who will be the guiding force. They will take us to the next level where they will not defend the indefensible. “

Gasa thanked Jaffer for her work on Charlotte Maxeke. She noted the importance of paying attention to women’s history and political involvement which is misrepresented and often erased in histiriography. For example, focus on formal membership in the ANC has erased women’s activism in that organisation.

“We pay tribute to women who refuse to be silent, who insist that they will have bodily autonomy,” she said, dismissing the notion of men in power who assume that they can express this power as conquest of women.

“The relationship between power, abuse of power and women’s bodies is well-established in the history of the world,” she said, commenting that in the rape trial of President Zuma, a relationship of trust was abused. “In the cultural milieu that Zuma used in his defence, he would have known she was his child.”

She pointed out that decisions taken in the 1990s are currently being questioned by young people, sometimes without a deeper understanding of the actual events, decision and history. She urged an understanding and honouring of one another’s histories.  She argued that it is important to be critical and evaluate decisions and choices from an informed position. Speaking to young activists, she said: “When you dismiss our history and the choices we made as being sell-outs, you have got to understand you are spitting in our faces. Then it becomes difficult to have a conversation.

“When you have not been in jail, not been raped in jail, not been tortured, and not lived in the kind of violence we did, humility is important. When you use a sjambok as a symbol of your position against violence on women, someone like me cannot be a part of your campaigns. For me, a sjambok and a black body have a history. If you want to talk about pain, you must understand other people’s pain and respect it.”

Thanking former Black Sash president Mary Burton (in the audience) and members of the organisation for standing up for what was right, and assisting her own family, she said it was vital to honour one another. “It is important that as each generation continues, we try to understand how we can build on each other’s histories.”

Reflecting on black women’s activism in challenging rape culture at universities, such as: #RapeAtAzania, #RUReferenceList and #IAmOneInThree, Simamkele Dlakavu said these Fallists took note of the arguments made by Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola in her book Rape: A South African Nightmare. Dlakavu reiterated that  it was time to stop acting as if rape is a crime without perpetrators and that we must “name and shame rapists” because ”rapists are our brothers, uncles, and fathers. We need to make sure that with rape there is a burden of shame not only on women’s bodies, but also a social cost for the perpetrator.”

Members of the audience agreed that greater dialogue on abuse and violence against women is long overdue. One commentator said: “The commencement of this narrative is crucial. When we reach the state of democracy we assume everything is fine, but we need to ignite what led to the attainment of democracy, and that was solidarity and working together.”

Each and every generation has its own struggle and paradigm. Daughters of the 1970s student generation, with their greater opportunities, should take up the social-economic struggle and the subject of rape in informal settlements.

Another member of the audience spoke out about online harassment of women.  “What happens in real life is taking place on the online platform.”

“It is about understanding and interrogating our history,” concluded Gasa. We need to listen more, as so many peoples’ lives are different and played out in different contexts.”

Jaffer, who said she always carried a copy of the constitution, said a guiding principle for her was that we can live life in hope or in fear, and she had chosen hope.