The late Toni Morrison once remarked that “black women were armed, black women were dangerous and the less money they had the deadlier the weapon they chose”. This statement rings true for the black women in America and certainly true for the black women in South Africa. Over multiple-generations black women have continued to experience the triple yoke of oppression; racial discrimination, gender based violence and economic exclusion. This means that how black women experience South Africa is always through the lens of resisting prejudice, patriarchy and poverty.
The working conditions of black women are permeated by greater vulnerability and instability and the extent of subordination suffered reflects the combination of racism and sexism, which is often described as patriarchal racism. The gendered dynamics of apartheid legislation in South Africa affected the setting in which black African women could organize. The subordination of black women in South Africa can be seen across multiple generations and its history is answerable to class, race, gender, sexuality, regional, religious, cultural and personal differences. Black women in South Africa had a different relationship with the state than white women did. White women were entitled to the vote, they did not need to work for a living and enjoyed the privileges of domestic help, while the black African women was constantly dodging the eye of state officials and living hand to mouth from domestic labour.
The daily experience of the working class black women living in South African also exposes the spatial justice element of many urban centers of the country. Apartheid spatial policies made it so that black people lived in the peripheries of South Africa cities, which meant that the domestic worker living in a township leaves home as early as four o’clock, and coming back home late in the evenings. Many arrive as late as eight o’clock in the evening because of inadequate railways and bus services, as well as limited and unsafe taxi services. . These everyday experiences of spatial exclusion, speak to the multi-layered ways in which they move and exist in South Africa.
Black women’s history and liberation
From a gender perspective, South Africa makes black women vulnerable from the conjugation of sexism and racism. The historical experience of sexual violence to the loss of the right to choose where one may live, owing either to the imposition of apartheid or to lower social economic status in face of norms favoring white women or men.
There have been multiple ways in which women’s history in South Africa has been portrayed in literature which has been riddled with many stereotypes. Women have either been portrayed as the ‘valiant resisters’ surpassing their male counterparts in their tenacity in the struggle, or they have been represented as victims of apartheid. This view of women as ‘valiant resisters’ stem largely from feminist historians trying to address the absence of women from the history of the struggle against apartheid. Traditionally, the history of political movements has been studied in terms of ideology and collective experience, and, in this, men’s experiences are often seen as normative. As Cherryl Walker has observed, the ‘documentary silence’ of the majority of women may be ‘equated with historical passivity or, even worse, with historical insignificance’. This documentary silence has resulted in women simply disappearing from the collectives view of the past and this unfortunately persists even today.
The silencing of woman’s voices and experiences is something that is not foreign in post -apartheid South Africa. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an institutional silencing mechanism of women’s experiences of sexual violence during apartheid. The Commission’s governing Act limited its investigation to gross violations of human rights defined as the “killing, abduction, torture or severe ill treatment” and the “attempt, conspiracy, incitement, instigation, command or procurement to commit” such an act. The Commission was limited in its mandate as this did not include sexual violence and rape as a weapon of violence and therefore a need to address it as a gross human rights violation. This limitation was not only silencing and a negation to woman’s experiences of sexual violence but it also erases women completely from the narrative of those who experienced violence under apartheid. The Commission not only silenced those who experienced sexual violence but the question of women’s experiences of apartheid repression is something that was equally neglected.
Many women were raped in prisons and were raped in the police vans on their way to prisons but they could not say that they were raped because this was seen as a weakness. The psychological effects of this violation is one that cannot be taken lightly. The multi-layered experience in South Africa during apartheid of black African women and in the transition years are no different to the experiences that black women encounter today. The high rates of femicide, the growing gender pay gap and the lack of progressive black women in government continue the prevailing marginalization of black women. On this Women’s Month we not only remember Lilian Ngoyi and Albertina Sisulu, we also remember Uyinene Mrwetyana and Tshegofatso Pule. We remember them all because their lives are worthy of being remembered.
The Liberation Project
The liberation project is one that is layered and complex and indeed, now is the time to challenge, fight back and dismantle violent systems. The way in which this is done, is one that can only come from collective thinking and wrestling together.
Public institutions such as universities have the collective responsibility to fund and support black radical feminist work that is both able to highlight the plight of black women and queer people in South Africa while also leaning on the multiple ways in which they fight for their joy in everyday life.
In addition to this, the state has the responsibility to curate a public archive that is nuanced in naming the multi-layered experiences of people under apartheid. The crafting of a national narrative which is one sided is both harmful and shortsighted. Furthermore, the crafting of good and progressive policies committed to fighting Gender Based Violence, women exclusion from economic hubs and places of power is important, but we have come too far to be satisfied with good policies, what is needed is a deeper commitment and action poured out towards resources which are integral in policies being realised in people’s lives.
The collective action of women from different race and class backgrounds reveals to us the varying ways in which race, class and gender intersect. The experience of a black woman in the urban centers was and still is different to that of a black woman living in the rural areas. It thus becomes important that even today, we recognise the multiple ways in which our identities intersect and how these intersections inform our collective participation. What our history shows us is that South Africa has always had a robust civic society that is able to bring violent power structures to their knees. In most recent time we have seen the gaslighting of feminist movements led by young women in South Africa purely because they seek to shine the light on institutionalised patriarchy.
However, despite the racism which has ruled for centuries, having tremendous impacts on poverty rates, and the remnants of racial inequality in South Africa continue to play a role in the nation’s economic structures to this day. South Africa has witnessed various forms of resistance through, for example, organised groups who have preserved their culture and religion, bought the freedom of other men and women, and striven to overcome the enormous adversities they have faced.
The black feminist movement rallies black women and organised groups with the objective of activism for racial and gender equality, taking responsibility for resistance in the face of imposed suffering and compromise. In the quest for autonomy and equality in society, even though they are afflicted by violent and intolerant acts and exposed to inequality and vulnerability, they take up positions of resistance in the demand for better conditions so that they may face up to and overcome sexism and racism.
Considering the fact that black women are able to overcome and are further able to contend for their joy and their survival, speaks true to their resilience as has been seen across multiple generations. Through this resilience, it has become necessary to nurture the process of consciousness-raising of not only the pain of present day racism and sexism, but also the relationship to a painful past and its ongoing consequences. The Women’s March of 1956 shows us that when women from different socio-economic backgrounds come together, they are able to collectively reach out towards freedom and commit themselves to taking action towards equality and the end of oppression. From this formulation, it is possible to think of resilience in a broader way, linked not only to individual health, but to societal change.
Black women in South Africa have been armed, they have been dangerous and the less money and the less access they have to equal resources, the deadlier the weapon of resistance they will choose. As a country, we are richer when the voices of those in the margins are allowed to speak, and in them speaking and us hearing them, the arc of the moral universe surely is long, but in our lifetime, we will see it bend towards justice. On this Women’s Month, we not only remember the multiple ways in which women have come together to fight against oppressive systems, but we also remember to hold on to the courage of the past as we continue to pave our own liberation into the future.
Bonolo Makgale is a Programme Manager of the Democracy and Civic Engagement Unit Centre For Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She is a social justice activist with an academic interest in Governance, Politics and Democratisation in Africa. She writes for DDP in her personal capacity and her views do not represent those of the organization.