Bam’s battle for SA’s neglected species

She is likely to become involved in the new constitution, ensuring women’s rights are protected. The deputy general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, she is an ardent feminist – an attitude learned in South Africa and perfected in exile. 

Born in 1933 in a ”tiny little place” called Tsolo in Transkei, Bam was educated at St Cuthbert’s Anglican mission school. Like most Africans at that time, says Bam, she grew up in a strongly Christian home – hers was Anglican and Methodist. When she finished her schooling she joined her parents who were living in Sophiatown and enrolled in the School of Social Work in Johannesburg with a more famous colleague – Winnie Mandela, who, she says, was a ”brilliant student”. She counts herself lucky that her education preceded Bantu education, and that her parents stressed the value of education – advantages beyond the reach of the present generation of scholars who know their schooling will be inferior. ”I feel very sad for the kids,” she says. 

Her first job, working with women’s groups in Zululand for the YWCA, provoked her abiding interest in women’s issues. ”I discovered during that rime that women’s potential was not fully utilised,” she said. ”Most of the women I worked with were on their own, with their husbands working away. They did everything: they took care of the home took care of the children, took part in the community and were active in the church. ”By the time I got on to the battle of women’s rights I had my own grounding.” That battle was continued in Switzerland, where she was shocked to discover that wealthy women could be ”so marginalised”. There, although the women were white, they still didn’t have the vote because they were women. 

She had been deprived of the vote in South Africa because she was black. The absurdity struck her. She was working in Geneva for the World Council of Churches – she was a founding member of the WCC’s Progamme to Combat Racism, which fended liberation movements. She left the country with a valid passport but it was not renewed: when the WCC was expelled from South Africa, its personnel were no longer welcome. She had to rely on the Swiss for travel documents to facilitate her job which entailed a great deal of travel. She returned after decades abroad to take up her SACC post. She does not see any quick path into the new South Africa, and feels perhaps she is getting too old – she is 57 to be of much use in it. But prompted into talking about her ideal society, she is full of dreams – difficult ones. 

South Africa, with all its differing cultures, is a wonderful and exciting place to live in she says, ”a challenge to humanity … which could bring a unique experience to the world”. The major problem of apartheid and its preceding systems was the – very rigid stratification’s which has robbed several generations of the experiences of a multi-cultural society. ”These things that are given to us by the events of history should really make us an exciting nation,” she says, referring to the French, Dutch, and English immigrants over the years and ”of course our – own African tradition. ”We could bring to the world something unique, Even though it’s going to be so difficult for us to re-capture that society which generations missed out on, it can still be done for future South Africans.” 

Although Bam is full of the rhetoric of ”shared wealth” and the need to sort out ”social unevenness”, she doesn’t offer solutions to this ”unjust economic system”. But she is adamant that ”unit there is a way of sharing there can never be one community”. She sees her role in the SACC as helping bring about the necessary changes. But she has landed at a difficult time for the organisation it faces severe financial cutbacks, with less donor money arriving from abroad, The money which is arriving is ear-marked for different goals – less ”struggle oriented” and more developmental. 

Bam has yet to prove that she can change direction, but she seems able to take tough decisions. Among her portfolios is staff matters – which must be ticklish at the moment, as the SACC is retrenching. She is also responsible for regional offices. Last month saw the closure of the Witwatersrand Council of Churches in financial disarray. Women’s issues are riot in the foreground. And if she were to be in a government she would not want to be diverted by women’s issues per se. She would want to participate in broader departments, like finance or foreign affairs, from which she could en-sure women’s tights in the broader political spec-tram were accommodated. She is currently holding workshops for African women to educate them on the nature of constitutions, and what it means to be a citizen. These things, she says, are ”alien to the average South African woman”. 

The African National Congress has invited the churches to contribute to the constitution by, among other things, helping to define and protect the role of women, and this is a project in which Bam is involved. But through all of this she has a dream and she knows exactly what she wants. Ok she envisages a network of women’s training institutes – centres where women could discuss relevant issues, study, improve skills. ”I have a responsibility to create forums for the women of South Africa,” she says. This institute would cut across class and geographical barriers so that women with a particular interest, say small business, could find other women with the know-how to help them. ”Women would discuss the issues of concern so that it would be a centre where the women would feel they have a place.”

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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Pat Sidley
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