Remember the women who blazed the trail

“The way I go is the way back to see the future,” says Czech-born photographer Jitka Hanzlová, describing her relationship and her work with the forest of her childhood. Hanzlová’s forest photography is social and political commentary. It is also, I believe, a political and historical engagement that says: we are here now as we were back then.

In returning, celebrating and meditating on the aesthetics of the forests of her childhood, Hanzlová also contests the narrative of her region and through her work makes it visible to those who probably would never have imagined that it existed.

I am drawn to this work because of the silence that so evidently co­exists with all other presences in Hanzlová’s work, as it does in our own societies. This being the centenary year of the South African Native National Congress, the precursor to the ANC, much will be said about its history. Even more will be written, said and sung about the founding fathers.

As in the lines of Bertolt Brecht’s poem A Worker Reads History — “Who built the seven gates of Thebes? The books are filled with names of kings” — I, too, am interested in the silences and absences that have so strongly become the hallmark of the ANC’s history.

Yes, Sekhukhune, Bambatha and many others resisted colonial conquest but were no women part of those struggles of resistance?

Space does not allow for a full examination of many of these women. Suffice it to suggest that we should pay closer attention to the role played by women such as Manthatisi who was a regent for the Tlokwa people in a period when they faced great strife and struggled for food and security. She kept her people together but also, through her leadership, she drew in others.

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Of course, some of these women, like the heroic men of their time, were not without contradictions nor was their leadership without blemish, controversy and excesses. Women such as Mkabayi, the senior sister of Senzangakhona, Shaka’s father, was powerful in her own right long before the reign of Shaka.

Their leadership styles were as varied and complex as those of the men of their time in Africa, Europe and elsewhere.

As we reflect on 100 years of the ANC, we must also reflect on the years that preceded its formation and honour, acknowledge, celebrate and critique the heritage bequeathed to us.

The ANC was formed on the bedrock of heroism and unfinished struggles of the previous century. At the time of its formation, women were not given membership. This is hardly surprising given the context and the time in which the organisation was formed, but it would be a grave mistake to equate formal membership with active political participation.

As far back as 1894, before the formation of the South African Native National Congress, women sent petitions to the municipal powers in Bloemfontein. In 1898, working under the banners of Women of the Household and Location Women, they wrote to president Theunis Steyn to explain their refusal to carry “service books”.

Hardly a year after the formation of the congress, in May 1913, women embarked on a militant protest in the streets of Bloemfontein under the banner “We are done with pleading, we now demand”.

The rapid growth of Bloemfontein attracted people from all over South Africa. As washerwomen doing laundry for middle-class whites in Bloemfontein, they were forced to carry 13 permits and this finally proved to be the trigger for protest. A permit was introduced that allowed them to do their laundry in the new public washrooms in order to earn their living.

Their militant public protest in the streets of Bloemfontein was unprecedented. They were jailed. In the 1950s, women explored different broad platforms and alliances that went beyond the ANC. They formed the Federation of South African Women — an initiative with which the ANC was not entirely comfortable, but which it could not stop.

In 1956 despite a strong ANC “recommendation” to the contrary, women led by the federation undertook their most risky operation — the march to Pretoria to protest against the extension of pass laws to African women. The exchanges between women such as Lillian Ngoyi and the ANC’s male leadership reveal a complex but mutually respectful relationship and sharp ideological contestations among equals.

Ngoyi and her comrades firmly tried to convince congress leaders to support the march, which was preceded by smaller provincial marches, especially in the Transvaal, where women tested the ground.

In the decades between then and now much has changed in the ANC and in the country. Much too has changed in the manner in which women locate and use their political agency within the ANC.

The longest surviving liberation movement in Africa celebrates it’s centenary confronted by major and fundamental contestations within its ranks and sometimes publicly displayed acrimonious differences within its leadership.

Looking at the ANC through the prism of women’s contestation within the organisation, it is clear that a paradigm shift needs to happen. Anniversaries are generally seen as times of celebration and the ANC has much to celebrate. But anniversaries are about much more than just celebration.

Perhaps, the ANC may want to take a leaf from Hanzlová’s book in which she said: “The way I go is back to see the future.” This dialectical relationship between grounding oneself in the past and being able to take off into the future without being encumbered by the complexity of that history is at the heart of my understanding of freedom.

This year, I will recall the names of women who have been trailblazers, in the 19th century, in the 20th century and now. Their names must be uttered loudly and publicly alongside those of the founding fathers.

These are women who once used this metaphor in addressing the ANC leadership: “If you are scared, let us wear the pants and show you how it is done.” Perhaps it is from their courage and wisdom that clues to the questions of today may be found.

Nomboniso Gasa is a researcher and analyst on gender, politics and cultural issues. She is also the editor of Women in South African History — From Pre-colonial to the Present


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