uManyano lomama is the longest-standing and most prolific African women’s organisation, recognised by its distinct uniforms and Thursday prayer meetings. In Devout domesticity? A century of African women’s Christianity in South Africa (1999), Deborah Gaitskell argues that the nature of the gendered and racialised missionary project saw Christianity and Methodism used to enforce the patriarchal ordering of gender roles for women. In addition to this, the imposition of Victorian Christianity offered black women “a way to escape from pre-Christian society”. Furthermore, through the gendering of spirituality and missionary work, devout domestication ensured that women prayer meetings and gatherings were infused with tasks that intersected with long-established ideas relating to motherhood, Christianity, and the private sphere. However, oomama boManyano have since reconfigured their identities, and implore us to think differently about the workings of these intersections and how they offer complex understandings of motherhood.
Motherhood for black women has often come under strain within various political climates in South Africa. During colonialism and the tyranny of the apartheid state, motherhood for black women was often expressed through the iconography of the militarised mother who was active in liberation politics. Militarised motherhood, particularly for the black mother in apartheid South Africa, offered a different version of what it meant to be a political mother rather than reinforce narrow understandings of motherhood that were previously described and associated with Victorian motherhood. Black motherhood came under the overreaching nature of apartheid violence, which meant that the site of struggle shifted to the home and community, a sphere in which women have particular responsibility and which they feel particularly obliged to defend.
This blurred the lines of where the public and private sphere began and redefined spaces where mothering took place. Furthermore, this destabilised Victorian ideals attached to motherhood and saw black women use “unconventional” spaces to confront the intimacy of apartheid violence. It is then not surprising that spaces such as uManyano lomama transformed from a constrained and religion-infused domestic/private sphere to one which placed the treating of motherhood at the center of South Africa’s public apartheid sphere through the use of the church and their spirituality. Prayer meetings, which are now well known as uLwesine lomama (Thursdays dedicated to prayer for oomama boManyano) coincided with the day black domestic workers were off duty from the white households they worked in. This day of prayer has been the heartbeat to the mothering work of oomama boManyano, as it was used to pray against the violence of apartheid rule and offered black women the space to devise theologies of survival.
ooMama boManyano recalled these prayer meetings as a time to pray for the safeguarding of children, men in the mines, and the precarity of their own lives due to apartheid rule. These prayer meetings were also articulated in the radio programmes, such Radio Xhosa and Radio Zulu (now UmhloboWenene and Ukhozi FM), run by women church leaders who led cross-denominational public sermons that allowed women to call in and air their personal challenges, pray for others, and request to be prayed for by other women. These radio programmes and uLwesine lomama still remain a prominent feature of many South African women who are part of the Manyano and for those who continue to recognise Thursday as a time to unite in prayer and to listen and share biblical teachings. These meetings continue to solidify the identity of oomama boManyano as oomama bomthandazo (mothers of prayer) and continue to be an integral part of mothering.
Tools and “theologies of survival” such as this have been sustained in the post-apartheid moment where the iconography of umama womthandazois relied upon either by the state, by civil society, or by ordinary South Africans. Recently, oomama boManyano have been called to pray without ceasing against femicide targeted at black women. This suggests that the spiritual work of mothering by omama boManyanostill remains an institution that sustains black life through the divine. Even in the post-apartheid state, omama boManyanno still rely on these “unconventional” spaces to sustain, protect, and strengthen black life.
This aspect of mothering confirms how black motherhood cannot be understood through clear distinctions of the private and public sphere. Prayer as a form of mothering ruptures and collapses public and private binaries, as this aspect of mothering is both a political and spiritual vocation which gives them the ability to retreat and mother in an “alternative sanctuary”. Mothering in an alternative sanctuary allows for omama boManyano to imagine differently for themselves and their communities in ways that are not limited to racialised and gendered oppressive representations.
This would have us question whether South African feminist discourse has the adequate conceptual tools to understand the complex ways in which black mothering for oomama boManyano is a constant interaction between the divine and the natural world which goes beyond public-private sphere binaries. A misrecognition of this complexity and the participation of black women in spaces such as uManyano lomama complicate interpretations of motherhood and mothering as understood in dominant (white Western) feminist theory in ways that have often lead to the delegitimisation and erasure of contributions of omama boManyano to ideas about post-apartheid feminisms.
In addition to prayer as an aspect of mothering, oomama boManyanoalso provide understandings of motherhood outside of biological determinants. Being umama womthandazo and by extension umama woManyano, isseen as a transition into seniority as opposed to the biological/reproductive transition one makes to motherhood. Umama woManyanoisa woman of seniority, and this seniority is acknowledged and respected irrespective of one’s claim to have a child of their own. Seniority-based social organising in relation to motherhood provides a different construction of motherhood, which allows us to unpack the cultures and institutions which inform motherhood that do not prioritise the logic of biology.
Seniority as a framework to understand social relations, particularly motherhood for omama boManyano, is useful in that it allows us to understand that entry to motherhood is really an entry into seniority. Many of oomama boManyano who collaborated with me on this study expressed how they did not have children of their own but they were still considered mothers in the church and in their communities. They further expressed that their age and/or the seniority of oomama boManyano in the church was their entry into motherhood. What could possibly be a crucial aspect to how women come to and access motherhood in Western contexts, is not a crucial and totalising factor for oomama boManyano, who think of motherhood in a combination of ways. This requires us to interrogate institutions such as uManyano lomama and how they expand the terrain on how we think of women’s entry into motherhood.
It is important to note that oomama boManyano recognise the patriarchal and gendered ordering of the church at large. However, when one considers the complexities, contradictions, and dualities of life, particularly for black women, it is impossible to make use of linear understandings to determine the legitimacy of such spaces. In Feminisms. Motherism, Patriarchies, and Women’s Voices in the 1950s (2007), Nomboniso Gasa argues that “there is a need for a non-linear, nuanced approach that is informed by the understanding that women straddle many positions”. Oppositional languages which view spaces such as uManyano lomama as anti-feminist do not recognise how this space allows for black women to see themselves and their fullness, how this is an institution which continues to sustain black life.
The questions we ought to interrogate are how do we collapse binary conceptual frameworks which depict women as either victims or victors, and consider perspectives that illuminate the depth and varying degrees of subversion, negotiation, contradictions, and survival strategies undertaken by omama boManyano? This approach allows us to open up feminist discourse in South Africa as we begin to build adequate tools to unravel the multi-textured and oftentimes contradictory nature of spaces integral to black life such uManyano lomama.
This text forms part of the MA study Lizalise Idinga Lakho [Honour Thy Promise]: The Methodist Church Women’s Manyano, the Bifurcated Public Sphere, Divine Strength, Ubufazi and Motherhood in Post-Apartheid South Africa