A fitting tribute to South Africa’s heroines

It couldn’t have been easy to compile a list of only 26 inspiring women, but what a list it is.

A-Z of Amazing South African Women, written by Ambre Nicolson and illustrated by Jaxon Hsu, is a gorgeous and moving book.

It was also a labour of love for independent publishing house Modjaji Books, which made use of a Thundafund campaign to raise funds for the book’s publication. Modjaji is also the publisher of titles such as Tess (previously published as Whiplash) by Tracey Farren, Bom Boy by Yewande Omotoso and I Am the Girl Who Was Raped by Michelle Hattingh.

The striking cover immediately draws your attention, and Hsu’s colourful illustrations grace every double page spread. The use of bright colours was a good choice — Fatima Meer is represented in lime-green and magenta — and gives the book a fresh, cheerful look, despite the sometimes grim content of its text.

Struggle heroes are well represented on the list, including Meer, Lillian Ngoyi, Ruth First, Cissie Gool and Mam’ Winnie, and Nicolson tells their stories with as much detail as a one-page biography allows.

It’s noticeable how many of these women were banned in their own homeland, such as Miriam Makeba who lived without a country for 30 years because the apartheid government cancelled her passport and revoked her citizenship while she was abroad. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around this. How can you ban a person, a human being? How can you say that someone born on this soil is no longer a citizen? (These are rhetorical questions, of course. We know.)

That is the power and the magic of A-Z: every slice of a life is thought-provoking. From poet and writer Antjie Krog to visual artist Zanele Muholi, their voices shine through the pages.

One of the wonderful things about A-Z is the range of women it honours. In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, the list includes athlete Caster Semenya, rapper Dope Saint Jude, media entrepreneur Khanyi Dhlomo and former Treatment Action Campaign activist Vuyiseka Dubula.

To my delight, the list also features Glenda Kemp, the activist and striptease dancer who scandalised ooms and tannies in the 1970s by performing with a python named Oupa.

Here, too, are our foremothers: fossilised Mrs Ples and Krotoa, the young Khoi girl who was forced to become a servant for Jan van Riebeeck and his family and who was a crucial interpreter between the Dutch settlers and the Khoi. Dutch settlers gave Krotoa the name Eva, but the significance of the name cannot be ignored. Her blood still runs through the veins of many South Africans.

Reluctantly, I must confess to being a big softie who cried my way through the entire book. But don’t be misled, it is a delight. It’s suitable for younger readers too, if you have godchildren — or your own children — you’d like to spoil.

The book made me feel proud. How wonderful to see the extraordinary women of your country being shown in all of their power and fearlessness.

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