Herstory needs to be rewritten and read
Heroes of history: so reads many a textbook that shapes young minds. As Women’s Month in August turns to Heritage Month in September, the “sheroes of herstory” that briefly take centre stage fade into the background. Male narratives once more dominate.
This year’s Heritage Month theme is: “The Year of Nelson Mandela: advancing transformation of South Africa’s heritage landscape.”
Speaking at the launch of Heritage month, Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa noted that “in the life of every nation, there arise men and women who leave an indelible and eternal stamp on the history of their peoples; human beings who are both products and makers of history.
And when they pass they leave a vision of a new and better life and the tools with which to win and build it”.
In 2018, South Africa celebrates the centenary of the lives of Nelson Mandela and of Albertina Sisulu. A comparison between the attention given to the two icons in public pronouncements, branding and events this year is instructive. There is no denying Mandela’s place in South African and global history. He towers above the rest in his vision and sacrifice without which this nation could never have been what it is today.
But, what about Sisulu? She was like countless other women who held homes, families and communities together and endured torture and harassment while their husbands and partners were in jail.What about the women who were also jailed? Did they contribute any less to the struggle for liberation?
In April, South Africa and the continent erupted in grief and eulogy over the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a former wife of Nelson Mandela, who kept his name alive during his 27 years in jail. Banished, tortured and harassed, she is posthumously celebrated as the mother of the nation, a title denied during her lifetime where the narrative focused on her shortcomings, bordering on vilification. As Mandela’s widow Graça Machel opined at one of the dozens of memorial services, the tributes came rather too late.
Recently, Zondeni Sobukwe, wife of struggle stalwart Robert Sobukwe, was posthumously awarded the National Order of Luthuli in silver. Like Madikizela-Mandela, it was only after her death that her huge personal sacrifices as an activist made news headlines.
Media monitoring by Gender Links shows that despite women now constituting 40% of MPs and half the Cabinet, they area mere 21% of news sources, a figure that has increased by just two percentage points since 2003.
Women remain the wallpaper of history and are daily denied a voice in our patriarchal society.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had one lone session on the experiences of women under apartheid that hardly made the headlines. But, for those who took the time to listen, it provided the missing link in the narrative of our past.
Apartheid is associated in our minds with large-scale, brutal public violence. The TRC hearings brought to light the unspoken gender violence that both the apartheid regime and the liberation struggle must answer for.
Across the globe, sexual assault as a weapon of war is a recurrent theme, and the least told of all stories. Like apartheid, it is a crime against humanity. And it lives on, in the high levels of violence that coexist with nearly 25 years of democracy.
Little wonder that in 2018, a new cast of young women leaders and gender nonconforming people led the defiant #TotalShutdown march, sending out the strong message that women had nothing to celebrate in August.
They put forward a list of 24 demands and timelines and sat outside the Union Buildings until President Cyril Ramaphosa came out to meet them after they refused to deal with his envoy, Minister of Higher Education Naledi Pandor.
A summit planned for the end of August was postponed to November 1. Ramaphosa has promised to be there on both days.
According to a background paper for the summit, spending on ending violence against women and children constitutes a mere 7% of 65 national and provincial departments. R18-billion is spent on immediate response, compared with only R9-billion on prevention; a quarter of a billion rand on early intervention and R3.10-billion on care and support.
These figures tell the story of a fire-fighting, reactive strategy that does little to shift the attitudes and mindsets that render women and their contributions invisible, and trivialise the daily violations of their constitutional right to bodily autonomy and integrity.
Prevention starts with rewriting the narrative about the role of women in society. Only when books such as Mmatshilo Motsei’s The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court, about former president Jacob Zuma’s rape trial, or Redi Tlhabi’s book, Khwezi, the biography of Zuma’s accuser, become compulsory reading in schools will we start to understand our real heritage. That starts with lifting the artificial divide between Women’s Month and Heritage Month, and making each day one in which #women’slivesmatter.
Colleen Lowe Morna is chief executive of Gender Links, Tarisai Nyamweda is media manager and Lucia Makamure is the alliance and partnerships manager