Secondly, women’s stories are told in a way that shows them as working alone, as the women they worked with are not always written about as part of their stories. This, of course, closes opportunities for further work ... [to discover] what many other women might have worked on in collaboration with the women we write about.
The 1956 protest couldn’t have happened without collaboration. We also see how the women’s stories were interconnected. For example, Mam’ Dube started the Ohlange Institute and former deputy president Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was a student there and also taught there. Or the network of feminists and social workers, Zanele Mbeki and activist and social worker Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who studied at the same institution. Thus, the women were not alone. Together, they formed a strong force which confronted the colonial and apartheid regimes.
We have noted some improvements in the recognition of the work that our imbokodo women have done, in that the government’s national orders have been bestowed on some, if not most of those featured in our books. But this is not common knowledge for many South African children in schools. Children learn about these women later on in life, and only if and when they are curious to read. By then, this information is only accessible to those who can read in English. Our books are available in isiXhosa, isiZulu, Afrikaans, Sesotho and English.
Masola: Women have also told their own stories through memoirs and essays. But much of the ways in which South Africa’s history is told is through political history and grand movements. Very little is written about how women are affected by wars, for example; the assumption is that the stories about war are the stories of men.
How did you make the selections for each of the books?
Masola: This was really tough. But it is important that people see our selections not as definitive, but as ongoing. The historical figures were much easier than the contemporary figures because we had been collecting content for years. So we initially made a list of people who come to mind and have possibly not received as much attention in previous works, such as books such as Women Writing Africa. Someone like schoolteacher Mina Soga is less well known than scholar and activist Charlotte Maxeke, even though they were contemporaries. Even while there are a few more hypervisible figures, such as Maxeke and social worker and activist Madikizela-Mandela, it felt important to include them because they are the hook or entry point for some people insofar as how they understand women’s role in history.