Strong SA women who should feature in future history books
Our country has no lack of black women who have fought proudly and bravely in standing up to oppression. It’s time they were recognised, writes Mathahle Stofile
Throughout history, black women all over the world have found themselves in positions where they are nurturing others before themselves.
These women are usually at the forefront of social change, speaking up against domestic violence, sexual violence, racism, oppression of minority groups, and many other social injustices.
For this to happen, they usually have to stand up against oppressive systems that by design, put them at the very bottom of the barrel.
How I wish future history books would include the stories of many African women who went against the grain and dared to go beyond where they were told they could. There are many, of course.
Here are some of the modern ones you should at least know of, if not admire:
PHYLLIS NTANTALA-JORDAN (1920-2016)
Academic, feminist, author and activist
WHAT TO KNOW
Phyllis Ntantala-Jordan has not only been described as “a woman of extraordinary intellect”, but also a free-thinker, feminist, academic, activist, and author. She was also a wife and mother of four.
Ntantala-Jordan wrote about the difficulties, traumas, and poor living conditions that black women faced as their families were broken apart.
When men and husbands were forced to find work in cities, on farms, and at mines, they could not take their families with them because of the migrant labour system. Ntantala-Jordan gave voice to her views about this and many other issues in essays and articles she wrote, as well as public lectures she gave back in the ’50s and beyond.
Ntantala-Jordan was a black feminist at a time when women’s rights were not at the forefront of the Struggle
WHAT TO ADMIRE
Ntantala-Jordan was a political activist who interrogated the systematic oppression of black people with a strong focus on women. She was a black feminist at a time when women’s rights were not at the forefront of the Struggle. Black people were fighting for freedom and equality, but not many were sensitive to the unique struggles of the black woman. Ntantala-Jordan put a spotlight on these through her work.
“Ntantala describes with sensitivity and power the deliberate impoverishment and calculated disintegration of African families,” wrote Sisi Maqagi of Ntantala-Jordan’s 1958 essay, The Widows of the Reserves. American writer and activist, Langston Hughes published this essay in his book An African Treasury: the Power and the Glory of the Black Experience.
Other notable essays Ntantala-Jordan wrote include The Black Woman under Apartheid, The Abyss of Bantu Education, Let’s Hear Them Speak, and The Cruelty of Racism.
BRENDA FASSIE (1964-2004) AND LEBO MATHOSA (1977-2006)
WHAT TO KNOW
Both Fassie and Mathosa were supremely comfortable in their own skin. They had so much in common, not least their refusal to conform to what society dictated.
In fact, they were everything little black girls were taught not to be, much to the panic of black parents across the country: smokers of cigarettes, owners of their own sexuality, loud talkers, back chatters, and wild balls of energy — publically!
They were both also incredible vocalists and fantastic entertainers. Their talent outshone every other quality they possessed.
WHAT TO ADMIRE
There are many reasons to admire MaBrrr, of course. At a time when policemen in the US are killing black men and women for no reason other than because they fear (or hate) them, it is difficult not to be reminded of Fassie’s 1989 song, Good Black Woman, where she sings about the apartheid government’s police brutality and its horrid attitude towards black citizens, specifically black women.
It was 1989/90 and a volatile time in South Africa but this didn’t stop Fassie from making her feelings well known by the apartheid government when she released Black President, an ode to Nelson Mandela.
Fassie and Mathosa should be admired because they both threw the middle finger at any stigma many tried to attach to them as women
Fassie and Mathosa should be admired because they both threw the middle finger at any stigma many tried to attach to them as women. They were slut shamed many a time, called ugly because they didn’t look a certain way, and rude because they spoke their minds.
Mathosa and Thembi Seete (her band member from Boom Shaka days) were twerking before anyone gave it a name, and became style icons with their bum-length, thicker-than-thick box-braids and booty-shorts paired with crop tops. Later Mathosa would be known for her ever-changing hair colour, worn in any which way she pleased.
There is something to be said for those who use their platforms to speak up when not many will… for any cause they feel strongly about. This is especially true when such actions may put their own well-being at risk.
MIRIAM MAKEBA (1932-2008)
Singer and civil rights activist
WHAT TO KNOW
After having her passport revoked by South African apartheid authorities in 1960, Miriam Makeba unwittingly became an international and political singer. She told The Guardian: “I am not a political singer. I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in SA.
No! I was singing about my life, and in SA we always sang about what was happening to us — especially the things that hurt us.” She sang about love, spirituality, humanity, unity and, struggle.
WHAT TO ADMIRE
Being exiled from her home country did not stop Makeba from telling the world about the oppression black people faced in South Africa. She inspired hope and a powerful sense of unity in black people during times that sometimes seemed hopeless. She became an international emblem of black suffering under apartheid.
Makeba was banned by the SABC but that didn’t stop her from speaking out against the beast that was the apartheid government
Makeba was banned by the South African state broadcaster (SABC) but that still didn’t intimidate her or stop her from speaking out against the beast that was the apartheid government.
Many forms of expression were censored by this government, and music was definitely seen as a threat as many songs called for action against the evils of apartheid. Makeba won a Grammy in 1965 for An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, a collaboration with the American singer and activist Harry Belafonte.
• This article is adapted from one originally published in Sunday Times The Edit Spring/Summer '16. This magazine is sent out to select print subscribers.