Obituary: Lauretta Ngcobo, writer and activist who gave vulnerable women a voice

08 November 2015 - 02:00 By Chris Barron

Lauretta Ngcobo, who has died at the age of 84, was a South African writer and activist who gave a voice to the ordinary, the marginalised and the vulnerable. She was born in the village of Cabazi in Ixopo in KwaZulu-Natal in 1931. She was surrounded by books as a child and became an avid reader. She also loved listening to the traditional stories her parents told her.By the time she went to school, at the age of eight, she knew that she wanted to write.After matriculating at Inanda Seminary she studied teaching at Fort Hare University, where she was one of only 38 women students among 400 men.story_article_left1The professors and lecturers, who were all male, made it clear that they considered female students an aberration and waste of their time, not to be taken seriously and not to be encouraged to take themselves or their ambitions too seriously either.They were interested only in their male students."No matter how much effort you put in, I realised that they were teaching men and there was a mistake or some unfortunate situation where there were women as well," she said many years later when interviewed for a "living legends" programme."Some of them even had an aggressive attitude when they asked you a question."This prepared me for a situation where I was discouraged from writing. I didn't think anybody would be interested in what I had to say."This experience taught her how easily, completely and unconsciously a culture can "destroy" the dreams and aspirations of young people.In her writings she shone a sharp and perceptive light on how apartheid reinforced and exacerbated the culture of patriarchal oppression that subjugated women in traditional Zulu society.She was one of the first black women who was able to write about this from an insider's point of view, which gave her work a compelling authenticity."A woman is not only black, but at the same time must also submit to her husband who, being oppressed [by apartheid], will find it necessary to oppress his women," she explained."In our tradition we find customs against which resistance is in vain."She became an anti-apartheid activist in the '50s and made speeches rallying support for the historic women's march against the pass laws in 1956.Her husband, Abednego Ngcobo, was also a struggle activist and in 1963 they and their children were forced into exile.They moved to Swaziland and then Zambia before settling in Britain, where she worked as a teacher for 25 years and where for the first time in her life she was able to enjoy the company of other black women writers from the African diaspora.She regained the confidence that had been all but squeezed out of her at Fort Hare and began writing.It was not until 1981, however, that her first book, Cross of Gold, was published. Of its genesis she said: "I was contemplating what had catapulted my life into exile and how it had all come about."Let it be Told, published in 1987, recounts in their own words the turbulent thoughts of black women writers in Britain in the '80s.story_article_right2Perhaps her best-known book is And They Didn't Die (1991), about a rural community of women who, against the backdrop of the 1913 and subsequent land acts, care and fight for their children, the land and the cattle while their husbands work in the mines and cities.In 2012, she published Prodigal Daughters: Stories of South African Women in Exile, a compilation of stories from 18 South African women who lived in exile in various parts of the world, recounting their roles in the struggle.She returned to South Africa in 1994 and was a member of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature and information officer for the IFP.She received a lifetime achievement award from the South African Literary Awards in 2006 and in 2008 was awarded the presidential Order of Ikhamanga (silver) for her achievements in literature.She is survived by five children.

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