Black Women and Social Change

Marching to Pretoria Helen Joseph leads a march of more than 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest to the then-Prime Minister JG Strydom against the extension of pass laws to black women on August 9, 1956.Picture: Independent Archives

It is true that context defines character. It cannot be that people behave in particular ways without a context defining their behaviour. When analysing their behaviour, the context behind it is most important and should always be considered first. 

Even as I live in post-apartheid South Africa, at times I desire the courage and convictions of the black women who lived in the era of anti-apartheid social activism. Their vision was clear: a collective desire to live free of racial intolerance and state violence by any means necessary. 

They lived through everyday harassment by the state. Their children, family and community members were tormented, imprisoned and murdered at worst. Biased racial policies made mockery of their family lives and their collective development as a people. And these were intolerable by any measure to them. 
The vintage image of the two black women holding “women do not want passes” and “with passes we are slaves” placards for the 9th August 1956 women’s march is my favourite history gallery collection. The message to the state was simple and clear, with the pass law, you have tempered with our nervous system.  

On the national anti-pass movement, South African History Online writes, “…delivering a fiery speech to the crowd Dora Tamana, a member of the ANC Women’s League and a founding member of the Federation of South African Women, declared”:
We, women, will never carry these passes. This is something that touches my heart. I appeal to you young Africans to come forward and fight. These passes make the road even narrower for us. We have seen unemployment, lack of accommodation and families broken because of passes. We have seen it with our men. Who will look after our children when we go to jail for a small technical offence — not having a pass?
Combined into a history gallery, black women’s punches and blows at the apartheid state were remarkable and still deserve standing ovations from us as beneficiaries of their contributions to social justice. 

When I read about them and analyse images of their social activism, I am always left desiring to wear their shoes. But they do not fit. Their contexts were different from but similar to ours as far as unemployment, continued spatial development policies, social violence and acute poverty are concerned. It is, however, their courage and deep convictions with which they faced apartheid authorities, in the face of extreme state violence, that make their shoes too big to wear. 

The system was vile and authorities imprisoned, tormented and eliminated any black person who stood up to question it. And black women carried the burden of breaking families and communities.  

As they were breaking down themselves, they committed to end apartheid injustices even as it meant they would not return home to their families. The freedom of their families and communities from the grip of apartheid was a price worth sacrificing for. 

In her article, “Herschel’s die-hard women led the way”, Jessie Duarte, Deputy Secretary General of the ANC writes that “…black women from all walks of life have played key roles in the fight against oppression and the struggle. In many instances, they lined up against their oppressors with just sticks, songs and slogans. But most times, unity was the main weapon with which they confronted their enemy, usually white colonial authorities hell-bent on legislating them and their families into assuming lives of lesser human beings”.

The women of Herschel, as Jessie writes, are some of the historical women that send me into deep self-introspection. The conditions of black women in poor communities demand a unity of vision and purpose in making sure that the conditions are eliminated. It will take commitment similar to the women of Herschel and those from the anti-pass movement by contemporary black women to end the multifaceted experiences of black women in poor communities. 
As with the case of Herschel, the apartheid injustices were unpalatable because they were overt, uncompromising and direct at black people. They were race-based and their target was everyone who did not pass as white –and primarily black people. Logically, the responses by the targeted groups had to be overt and direct because the lines were clearly drawn. 

But, post-apartheid black women suffer from insidious systemic breakdowns and incapacities. This makes it challenging to conceptualise and develop unifying plans to eliminate the insidious social challenges in poor communities.

From the apartheid policies, anti-apartheid activists, advocates, student organisations and international allies clearly understood what they were faced with. As a result their responses were coordinated in line with the ultimate goal of ending apartheid injustices. 

In post-apartheid South Africa, the enemy has many faces. One day it is corruption, the next it is institutional collapse and incapacity, then social violence and list is exhaustive. The target keeps changing faces and positions, in the process creating intractable challenges. 

Despite the systemic challenges, however, the conditions facing black women in poor communities demand that those of us with the educational abilities to conceptualise and articulate these challenges do so uncompromisingly. The authorities need to be alerted and should respond by practically addressing the challenges. And they can only respond accordingly with clear and concise understanding of the existing challenges in the poor communities. 

But at times, as I research on the complex issues facing black women in poor communities, I find myself lacking the courage of the black women of Herschel and those of the apartheid anti-pass movement. Dora Tamana had deep convictions about their social and economic conditions –and the potential conditions awaiting them should they allow apartheid be sustained. With other black women, she understood that she had a role to play to avert the potential threats, on top of the then existing challenges the pass law and other laws presented to them and their families. She stood up and addressed the people and invited young Africans to take a stand against the social injustices. 

As a social sciences trained researcher and community builder, I am often disabled by the glaring challenges facing black women in poor communities. I then find myself standing between finding solutions that can be implemented by the women from within and those that should be the responsibility of the state. Writing to highlight these community challenges is one way to communicate to state authorities and other socially concerned and responsive institutions. It is necessary to conceptualise and implement their plans to eliminate the disablers in the empowerment of black women in poor communities. 
The desire and actions to imagine a peaceful and stable society is a collective responsibility of all South Africans. As the women’s month comes to an end, black women in all walks of life need to understand that we have a responsibility to be at the forefront of addressing the challenges as our ancestors have done so – and successfully.

Lindiswa Jan is a researcher & Masters candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town