QONDILE KHEDAMA: Ellen Kuzwayo - a brawny campaigner for women’s rights
The 29 June 2019 marked the birthday of one of the black brawny South African woman Nnoseng Ellen Kuzwayo, an anti-apartheid crusader who is described as an early leader of the struggle for the African women.
Ma’K, as she was affectionately known among her peers, was one of the internationally recognised female revolutionaries who inspired many community leaders of the time, including prolific literary activists such as Nadine Gordimer, Ruth First and Eleanor Sisulu.
Former President Thabo Mbeki, in his oration during her funeral in 2006, said: “She has been everywhere. The child from Thaba Nchu grown into a giant that trekked through our country and all Africa, and journeyed through the whole world, without the pass of indignity that brought 20,000 women to the Union Buildings 50 years ago."
And what better words can we find to express the historic presence of Kuzwayo in our past, our present and future than those composed by yet another of our heroes, the esteemed and world-renowned artisan of the universe of words, Gordimer, who said: "Ellen Kuzwayo is history in the person of one woman".
Kuzwayo, who served as president of the African National Congress Youth League in 1946, was saluted by progressive forces as a gender activists who waged a struggle against apartheid and who became feared by the oppressive system of the time.
Through her commitment to advocating for a better life for women, Kuzwayo came to embody the spirit of the left crusade against oppressive regime. Her fighting spirit was shaped by her background and her life experience.
Her journey of life is not unique to that of many African women of the world, who were forced to be resilient despite their circumstances and made slaves in the land of their births. One such woman was Sorjourner Truth - a remarkable leader, African abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York but managed to escape with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. After going to court to recover her son in 1828, she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man. She gave herself the name Sorjourner Truth in 1843 after she became convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the countryside to testify that hope was within her.
Kuzwayo was born in Lesotho. She grew up on her grandfather's farm in Thaba Nchu, and inherited it in 1930. But she lost it soon after it was declared a "white area". Although her parents got divorced when she was very young, Kuzwayo grew up surrounded by cousins and aunts. Her mother died when she was 16 years old, and she committed herself to her studies after that. She graduated as a teacher in 1936 at the age of 22 from the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape. At the age of 39 she pursued studies in social work, and this allowed her to contribute meaningfully to advancing the plight of young women.
Like any journey of the struggle, Kuzwayo did not have it easy. In 1977 at the age of 63, she was detained for five months under the then-Terrorism Act for an offence that was never specified. In South Africa during apartheid, blacks were continuously sent to prison for little or no reason, making it more difficult to resist the regime. While it is well known that many black South African men were imprisoned and tortured by the government, there isn't enough recognition that women were subjected to the same oppression.
It is a fact that women and their children were an inspiration, but equally women were never free. Although life in prison was worse for women, confinement life was harsh for everyone. What it made it worse during those times was that some prisons reached almost 200% of their capacity making it an even unhealthier space to find yourself in.
In her autobiography “Call Me Woman”, Kuzwayo chronicled the fateful day when security forces arrived at her house. They handed her a document from the apartheid Minister of Justice and Prisons, granting them the authority to search, arrest or detain her.
Kuzwayo was bewildered to a point that she couldn’t recall every step of the incident except that we she was cheered by men who were part of the “committee of 10”, of which she was the only female member. Nthatho Motlana and Vella Kraai and others who were on the scene in the long passage of the Protea Police Station congregated around Kuzwayo to give her a support. Later in the same passage she came across Thenjiwe Mthintso. This gave her hope that she was not the only woman in the crew. Though distraught by detention, the jail term never deterred her commitment from the community of Soweto.
Kuzwayo, a vociferous believer in black consciousness, formed part of the first crop of women leadership representing women in the first democratic Parliament in 1994.
South Africa has since increased female representation in most strategic public areas of interest, and continued pursuing affirmation of women in positions of responsibility and advocating for gender equity.
In its 2013 to 2017 research report brief on gender equity, the South African Human Rights Commission indicates that the Constitution makes the achievement of equality a foundational value of the Republic of South Africa, while Section 9 of the Constitution guarantees the right to equality.
It does so by providing for equality of all before the law, allowing for positive redress measures to advance previously disadvantaged persons, and by prohibiting unfair discrimination by the state and by individuals. In addition, the Constitution includes provisions that consider the need for the state to actively advance equitable access to land (Section 25(5)); housing (Section 26(2)); healthcare; food, water and social assistance (Section 27(2)); and equity in education (Sections 29(1)(b) and 29(2)(a)).
Another recent remarkable milestone on gender parity on the continent was Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's very radical reshuffle, which saw women occupying 50% of the Cabinet positions. He also made sure that a number of the women held key cabinet posts.
This included the defence portfolio, which has remained male-dominated globally, except in Zimbabwe where Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri made history.
Not only was this historic, but it was also a show of leadership, considering that Ethiopia is the home of the African Union, where recommendations on gender mainstreaming have been passed ad infinitum since the formation of the Organisation of African Union in 1963.
Over few months ago, Zimbabweans also witnessed a new-look Cabinet with President Emmerson Mnangagwa appointing six women Cabinet ministers, with some of them leading strategic portfolios such as defence and information, publicity and broadcasting services.
Before them was Rwanda President Paul Kagame, who was also the rotational African Union chairperson and made deliberate moves to ensure that there was equal gender representation in his government.
Even developed countries have attested that in Rwanda there is gender parity, since it is the only country in the world with a majority of women cabinet ministers.
Stalwarts such as Kuzwayo laid the foundation that elevated women to key decision-making positions, and is testament that women are just as capable as their male counterparts when the playing field is levelled.
Qondile Khedama is a social commentator and communications practioner based in Mangaung . He writes in his personal capacity.