BIG READ: Trauma and tenacity: how women activists shaped SA
Do we celebrate Women’s Month in SA, or do we use it to mourn all that is not right in the country related to women?
Women in Solitary is a true SA story of four women — Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, Rita Ndzanga, Shanthie Naidoo and Nondwe Mankahla — and their refusal to testify in the apartheid-era “Trial of 22” in 1969. The book tells the story of the trial, which included Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and looks at the gendered aspect of their activism. It details the torture and camaraderie the women experienced in prison, their triumph eventually and surviving a system that tried to oppress them, and failed.
In the book, I also explore why this 1969 story is relevant to us in 2020. The answer is that the “struggles” may be different but as the social-media generation says, the struggle is real, and it is still with us. Today, the struggles facing women range from gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) to unequal pay and patriarchy. Why are we still fighting to dismantle these oppressive and dangerous structures in our society in 2020?
First, these are global problems. When a study on unpaid economic activity by philanthropist Melinda Gates’s foundation is released annually, I wait desperately for improvement. Year on year, no significant changes appear. The study shows that in SA, every single day, women are responsible for two-and-a-half hours more unpaid labour than men. This is the status quo in every country in the world, even developed ones. “Chores like laundry, cooking and making sure the children get to school on time ... these are barriers to gender equality. Spending so much time caring for the home keeps women from furthering their education and income,” says Gates.
And when women do manage to pass the work on, it generally goes to another woman. The estimates are that women lose seven years of life to this unpaid work — or a bachelors plus master’s degree, time to keep fit and even to rest and take moments of leisure. The solution is to divide unpaid labour equally among men and women, and removing limitations on the paid work women can do.
But there is a uniquely SA impediment to this. How do we divvy up labour in a country that is plagued by the worst gender-based violence in the world, which is likely to be linked to unhealed generational trauma?
Resistance and activism
The women in my book had a unique, gender-specific experience around resistance and activism. When Madikizela-Mandela passed on, we were reminded that the female narrative of the struggle against apartheid, and in all history, is vastly different to that of the men.
The activism of women in SA’s struggle against apartheid was vital. Women took on central political roles where gaps were left by imprisoned male leaders. They took on additional political roles to their personal ones, abandoning the societal expectation of motherhood and nurturing, or in spite of it. These mothers, daughters and sisters who contributed and fought on the streets even after their release, are important. Their bodies and minds were tortured in unimaginable ways, their own children used as collateral against them. Few remember debriefing or any kind of counselling. They were too busy fighting the long fight, surviving.
Madikizela-Mandela’s story is well known and well documented. But the stories of many other women, who chose to get involved and suffered horribly in detention and prison for their courage and convictions, are hardly known at all. As that generation ages and memories fade, their prison experiences and what they did afterwards — building a resistance movement that is known worldwide — is fading too.
The year 2019/2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the detention of those of the Trial of 22, and the stories of the seven women involved have not thus far been told collectively or in the context of their emotional experience. They would not have known then, but hopefully we do now, that in surviving detention and standing up for their comrades in the Trial of 22 they bravely paved the path to democracy.
We are either not aware of stories like these, or do not acknowledge them. And what of the emotional impact on women here, and the women in the trial and all the others? Where does that leave us today?
How untold stories come back to haunt us
Shortly before Rivonia trialist Ahmed Kathrada’s death in 2017 he questioned why his life partner Barbara Hogan, a former minister and former detainee, had not told her story of incarceration and struggle. He believed it was time. HIV/Aids advocacy group the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) some years before had published a brief ode to Hogan, saying: “When Barbara was appointed minister of health in 2008, most people did not know her. This tribute is written because she is a remarkable (almost anonymous) leader.”
This year, at the inquest into the death of Dr Neil Aggett, an anti-apartheid activist who died in detention after being arrested by the security police, Hogan for the first time gave rare testimony about her own detention. “Can I just say that the reopening of the inquest is very painful for everyone sitting here, but it’s timely and I have just spoken of the terrors that I faced and many people faced worse,” she said. “Neil and everyone who died in detention under these terrible circumstances need to have justice, need to be heard and have justice done.”
Hogan was detained in 1981, held in solitary confinement for a year, then sentenced to 10 years in prison. “I was desperate,” Hogan said of her period in detention. “I wanted to kill myself. I saw no way of my getting out of that situation because I knew of many people who died in detention. I knew what they [the apartheid security police] were capable of and I just saw myself being tortured to death for information I simply could not provide.” She tried to commit suicide by stealing the medication prescribed for her injuries, swallowing it all, and tying the cord from her dressing gown around her neck.
Hogan’s is one of many stories of women like her, activists working for justice, journalists, wives of imprisoned cadres and the female struggle leaders themselves. The women who participated in the movement are ageing now, and many have passed on. There are a few who can share the stories of what happened in their minds and to their bodies when they were targeted by the apartheid government. The effects will last for years to come. Their children and grandchildren are those we engage in work, life, corporate spaces and on the street today. Generational trauma passed on to children has been found to be carried in our DNA. Academic work proves that this trauma is one of the reasons for the imbalances we see in SA society today, particularly linked back to GBVF.
The women involved in the resistance campaigns lived through gender-specific harassment and abuse. Female political detainees were treated particularly harshly. Gender sensitivity was considered a secondary weapon.
Strip-searches by male officers, threats and acts of sexual assault, inspection of every orifice by male officers alone in their cells, political prisoners told that their children would be murdered, denial of sanitary material. These were meant to batter women as fiercely as possible, attacking them at their womanhood.
Despite these conditions, women were far from compliant. They managed their confined spaces through common sense, tenacity and a steadfast belief in their resistance and the justice of their struggle, Prof Kalpana Hiralal at University of KwaZulu-Natal records. “The courage and sacrifices they made are important in giving greater visibility to both the tangible and intangible contributions women made in the liberation struggle in SA. The gendered prison narratives illustrate not only women’s contributions to the liberation struggle in their own right but also how the prison was another terrain of political struggle, resistance, confrontation, and negotiation by women.”
There are suggestions that political prisoners have lived with untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If we pause to think about these women’s children, with long-absent fathers and routinely missing mothers, we may get an inkling of what wounds the current and subsequent generations of South Africans are still having to bear. If, as the science says, we carry these wounds in our DNA, a deeper exploration will allow a deeper understanding. Few of the older generation have sought psychological help for the emotional trauma they suffered as a result of standing up for their political beliefs. It is my view that the effects of this continue to be reflected in SA’s society today.
There are academic studies that explicitly link solitary confinement to PTSD, a mental health condition which is triggered by a terrifying or traumatic event — either experiencing it personally or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Shanthie Naidoo’s nightmares continue 50 years later, for instance. In the treatment for both victims and witnesses — in SA, this could mean society as a whole — it is important first to acknowledge, and then release associated feelings.
Joyce, Shanthie, Ma Rita and Nondwe all showed the typical early signs of having gone through difficulties adjusting and coping, but with time they managed to continue their lives. Over the years, they have all experienced intrusive memories, avoidance of discussion, changes in thinking and mood and reactions that varied in waves of intensity over time, and could be triggered by reminders.
A collective consciousness
There are about 40-million South Africans who were and will continue to be affected by apartheid. Gender-specific violence and emotional burdens — even the manner in which people are remembered — are important in understanding the past and present SA, and the country’s collective mental state.
For the broader population, this can be an ongoing process. Not just for political detainees in SA, but for the general population, and especially for women. This was one of the reasons for the Khulumani group’s formation — to address the impact of apartheid on society’s collective consciousness. Spokesperson Marjorie Jobson says, “many people who suffered gross human rights violations in the struggle for freedom and democracy and who sacrificed to give birth to this democracy, still have not found repair or healing for the harms done to them during those times”.
Khulumani’s work since its inception has been based on storytelling as a form of healing.
But first economic emancipation must come and bodies must be fed, or we are wasting our time trying to heal our minds. The latter before the former only takes us backwards and makes us more angry and undermined. But there is a way to do this concurrently. If those with the power to make a difference (read: men) act to shift the narrative and make change, while keeping the memory of those who came before front of mind, it can cumulatively break cycles of poverty. Then, we can move forward.
Award-winning feminist writer Shailja Patel puts it simply. “Read women. Cite women. Credit women. Teach women. Publish women. Present women. Acknowledge women. Award women. Amplify women. Hire women. Support women. Promote women. Hear women. Believe women. Follow women. Pay women. Pay women. Pay women.”
Disclaimer: My day job is in content marketing at Discovery Limited where at least 59% of permanent headcount is female, 73% people of colour.
• Shanthini Naidoo is author of ‘Women in Solitary: Inside the Female Resistance to Apartheid (Tafelberg).
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