Women’s role in making SA history fudged out

Helen Joseph
Helen Joseph

I remember sitting in a history lesson, looking through the textbook, thinking: where are the stories of the heroic South African women?

Rather the books were filled with stories of the ANC men, Steve Biko and Jan van Riebeeck and their wives.

Winnie MadikizelaMandela was just Nelson Mandela’s wife, Mamphela Ramphele was just a doctor linked to Steve Biko and no one taught about Charlotte Maxeke, the first South African black female university graduate and leader of the Bantu Women’s League.

Some of these women have no identity without their legendary husbands or lovers.

The history of South Africa is very hegemonic and patriarchal. No one is talking about the great contribution of women during the struggle, no one is talking about the women of 1912 who stood up against the government with their anti-pass campaign.

Helen Joseph, a softly sung heroine of South Africa, has her prominent place in our history books lodged in 1956 when thousands of South African women marched to the Union Buildings, once again to fight for their place in a country they helped build.

But no one spoke about how she played a role in the international relations that contributed to the combating of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

It seems that the history of our women has simply been downplayed, making featured appearances in our history books. Why is the history of Bantu Women’s League hardly ever mentioned in our curriculum?

Women have been put in supporting roles in our history, they are never given the right to their own stories. A powerful woman is a dangerous woman and empowering a woman disables a man’s power.

If the idea and image of a man is to be upheld, you cannot show a woman in an equal light. The shadowing of the South African woman in our history books has weakened the women’s legacy in our country.

If it had not been for Madikizela-Mandela I don’t think Nelson Mandela would have been the figure he became, he would have never been as powerful as he was. Madikizela-Mandela was causing chaos in the country, she had thousands of followers and she was relentless – the government knew it.

She played a huge part as the mother of the nation during Nelson Mandela’s incarceration, but at the sacrifice of her own family. Madikizela-Mandela was quoted saying in an interview with Destiny magazine in January last year:

“When I was in detention all those months, my two children nearly died . . . They have the nerve to say, ‘Madiba is such a peaceful man. We wonder why he had a wife who’s so violent.’ ”

The media and history writers have turned this woman into the villain of history. The heroine she was never taught in our classes.

There are many women in South Africa whose songs were never sung, white, African, coloured and Indian.

That is why today we find ourselves as young women having to empower each other and ourselves 20 years after the advent of democracy, because our country does not empower us, it limits the women struggle fighters whom we can look up to.

The history we are taught in school is centred around men, it is a history that teaches us that women cannot be recognised in the same light as men.

There is no attention paid to the major contributions of women in our country. It is a history unwritten.

As a young South African woman, I worry about the future of women in our country. Women empowerment programmes will never stop growing, because our girls realise that women have no place in the country’s history.

-Sinazo Mtshengu

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One thought on “Women’s role in making SA history fudged out

  • January 28, 2015 at 9:36 am

    Put women in charge of South Africa! They have more common sense and are more efficient.The Western Cape is thriving under the leadership pf Helen Zilleand Patricia de Lille is an amazing Mayor of Cape Town!


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