Crossroads. I found myself staring at the crossroads. Art imitating life… The depiction on the walls bore not just their names, it represented the crossroads that countless courageous South African women found themselves at, almost daily, under that monster called apartheid.
Why should they fight? Was politics even something women and young girls should involve themselves in? What about their families, their husbands and children? Should they rather sit quietly at home?
They defied the odds and fought. South Africa’s struggle for liberation would not have reached the heights it did without women. That, isn’t acknowledged enough and I dare say that the tokenism of Women’s Month isn’t enough either.
The exhibition currently on at the 1860 Heritage Centre is a bold reminder of why women must be saluted – not just the women already in the spotlight, but those whose stories remain untold. Some images will jar you, some will inspire you, others will make you feel sad. Two images remain etched in my mind a day after visiting the exhibition – of Pachiappan’s widow and child, pictured below, and the image of the petite blue plastic dress by artist Judith Mason in tribute to Phila Ndwandwe. The acting head of Umkhonte we Sizwe’s Natal military arm in Swaziland, she was abducted, interrogated, tortured and killed by members of the Port Natal and Natal Security Branches. She was only 23. Even in death, Phila Ndwandwe attempted to hold onto her dignity – she was found naked except for a piece of plastic that she used to make a pair of panties out of.
I have said this before when writing about exhibitions at the centre, and it bears repeating. The power of the exhibition lies in personal interpretation and internalisation of the images and the impressions created within that single room. We all can walk out with different understandings based on our own lived experiences and circumstances. But to walk out, we have to walk in.
There must be concerted effort to engage with such exhibitions that lay bare the history books in an interactive and detailed manner, and even capture history that hasn’t been adequately documented.
I was particularly touched by the images and the work of Dr Kesavaloo Goonam.
Her life has always fascinated me. It still does. She grew up surrounded by people like Mahatma Gandhi, Monty Naicker, Strinivasa Sastri and M.L Sultan. Perhaps, it was only natural that their indomitable spirit would brush off on her. She was so determined to become a medical doctor, that she convinced her father to allow her to study in Scotland because no medical school in South Africa would open its doors to Indians.
When she returned home, she didn’t just set up practice as a doctor, she set into a life of activism. She was one of the main organisers of the passive resistance campaign of 1946 – which saw protests against the so-called campaign “Ghetto Act” that limited the land available to Indians. She was imprisoned at least 17 times for her political work, and when she became vice president of the Natal Indian Congress, she was continuously harassed. She went into exile to return when the wheels of democracy began turning in the 1990s.
I learnt about Dr Goonam from reading her autobiography titled “Coolie Doctor”. And so, you can imagine my elation when she was the guest of honour at my primary school awards day in 1995. I was in standard 5, now grade 7, and Dr Goonam handed the Good Fellowship Award to me. She looked resplendent in her sari, and I vividly remember her botoo – meaning big dot, which was aptly the title of Ronnie Govender’s play based on her life in 2013.
I recall Dr Goonam asking me what I wanted to become. I replied, “I want to become a journalist.” She smiled and complimented me on my career choice. Little did I realise the enormous responsibilities being a journalist came with. She probably did, knowing how the fearless work of journalists also contributed to the struggle against apartheid with many being banned and imprisoned.
I would be failing these journalists and heroines like Dr Kesavaloo Goonam if I fail to motivate you to learn more about our history. Women were at the forefront – make no mistake about that. But, how much do we know about their struggles – both political and personal?
The passing of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela earlier this year and the reactions that flowed, sadly highlighted this. She was worshipped by many and vilified by as many. This came from a lack of understanding about her life.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was only human. In her own words, “I am the product of the masses of the people and the product of my enemy.”
Let us not judge, if we do not know.
You can get to know the women of our struggle by visiting the 1860 Herirage Centre in Durban.
Contact 031 309 1858. You can also find out more here