The March undertaken by the women of South Africa to mark the opening of Women’s month is a stark reminder that women are still demanding basic respect, and the right to be treated as equals even amongst their most intimate partners. The struggles of women across the world are far from homogenous. From Cape to Cairo, Morocco to Madagascar: the atrocities committed against women are an indictment on humanity.
The historical record in so far as Africa is concerned shows that women have not only enjoyed respect, but also they have been formidable leaders. Despite this historical fact we seldom read or hear of Queen Nzinga [queen of Mbundu in the current Angola] who resisted the early thrusts of colonialism whilst building an empire which could rival any other in the world
In Ethiopia, it was Queen Taytu Betul (c.1851–1918), wife of Menelik (King of Shoa and later Negus Negast or King of Kings) who deftly shielded Ethiopia from colonialism. She is credited for devising a plan that led to the Ethiopian victory at Makalle. It is said that her presence was crucial in the Ethiopian victory at Adwa in 1896, the most significant victory of any African army during the climax of European colonialism. UMntwana uMkabayi kaJama a trusted advisor of King Tshaka, it said that one of the greatest leaders seldom made decision without her counsel. At every phase of numerous moments, women have been immensely influential.
It is little wonder that even in Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), was largely influenced by the actions of women. Within its ranks the ANC has one of the oldest female formations on the continent, in form of the Bantu Women’s league, which has now morphed into the ANC Women’s League.
Prior to its formation a group of women led by Charlotte Maxeke burned their passes in front of municipal offices, staged protest marches, sang slogans and fought with the police 1913. This was of the first protests of defiance against the apartheid regime.
Writer and later became one of the founders of the South African Natives Congress, Sol Plaatjie commented on their strength and courage when he went to see them in the Kroonstad Prison. “They don’t care”, he wrote in Tsala ea Batho, even if they die in jail.
They swear they will cure that madness; they will stop their protest only when the law prevents policemen from stopping and demanding passes from other men’s wives. In 1914, the government relaxed the women’s pass laws and their resistance ended in 1914. This act of defiance was replicated on 9 August 1956 when South African women led a total revolt against pass laws. They were led by Albertina Sisulu and other gallant women.
It is therefore unsurprising that great women like Jeanne Martin Cissé of Guinea, the founder and first Secretary-General of the Pan-African Women’s Organisation (PAWO) was the first woman to serve as President of the United Nations Security Council. Created a year before the formation of the Organisation for African Unity, PAWO was a movement that sought to advance unity amongst African states; eradicate the blatant violation of human rights and advance the struggle of women to participate in decision making in politics, economics, cultural and social spaces.
Speaking at the inaugural conference of PAWO Phumla Ngozwana Kisosonkole who, despite being prohibited from many educational posts, became the first African woman on the Legislative Council of the Protectorate Government in 1956 in Uganda, said “These days the cry of the ‘role of women’ is being heard in Africa from East to West, and from North to South. What is the answer for East Africa? Times have changed and are changing very fast, and the woman must change with them in order that she does not become the ‘forgotten factor’. . . and [she] will be ready and willing to play the fullest part in shaping the destinies of her country.”
Since then, PAWO has gone on to become a transnational women’s movement. This movement has been instrumental in forging international consensus on a rights-based approach to women’s rights. Moving forward it seeks to have continental and sub-regional influences in domestic politics, in order to serve as a critical conduit for changing international norms. In this sense, PAWO sees itself as a global transnational women movement, which could be a vehicle for changing the status of women.
For us to change the perceptions society has about women, we need to reverse the “mansplaining” of history. As South Africa celebrates the century world icon Tata Nelson Mandela, the story of Mama Albertina Sisulu also needs to be told with great fervour.
As PAWO celebrates its 56th anniversary, it pledges to [help] document the liberation history of Africa accurately from Queen Nzinga, Assetou Koite, Jean Martin Cisse, Maria Ruth Neto, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Gertrude Mongella, Wangari Maathai, Albetina Sisulu and many others. The story of Africa must be retold. These women and others were the pioneers for change. Re-telling the story and re-crafting the narrative of women’s actions in our history is the first step in reconstructing a hyper-masculine society.
* Pinky Kekana is South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Communications and Pan African Women’s Organisation Secretary General.