LAURETTA NGCOBO’S wom­an­hood

CityPress - - Careers - Panashe Chigu­madzi voices@city­press.co.za

‘These women, this strange breed of wom­an­hood, thin and ragged and not like women at all – they think they rule the world, they spill men’s beers, they herd cat­tle, they plough fields, they run this com­mu­nity. That’s what it is; that’s why this de­fi­ance – they’ve lost re­spect for man­hood, for all author­ity ... If no­body stops them they’re go­ing to ruin this coun­try. In spite of what oth­ers think, it is these women we’ve got to deal with, not those far­away men in the cities.”

So be­gins Lauretta Ngcobo’s 1991 novel, And They Didn’t Die, a fic­tional ac­count of the ef­fects of the 1913 and sub­se­quent land acts on black women in apartheid South Africa.

Con­trast Ngcobo’s im­age of ac­tive, highly politi­cised women with Alan Pa­ton’s de­pic­tion of African women as “silent, with the pa­tient suf­fer­ing of black women, with the suf­fer­ing of oxen, with the suf­fer­ing of any that are mute”, in his canon­i­cal Cry, The Beloved Coun­try.

Right from the be­gin­ning of her path-break­ing novel Ngcobo (1931-2015) imag­ines black women char­ac­ters fully and glo­ri­ously hu­man in their com­plex­ity. Along with Bessie Head and Miriam Tlali, Ngcobo was a pi­o­neer black women writer of English nov­els who showed the world apartheid South Africa from the par­tic­u­lar van­tage point of black women.

Set in the im­pov­er­ished ru­ral re­serve of Si­ga­geni in the late 1950s, it fol­lows the story of Jezile Ma­jola, a young, re­cently mar­ried woman whose hus­band, Siyalo, is a mi­grant worker in Dur­ban. The young cou­ple is des­per­ate to have a child, but this is made dif­fi­cult by the fact that he is only al­lowed to re­turn home once a year.

At a time when calls for land re­turn be­come in­creas­ingly au­di­ble, these women, whom the mi­grant labour sys­tem has con­demned to a pre­car­i­ous and su­per­fi­cial au­ton­omy as they strug­gle to re­tain con­trol of their land and pre­serve their tra­di­tion, re­mind us that the land strug­gle is in­deed gen­dered. Black women have been made land­less in their own right, too, and not just as ap­pendages to their fathers and hus­bands. Tak­ing up the strug­gle for land and other free­doms as their own, the women of Si­ga­geni defy both apartheid and cus­tom­ary laws, at the cost of be­ing im­pris­oned by one sys­tem, and os­tracised by the other.

Jezile suf­fers tragedies com­mon to the women around her: ar­rest for join­ing the pass-burn­ing protest of the women in her vil­lage; the near-death of her first child; star­va­tion and des­per­a­tion fol­low­ing Siyalo’s un­em­ploy­ment and im­pris­on­ment; rape by her white em­ployer while work­ing as a do­mes­tic in the dis­tant Bloem­fontein; and the fall-out from the birth of her “white” child.

In And They Didn’t Die – like nov­els such as Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Moth­er­hood and Toni Mor­ri­son’s Sula – Ngcobo re­fuses to pro­vide an ide­alised im­age of the black woman as “Mother Africa” and in­stead gives in­sight into some of the painful and op­pres­sive im­pli­ca­tions of black moth­er­hood un­der racist and pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­eties. Like the apartheid ide­ol­ogy that re­duced black women to re­pro­duc­ers of mi­grant labour, the “Mother Africa” and “Mother of the Na­tion” tags of­ten re­in­force the idea of African women hav­ing the par­tic­u­lar task of pro­vid­ing and nur­tur­ing chil­dren of the revo­lu­tion.

By open­ing up ar­eas of ex­pe­ri­ence, and of con­tention, pre­vi­ously hid­den, Ngcobo’s novel be­comes sin­gu­lar in high­light­ing the dam­ag­ing, over­lap­ping ef­fects of apartheid and cus­tom­ary law on the lives of black women con­fined to apartheid’s Ban­tus­tans. Fol­low­ing the work of black women ac­tivists such as Char­lotte Max­eke and Phyl­lis Ntan­tala, Ngcobo of­fered an in­ter­sec­tional fem­i­nist anal­y­sis of African women’s lives, pro­duc­ing, in ef­fect, a the­ory of lib­er­a­tion that de­nied the false di­chotomy be­tween racial lib­er­a­tion and gen­der lib­er­a­tion.

This feat is even more im­pres­sive if we can imag­ine and re­mem­ber the kind of back­lash faced by black women nov­el­ists crit­i­cis­ing pa­tri­archy within their so­ci­eties such as Alice Walker for The Color Pur­ple and Tsitsi Dan­garem­baga for Ner­vous Con­di­tions. This back­lash would have been am­pli­fied for a black woman writ­ing in a South Africa that had not yet lib­er­ated it­self from (for­mal) apartheid. Be­yond the public re­sponse, Ngcobo was frank about the per­sonal chal­lenges she faced in writ­ing the book:

“When I started the novel I wanted to write about my life, or ... about the life of a woman, of Sin­disiwe. But when­ever I be­gan to write, Sin­disiwe would die on me... I find it dif­fi­cult to speak about the African woman, about her sit­u­a­tion in my coun­try, be­cause it is a topic that is deeply painful to me.”

It is pos­si­bly not in­signif­i­cant, then, that Ngcobo came to name the book And They Didn’t Die. By the time Ngcobo had com­pleted the novel, Sin­disiwe had be­come Jezile, who her­self had be­come part of Ngcobo:

“I think my own lib­er­a­tion came through this book. Again, I don’t know the mo­ment, but slowly ... by the time I get to Jezile and Jezile has to go into town, you know the dif­fer­ent lit­tle steps she takes to­wards her free­dom? There is a point where I think there is a free­dom that she grabs for her­self. I think that’s a snap­ping point, per­haps not just for my char­ac­ter, but for me. Be­cause by the time I came to the end of this book, I emerged a dif­fer­ent woman.”

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