LAURETTA NGCOBO’S womanhood
‘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.”