Her­schel’s women lead the way

Ar­gues that for decades, black women from all walks of life have played key roles in the fight against op­pres­sion and the Strug­gle. In many in­stances, they lined up against their op­pres­sors with just sticks, songs and slo­gans. But most times, unity was th

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THIS is a story about a group of women known as am­agqoboka (con­verts or dress women) who, in the 1920s, took on un­scrupu­lous white shop­keep­ers in a tiny vil­lage in the East­ern Cape. Af­ter their ac­tions, they were given an­other name: Amafe­landa­wonye (the die-hards).

For months, anger sim­mered and bub­bled in the tiny East­ern Cape vil­lage of Her­schel – un­til, in March 1922, mat­ters came to a head.

Her­schel it­self was the heart of a re­gion with an in­trigu­ing “hid­den” his­tory. And like all “hid­den” his­to­ries in South Africa, the par­tic­i­pants were over­whelm­ingly black.

What oc­curred in the vil­lage and sur­round­ing ar­eas was a flex­ing of com­mu­nity mus­cle never wit­nessed in a ru­ral area of South Africa: a boy­cott. But it was no or­di­nary boy­cott. It was a show of strength in which the plan­ners and par­tic­i­pants were ex­clu­sively women…

There were two key rea­sons for Her­schel be­ing ripe for the type of protest that be­came a topic of dis­cus­sion far be­yond its con­fines.

The first was its lo­ca­tion: close to the bor­ders of the Or­ange Free State and present-day Le­sotho, it had served as a safe haven and a new home for many dis­parate group­ings of refugees of war and dis­pos­ses­sion that had be­come such a com­mon sight in the sec­ond half of the 1800s, in these and other ar­eas out­side the East­ern Cape.

The sec­ond rea­son was its his­tory: pre­cisely be­cause many of these “refugees” formed far looser ties than the nor­mally tighter for­mal group­ings of African so­ci­ety, pa­tri­archy was far less of an is­sue among those who had stayed to make the area their home.

Women had a far big­ger say in the run­ning of house­holds – and they took their du­ties se­ri­ously.

Set­tling in quickly, res­i­dents of Her­schel quickly be­gan es­tab­lish­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for suc­cess­ful small-scale farm­ing – when the rains played ball.

When drought be­came an is­sue, a new fac­tor in the form of a sep­a­rate group of res­i­dents in the area – white traders – thrust them­selves into the equa­tion. In time, these men be­came a big prob­lem in the lives of the black peo­ple in the vil­lage and sur­round­ing mis­sion sta­tions.

Be­cause of their strong ties with the colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tors of the fron­tier re­gions – the mag­is­trates, chief mag­is­trates and mis­sion­ar­ies – these traders were al­lowed to get away with prac­tices that were ei­ther il­le­gal, or which bor­dered on the il­le­gal.

For in­stance, in acts that to­day would see them charged with col­lu­sion, they prac­tised sys­tems that left Her­schel’s small-time agri­cul­tur­al­ists lit­tle choice but to sell their crops to them at ridicu­lously low prices.

To in­crease the lo­cals’ anger, no hard cash was paid for the crops they sold. In­stead, pay­ment cen­tred on an “in lieu of cash” ar­range­ment, a barter sys­tem that favoured the white shop­keep­ers.

But then, prior to the plant­ing sea­son, the is­sue was re­versed. Traders had no qualms about tak­ing full ad­van­tage of the mo­nop­oly they held on seeds. With a “take it” or “leave it” at­ti­tude, they charged ex­or­bi­tant prices for seeds. And they de­manded pay­ment in cash.

And so year af­ter year, in a de­press­ingly fa­mil­iar sce­nario, the poor be­came poorer, and the rich – the traders – be­came richer… and in­creas­ingly heart­less.

As in­debt­ed­ness spread, the bell was rung for these traders to put on a dif­fer­ent cap, a cap that said: “labour re­cruiter”.

Like slaves, the men of Her­schel were forced to leave the district for the far-off mines of Egoli – to sell their labour, to set­tle their debts. At the same time, the rum­blings of dis­con­tent be­gan tak­ing on the form of an earth­quake.

For, it was at this point that the women of the vil­lage be­gan rolling up their sleeves and say­ing: “No more!”

When the cor­re­spon­dent for the North­ern Post, a news­pa­per based 60km away in Ali­wal North wrote about what was hap­pen­ing in Her­schel, his tone was both ar­ro­gant and dis­mis­sive, not sur­pris­ing when it in­volves black women tak­ing con­trol of their own des­ti­na­tion in their own right.

He de­scribed the boy­cott as “silly” and pre­dicted it would soon col­lapse and that the protesters would be sorry, and that there would be painful reper­cus­sions.

He wrote that the par­tic­i­pants “would soon have to go down on their knees to beg the traders to give them grain ‘on tick’.” But he was made to eat his words. A few weeks af­ter his ini­tial re­port, he wrote an­other re­port – about a “se­ri­ous prob­lem”, which he said was gain­ing mo­men­tum. Even more in­ter­est­ing, though, was his de­scrip­tion of the form the boy­cott was tak­ing – and the broad iden­tity of its par­tic­i­pants.

He seemed al­most sur­prised that the or­gan­is­ers and par­tic­i­pants in the protests were women. But more as­ton­ish­ing to him were the meth­ods the women were pre­pared to adopt to make their point and win their bat­tle.

“These na­tives”, he wrote, were set­ting up pick­ets near the shops of the white traders and, armed with sticks, they were ei­ther stop­ping prospec­tive shop­pers from en­ter­ing the stores, or con­fis­cat­ing the goods pur­chased by mem­bers of lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

Imvo Za­bantsundu, the news­pa­per with a mostly black African read­er­ship, took a far softer ap­proach to the boy­cotters. “We have seen some­thing that has never been seen be­fore in Her­schel,” its cor­re­spon­dent wrote. All the women of the vil­lage, the am­agqoboka, had gone on a “big strike”.

Out­lin­ing how the de­ci­sion to boy­cott had been ar­rived at, the news­pa­per said 3 000 women had met at a place called Sterk­spruit, 29km away, to for­mu­late their de­mands and to plan a course of ac­tion to en­sure these would be met.

Cen­tral to their plan was a boy­cott of white shops. They would stop buy­ing from these es­tab­lish­ments un­til they cut their prices and bought wheat from small-scale farm­ers at rea­son­able prices.

The traders, ex­pect­ing the state to come to their as­sis­tance, at first took a hard line, re­fus­ing to drop prices – or to change the way they did busi­ness.

Later, they claimed they could not drop prices be­cause they were also bat­tling to make ends meet. But the women would not budge. The mag­is­trates, al­though firmly on the side of the traders, could only act if the law was bro­ken. But there were slim pick­ings for them in this re­spect.

Just three women were ar­rested and charged with con­fis­cat­ing goods of peo­ple who had crossed their picket lines. And al­though the women were sternly lec­tured for this type of be­hav­iour, the protesters re­fused to be in­tim­i­dated by threats of tough ac­tion against them if they broke the law.

They knew that there was no law against pas­sive re­sis­tance.

In­stead, they were quick to point out too that the “shop­keep­ers had big stom­achs – and each one of them had a car”.

In the end, com­mon sense pre­vailed in Her­schel. The traders were even­tu­ally forced to drop their prices – and when they did, the vic­to­ri­ous women of the vil­lage called a halt to their boy­cott.

Women over the decades have shown us that they are more than ca­pa­ble of lead­ing a vil­lage, or be­ing a chief ex­ec­u­tive of a busi­ness. To­day, we af­ford the girl child to dream that noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble, de­spite our so­ci­eties misog­y­nis­tic ten­den­cies. Our strug­gle has pro­duced great heroines, de­spite their bur­den of dou­ble op­pres­sion.

As the ANC we will con­tinue to ad­vance the rights of women to lead our so­ci­ety. Jessie Duarte is deputy sec­re­tary gen­eral of the ANC

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