Women writing for their rights
GERTRUDE FESTER asserts that inequality
continues to privilege white women's writing. The ideas, visions
and voices of black women and their girl-children need time, space
and exposure. For now this means 'barefoot publishing'.
'But where are the black women writers?' one
often hears. All too soon the commission has to be assigned, the
same well-known white writer gets the contract and so the cycle
continues. But black women are all aroundwashing dishes, cleaning
floors, typing in offices, rearing children and nursing the old
and infirm ... doing everything but writing.As in most professions
and careers, the position of black women writers starkly reflects
the inequalities of the broader society. Black women are on the
lowest rung of the ladder of power, privilege and opportunity. The
majority of black women are still uneducated and concentrated in
jobs like farm labourers, domestic workers and 'unskilled' work.
I want to explore why there is this dearth of women writers and
how the black women's writing collective in Cape Town, WEAVE, is
making their own intervention and asserting their right to write
despite the odds of demanding jobs and family and community tasks.
Writing was, until very recently, a man's
game. The world was run by men and written about by men who consequently
wrote us, our role and our place in the world. But now, women
have stormed the literary bastions en masse and seized the right
to write themselves, define themselves.... We have broken out
of the stereotypical scheme of madonnas, child-women and whores
to portray real human beings, rebellious, anxious, concerned advancing
together = women that love, fear, and hate. (Isobel Allende on
women writers in Latin America, quoted by Baird (1997:9).
Vanessa Baird (1997) has compiled an impressive
anthology of writing of women from Africa, Asia, Latin America and
the Caribbean. The book celebrates their diverse and dynamic traditions,
which differ starkly from the literary conventions of the West.
These voices make the invisible visible with a freshness and innovation
that definitely appropriates its space on the literary scene. It
is this unique anthology, with an introduction by award winning
author, Anita Desai, and richly illustrated by striking photographs,
that led Baird to agree with Allende, and she adds that the same
applies to women in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Yes, the texts
are great literary works but these women writers are a minute percentage
of the women of their countries. Sarah Penny (1997:109), freelance
journalist, book critic and author of The Whiteness of
Bones asserts that:
[South African] women have been seminal
in the development of the country's canon. Today women still strongly
shape the fictional landscape.
I cannot endorse these positions wholeheartedly.
Yes, more women, black and other previously historically disadvantaged
women, are writing today, but under trying circumstances. It is
definitely a tiny percentage of black women who are writing.
Women are not a homogenous group. Penny obviously
refers to white middle-class women writers, although they are fewer
than 50 percent of South African writers. In South Africa and in
many parts of the third world, the majority of women do not have
the luxury of education, let alone the ability and time to write.
Moreover, even though it is difficult and challenging for the average
woman to write, it is even more challenging to publish in a mainly
male and white-dominated publishing world.
With the exception of Miriam Tlali, very few
black women in South Africa have had the time to write novels.1
There are quite a few black women poets. Many women have said that
it was easier to write poetry and short stories because of time
constraints. In the 1970s, there emerged a few worker and struggle
poets. A Natal-based trade union, FOSATU (Federation of South African
Trade Unions), published the work of Nise Malange and the ANC (African
National Congress) Women's Section in exile published the anthology
In this essay I will explore my own writing
and that of various women's writing groups of whichI have been part,
particularly WEAVE (Women's Education & Artistic Voice and Expressions),
which was initiated in Cape Town. I will briefly touch on the role
of writing and performance in women's grassroots organisations in
There are numerous reasons why very few black
South African women write or even think of themselves as being able
to write. Apart from our class and race position, our socialisation
was patriarchal. Nice girls became good and dutiful wives and mothers.
For most of us, middle or working class, growing up in apartheid
South Africa meant we dreamt about perhaps becoming teachers or
nurses, never writers or TV personalities. Some of us who had committed
teachers were encouraged by them to read but never ever to write.
Maybe our teachers too, could not dream beyond the harsh reality
of the apartheid limitations. The options open to us were bound
once again by the writers we were exposed tothere were the
inevitable Shakespeare, Donne, Lawrence, T.S. Eliot and the rest
of the male European and North American writers. In 1971, as university
students at the University of Cape Town, we protested this selective
choice of texts and demanded to have African writers on our curriculum.
This was the Black Consciousness period and we were exposed to black
writers from the United States, Nigeria and other African countries
but still not black women writers. Yes, I really enjoyed creative
writing at schoolit was fun, beautiful and aesthetically satisfying
but nothing was ever to develop from it or so I thought.
As a young child, I always had a sense of
wanting to tell people about my experiences. When I saw a very beautiful
view or any object or had an experience that really touched me,
I found myself formulating words to 'tell' this story. I never understood
what this voice was or recognised it as the storyteller in me. I
just ignored it. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s I was mainly occupied
with the national and women's struggles. During those years I always
kept all the pamphlets and organisational documents, as I thought
the stories of these struggles had be to told one day. A concern
for many of us organisational women at that time was that there
were frequent visitors, from Europe and North America mostly, wanting
to interview us. They would interview us women activists, sometimes
for only 30 minutes, and then return home to write books on us and
become the 'experts' on South African women's struggles. It was
disturbing to read how they sometimes distorted what we had shared
with them. We felt the need to write our stories from our perspective
but of course, there was never any time. All these women interviewers
were white. Later, South African white women also started interviewing
us and writing about our stories. We had some ambivalence about
this: on the one hand, it was important that our stories be told
but, on the other hand, it seemed to us to be fitting into the apartheid
mould: white women were writing about black women's struggles and
getting their degrees or publishing books. Black women's lives remained
unchanged. Mildred Holo, women's struggles activist and veteran
from the 1950s, once commented about her interviewer in conversation
She always interviews me and every time
I go to her house she has more and more pillows and I still live
in this hovel.
Was this exploitation? Were we being used
once again by white women as our mothers and grandmothers had been
exploited in their homes as domestic workers? However, it was not
a cut and dried case. Later there were white women who were working
with us to write our stories and there were fellow white comrades
in United Women's Organisation (UWO) and United Women's Congress
(UWCO) 2 who were
working 'shoulder to shoulder' with us to fight against apartheid.
The membership of these two organisations
ranged from grassroots to academics. We explored various means of
mobilising women and people in general. We held rallies on various
commemorative days like June 16 (now Youth Day) and August 9 (subsequently
Women's Day). Copies of speeches were dispersed with poems, songs
and plays about the struggle. I wrote a play performed by the Kensington
branch, for the 1982 Women's Rally at Bonteheuwel Civic, depicting
the march of the 20,000 women to Pretoria to protest the carrying
of passes. The Observatory branch of UWO was particularly prolific
in their creative work. Among other programmes, they wrote and performed
an exciting play about the Koornhof Bills 3
and held a creative writing workshop facilitated by novelist Menan
There were a few incidents during the 1980s
that provided some sort of niche for creative writing and the arts.
The Community Arts Project (CAP) held creative writing courses facilitated
by Annemarie Hendrickz and Anne Schuster. It was with great enthusiasm
that some of us participated. There we used the poems of Alice Walker
as models and wrote our own. In 1985, the state of emergency was
declared and none of our organisations could meet. There were various
cultural programmes arranged. WECTU (Western Cape Teachers' Trade
Union) held a concert at the Luxurama bioscope. Mavis Smallberg
read her poetry inspired by the school boycotts and Tina Schouw
sang her songs. The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) organised
the First Cape Women's Festivals in 1988 and 1989. Black Sash had
a hilarious play about the Special Branch (a tree), the South African
Domestic Workers Union (SADWU) did a play about domestic exploitation
and UWCO celebrated black women writers and artists like Miriam
Makeba, Bessie Head and Gcina Mhlope. Here culture was used initially
as a weapon as all political activity was banned, but what developed
was the love and celebration of our creativity and aesthetics. The
Arts Festival '86 created and co-ordinated a range of cultural activities
but it was banned just before it was to commence.
Penny (1998:106) focuses on the central question, 'Is the colour
of a writer still significant in a rainbow nation?' For her it is
a definitive yes.
The answer can only be yes, when the critical
response is mediated through an awareness of the author's racial
We are in the process of nation-building.
However, race still permeates many aspects of our lives and there
are often many strong sentiments expressed by black women when white
women write from the perspective of black women.
4 As long as there is inequality and
it is the rich and privileged (and mostly white) who can write full
time about poor and/or black women, there may be anger and feelings
of being exploited by those black/poor women who would like to write
more often. 5 Andre
Brink puts this rather eloquently:
Certainly, it would seem that where power
acquires a stake in representation, an invisible boundary is crossed,
and the adoption of another's voice comes to be perceived as an
act of appropriation. Such a situation can all too easily become
just another instance of the powerful exploiting the weak (Brink,
However, he also asserts that:
without that act of assumption, that one
can imagine oneself into the world or mindset of anotherwhether
the 'other' is someone older than yourself, or of a different
race, or different language, or race, or gender there can be no
fiction (Brink, 1998: 110).
Penny (1998:109) concludes that if South African
writing is undergoing a renaissance, 'this rebirth must encompass
a sounding board for the voices of all her children.' However, it
will still be a long time before all these voices can be heard.
Many black writers and aspirant writers believe that the more privileged
writers do not support them in any way. I do not believe that black
and/or aspirant black writers want to be pampered by white writers
but there could be some form of support. I am sure that there must
also be some poor white aspirant writers needing support out there.
A black writer (of Indian origin) shared how in the COSAW (Congress
of South African Writers) days she felt there was little support
for black writers by some white writers. She asked a very famous
white COSAW woman writer for a letter of support for her writing
fellowship application. The white writer then asked the black writer
why she did not sell her house. Incidentally, she did not have a
house and still lives with her parents today.
It was at a New Year's Eve party in 1997 that
the idea of WEAVE, a black women's writing collective, was born.
Women were complaining about Pamela Jooste's novel Dance with
a Poor Man's Daughter. According to many persons at the party,
some passages about District 6 in the book just did not ring true
for people who had lived there. There was also concern expressed
about the depiction of the only 'African' character in the book.
So the challenge was articulated amidst the toasting with sparkling
wine: 'Stop complaining, write your own story!' Some of the WEAVE
members had been part of the CAP group, COSAW and an informal group
that met periodically over several years. These writing groups were
Meetings were a space of mutual exchange
in terms of creativity, skills sharing and moral support for these
women, committed to pursuing their passion for writing (WEAVE
pamphlet for Cape WOW festival, August 2000).
WEAVE was formalised in 1997, primarily to
promote the writing of black women in the Western Cape. It is seen
as a means of directly addressing the limited exposure and production
of written works. WEAVE members participate collectively and individually
in poetry readings on radio, stage performances and international
performances. We sometimes do poetry readings and performance poetry
with movement and music.
Group members inspire one another. Initially
one member had a one-woman play. She then invited another to join
her to do her own solo performance. At the recent Cape Town One
City Festival, three women did solo performances. There is also
inspiration about content. One member explored the life of Krotoa
and the Khoi ancestors, then others were inspired to write about
their slave and Khoi San ancestors. Krotoa was a member of the Goringhaikona
tribe who worked for the Jan van Riebeeck family in 1692. They renamed
her Eva and she later became a skilled translator/mediator between
the indigenous peoples and the European settlers. At a poetry soiree
held at painter/sculptor/artists Evelyn and Willie Bester's home
in April this year, women read poems on the life of Sara Bartman.
Willie was so inspired that he began a sculpture of Sara Bartman,
which he completed in July.
WEAVE had three one-day workshops last year
with the specific aim of enhancing already completed work and also
exploring themes for those of us who had not written before. These
workshops were facilitated by Anne Schuster. The atmosphere of the
workshops was encouraging throughout. All our feedback to one another
was supportive and constructive. Among the specific feedback guidelines
for writers were:
* Mark with a tick all passages and phrases
that you particularly like.
* Mark with a "?" where something seems confusing or
does not ring true.
* What did you like most about the writing?
* What do you want to know more about?
During one feedback session, a comment was
made that maybe a particular short story could be explored as a
play as the content had dramatic features. The story was subsequently
rewritten and the piece works very well as a one-woman play.
For one of the first performances, a member
self-published her anthology and encouraged others to do the same.
At each performance, we nows ell our 'barefoot' publications. Individual
group members and other writers have experienced problems having
their work published. Gladys Thomas was told by a white male publisher
that she should stop writing about apartheid because they want new
work. What we write about was also brainstormed at the workshops.
Some issues discussed were:
* Who says apartheid is over and that we
need to write other, more transitional stories about South Africa
* How come the few white 'struggle' children have been able to
write their stories and the thousands of black 'struggle' children
cannot or did not?
Some of the most riveting literature published
and films produced today are about the Holocaust, which occurred
more than 50 years ago. I have not heard anyone state that enough
has been written about it. Of course, it is crucial that the atrocities
of the Holocaust are recalled in literature and other art forms.
They must serve as a lesson so that these evils are not repeated
while we work towards a world in which each person can live with
dignity and integrity. Today our lives are still permeated with
the legacy of apartheid and racism and we, as writers, must therefore
explore these themes.
WEAVE is currently self-publishing its first
anthology, a collection of poetry and short stories entitled,
ink@boiling point. It is edited by three WEAVE members, Shelley
Barry, Deela Khan and Malika Ndlovu. The anthology includes work
on various themes like spirituality, sexuality, menopause and old-age,
disabilities, labour history and relationships. Although WEAVE is
committed to encouraging black girl children and women to write
and publish, this year has been devoted to improving our own work
and the publishing of our book.
No story of WEAVE is complete without mentioning
Joan Baker. Joan was one of the founder members, a short story writer
par excellence. Her short story, 'Undercover Comrade', has been
published in three major anthologies. It was Joan who gave the acronym
WEAVE its content. Joan died in June this year. It is a fitting
tribute to Joan that WEAVE continues to exist and inspire black
women to tell their side of the story. We in WEAVE are not saying
that white women cannot and should not write about black women.
What we are arguing for is that there should be more, new and different
voices, especially those of marginalised personsblack women,
disabled, gay and lesbian and other minorities.
Baird, Vanessa. 'Foreword''. Eye to Eye - Women. London:
Serpent's Tail, 1997.
Brink, Andre. The Art of Literary Ventriloquism. Leadership,1998,
Penny, Sarah. The White Scribes of Africa. Leadership,1998,
pp. 17, 3.
1. Black South African women in exile or
living in foreign countries, because of their material realities,
have written and published much more than their counterparts who
live within South Africa. back
2. UWO was formally
launched in April 1981 and UWCO was established with the amalgamation
of UWO and Women's Front in March 1986. back
3. Also known as the
Disorderly Bills. African people who were found to be ''trespassing'
in areas reserved for whites, were depicted as 'disorderly' and
would therefore be endorsed out to the homelands. back
4. Penny (1998:106)
refers to the article written by Dr. Zimitri Erasmus in The Sunday
Independent (undated). Comments were made at various workshops,
articulated most vehemently by unemployed black women writers, that
although people admire the work of Antjie Krog, she had been privileged
in the past and was once again privileged in the new South Africa
when she was commissioned to cover the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission. Antjie Krog, an Afrikaner white woman, is a well-known,
award-winning and respected writer. The TRC process is probably
one of the most sensitive, central and meaningful processes to promote
nation-building in this fledgling South African rainbow nation.
It was indeed a privilege to work with the material generated in
this cause and to have been part of the TRC process as Krog has
been. Krog creatively uses the TRC material to explore her own personal
narrative and that of her family. The juxtaposition of the personal
narrative with the TRC material captures the complexity of the South
African landscape. This book has further cemented Krog as one of
South Africa's foremost writers. The black writers felt resentful
that more attempts were not made to use more black writers during
this process. back
5. The varying responses
to the question: ''What is your next book?' from the panel of women
writers at a Weekly Mail Book Week, held at the Baxter Theatre
in the early 1990s, were remarkable. The white writers all responded,
enthusiastically outlining their writing plans, while the one black
writer on the panel said she had no time to write because of the
demands of her work (wage labour). back
Gertrude Fester is a political activist
and aspirant poet and playwright. One of her greatest achievements
is that some of her ex-students are now professional writers and
grassroots women with whom she worked are now seasoned politicians.
They ascribe this to Gertrude's encouragement and inspiration.
Forthcoming in issue #54, African Feminisms
Agenda, a quarterly feminist journal, published in South Africa.