South Africa: ‘Prodigal Daughters’ Speak Out At Franschoek Literary Festival

South Africa: ‘Prodigal Daughters’ Speak Out At Franschoek Literary Festival

The exile experience of women in the liberation movements — a largely neglected aspect of recent South African history — will feature this year at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in a discussion involving the octogenarian feminist writer, Lauretta Ngcobo.

She and four of the 17 contributors to Prodigal Daughters, a book edited by Ngcobo, will feature in a public discussion on May 18 facilitated by journalist and Business Day columnist, Palesa Morudu.

The women whose stories feature in the book, produced by the University of KZN Press, come from various social and political backgrounds. They range from octogenarians such as Ngcobo and AnnMarie Wolpe to much more youthful “born-in-exiles” such as Liepollo Pheko. The commitment to collect these “stories of women in exile” came at the funeral in 2009 of returnee Thokozile MaZulu Chaane. It was she who, in her final hours, inspired the project by warning: “If you do not write your history, history will write you off.”

Some of that history has now been written — and published. And it comes at a time when there are ongoing — and repetitive — campaigns about violence against women; when there is a widespread perception that something, somewhere has gone wrong in recent years. But, as Ngcobo points out, this is far from being the case; that even within liberation movements committed to a non-racist, non-sexist and egalitarian future, many of the same distortions that continue today, were clearly evident.

As she notes in her introduction to Prodigal Daughters: “…there is evidence of the abuse of power by the leadership over those under their control, especially of young women who suffered sexual abuses despite belonging to the same struggle”. But this, often glossed over aspect of exile life for women, is precisely that: one aspect among many that affected them, whatever their backgrounds or classification under apartheid.

And Ngcobo notes that the roots of the specific oppression of South African women lie in our history. Speaking in her neat, groundfloor flat in Durban, she acknowledges that so much has changed — and yet, so little. Especially for those who still toil and survive in the far-flung rural areas of the country.

Exactly 100 years after the passing of the 1913 Natives Land Act, these women remain at the bottom of society’s pecking order. And the fact that the now withdrawn Traditional Courts Bill could even have been contemplated by a 21st Century South African parliament has caused widespread worry. This piece of legislation, withdrawn only after massive protest, would have ensured that black women in the rural areas would find themselves in a similar situation of abject serfdom as did their mothers and grandmothers before them.

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