Monday, August 11, 2014

National Women's Day

In the haze of sentimentality and form (rather than substance) which characterizes South Africa these days, it is sometimes easy to forget the unbelievable courage it must have taken these extraordinary women, who carried their petitions up to the Union Buildings all that time back, telling Strydom that he had "struck a rock".
I'm so privileged to have known one of these four, in my life. Helen Joseph was her name (2nd from the right). She lived fairly close to where I grew up. And all the years that I grew up, she was under house arrest. My mother, despite the fact that she thought she was exceedingly unwise, had a deep respect for her. Often on our way to the shops in Norwood, we would pass by her house in Fanny Ave, and Helen would be standing at the gate. My mother would greet her politely, and she would greet back. She didn't know my mother, and my mother didn't know her "personally" - whatever that meant - but they would still greet each other.
And we would carry on walking by, on our way to the shops. And Helen would stay standing there at her gate. She was not allowed to be in the presence of more than one other person. That was the condition of her banning order. (The banning order clearly did not envisage her standing at the gate and greeting people. If they had thought if that, I'm sure they would have ensured that she couldn't.)
Helen Joseph was also a devout Anglican. She was a member of the church my family attended, St Luke's Church, Orchards. And it was thus, years later, when I was researching material for my thesis on the Church and struggle in the 1950s that I met Helen Joseph again, in several interviews which I did with her. By that stage, she was very frail physically, but her mind was still razor sharp. I used many of her insights in my thesis, which eventually became my first published book "Between the two Fires", (published by what was then the University of Natal Press).
I encountered her also when I was Provincial Chaplain for the Anglican Students Federation. Her spirit served as an inspiration to generations of students, many of whom, I am sure, can trace aspects of their political consciousness back to their encounters with people like Helen.
On this National Women's Day, I find myself asking, where are the role models for my children? More specifically, where are the female inspirations? Where is the equivalents of Helen Joseph standing behind her garden gate and greeting my mother and me as we walked up the road to buy our milk? Where?
Is it that I move in the wrong circles? Is it that I flash past in my car? Is it that my life is too full to notice, or to identify, or to point out such people? It cannot be that they do not exist.
And then I realize, the problem is not them, it is me. For I am looking for grandiosity and fame. I'm looking for status and prestige. What I'm missing is the rock I meet every day, not behind some other garden gate, but here, on this side of my own gate.
For fundamentally, these four women, these four giants of our struggle for freedom and democracy, were ordinary women. They were mothers, sisters, wives - before they were heroes of the struggle. Very like the extraordinary woman who has been a mother to my two children, throughout all their lives, (besides raising three of her own), they too parented, cared for, loved, nurtured, raised, in their different ways.
So, Mary Muremi, I salute you. Not on National Women's Day, but every day that you enrich my life with your impeccably high standard of work; with your devotion to my family; and your love for my children. You are a role model indeed. You are a credit to our country. I salute the wonderful example you have always been and always will be. You take forward the vision of those women who marched in Pretoria that day, in the best possible way. Malibongwe!

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