Moving mountains

The seeds of this book were sown at a dinner party between the American author and a long-time ago neighbour from East London in South Africa, while discussing mutual friends and acquaintances who were involved in the struggle against apartheid.

East London and the Eastern Cape area was significant in many ways during those years: it was the home of Steve Biko and the birthplace of the Black Consciousness Movement, which ultimately led to uprisings, like the Soweto uprising and the student riots, that marked the 70s and 1980s. It is also the home of the Daily Dispatch newspaper which was edited by the late Donald Woods, a great friend of Biko’s. Woods eventually had to leave the country after perpetual harassment by the security forces.

The author of this book, Hutmacher MacLean, is an American journalist who was employed at the Dispatch during some of the most turbulent years in the history of the newspaper, and of South Africa itself. During this time she became interested in the role of women fighting for freedom in South Africa, but her and her photographer husband had to return to the United States during the years of political instability. She returned in 1998, and resumed the work she had started in the 1972.

Strike a Woman Strike a Rock is a powerful collection of narratives: life stories, love stories and death stories, of the women who, often quietly and behind the scenes, actively made a stand against the apartheid state. She takes the title for the book from the slogan, Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, adopted by the ANC Women’s League when they marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against changes to the law which would force black women to carry passes. National Women’s Day is celebrated every August 9 in South Africa.

“We really went in this white, middle-class mode which these cops used to hate … white and middle-aged like their mothers”

The profiles in Strike a Woman include well known names such as Trudy Thomas, who is an Aids activist and former Eastern Cape Health Minister, and Patricia de Lille, Independent Democrat party leader and long-time political stalwart. It also includes less well-known names, who nonetheless all played primary roles in the struggle against apartheid, against all the odds.

The bravery of these women is evident in their tales: they took on the system, the prejudices of South African society and the security forces, often tangling with dangerous people and situations – what makes it so real though, is that they were often oblivious to their perilous actions.

Judy Chalmers, a long-time Black Sash member and MP, speaks of being arrested multiple times for going into townships without the required permits. Amused, she recalls asking the police who would fetch the children from school if the women were detained for too long.

“We really went into this white, middle-class mode which these cops used to hate,” she says. “And their phone might not be working and we’d say ‘Well? When are we going to phone then? What are we going to do about our children?’ … And there was a part of them that identified with that. … This was probably also why the Black Sash wasn’t banned – because we were white, middle-class and very often, middle-aged like their mothers.”

She goes on to say how the policemen would say “Mrs Chalmers, we’ve got such a file on you.” And Chalmers would reply: “Good, hang on to it.”

Val Viljoen, also an East London resident, Black Sash member and MP, echoes Chalmers’s sentiments. Hutmacher MacLean asks her if she ever feared police reprisals for actions during the struggle.

She replies in the negative, but then adds: “Actually, I think we were incredibly naïve. We were white middle-class women, and we’d grown up in a society where you were privileged and you thought privilege gave you protection. We didn’t think what we were doing was dangerous… the more the security police tried to hassle us in various ways – the midnight phone calls, the letting down of your tyres at meetings …. [the more we thought] Oh. Isn’t that marvellous? We must be quite relevant. If they’re this worried about us, we must be doing something right.”

But while the threats to the Sash members may have been “minimal” on the surface, beneath there were sinister forces at work to stop the anti-apartheid movement. Returning from a meeting late one night with her activist sister and mother of seven, Molly Blackburn, Chalmers was involved in a head-on car accident in which her sister was killed. Investigations later led to the conclusion that the accident, with the other car, had been no accident, although even when this was investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission many years later, evidence could not prove the case either way.

But while the Black Sash survived, and became the one of the few unbanned activist opposition organisations, black activists operating under other banners were not as fortunate. MP Ivy Gcina tells of being beaten almost to death by the Security Branch – to her ultimate chagrin, by a black member of the force – for refusing to admit that she had helped get ANC youngsters in and out of the country.

She was put in solitary confinement for more than four months, imprisoned for years on no particular charge, during which time she was not allowed to see her husband, and had her home ransacked and destroyed countless times by the police. She also lost children in the struggle, a fact which any mother would find almost impossible to bear. And she was one of millions of people who endured similar hardships.

Every single one of these women made an enormous impact on the history of the country, whether through Black Sash work, through underground organisations, political parties, welfare work, educational lobbying or voter education.

Afrikaans author, Elsa Joubert, touched many lives with her book, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena, based on the life history of a Xhosa woman who worked for her [The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena is one of Africa’s 100 Best Books – click here to read an extract]. Impeccably researched, the reaction to the book, from the most unlikely and conservative corners, was overwhelming. In a poignant and powerful moment, Joubert recalls a professor from Pretoria calling her to say that after reading the book “it was as if the population of the country had doubled”.

The most striking impression when reading the stories that these remarkable women have to tell is the lack of bitterness and anger emanating from them. They don’t see themselves as martyrs, and don’t see that what they did was remarkable. When the author asks Ivy Gcina why she didn’t give up, she says: “It is because, firstly, from childhood we knew the constitution of the ANC. This country belongs to everyone. That was great and we grew up with the spirit … so to be afraid… I will not achieve anything. If I am not afraid, I will achieve something. If I die, my blood will water the tree of freedom for everyone. This was just on my mind.”

Hutmacher MacLean has done an admirable job in collecting these snapshots of South Africa’s history and so accurately describing the world in which they existed.

If there is to be one criticism of the book, it is in the detail: spelling place names incorrectly (Eastern Cape town “Peddy” instead of “Peddie”, “Deveraux Avenue” instead of “Devereaux”), referring to Elsa Joubert as “Afrikan’s author” instead of “Afrikaans author”, and misspelling Afrikaans words like “klap” as “clap”. For a South African familiar with the territory, so to speak, this is deeply irritating and leaves one feeling the book would have benefited from a good local editor.

However, the content is gripping, and leaves one in awe of the power of the women interviewed, and their unfailing courageousness during a dark time in South Africa’s history.