THE BLOG
04/05/2018 05:22 BST | Updated 04/05/2018 05:22 BST

The Erasure Of Women And Their Contribution In History Needs To End

In the wake of struggle narratives that solely glorify men, black women have been exiled, forgotten and erased.

Felix Dlangamandla/ AFP/ Getty Images
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

OPINION

In South Africa, like most countries that have experienced conflict, "soldiers at war" is often the only narrative that emerges and that is told. The face of war has always been a binary one.

The battle for independence against colonialism and apartheid, for example, has predominantly had a male face. Even during times of conflict, masculinity dominates with the collective romanticising of the "war hero" — the image conjured in our minds is that of a man. Regardless of the struggles, hardships and violence they face, women's lives could never compare — in the media and historical narrative — to the horrors of the battlefield.

Under the unrelenting force of oppression, individual and collective alike go through a process of political consciousness. Women are, obviously, not excluded from this. These politically aware women become part of the resistance in a multitude of ways; from the front lines of a battle to intel couriers to making sure that community children remained fed and protected.

The notion of war being a solely male domain ignores women who are just as much on the front lines of battle, as well as the women who remain and not only defend their homes but simultaneously raise children and hold together a semblance of normality within their communities. In the aftermath of war, all the leadership, all the sacrifices, all the achievements of women are erased and she, yet again, is reduced to an accessory to a man.

It is in using this dominant, male-focused narrative that many stories of women freedom fighters in South Africa are distorted or altogether ignored. It is through this lens that a leader and revolutionary woman in her own right was diminished to a mere accessory to Nelson Mandela.

It is through this lens that a social worker and community leader was painted as a murderer in a case that she has never been convicted of; a case that took place at a time where myriad political forces targeted the isolated Madikizela-Mandela as she kept the flag of the ANC and Nelson's struggle alive in the international media. In the wake of struggle narratives that solely glorify men, black women have been exiled, forgotten and erased.

In the aftermath of sacrifices, suffering and saving there has been no truth-seeking, transparency or justice for women of colour and specifically for what black women have endured.

The brutality that came with apartheid dismantled family structures, and in the midst of it all, women such as Madikizela-Mandela had to be protectors outside of their immediate families. This is the spirit that the system could not break even with the constant police raids and harassment. These conditions were coupled with the experiences of being the first black social worker.

That position on its own came with institutional discrimination and all forms of gender inequality in the workplace, whether it was with regards to income, treatment, or the exclusion of black women from senior positions and the silencing of their voices that persist to this day.

In the aftermath of violence and persecution, black women have received little to no truth or reconciliatory efforts. Mechanisms of truth-seeking actively excluded and overlooked the gender and race-specific struggles black women endured, and this continues to play itself out in all aspects of society.

Immediately after the news of Madikizela-Mandela's passing, there was a wave of "safe spaces" to have conversations that sought to dehumanise and erase ideas that held her as a revolutionary. However, there are fewer opportunities to have the similar conversations when it involves male leaders (unless they neatly fit the good-evil binary we love so much). Yet it was so easy — so natural even — to ridicule and degrade black women such as Madikizela-Mandela.

In the aftermath of sacrifices, suffering and saving there has been no truth-seeking, transparency or justice for women of colour and specifically for what black women have endured. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) fell short, not only in acknowledging the violence and the type of abuse black women endured because they were black and women, it also failed to account for the violence black women faced at the hands of a racist, brutal state that targeted women of colour with tactics of violence stemming from patriarchal beliefs that women are somehow subhuman; that sexual violence against women is legitimate.

If the Mother of the Nation could be treated with such contempt, is it any wonder that South African women, especially black women, face the threat of violence on a daily basis, just for being women?

As we bid farewell to Freedom Month, we remember the monumental sacrifices Mam' Winnie made toward the realisation of freedom for all South Africans.

This unwillingness by the democratic government ensured that very little healing could take place. Their unwillingness to engage with and actively rectify the plight of black women has set the precedent for how women of colour have been treated in South Africa. In a country that celebrates and memorialises some questionable, if not entirely contemptible, male figures in South African history, we are sure to see little of this memorialisation for a woman that fought for the freedom of herself, her community and this country.

Mam' Winnie was and will forever remain that fire that keeps on burning and elevates women's stories. She did not receive a state funeral infused with the respect and admiration that she so rightfully deserved, because she was not a man or a president — yet FW de Klerk surely will.

Even though during the TRC the Boipatong massacre was found to be state-sponsored in De Klerk's term, even though Nelson Mandela said, after this massacre: "We will not forget what Mr de Klerk, the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party have done to our people. I have never seen such cruelty". Some of us are so quick to deny her radical black feminism as a legitimate response to oppressive systems and patriarchs, but are very eager to give credence to a perceived white genocide.

As we bid farewell to Freedom Month, we remember the monumental sacrifices Mam' Winnie made toward the realisation of freedom for all South Africans and, more specifically, the invaluable contribution she made toward the emancipation of black women from the brutalities of a racist and patriarchal society.

Her story and her struggle mirror that of many black women in South Africa today who have picked up the baton for justice and continue her fight for freedom and equality. Her story is our story, and much like her, we refuse to be overlooked or silenced.

Danielle Hoffmeester is a project officer within the Sustained Dialogues Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Khadija Bawa is an intern at the IJR at the time of writing.