Izwe Lethu Ma' Afrika!
Let me tell you what a great honour it is to have been invited to deliver this inaugural Tribute Lecture. I would like to personally thank the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust and the Blackhouse Kollective for ensuring that we honour our women and heroines while they are still alive and among us. My special greetings to both the Sobukwe and Mathe families here represented. And greetings to all honoured guests who have come to give dignity to this historic and momentous occasion.
In her intriguing novel, 'Half of a Yellow Sun', Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adiche Ngozi speaks about the "danger of a single story", questioning ideas such as the potential of a single narrative to create stereotypes and perpetuate horrendous erasures.
Although women are the bedrock of society, and in fact, the primary nurturers of socio-economic and political revolutions, when history is told, their stories, contributions and experiences tend to be downplayed or erased. Most of the time when the past is constructed, written or told is it presented merely as HIS-story. The male voice and perspective dominate the interpretations of the past, focusing almost exclusively on the deeds of "great men".
If, and when, the stories of women are told, only those of the popular, already well-known and overly researched about women get retold slightly differently. Only those whose activism was masked by overt theatrics attract public interest and the imagination of scholars, historians and artists.
Conventional wisdom has cast men as the sole actors and agents of socio-economic and political struggles, and has entrenched male-centred experiences of social reality as universal and scientific; women are completely erased, especially the ordinary Afrikan woman.
Very often, and perhaps way too often, histories of social struggles and political revolutions tend to focus only on the men, and women are portrayed and cast as mere "helpmates". The contributions and sacrifices of many extraordinary women in our history become subsumed by those of the men in their lives. This is epistemic violence against women, and through it women are systematically erased from our memory. Their voices become muted and silenced. In this way, violence and abuse against Afrikan women is not only ensured, it is normalized. Thus, violence against women and children has become a normal feature of the fabric of our society.
The condition of womanhood in Afrika must be the supreme barometer by which we can measure the success, progress and development - or lack thereof - of this great continent. It was the Upright Man, the young Thomas Sankara who once said:
"the question of women's equality must be in the minds of all decision makers, at all times, and in all the different phases of conceiving and executing plans for development."
However, today we all bear witness to the appalling conditions of life and the inferior status afforded to Afrikan women in post-colonial Afrikan societies, even though a number of policies and systems purporting to serve women's rights are legislated. Women continue to suffer the harshest and worst conditions of life under our neo-colonial democracies.
Here at home last year, we bore witness to the systematic injustices to which our young girls are still subjected to in schools because of their Afrikan hair, exposing the inherent euro-centricity of our education system. And earlier this year, with deep shock and pain, we saw and heard about the brutal killings of Karabo Mokoena, Tinyiko Ngobeni, 3-year old Courtney Pieters and best friends Popi Qwabe and Bongeka Phungula.
And as the scourge of femicide, violence and abuse against women continues unabated, earlier this week the news and social media were buzzing with reports that the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Mduduzi Manana, beat up and injured two women at a night club. The telling irony of it all is that he is still the Deputy Minister.
Violence against women, misogyny and patriarchy are perpetually institutionalized through the systematic erasure of the memory and contributions of women in socio-economic and political revolutions. We are made to believe that liberation struggles are the products and field of elite 'great' men only. As a result, history and biographical memory becomes constructed in such a manner that it reflects only a male-dominated theatre.
On 4 March 1966 the then Minister of Justice, B. J. Voster, received a defiant letter with the following words:
"I wish to write to you as I am worried about the health of my husband Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. When I visited him on Robben Island in January, I saw that his health had deteriorated; I know his health better than anyone else... I cannot accept that he is receiving the best possible medical and other treatments "
These were the defiant words of an indomitable woman, a woman of courage, determination and immeasurable endurance; a forgotten woman who has been largely relegated to the periphery of our imagination, the margins of national memory and consciousness: Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe.
Just two weeks ago, on 27 July, Mama Sobukwe celebrated her 90 (th) birthday anniversary, celebrating nine decades of a life filled with joy, laughter, pain and struggle. As usual, she celebrated her birthday in private, at her humble home in Graaff-Reinet, with family and close friends. There were no journalists, no glamour and no live broadcast. But the tragedy here is that most people in this country are not even aware Mama Sobukwe is still alive.