Obituary: Dorothy Nyembe

Paul Trewhela
Friday 15 January 1999 00:02 GMT

DOROTHY NYEMBE was one of a generation of forceful women whose courage, energy and commitment helped to bring down the regime of apartheid. She spent 18 years in prison in South Africa during the bleakest period of "the struggle", but her name appears in few of the current histories.

In large part this is because national and international attention has tended to concentrate on the fate of a single person as a metaphor for the struggle as a whole: and this was Nelson Mandela. Yet the life of Dorothy Nyembe will perhaps one day be seen to have even wider significance, given the continuing deep-seated structural persistence of patriarchal values in southern Africa.

Born in 1931 in the rural area of what is now KwaZulu-Natal, Nyembe placed herself right at the front in contesting racial and social oppression at a time when international concern about apartheid in Western countries was all but non-existent.

Joining the African National Congress in her early twenties, she became a leading member of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW), a non- racial body allied to the ANC which was founded in April 1954.

In 1955 the Minister of Native Affairs announced that passes were to be issued to African women - in the same manner long in existence for African men - beginning from January 1956. There was no more hated instrument of servitude in apartheid South Africa than the pass. As a means of enforcing despotic state control over personal and civil life, and as the means by which sooner or later nearly every African man in the urban areas entered prison for a longer or shorter period, following an ugly encounter with the police, the idea that women too should be subjected to such humiliation and harassment was intolerable.

This led to the women's anti-pass campaigns of 1955 and 1956, in which Nyembe played a leading part, mobilising Zulu-speaking women in the KwaZulu- Natal area. These campaigns both rallied resistance to the state, and helped shake notions of women's subordination to domesticity among black men.

"Strydom, wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbakodo" were the words of a song of the women's anti-pass campaign - "Strydom [the apartheid prime minister of the day], you have touched the women, you have struck a rock." Dorothy Nyembe was one such rock. During the Defiance Campaign against unjust laws in 1952, she was imprisoned twice. She then led the contingent from Natal in a protest by 20,000 women from all over South Africa - many of them the poorest of the poor - who assembled in Pretoria on 9 August 1956, now South African Women's Day, to march on the Union Buildings, the headquarters of government, to oppose the extension of passes to women.

As the application of the pass laws to women continued in full force, anger among women in the Cato Manor shanty town outside Durban in Natal took the form of campaigns against the system of municipal beer-halls. Women in particular felt huge resentment because the law forbade Africans - in practice, usually African women - from brewing traditional beer at home, while the men often spent much of the family income in the municipal beer-halls, which in turn supported the administrative machinery of apartheid through tax revenue.

In 1959 brutal police raids aimed at smashing up home brewing led to tremendous anger, riots and killings by the police at Cato Manor. As chair- person of FSAW in Natal, Dorothy Nyembe and other FSAW leaders such as Florence Mkize and Gladys Manzi called for a total boycott of the beer- halls. In huge demonstrations, women armed with sticks marched into the beer-halls, attacking men who were drinking, and wrecking the facilities, despite the presence of police. The drinkers fled.

One vivid account recalls that the women

were very powerful. Some came half dressed (in traditional dress) with their breasts exposed, and when they got near this place the police tried to block the women. When they saw this, the women turned and pulled up their skirts. The police closed their eyes and the women passed by and went in.

At her funeral at Umlazi, outside Durban, shortly after Christmas, one respectful man ruefully reflected that he still carried the scar where Nyembe had hit him during the beer-hall protests.

During the same year, Nyembe was "endorsed out" of the Durban area by the government - effectively, exiled. Then came the massacre at Sharpeville in March 1960 and the subsequent state of emergency, accompanied by the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress, when Nyembe was detained with hundreds of others for five months. On her release she became active in helping to rouse rural women against the state, principally around the issue of opposition to government regulations on the dipping of cattle.

These were very grim times, as political organisations concluded that means of peaceful resistance had become futile, and the state responded with even fiercer repression. In 1963 Nyembe was found guilty of furthering the aims of the ANC, and sentenced to three years in gaol.

After her release, she was again arrested in 1968 and sentenced in February 1969 to 15 years in gaol under the Terrorism Act and the Suppression of Communism Act, accused of assisting Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the ANC. These long years in prison, served in full while Mandela and his male colleagues were on Robben Island, were spent in prisons for women at Barberton in the eastern Transvaal, and then at Kroonstad in the Orange Free State, far from her family. Her prison work involved washing the clothes of male convicts.

She was released in 1984 and in 1994, in the first non-racial elections, she became a Member of Parliament.

Along with the lives of other heroic women of combat in the South African struggle (such as Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu and Ruth First), the stormy life of Dorothy Nyembe richly deserved the tribute of another song of the women's anti-pass campaign: "Igama lamakosikazi/ Malibangwe" - "Let the name of the women be praised."

Paul Trewhela

Dorothy Nyembe, political activist and women's rights campaigner: born Talane, South Africa 1931; died Umlazi, South Africa 17 December 1998.

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