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Ellen Kuzwayo

Campaigner for African women

Tuesday 25 April 2006 00:00 BST

Nnoseng Ellen Kate Merafe, teacher, social worker and political activist: born Thaba Nchu, South Africa 29 June 1914; married 1941 Ernest Moloto (one son, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1950 Godfrey Kuzwayo (died 1965; one son); died Soweto, South Africa 19 April 2006.

A worthy link between the old South Africa and the new, Ellen Kuzwayo did not use politics or war to help bring about democracy in South Africa. Her contribution was in the upliftment of African women, who had to conduct their own campaign for freedom and progress within their own community as well as under white supremacy.

Her political links were many. Her grandfather Jeremiah Makgothi was founding Secretary, in 1909, of the Native Convention, forerunner of the African National Congress (1912), she attended the historic All-African Convention in 1936, was, rather nominally perhaps, a rare woman member of the ANC Youth League in the late 1940s, a supporter of the Black Consciousness movement, and the only woman member of the innocuous, investigative Committee of Ten, set up after the Soweto rising of 1976, the cause of her seven months' imprisonment in the Johannesburg Fort.

Kuzwayo's account of her political role is eclipsed, in her prize-winning memoir Call Me Woman (1986), by her membership in 1938 of the National Council of African Women, founded by two "unsung heroines" of those days, Charlotte Maxeke and Minah Soga; her social work training and diploma at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work and organising of the Southern African Association of Youth Clubs in the 1950s; and her work for the World Affiliated YWCA in the 1960s.

She had taught in Transvaal primary schools until 1952 but social work was her life and she did much to prepare the ground for the Urban Foundation, a white-run and business- funded attempt to make good some of the evils that had led to the Soweto rising. She courted unpopularity by serving on the Transvaal and then, from 1982, the national board, judging the organisation by its achievements, which were many.

In time organisations were to form round Ellen Kuzwayo, most notably Elizabeth Wolpert's Maggie Magaga Trust for which Kuzwayo and her black women co-trustees were made solely responsible, and its offshoot, the Zamani Soweto Sisters Council. She and Betty Wolpert also made two documentary films, Awake from Mourning (1982) and Tsiamelo: a place of goodness (1983), which won much support abroad for black South African women's work.

In the first democratic election in 1994 she was elected to Parliament for the ANC but did not stand again in 1999. She was the first African woman to receive an honorary degree from the Witwatersrand University.

Ellen Kuzwayo's was a life of real achievement for African women but, privately, in many ways a sad one. Her girlhood in the Orange Free State was disrupted when her stepmother sent her away and this was followed by a violent first marriage that parted her from her two elder sons for many years, though they were close later. Her health was poor and increasingly marred by diabetes, and the death of her eldest son in his thirties was a heavy blow.

But her spirit never failed, least of all when confronted by white supremacist tyranny. She never forgot the words of Edgar Brookes, a great South African, then Principal of Adams College in Natal where she had studied:

You are going into a harsh world, students, you will meet many obstacles. My counsel to you on that long hard road is: "Make your difficulties a stepping stone to success."

President Thabo Mbeki , whose mother had been Kuzwayo's friend at Adams College in the early 1930s, saluted her at her death as one of South Africa's "finest daughters".

Randolph Vigne

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