When 20 000 women sang “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo” in unison and defiant outside the Union Buildings in 1956, it was a watershed moment
Out of those 20 000 women who spoke truth to JG Strijdom, history only recorded the names of a few: Albertina Sisulu, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Fatima Meer and a handful of others – in total, fewer than 20.
As we celebrate Women’s Month, we cannot forget that, just like those 19 986-odd others, many women’s contributions to society often go unnoticed. This is why the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Google are commemorating significant but not necessarily celebrated South African female voices through a new Google Arts & Culture exhibit profiling ‘ordinary’ women with extraordinary stories.
We’ve rounded up a list of five phenomenal South African women you’ve likely never heard of but really should know about, and acknowledge, this Women’s Month:
An unsung struggle stalwart, 85-year-old Shanthie Naidoo’s anti-apartheid struggle journey began while she was still at school. In 1969 Shanthie was arrested alongside Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. She was tortured and detained for 371 days before subsequently spending 19 years in exile. She has come to highly value the freedom that we so often take for granted, following the experiences she lived under apartheid.
Qaqamba Gubanca was born in the Eastern Cape village of Ngcobo. An orphan with humble beginnings, she now works as a mentor mother at the Philani Maternal Child Health and Nutrition Trust in Khayelitsha township. Here she counsels local women through the everyday struggles of mothering children under tough circumstances, drawing on her own experiences and the extensive training she’s received through the Trust.
Japanese-born Masako Osada is visual artist, writer, translator, environmentalist and martial artist with a PhD in International Relations from the University of the Witwatersrand. She published her first book, Sanctions and Honorary Whites, in 2002 where she explored the ties between Japan and the apartheid regime. Masako uses her gift of art to express joyful moments in her life. To date, she has hosted eight solo exhibitions.
A veteran journalist with a career spanning more than 20 years, Sahm Venter has contributed immensely to documenting and preserving the struggle against apartheid and South Africa’s painful transition to democracy. Despite bearing witness to some of the worst moments in our country’s history, she remains hopeful and feels that, as a country, we need to stay true to the values that we held high at our best moments.
Abused by her stepfather from the age of six, Nomvula Skihakhane has not let that trauma become what defines her. Now a qualified chef, she is driven by her determination to take negative experiences and turn them into positives while following her dreams. Today, the kitchen is Nomvula’s happy place, inspired by her grandmother who worked as a cook and sometimes took Nomvula with her.
These are just a few of the inspiring women featured in the Voices of Empowerment: 24 South African Women Google Arts & Culture exhibit, which highlights 24 South African women featured in 200 Women by Blackwell & Ruth (2017). You can get to know the rest of them here.